In an ultra-competitive 7-inch tablet market, is there room for one more?
Barnes & Noble's Nook tablets may not have the brand cachet of the iPad or the Kindle Fire, but the bookseller's done an impressive job of turning itself into a consumer electronics company. While it's done so, though, the company's had trouble keeping pace with its competitors on another front: content. The Nook Tablet — like the Nook Color before it — is a solid piece of hardware, but with an app store and a content ecosystem that paled next to its competitors, its appeal was somewhat limited.
Now Barnes & Noble's back with the Nook HD, and not only has the company improved the hardware, it's plugged the holes in its content universe. The tablet connects to the new Nook Video store, and integrates with Ultraviolet so you get digital copies of movies you purchase in Walmart and elsewhere. It also has a new version of the Nook OS, a bunch of new features, and plenty of magazines, books, and catalogs to read. It all comes in an 11-ounce, reading-friendly body with a display that Barnes & Noble said over and over is "better than any other 7-inch tablet."
The Nook HD starts at $199 for 8GB of internal storage, and for $229 you’ll get 16GB. It’s a compelling proposition, but it comes at a dangerous time — the 7-inch tablet market is getting good, fast. Can the Nook HD hang with the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD, and the new iPad mini? Let's find out.
Equal parts tablet and e-reader
Amazon's tablets are increasingly less about reading, and more about watching movies, browsing the web, and generally being like the iPad. The Nook HD, on the other hand, is still a reading device through and through. That's most obviously borne out in the wide plastic bezels on either side of the screen – they make the Nook HD a little wider than it needs to be, but it's also eminently easy to hold in one hand. And unlike the iPad mini, the Nook HD's bezels let you keep your thumbs from blocking any of the screen.
Despite the plastic edges, the Nook HD doesn’t feel cheap or chintzy at all. The soft-touch rubber back feels great in your hand, and the seam between the two pieces is small enough that the device almost feels unibody. The sloped edges move toward the back, curved to neatly match the way your palm folds around it — great care was clearly taken to make sure you can hold this tablet in either hand. At 11mm thick and 11.1 ounces it's a little large for a device its size, but there's so much room to hold onto the Nook HD that it's still easy to wield.
The Nook HD comes in two colors, "Smoke" and "Snow," also known as gray and white. My review unit is gray, though I actually prefer the white model a bit more. There are camouflaged volume buttons on the right side, a power button on the left side, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on top. On the bottom, you'll find the large proprietary charging port that too many manufacturers believe is a good idea. There's zero decoration on the front of the Nook HD except for the n-shaped home button, and on the back there's a Nook logo and an indented n. There's not even a blemish for the camera lens, because there's no camera on the Nook HD — a front-facing camera might be a good thing to have once in a while, but I can't say I missed it. It's a minimalist, simple device, but it still manages to be unique in a way few other tablets are. Other tablets like, say, the Kindle Fire HD.
The display got lots of attention from Barnes & Noble – at the expense of other features
When Barnes & Noble first introduced the Nook HD, company reps spent a long time extolling the virtues of its 7-inch, 1440 x 900 display. All the boasting was merited: this is the best screen I've seen on a 7-inch tablet, and it's not even close.
The 243ppi pixel density means you won't see any individual pixels (unless you look REALLY hard), and since it's laminated to the glass it almost feels like things on the screen are popping out at you. What impresses me most, though, is the color reproduction. Blacks are deep to the point that they appear to be not lit at all, making dark scenes in Sherlock Holmes all the more ominous. From skin tones to vivid colors, everything is accurate, crisp, and clean – that's great for reading black text on white backgrounds, and it's great for watching movies. It's just a fantastic display.
But as good as the screen is, that's how bad the Nook HD's speakers are. There are two speakers, on the bottom of the tablet as you hold it in landscape — they're so astonishingly quiet that I spent a half-hour looking in settings to see if I had turned something down by accident (I hadn't.) Even in a dead-quiet room, dialog is virtually inaudible, and music is hard to hear even at full volume. The sound that's coming out is clear and never distorts, but that's not exactly impressive when they're hardly outputting any sound at all. A good set of headphones or a Bluetooth speaker is a must-have companion to this device.
There's a laundry list of smart ideas and cool features baked into the latest version of Barnes & Noble's Nook operating system. It's based on Android 4.0, but it's totally unrecognizable as Android — like Amazon with the Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble went completely its own direction. The new version not only patches holes from older models — tabbed browsing is finally here, for instance — but it includes many new things as well. It's really easy to set up multiple accounts on the Nook HD, for instance, and to control access to content: you can quickly make a book or app available to your kid's account without letting them buy any more, or give them access to certain files but not others. There's a carousel on the home screen with your recently accessed files, apps, and books — it's similar to the Kindle Fire HD, but it's just a feature of the UI instead of dominating the experience.
Out of the box the Nook HD comes with a subtly textured gray wallpaper — there are a number of other options, but I didn't find one I liked as much as the default. It's simple and classy, which really describes the whole Nook aesthetic. Book covers and app icons make up most of the visual pop in the UI, which tries its best to show off the stuff you might want to read or watch. For the most part, I really like the look, which is intuitive and never in your face. There are definitely issues — the drop shadows on app icons are absolutely out of control, for instance — but Barnes & Noble definitely took Android in a toned-down, reading-friendly direction.
I also really like Nook Today, which gives you a great way to find new things to read and watch at any given time — Barnes & Noble has a wealth of purchase data thanks to its retail presence, and its recommendations on the Nook HD are really good. And speaking of content, there's a lot more of it: the new Nook Video store lets you rent or buy a huge number of movies and TV shows, and while the library's not as big as its competitors it does seem to have the biggest and newest movies and shows. Same goes for apps: I'd much rather have access to the whole Google Play store than Barnes & Noble's curated ecosystem, but nine times out of ten the app I was looking for was available in the Nook’s shop.
Good things done poorly
The reading experience, at least, is rock solid
On paper, based on features and specs alone, this is one of the best tablets out there. But the Nook HD just doesn't work well. At all. Almost every time you touch anything, the response is riddled with lags, stutters, and crashes. Apps take a few seconds to load, each and every time. Whether you're scrolling in the browser or just in your library, it's stuttery and lags behind your finger. Playing Ski Safari (the best game in the world) was a jittery mess, with frame rates dipping so low at points I could barely see what was happening. When you open the browser you can actually tell the order in which the elements of the app load — it's that slow. There's a persistent icon in the bottom right corner that pops up your most recently accessed content, but it takes three seconds to load every time — it's only the fastest way to move around because going home and re-launching an app takes even longer. When you switch accounts, it pops up the previous account for a half-second before loading the new account — that's not exactly "private."
Too often when I first started using the Nook HD, I'd repeat an action thinking it hadn't registered, only to have the tablet catch up and do the same thing twice. So I quickly learned to do something, wait two seconds, and THEN do it again if nothing happened (which is also frustratingly common). I saw too many things half-loaded, too many empty icons populating, and too many problems for the Nook HD's performance to be acceptable. When the company first introduced the device, I was taken aback by performance issues but was promised that they were simply a symptom of unfinished software. It may be "final" now, but it's still not finished. Not by a long shot.
Fortunately, there are a few things that do feel optimized and polished. Turning a page in a book is fluid and smooth, and the reading experience is actually pretty great. The reading experience is crazy customizable — you can choose from six different color schemes, eight font sizes, and plenty of fonts, margin sizes, and line heights. Page turns are reliable and fast, and along with the great display it really does make for a good reading experience. Also, once it finally loads, the carousel on the home screen scrolls around nicely and is a handy way to navigate a lot of content. But honestly, those are the only two things I can think of that were consistently as fast and reliable as I expected.
On the bright side, battery life is excellent. On a hurricane-induced day indoors, I was able to use Netflix to stream True Grit, The Karate Kid, Free Willy, and then most of Free Willy again all before the battery died. That's six hours, eight minutes of constant video streaming, mostly in HD except for when the storm made my internet drop a bit. In more normal use, expect the Nook HD to be like most tablets: you'll charge it every three days or so, and you'll rarely even think about its power levels.
Update: Barnes & Noble updated the Nook HD's software after this review was published, and the company promised to fix most of the issues I found with my review unit. The update did improve the overall performance, but only slightly — there's still a lot of lag as you open and close apps, and scrolling is still riddled with stutters. The "resume" function in video now works as advertised, but you'll still need headphones because audio is as anemic as always. The latest version is definitely an improvement, but it's not enough to make me recommend the Nook HD.
A beautiful mess
Barnes & Noble gets full marks for its ability to design a great product — I'm a fan of almost everything the company tried to do with the Nook HD. I only wish the execution were equal to the conception. From the slow UI to the poor gaming performance, this just isn't a fun device to use. I like reading on the Nook HD, and I like watching movies — most of that is due to the display, which really is best-in-class.
Almost everything else feels like a chore, like I'm beta-testing a device that will someday have its kinks ironed out. I hope that day comes for the Nook HD, when it feels like a final product, but for right now it's not on the same level as the other good 7-inch tablets like the Kindle Fire HD or the Nexus 7. I want all of the features the Nook HD offers, but I'd rather just have a tablet that works.