UPDATE 12/13/11: This post is about my thought processes and experiences, but is a bit outdated as any kind of guide. I've prepared more up-to-date and step-by-step materials for those seeking help, starting here: Your Nook Color Options: Root & ROMs END UPDATE
Motivated partly by the death of my old iPod and partly by the temptation of Amazon's $114 ad-supported Kindle, I started poking around the internet last month looking to fill the big ol' gap in my e-cology between my phone and my PC. It's the first time since my MSI Wind was stolen last summer that I've had the discretionary funds to even consider doing so.
My experience with the netbook had really sold me on e-books, despite it being a less than ideal device for reading them. I considered going that route again, but a netbook wouldn't be much of a portable music solution, and I didn't have the money for a new one, anyway, which would leave me with all the uncertainties of buying used electronics via craigslist or ebay. With ebooks in mind, I wandered over tohttp://www.mobileread.com/forums/ which is probably where the idea of the Barnes & Noble Nook Color(NC hereafter) got planted in my mind. It was more money than I wanted to spend, but the more I looked at it, the more it started to look like the best value. Out-of-the-box, it's not much more than an e-reader. Yes, it has particularly good tools for children's books and magazines, and it does have an on-board browser, mv4 video player, and, as of recently, a limited Android apps market. The real value, though, is that it has the hardware to do A LOT more, a modding community taking advantage of that hardware, and a nigh-unbrickable configuration.
I gave in to temptation about two days after they started carrying the NC at Staples, down the street. I had to hit the road immediately after, and so was limited to the stock operating system (then based on Android 2.1, recently upgraded to 2.2) for a few days. It was even more underwhelming than anticipated, given the capabilities I knew were hiding in this machine. Barnes & Noble's customizations of the Android OS seemed to consist entirely of limiting and removing functionality. I can't criticize them too much, because they did make the NC ridiculously open to experimentation and modification (see below), and my little cousins were pretty impressed with the sample kids' book.
Upgrading to Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread--Root, Shmoot
A lot of people opt to root or jailbreak their Apple and Android devices, which is a possibility with the NC, as well. Rooting is not a radical change to the device; it amounts to granting yourself Administrator (in Android terms, Super-user) privileges to change settings such as those preventing you from accessing a competitor's store or loading unauthorized apps. It will void your warranty if discovered, and like Administrator access to a PC, it gets you under the hood where you can really screw things up. You can also run into problems when the manufacturer or service provider releases an over-the-air update, which may just remove your Super-user access, may force a factory reset erasing all your data, or in some cases may brick your device. For some devices, though, rooting is your only option to gain access to apps that Apple or Verizon decided you can't have.
With the NC, there are a lot of options. Like, a lot.
This blog post helped me sort through them:
Given that I shelled out more than was wise at the time for the NC itself, I didn't have the resources to do some of these things that involved multiple MicroSD cards and/or a card reader for my PC. I determined pretty quickly that I was more interested in running a more current and complete version of Android, rather than rooting Barnes & Noble's build. Because the NC boots first from the MicroSD drive, much like PCs are designed to boot first from a floppy or CD drive, it's possible to place an entire operating system on a MicroSD card, without altering the stock OS at all, which seemed like a good place to start. The information in this forum thread, http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1005633 pointed me to an inexpensive card known to perform well--some cards, particularly the most expensive "class 10" cards, make terrible boot drives.
I used the instructions in this thread, http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1000957 with some help from the "For Dummies" version (with videos!) in this blog post, http://www.anamardoll.com/2011/04/ereader-running-cm7-firmware-on-nook.html to install the latest stable build of CyanogenMod to the card. Often simply called CM7, it's a volunteer-built version of Android 2.3.3 (Gingerbread) optimized for various devices.
The blog post has a rather lengthy introduction, so I skipped down to "what you'll need," and only watched the 2nd and part of the 3rd video, using verygreen's steps (from the forum thread) from there.
The only place I ran into trouble was getting google apps installed, which is how you enable the market, and would normally be accomplished with an external card reader. How I got around it is detailed in this thread: http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1526550
And now my little reader is quite a capable Android Tablet. With a little more tweaking, I could overclock the CPU and/or install other versions of Android, like the less stable (but still fairly stable) version of Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). As is, I see very rare lag in any app, and run live wallpaper and multiple widgets from my home screen with no trouble. All I have to do to access the stock OS is shut the NC down, pop out the SD card, and turn it back on.