(Pocket-lint) - Barnes & Noble has been enjoying some time in the spotlight recently. The decisions it has made have been good though, and we think have improved the chances of its devices being seen in a fairly crowded market. First, the company reduced the price of its entry-level e-reader to just £30 for a limited time, and second, it granted access to the Google Play store from its Android-based tablets.
What that means now is that the Nook HD tablets offer a lot of Android for a fairly low price. But they're also heavily customised tablets that offer something a bit different from other Android devices. In a similar manner to Amazon's Kindle Fire range, what you get with the Nook is a B&N experience
Pretty much the first thing you notice about the Nook HD+ is the hole down on the bottom left of the device. It's a very distinctive trademark of Nook, and we have to say that while it baffles us, looking like one of those freaky ear piercings that leave a gaping aperture in your lughole, we rather like it. Make no mistake though, it's not for anything useful and it serves no purpose whatsoever.
The rest of the case is very distinctive too. There's a thick bezel around the whole of the tablet, and while we'd usually find this a bit disappointing, somehow it just isn't the case here at all. The Nook HD+ looks marvellous and the cover feels like it will stick to your hand, preventing any nasty falls. That said, we do think the plastic case around the Nook will protect it all from the very most unlucky falls.
At the bottom there's a charging port, it's a proprietary thing - boo. The top has a volume rocker and headphone socket while the right-hand side has the power button. This is, of course, when you hold it in portrait mode - in landscape mode the volume and headphone are on the left (or right). We get the impression this tablet is designed to be held in landscape.
At the bottom, on the front, is the Nook's only hardware button, a lowercase N that acts as a home key. It's cool-looking, and works first time, every time.
Internal storage on the HD+ is either 16GB or 32GB but there's also a microSD card slot that allows you to add another 32GB if you want. However you look at it, that's a LOT of storage potential here.
Nook and feel
If you didn't know the Nook was running on Android, there would be pretty much nothing that would give it away when you pick it up and use it. Literally nothing of the standard Android UI remains on this device. And unlike other skinned versions of Android, you can't poke around and find anything that looks like original Android. Of course, if this upsets you, then there are launcher replacements that will help you make it look more Android-like.
But the Nook style is very nice indeed. It's very white, which makes it feel modern and crisp. The text is small, but the high-resolution screen makes it very readable. The style works well for the menu system as well, which stays away from the Android pratfall of overcomplicating everything, and makes all the settings easy to find, in sub-menus that aren't cryptically named.
You can have loads of logins for the whole family too, so there's no need to see apps and books on your account that you've bought for you children or other half. That's a smart move, and kids accounts can be locked out of all manner of things like the internet, and prevented from changing the settings. The lock screen has pictures of users too, and it's really nice to look at and easy to use. You can also protect the adult accounts from nosey children by giving it a password. Kids' accounts can't be locked in this way, but that makes sense.
Aside from the UI customisation, everything is here. New users should find Chrome and Google Play are installed. There's the Twitter app too, which is as bad as it is on any device and Twitter should be ashamed.
One thing we don't love, is the navigation carousel at the top of the screen. It's a bit ugly, the logos are a very mixed bag, and it performs both logically and slowly. We didn't get along with it at all and would really like to see it massively improved, or got rid of.
Barnes & Noble advertise this as a 1080p tablet, but it's actually a little higher resolution than that at 1920 x 1280. This might have something to do with the on-screen controls, which take up a small amount of space at the bottom of the screen. Interestingly, the official video app is able to get rid of these controls, but third-party players, like Plex, are not.
For reading though, which is what Barnes & Noble want you to be doing on the Nook, the screen is truly astonishing. Zoom in on a webpage and the text stays clear; zoom out and it remains legible at surprising sizes. What this means is you can view webpages as you would on a computer, and they look fantastic. You get as much real estate as you would on a decent computer monitor, and with Chrome installed as the standard browser, you also get a really nice multi-tab browser that renders pretty much as well as the desktop version.
Obviously ebooks look marvellous too, and the high resolution means that for most people, zooming in won't be needed - which is good because the Nook's relative lack of power makes it a bit sluggish for this.
The sound from the built-in speakers on the Nook HD+ is actually very good. It has stereo, but this comes from one speaker opening. That's a shame, because as good as the audio is, it's very easy to block the sound with a thumb, when you're watching video. Because the speaker is rear-firing as well, the sound isn't as loud at the front, as it is at the back. That's a big shame, because what audio does hit your ears sounds pretty good and well-balanced.
Of course most people will use headphones to get the best possible sound, and here the Nook performs well. We used some nice headphones, and enjoyed the results. There's no Dolby or DTS audio here, but that's no massive disadvantage and the sound we heard was balanced and clear.
There are no cameras on this tablet, which is how we like it.
Arguably, the lack of front-facing camera is annoying if you want to call people on Skype, but honestly Skype is a truly miserable experience on Android at the moment so we'd rather not bother. If this is an issue, then this tablet isn't for you. We suspect that, like us, most people who buy this will have an iPhone or Android device that can make video calls.
Since our review Nook was delivered we've used it a fair amount. Watched a bit of video on it, surfed the net, read some books, shown our wide-eyed daughter an interactive story about some puppies. We've not turned it off, and it's been connected to Wi-Fi as it sees fit. At this point, the battery has lasted 13 days and we're only just getting battery warnings now. That's really quite good. Of course, if you use it a lot more, watch a lot of video, play a lot of games, then it will last a lot less time.
We took at look at pricing in the Barnes and Noble shop, to see how it compared to the biggest rivals. Dan Brown's Inferno is listed at £8.99 on the Nook while it's £7.20 for Kindle and £8.99 on Google Play. Stephen King's 11.22.63 is the same price on all three, at £4.99 and Jurassic Park: The Lost World is £5.49 on Nook, the same on Play and £5.22 on Amazon.
So, there's not much difference. You might save a few pennies here and there on Amazon though, and that's a big problem for Barnes & Noble, because if you can instal the Kindle app, then suddenly you have access to a reader that can deal with Amazon's library and uses its syncing across devices. As soon as Nook got the Play store, this was inevitable, and it's almost certainly the main reason Amazon doesn't want Google Play anywhere near the Kindle Fire.
The library seems as solid as any, and things are priced in UK currency, so there's no need to convert in your head. There are also apps, films and TV and newspapers. Sadly, the move to include Google Play will also cause a problem for apps being sold on B&N devices. After all, why would you pay for an app locked to only the Nook, when you could have it on Google Play and use it across many devices.
Ultimately, we have nothing but respect for Barnes & Noble opening up its tablets to Google Play, but we also have this feeling that it might be a problem for the company. Perhaps we're wrong, and perhaps the way the Nook Shop is positioned will mean that people won't be too bothered about seeking other places to buy out, and it should also keep the big players competitive.
There is the feeling when you're using the Nook that it's really not all that fast, at least in terms of raw processing power. Sometimes when performing fairly simple tasks we'd find the graphical transitions would stutter and lag. Strangely, this doesn't really affect the performance in other ways. We could play videos with few problems and when you're looking at eBooks, there's really no problems at all, even with heavily graphical books. Games might be a problem if you're looking at the high end, but simple games will be no problem.
Elsewhere, we love the style and think the battery life is very impressive. The downside of the Nook has to be that it's not very light and so reading with it will be a bit of a chore, but that HD screen really makes text look stunning along with anything else you care to throw on it. As we're writing this the Nook HD+ is just £180. And that really can't be described as anything but a complete bargain.
Of course the big question about the Nook range is if it has the possibility of lasting both in the UK and even in the company's home of the US. The recent massive price drops suggest that B&N needs to sell some hardware to generate interest, and while we're thrilled it has eBook readers backed up by such a good store that is very cost-effective, we do wonder how long it will suffer losses. And more serious, perhaps, is that customers buying hardware from B&N presumably at either a loss, or just breaking even, are going to find that they're happier getting books, video and music from Google Play. It's a potential problem.
With all that said, if Barnes and Noble went bust tomorrow, you could still install the Kindle app on the Nook HD+