Barnes & Noble Nook HD

If you're looking for a tablet, then you're spoilt for choice. This year has seen a great move towards smaller tablets, with the launch of the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD and the iPad Mini. Joining this rather prestigious bunch is the Nook HD.

The Nook family of devices has been around in the US for a couple of year, with parents Barnes & Noble bringing its portable offspring to the UK only in late 2012. It's a new device, with a new ecosystem for the UK, going head to head with the Kindle Fire HD directly, and occupying the same space as those other models.

Like the Kindle Fire HD, it's Android-based, and like the Kindle, it has been completely customised, a leap away from the sort of native Android experience you'll find on the Nexus 7. But is there space in this crowded market for the Nook HD?

Design

Nook devices have a distinctive design and the Nook HD has been designed to be held. It might sound like an obvious property of a tablet, but the tactile rubberised finish to the rear and the subtle ridge on the back means it's comfortable to hold, with plenty of grip.

Barnes & Noble hasn't tried to give you edge-to-edge glass on the front either. It has retained a bezel, in grey plastic on our review model, which some might say is rather unfashionable. The idea is to give you somewhere to grip, without your fingers leaving smears around the edges, or accidentally turning pages. Whether you see that as a benefit or not will come down to personal preference.

The Nook HD measures 194 x 127 x 11mm and it weighs 315g. The dimensions are fairly typical, fairly close to the Nexus 7, but it's impressively light in the hand. That makes it comfortable for holding for extended periods, like when watching a movie in bed, but we have to say we think the Nexus is more eye-catching when it comes to design.

There is a power/standby button on the left of the Nook, a volume rocker on the right and a home button at the bottom of the display. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top and a bespoke dock connector at the bottom, which can be a little fiddly to attach.

There's also a slot for a microSD card, which is where the Nook HD edges out some rivals: all the main competitors lack the option to expand the physical storage over the internal supplied. So not only does the Nook HD give you 16GB of storage, but you can easily expand this.

The Nook HD comes in two colours, white and grey (snow and smoke in B&N marketing speak). It feels like a good quality device in the hand, but we think it sits alongside the Kindle Fire HD in terms of design, with the iPad mini and Nexus 7 being better-looking devices, but again that's down to personal preference.

READ: Amazon Kindle Fire HD review

In terms of build quality, it's pretty good all round, but there's an obviously hollow patch on the back, sometimes noticeably bending when gripping the device, which takes the edge off slightly. 

The display and hardware

The display is one of the key battlegrounds for tablets, and lately we've seen some impressive devices coming out. Gone are the days of resistive, low-resolution displays with poor viewing angles. On the Nook, Barnes & Noble is aiming high, with a 1440 x 900 pixel resolution display, giving you a pixel density of 243ppi on the 7-inch display.

In comparative terms, the Nook HD is a higher resolution than the iPad mini by some margin, and slightly higher than the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD too. It offers great colour and viewing angles, so it's a pretty good display all round. If we're being critical then some displays will give you deeper blacks and cleaner whites, but it handles glare pretty well, better than the Kindle Fire HD.

The reason that Barnes & Noble wants this high-resolution display is to bring things like magazines to life, where the fine detail will make dense content look much better. For something like books, on regular apps it doesn't really make much difference, but the magazines are really impressive. Perhaps one oddity is the lack of an ambient light sensor, so you'll have to crank the brightness up and down manually.

Powering all this is a 1.3GHz dual-core OMAP 4470 processor with 1GB RAM. There is plenty of power on offer and graphically the Nook HD performs well, with some wonderful animation available on magazine page turns.

There are no cameras on the Nook HD, so that means no tablet snapping when you're out and about and no video calling, which is something of a shortcoming if you want a device that does everything.

The Nook experience

Hardware is one thing, but the Nook is really all about the service. Barnes & Noble has customised just about every aspect of Android on the Nook HD, rather like Amazon has done on the Kindle Fire HD, to give you a unique experience.

Although this is an Android tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich, you don't get the full Android experience. You can't, for example, access the normal run of Android goodies by signing in to your Google account. That means there's no Gmail app, no Chrome browser, no Google Maps and no Google Play.

We found that the Nook HD was locked so you can't sideload applications as easily as you can with many non-Google Certified tablets. It is possible, but it involves using your PC, the SDK and a fair amount of messing around, probably beyond what average users would consider reasonable.

However, let's not focus on what you can't do and instead look at what you can. We're impressed with the level of customisation and the suitability to content consumption from Barnes & Noble's collections of magazines, newspapers, books and movies.

 

The Nook supports multiple profiles for different users, but is firmly aimed at families, with the ability to share content between people. That means that Mother might share her subscription to Cosmo with her daughter; Father and son might both have access to Men's Health. It means you can have accounts for children with controlled access, very simply and easily.

Basically the homepage of your Nook will be populated with the content you've been using, within a carousel-style widget. This you can customise, for example to remove apps, which will soon dominate over a book that you only dip in to occasionally.

You can change the wallpaper and so on, working pretty much as any other Android device, giving you multiple pages to customise and the option to drop content from your library, apps and bookmarks to make the homepages your own. 

Settings and notifications live at the top of the display, a quick tap giving you access, as well as letting you switch to another profile. The settings option gives you quick access to functions like Wi-Fi and screen brightness, as well as a context dependent option for the app you are in. On the homepage, it gives you setting for the homepage, in the browser, it's settings for the browser, which is nice and simple. Clicking through will take you to all the settings options.

The Nook button at the bottom will always take you back to the homepage, so navigation is straightforward.

Permanent elements of the homepage are links to your library, apps, the internet, email and shop. These are all pretty self-explanatory the library housing all your content in one place, across categories, from books to movies, whether you've downloaded it, or added via SD card. You can also customise the library, creating new shelves as you need them, to better organise collections as you want them.

You can also navigate to content through the "My File" section, where you'll find the relevant folders, useful when you first insert a memory card. It's nice that there is a native provision for file/folder navigation, without having to resort to a separate app that also serves up system folders and so on. From a consumer point of view, it's pretty easy to find what you're actually looking for.

Transferring content to the Nook is as you'd expect, just hook it up to a PC and you'll be able to dump files in the correct folders. The intention, however, as with all such devices, is to sell you content and for this you'll have to head to the Shop.   

It's all about content: Books, comics, magazines and newspapers

The shop handles all content that Barnes & Noble has on offer, from the curated app selection to the mainstay of Nook's offering: books, magazines and newspapers, with a section especially for children. Recently film and TV has appeared on the Nook in the UK too.

The book selection is good, with plenty of titles on offer. Many of them match the price of rivals such as Amazon, but we did find some strange pricing anomalies. Working through the Nook bestsellers, we found the some books, for example Rod: The Autobiography was £12 more expensive than the Kindle edition, and Terry Pratchett's A Blink of the Screen was more expensive on the Nook than in print.

 

So it's worth keeping an eye on book prices, although, naturally, there's no Amazon Kindle app on offer here, but the Nook supports Adobe Digital Editions, so once you've plugged in your details, you'll be able to read DRM-protected content you sideload, so you can buy from somewhere like Waterstones or WHSmith and still read on your Nook HD, which the Kindle won't let you do. As an aside, WHSmith is offering Rod Stewart's autobiography for a mere £7.

However, this is still a LCD device and reading books isn't as nice as it is from paper or a E-Ink device, like the Nook Simple Touch Glow Light. But if you're interested in more-dynamic content, then the Nook really shows its strengths. There are plenty of display options too: you can change the font size and type easily easily, adjust the margins and line spacing, so the text matches your preference. 

 

There's a large selection of comics and graphic novels on offer, with pinch zooming and for those comics where enabled, a comic-reading mode too. This excellent comic viewer will let you flick from frame to frame. On some comics it's absolutely stunning, on other less so, but with a double tap you can switch to zoom view again.

Turning pages is also wonderfully animated, and it's here you see how well the graphics are handled, with the turning page showing the reverse side as your fold it over. The same applies to magazines, where again you get zooming options and overviews, useful to help skip past the opening 30 pages of advertising in a copy of Esquire.

Newspapers are handled slightly differently, breaking content down into sections for you to browse easily.

When it comes to children's books there are also some great options. You can navigate directly to the children's section and easily get to books that children will be interested in, Enid Blyton for example. But with picture books for your baby or toddler, there's also the option to have the book narrated. You can even record yourself reading the book, so if you're not able to read to your kid that night, then at least they'll be able to hear your comforting voice.

Overall the reading experience is good, with plenty of content on offer from Barnes & Noble and in some cases, an enhanced dynamic experience that really takes advantage of the hardware. 

On the downside, the newspaper and magazine sections are still being populated, so you won't find huge variety in those sections. We also found that searching for content would sometimes return too many disorganised results and the thumbnails are surprisingly low definition and unnecessarily small. But you can refine those results returned with a drop-down box, it just means an extra step to find what you want to buy.

Moving pictures, audio

It's not just about reading however. Barnes & Noble has just flicked the switch on its video service for the UK, although the Nook HD supports sideloaded video content too, as long as you stick to fairly regular file types.

There's a good range of content on offer from Nook Video too and it has a major advantage over the Kindle Fire HD's Lovefilm offering: you get the option to stream or download. Amazon's tablet in the UK will only play video when you have an internet connection, so it's hampered when you step out of the house and head to the airport.

 

The Nook HD, however, gives you the option to stream or download, rent or buy, in SD or HD. It also supports UltraViolet, giving you access to content you might have in your digital movie locker. The difference is that Nook Video is all pay as you go, so rather like using iTunes or Google Play Movies. The prices vary, from around £4.01 to rent, and £9.99 for a new SD purchase.

As we've said, the display looks great and video content on the Nook looks fantastic, playing back HD content smoothly, making for a greast movie experience on the move. The aspect of the display is better suited to films than the wider iPad mini too. There is no HDMI on the Nook, so you'll need an optional adapter to share content with a larger display.

Of course part of your movie-watching experience is going to be the soundtrack. The speakers on the rear of the Nook HD are surprisingly good quality with plenty of volume too. They show themselves as lacking when dealing with bass and when cranked up loud you can feel the rear casing vibrating. They aren't as competent as the Dolby-certified speakers on the Kindle Fire HD, but they left us with little to complain about.

The one obvious omission is that there's no native music store on the Nook. You can access apps such as Spotify and Napster and there is a music player for tracks you import, but you'll have to buy them elsewhere, as music has no place in the shop.

The player is simple enough, as is navigating any tracks you have moved to your device, but you don't get the luxury of lockscreen control, or quick controls through the notifications area, simply a link back to the music player app.

The sound quality, through a decent set of headphones is pretty good. It's on the bassy side, with plenty of volume, but there's no equaliser to tweak the audio to your preferences.

Apps

As we've already said, there's no access to Google Play from the Nook HD. Like the Kindle Fire HD, the app offering on the Nook HD is curated by Barnes & Noble, meaning it's down to them to decide what makes it in and what doesn’t. Many of the major apps are here, so you have Dropbox, Angry Bird Star Wars, Netflix and Twitter to play with.

But once you're into specifics you'll start to notice what's missing. There's nothing from Sky, nor from the BBC, no Skype, no Facebook, no eBay. You get the picture. As it stands, this isn't the all-round app machine that something like the iPad mini or the Nexus 7 is.

READ: Nexus 7 review

There is a Flash app, however, which might get round some of your woes. You can, for example, set the browser to pick up the desktop version of sites (using our instructions you can find here), so you can watch the Flash version of BBC iPlayer or ITV Player for example.

The best message is that the Nook HD offers lots, but not everything, when it comes to apps. It offers a lot of content through Barnes & Noble and that should be your main motivation for buying it, rather than because you want a tablet for the latest apps.

Browser, keyboard, email

We've mentioned the browser and it's a pretty standard Android browser that's had a lick of paint to fit in with the rest of the Nook look and feel. Most of the functions you expect are present, including multiple tab support, searching of webpages and an address bar that also searches.

You get a reading view too, something that's pretty common across the Nook, as it's also offered for magazines, meaning you can extract the text and read it like a document without the fancy design and adverts that websites often have cluttering up the words you want to read. (It's not bad dear reader, is it?)

You can also save pages to read later, so if there's a review of the latest gadget you want to read on the plane, tap the button and you're good to go, so long as it's all on the same page as presented here on Pocket-lint and not split across 20 pages.

The keyboard is good enough. It's not as flash as the latest trace keyboard from Jelly Bean, or that from SwiftKey (also not available in the Shop), but it's responsive enough for tapping in search queries for finding books and movies, perhaps responding to the odd email.

Email, calendar and contacts are also supported by the Nook. Without the normal Android Google support, you'll have to do things manually, but it supports Exchange, so if you're a Google user, plugging in the Exchange details for your account will pull in your email, contacts and calendar. There are also manual options to import contacts and so on.

Verdict

The Nook HD is a powerful tablet that's been thoughtfully customised to offer a great user experience. Barnes & Noble has tweaked the user interface to make it simple and approachable. There's plenty of content on offer and the navigation options offered make sure that the content takes advantage of the platform: Barnes & Noble isn't just pushing out content in whatever fashion, it's making it work, so that the Nook system makes sense.

We like the video too. It might be brand new, but we love the fact that you can do what you want, rent or buy, download or stream, SD or HD. This is a definite strength over Amazon's rival device.

The ability to expand the memory and freely add content of your own is also appealing, making the Nook HD, with it's excellent display, a great device for content consumption.

The Nook HD may be pushing a new ecosystem into the UK, but importantly (with the exception of music) it feels like a complete system, rather than something half-baked, that's better suited to the original US market. With apps on other devices, you get syncing, as you do with Kindle and the promise of video apps in the future too. 

But where the Nook HD does everything that it does well, it lacks the blank canvas appeal of the Nexus 7. With Nook apps on the wider Android platform, there's every chance you'll be able to access Nook content at your will on another device. The Nook HD also lacks the apps that will serve up much of the variety that Android offers.

Facing-off against the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, both devices have pros and cons when it comes to the hardware. The Nook beats Amazon in terms of video content, the Kindle beats Nook on music. But with the Kindle so well established in the UK already, convincing people to wave goodbye to content they have previously purchased from Amazon is going to be a challenge.

If you're looking for a tablet primarily for content consumption - books, movies, magazines - then the Nook HD is an excellent choice. But if you want it to give you more freedom, then it's worth looking around.