Navigating the various OS options you have with your Nook Color can be complicated and confusing to the newbie or infrequent modder. I'll describe your basic options for install and the choices you have for operating system versions and customized installs.
If you're here because of the horrible Nook Color update bug and your device has now reset itself and is unusable, read this to learn how you might be able to regain access to your files.
"Rooting" or New Install
The first major decision you'll need to make is whether you "root" the existing operating system (OS) or install a new one. Rooting is the process of gaining control of the operating system and unleashing the full Android power lurking behind the customized Barnes & Noble experience. This process, at least with some rooting methods, can break important elements of that B&N experience, most critically access to the Barnes & Noble e-reader content; future updates of the OS may look for and take action against such activity.
Rooting has been made pretty easy, the most popular method at the moment is Auto-Nooter 3.0. You download a file, write that download to a microSD card, insert that card in your Nook Color, and voila! Well, there are a bunch of caveats and steps you need to follow, and it actually gets a bit messy if you have trouble with YouTube and need to fix it by setting up something called Android Debug Bridge (ADB); ADB install is not hard, but it's long, requires you install drivers, the Java Development Kit, and ADB, and the process can easily go wrong.
I would strongly recommend against rooting. It's a lot more trouble than it's worth. At the end of the process you have an awkward Android tablet, with a user interface and user experience marred by the lingering remnants of the original Barnes & Noble software (their home screen, their real estate wasting virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen). And the Android you will be left with is a bit outdated, it's Android 2.1 (codenamed Eclair), which is missing quite a lot of more recent improvements, like easier cursor moving and cut/copy/paste. If you want to retain access to the original Barnes & Noble e-reader features/experience then see the next section on installing the new OS to a microSD card, which will allow you to revert back to the original experience whenever you want and need to.
Where will your new OS live? Choosing between eMMC and SD
If you made the wise choice of going with a new OS install, the next decision will involve where the OS will live. Do you want to replace the existing OS that lives in the Nook Color's internal memory (eMMC) or do you want to put your new operating system on an external microSD card instead.
One of the great things about the Nook Color is that since it can boot off of an inserted microSD card you don't actually need to modify anything in the Nook Color you bought in order to run the latest and greatest Android OS; you leave the Nook's original OS completely untouched and in tact. Any time you want just pop out the microSD card and the device is just like it was when you bought it. Many of the traditional dangers, such as bricking your device, or having the device reveal itself as defective with a warranty-voiding ROM installed, are gone!
Contrary to what you might expect, the user experience of running of the eMMC or an SD card is identical, the read/write performance of external SD storage and internal eMMC storage are practically indistinguishable.
The negatives about booting from an external SD card may or may not affect (or matter to) you:
- The Nook Color seems to be extremely finicky when it comes to SD cards. Some work great but others either refuse to work or appear somewhat unstable. The faster the cards and the larger the cards the more problems we seem to see. Some may behave perfectly, others not so much. I have used three SD cards in mine, one PNY class 4 and two Patriot LX class 10, all perform better than class 10 cards, and when I install the OS to them I end up with a Nook Color which experiences unnecessary crashes and file system corruption. Many people experience no problems at all, but let my experience be a cautionary tale. If you have problems such as I describe, it's most likely related to your SD cards and your choice is then to buy and try others or use an eMMC installed OS.
- Booting from an external microSD card means that you have a portion of the internal memory you don't use, the portion which holds the original OS you may never boot into. This argument is a weak one given that depending on which operating system (OS) you choose, you'll likely still be able to use the remainder of the internal 8 GB eMMC for extra file storage (music, video, etc. but NOT apps); an average user with only a few apps installed in the original internal OS will have 5 GB internally free they can use for storing files. Additionally, with a 16 GB microSD card running only $25, and with most apps now streaming rich media content (audio, video) how important are those few lost GB when measured against the comfort of knowing you can still get warranty coverage, can still run the official OS when they release important and compelling updates, etc. For most users I'd suspect this down side isn't much of one.
- The microSD card as created by most of the SD-based installers will not behave exactly like a traditional microSD card you would stick in your Nook Color. The only partition you will see from a Windows box will be the /boot partition. That is great for adding ROM update.zip files and replacing the kernel, but with only 100 MB of space it's little use for anything else. While the /sdcard partition on the SD card is formatted fat32 it remains hidden from Windows because all of the partitions are primary and Windows only allows access to the first such partition. There is surely a way to tweak the partition table and work around this limitation, but I haven't bothered. I personally work around the problem by running some special software USB Mass Storage Utility (found on my list of must have apps) which lets me access any partition over the USB cable. The fact that the boot partition on the SD card can be so easily accessed is fantastic, because you can easily replace the kernel (the piece of code most responsible for your OS's behavior, performance, stability), and if something goes wrong you can fix the problem on your PC without needing to resort to more complicated alternative methods which must be done on the Nook Color.
The only reasons I can see people wanting to put their new OS install on the eMMC is if they experience SD-card related stability problems or if their usage of the Nook Color requires / demands that they be able to remove or swap SD cards while the operating system is running. Perhaps they have dozens of movies across several SD cards and they want to switch between them, or perhaps they are in the middle of something and need to copy a file to the Nook Color without stopping what they were doing.
If you are new to all this you should probably go the SD install route. You protect your warranty, avoid a lot of the dangers involved in modding, and any time you want you can pop your SD card into your computer and make a complete backup of the OS and all your data just by creating an image of the SD card. It's a win-win-win! It's what Charlie Sheen would do if he was ever sober enough to do it.
Which OS? Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb?
The next step is to pick your operating system. This choice requires balancing your desire for new features with your desire for a stable/workable operating system. The Android operating systems available are:
- Android 2.1 (codename Eclair)
- Android 2.2 (codename Froyo)
- Android 2.3 (codename Gingerbread)
- Android 3.0 (codename Honeycomb)
Eclair is what your Barnes & Noble Nook Color runs as delivered. And even they are replacing it with Froyo in their April update. There is no good reason to put Eclair on your Nook Color.
Froyo is a significant improvement over Eclair, and quite pleasant to use. It is arguably the most stable of the Nook Color post-B&N operating systems, but to my mind that reason isn't compelling enough to use it when the Gingerbread install (in the form of CyanogenMod 7) is considerably easier, faster, includes a lot of improvements, and seems to me almost as stable as Froyo. But, if you insist, you can follow the instructions in my complete guide to installing Froyo on an SD card.
The Gingerbread version that most people are using is in the form of CyanogenMod 7 (it is now officially stable). CM7, as it's called, is derived from the official Android Gingerbread source, but tailored and tweaked to provide a more positive experience on these devices, Android as released being intended for phones (small screens, cell service, specific hardware buttons, etc.). Gingerbread, again the CM7 version, seems widely regarded as the best current choice for a Nook Color operating system. It blends many of the most recent features with stability. A week ago I would not have advocated for Gingerbread/CM 7 because it was only with the very recent release of RC 4 that hardware acceleration of video was achieved, making it feel like a functionally complete OS. And, what many might not realize, the CM 7 release includes Bluetooth support for the Nook Color, meaning that you can now use your Bluetooth keyboards and headsets! It should be noted that Bluetooth support is still evolving, and one big lingering issue is extremely limited range, measured in inches, not feet.
All in all, having now been using CM 7 for several days, running all sorts of tests (personal and professional) I can say that this is the best option for users at the moment, and my experience has been almost universally positive. If you'd like to know how to install it read my guide to the verygreen SD install of CyanogenMod 7 (Gingerbread) or my guide to phiremod eMMC install of CyanogenMod 7 (Gingerbread) or wait until I mention some of the alternate installs below.
Having debuted very recently on the Motorola Xoom tablet, this is the newest Android OS. This latest incarnation does include quite a few new and impressive elements, but with the latest of its source as yet unreleased by the official team, the dev community isn't going to be close to having it fully functional on a Nook Color for quite some time. I have tried some of the preview versions and while fun to play around with, I actually need my device to be stable and usable, and that's simply asking too much of Honeycomb on the Nook Color at the moment.
One important caveat is that many developers have been porting features from Honeycomb, as well as reconstructions of features from Honeycomb, to use with Gingerbread, and various install options include some of these, the most popular of these installs being phiremod nook.
Installers / Flavors
Now that you've picked where you want your operating system to live and which operating system you want the only thing left is to figure out which installation is closest to your needs. Different modders/developers have come along and taken the available OSes and created customized experiences of them. This can get a bit confusing because you may find several different factions re-packaging and re-releasing a given OS. For example, you can get CyanogenMod 7 in its relatively raw form via a verygreen SD install or as a tweaked / themed ClockworkMod zip phiremod eMMC install.
(I should pause to note that ClockworkMod is an app and boot tool that helps frequent modders stay on top of kernel/ROM and OS update releases, allowing them to easily update as well as recover when things go wrong. The software is incredibly poorly documented, and little exists on the web to explain it to a newbie. I am hoping to write the missing manual for it when I have a chance.)
Which installer / flavor you choose is up to you, and will likely be strongly influence by your decision regarding which OS you want and where you want it to live.
An updated list of installers / flavors can be found in this post.
Personally, since I am a strong advocate of the safer SD option if it works for you and your SD cards. I am currently recommending the verygreen SD install which I document in my complete guide to installing and configuring CM7. I like how verygreen has put things together, I like that it's easy to stay up to date with OS updates, I like that it's very easy to add new kernels (such as dalingrin's excellent over-clocking kernels). Individual Honeycomb-ish apps and hacks I can add to my install as I feel they are warranted. But if you have any problems with the SD install, I would instead recommend the phiremod install.
Pick what's right for you, and don't be afraid of trying more than one. Most of all, enjoy the best little tablet out there!
Keeping Your Install Up to Date
Once you've got your system up and running you'll inevitably want to update it. There are two separate things you'll update, the first is the operating system and the second is the kernel/ROM. While the operating system includes a kernel, most modders run kernels which are independently maintained and hacked for reasons of performance and bug fixes.
For more information, check out my guide to keeping your Nook Color up to date.