Confessions Of A Nook Color Rooter – Cyanogenmod’s Tablet Nirvana

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Matt Smollinger

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The Nook Color is huge success story, although the suits at B&N might not agree. That’s another story for another time, though. Today I’m here to take a look at arguably the easiest device to “root” in the world, and how it does running one of the more popular Android-based ROMs out there, Cyanogenmod’s CM7.

I haven’t been a true believer in CM7 until recently. In an earlier article, I took an opposing view with the rest of the community. As you will see in the comments of that article, it wasn’t the popular opinion early on. I tend to take a critical approach to Android because it is quickly becoming the “Microsoft of Mobile”, although they haven’t caught Apple with regard to polish, ease of use, or speed.

Android has one thing going for it that Apple never will, though: the fact that it’s open source. Yes, yes, I’m aware of the debacle Google has gotten itself into with Honeycomb. They’ll release source soon enough, and everyone will move on to complain about something else. But CM7 would not be possible without Android being open source, so lets applaud Google for a moment in at least helping us realize the true power of open.

CM7 is just that: powerful. This is no mere root, ladies and gentlemen. “>With nearly 25 devices supported, Cyanogenmod is becoming it’s own distribution, to use a Linux term, of Android. The polish, the speed, and the many little tweaks make CM7 a joy to use. Let’s take a look at some of those features and changes.

Features and Changes From Android

As you might have noticed, Cyanogenmod defines themselves as: “An aftermarket firmware for a number of cellphones based on the open-source Android operating system. It offers features not found in the official Android based firmwares of vendors of these cell phones.” The based part there is the first key this isn’t your normal Android ROM.

Lockscreen Gestures is the first feature that I’d like to point out. Put simply, it allows you to draw on the lock screen to quickly access certain tasks. Everyone has certain tasks they usually like to perform after unlocking your device, be it checking email or opening a browser or making a phone call. Lockscreen gestures can be customized to do many things at once as well, in a macro sort of approach.

Incognito mode is another welcome feature. I regularly wish I had incognito mode for my iPad, because the iPad get’s shared to family members occasionally for checking email, and having incognito mode means I don’t get signed out of my sites.

A major departure from the stock Android OS is the use of a stock Linux kernel for the base (and subsequently modified to work on phones). This change happened in an early beta of CM7 because of an issue with devices not sleeping properly and subsequently not coming out of sleep properly.

Several other features and patches from the general Nook community have also made their way into CM7. One of the XDA forum members hacked in a memory patch to the Nook Autonooter methods (which has been moved to 2.2 Android) that decreases the memory use significantly for the Nook. The stock Nook firmware by default leaves about 50 MB of RAM free at most times. With the new patch, you average about 250 MB of RAM free. CM7 has sucked this in, so there’s plenty of RAM available for background processes.

Other features like Theming, the DSP equalizer, and a bunch of little modifications specific for tablets, all come together to really unify the tablet experience on the Nook. Let’s take a look at the process for getting CM7 on the Nook.

Installing CM7 on the Nook Color

The Nook is fully supported by CM7 and has excellent documentation on how to install CM7 on your Nook. The recommended path is flashing the internal memory, which will erase the stock Barnes and Noble firmware. Trust me when I say it’s worth it, because it is.

I followed the guide available on the Cyanogenmod wiki and was up and running in about 20 minutes. To paraphrase, there are four major steps:

  • First you have to download and install the Clockwork Recovery program, which flashes a microSD card with its own bootable installation.
  • Copy the downloaded CM7 zip file, along with the Google Apps zip file onto the root directory of the SD card. Don’t unzip either of these.
  • Once the transfers are done, make sure the Nook Color is completely powered off, pop the SD card into the Nook and restart so the Nook boots off the SD card.
  • Follow the Wiki instructions to properly wipe the correct partitions, and then install CM7 and then, finally, Google Apps.

The whole process takes about 20 minutes, and afterwards you’ll restart to a beautifully done boot screen for CM7.

Using CM7

If you already have a Google account set up with an Android device, this will seem very familiar to you. You have to log in using your Google account, and that will set in motion a cloud synchronization to pull in all your Apps and Photos. Since you installed Google Apps, Gmail is available, as is the regular Email application for non-Gmail users. The full Android market is also available. I installed a number of apps immediately, including Angry Birds, just to try some out, and all worked fine.

The overall experience was very smooth for an Android device. I spent a full day using it exclusively, and almost never reached for my iPad. The Nook Color is smaller than the iPad and a tad lighter, which makes it easier to hold. It doesn’t match the iPad in eye-candy or have iOS’s buttery smoothness. But remember you only paid $250 as compared to the $500+ price tag for iPad.

Since CM7 is completely open, I fooled around a bit on the command line terminal program that comes pre-installed, as well as in the file browser. Android at its heart is Linux, and so it’s very easy to navigate if you know your way around.

What I came to realize is this is going to be the perfect little test bed for the next generation of technophiles to learn about open source software. It’s kind of fantastic to think about, as most of us learned Linux by bashing our heads into our keyboards when we couldn’t get the /configure script to execute correctly on Red Hat Linux.

That said, CM7 is hampered by the Nook’s hardware. The 800 Mhz TI-OMAP processor is an older generation piece of silicon. So with more than a couple of apps open in the background, the device stutters and you’ll see framerate drops in games. Flash 10.2 does surprisingly OK while browsing the web, but it does slow down the experience noticeably. That said, if you can keep your background processes under control, the Nook Color runs smoothly without any noticeable loss in battery life.

I took a number of screenshots in my previous article. The UI hasn’t changed a bit, but all the Wi-Fi bugs I mentioned are gone now. Take a look and see what you think.

Closing Thoughts

I would be highly surprised if some hardware manufacturers didn’t take notice of Cyanogenmod. I thoroughly expect this project to become the next DD-WRT project for mobile devices. Soon we’ll see manufacturers like Asus actually specifying that their tablet is CM7 compatible.

Until that point though, CM7 will continue to add new devices to its online list, and continue to show the rest of the Android community how a real Android ROM should function.

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