Barnes & Noble Nook HD tablet elevates the game

Barnes & Noble joins the high-definition tablet party and does so in style with the introduction of a pair of new tablets, the 7-inch Nook HD and the 9-inch Nook HD+. With an emphasis on display quality, usability, and lighter weight—at surprisingly competitive prices—Barnes & Noble's 2012 tablets help the company maintain, and expand on, its value tablet history. Both tablets are due out at the end of October, with prices starting at $199 for the 8GB Nook HD, and going to $269 for the Nook HD+.

I spent some quality time with both tablets, and came away with a first-hand perspective on how the two compare to one another and to their increasingly crowded competitive set. It's important to note up front that, like Amazon, Barnes & Noble uses a custom Android build. This means that you're locked into loading apps from the Barnes & Noble app store, rather than from Google Play. And it means that the tablet lacks both Google certification and the Google services that go along with certification (such as the Gmail app, Google Maps, and apps like YouTube, Google Books, or Google Video). Furthermore, Barnes & Noble chose to skip integrated GPS or cameras; Amazon, at least, offers a front-facing camera on the Kindle Fire HD (but not a rear camera).

None of that may matter in the end, if all you want to do is read, browse the Web, do e-mail, or watch videos. In fact, this is why Barnes & Noble made the choices it did as to what to include and what to exclude. An internal survey of tablet owners by Barnes & Noble showed that 75 percent used the tablet for reading, with the next most popular activities being Web browsing, social networking, email, and video, in that order.

The Nook HD—$199 with 8GB, $249 with 16GB—picks up on the foundation set by the current Nook Tablet, which will stay in the market at $179 for an 8GB model. Clearly, Nook HD targets Amazon's Kindle Fire HD and Google's Nexus 7 tablet, as well as any fabled and future Apple 7-inch class tablet to come. Meanwhile, the Nook HD+, with its larger display, aims at standard Android tablets, at Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and at Apple's iPad. The HD+ is available in two versions: 16GB for $269, and 32GB for $349.

Simple, sturdy design

The Nook HD has a sleeker design and lighter weight than its predecessor: It weighs 0.69 pound versus the previous Nook Tablet's 0.88 pound. The tablet feels remarkably well-balanced to hold in hand; I almost didn't want to put it down.

I recall thinking that E Ink-based e-readers began to hit the right weight balance when those slates dipped below the 0.7-pound mark. I'd say there's still some room to improve, but the Nook HD tablet—the lightest in its size class—marks a turning point for LCD tablets. By comparison, the Kindle Fire HD weighs 0.86 pound, and the Nexus 7 weighs 0.75 pound. Those distinctions might not sound like a lot, but they are enough to make a difference when you're settling in to read a mammoth Harry Potter novel.

Nook HD comes in a snow-colored white, as well as a smoky gray bezel.

Speaking of holding the tablet in one hand, the Nook HD and its larger sibling, the Nook HD+, share a similar design trait: Each features an asymmetrical bezel that's narrower on the sides (when held in portrait mode) than at the top and bottom. It's an uncommon approach, but one that works well and helps make better use of the available space. The dual stereo speakers are positioned (mostly) to send sound out the back, but I didn't find that my fingers would block them; and audio still sounds good when you set the tablet flush on a table. Incidentally, the SRS TruMedia audio coupled with the integrated speakers produced clearer, louder, and richer-sounding audio on the same Adele track I tried than on the Dolby Digital Plus-enhanced Kindle Fire HD; however, further testing will be needed in-house to determine just how the two tablets compare when Nook HD is actually shipping.

Barnes & Noble paid careful attention to the ergonomics of the tablet, with an emphasis on making it comfortable to hold. The Nook HD is narrower than many of its 7-inch competitors: It measures 5 inches wide and stands 0.43 inches deep, to Kindle Fire HD's weirdly wide 5.4 inches (and thinner 0.4 inch). Both Nook tablets have a soft-touch backing, but the back of the Nook HD is inset slightly, just as on the Nook SimpleTouch and SimpleTouch with Glowlight e-readers; this gives the tablet a convenient grip.

The Nook HD+ is heavier as well as larger, but it still is the smallest and lightest tablet for its size class. It weighs just 1.1 pounds, compared with 1.25 pounds for the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and 1.44 pounds for the 9.7-inch iPad. And it measures 9.5 by 6.4 by 0.45 inches, respectably compact given its screen size.

To sum up how the two tablets handled: Both felt great when held in one hand, each redefining expectations for their respective size classes.

For Nook HD, you get a choice of two colors, dubbed snow and smoke by Barnes & Noble. Snow strives for that Apple white chic; but smoke is the more appealing to my eyes, as the dusky gray coloring helps boost the contrast on the screen. Nook HD+ comes in just one color: smoke.

Massive resolution

The Nook HD has a stunning resolution for its size: 1440 by 900 pixels, which works out to 243 pixels per inch. If this sounds like an unusual resolution, that's because it is: Barnes & Noble went to display makers and dictated the spec it wanted, rather than simply accepting what was on offer.

The result of this innovation looks amazing: Text was smooth on books as well as the general navigation screens, and images looked terrific, with impressive color balance and detail.

As with its predecessor, contrast appeared strong, and glare was minimal since Barnes & Noble uses optical bonding on its displays, as it has since the introduction of the Nook Color nearly two years ago.

The Nook HD+ doesn't push the resolution bar in the same way, though. The 9-inch display carries a 1920-by-1280-pixel resolution, which works out to 256 ppi—practically the same as on the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and just shy of the Apple iPad's 264 ppi. Barnes & Noble says it chose the 9-inch display for its 3:2 aspect ratio, which the company describes as “perfect” for use with magazines and books.

Inside the tablets

Both tablets have Wi-Fi, and both add Bluetooth this time around, a notable omission from the original Nook Tablet. Both will also have an HDMI dongle available to connect to the tablet's new 30-pin dock connector; while I prefer integrated HDMI instead of an extra-cost dongle, at least the dongle has a full-size HDMI port, and not a Mini- or Micro-HDMI port that could require an extra cable.

Inside, the tablets each have Texas Instruments' dual-core OMAP 4470 processor. The Nook HD's processor runs at 1.3GHz; the CPU in the Nook HD+ runs at 1.5GHz.

The tablets have a microSD card slot that supports up to 64GB of storage; and unlike the previous model, all the space on the memory card can indeed be used to store your own content. Both tablets include the proprietary charger in the box. Additional chargers cost $20.

Redesigned OS

The Nook 2.0 operating system has been reconfigured around some increasingly common design elements, most notably the concept of a carousel of recent items. Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble brings its OS up to modern standards by basing it on Android 4.0 under the hood. But as with the Amazon Kindle Fire OS, you'd never guess that the OS is Android inside. Visually, the experience is entirely different, and in a good way.

The new look of the Nook HD's home screen.

The home screen remains highly customizable, complete with widgets and your own wallpaper backgrounds. You can pin apps or content to the home screen as well, for easy navigation.

Magazines are now presented in high-definition. New Semantic Zoom-like navigation makes it simple to visually view the content. (Semantic Zoom is a feature of the forthcoming Windows 8.)

The most compelling feature of the OS, though, is the tablet's ability to create profiles for up to six people. This one feature alone catapults the Nook HD and HD+ ahead of the competition. You can easily switch among profiles with a passcode; and each profile calls up the apps, preferences, and email associated only with that user, as well as providing access as dictated (for example, you can limit the ability to shop for content, or to access the Web). You can even customize it so the profile is boy or girl, and set it up so that the account can access whitelisted content that's safe for children. Barnes & Noble provides some free age-appropriate content to get you jump-started, a nice addition for those just starting out in the tablet waters.

The built-in e-mail, music player, and gallery apps have all been given an overhaul from the previous Nook Tablet OS; these were areas that were clear weaknesses in the past, and kept the original Nook Tablet from feeling like a full-featured example of its class. But if what I saw of the music player is any indication, Barnes & Noble has stepped up its game to compete on all levels; the music player is now as compelling as anything I see from Amazon or Google. And the e-mail app now has Microsoft Exchange support and can handle multiple accounts and multiple profiles.

Factor in that Barnes & Noble now has its own video store to complement its bookstore and newsstand, and these small details become all the more important, and critical, to the overall picture of how the Nook HD and HD+ fit into the tablet tapestry. Suddenly, these new Nook tablets have the potential to be serious comers, not just would-be contenders that do some things really well, while falling down in other core areas integral to tablet use.

The Nook Video Store was built from scratch, based on deals Barnes & Noble brokered itself with studios for digitally selling movies and TV shows. The service will be for streaming and downloading content, via purchase to own or via rentals. company plans to have video player clients for iOS and Android, and to have playback via Roku, via Xbox by next year, and via the Web. Aside from that Xbox mention, Barnes & Noble didn't have anything to say about Windows 8, beyond noting that an app is forthcoming.

Another interesting point: The Nook Video Store will support UltraViolet, Hollywood's standard for downloading and sharing content you've already bought on physical media. Barnes & Noble noted that it's the first device manufacturer to integrate UltraViolet support, and this could add extra value to Nook Video's promise, particularly for those who still buy physical DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

One more nifty addition to the Nook Video Store offerings is a selection of catalogs. The company has made it easy to digitally create your own scrapbook, a sort of virtual ripping-out the page from catalogs so you can find what caught your eye later. Over 100 catalogs are expected to be in the store by holiday time.

Where Nook HD fits

The new Nook HD and Nook HD+ are set to pose a challenge not only to their obvious Amazon Kindle Fire HD competition, but to all tablets. These well-designed models feature innovative design, and have some interesting interoperability plays through Barnes & Noble's new Video Store offering. Each of these tablets is backed by attractive pricing, a strong feature set, and a high-performance display. Traits that make them well-positioned to attract shoppers' attention this holiday season. The $269 Nook HD+ is the best value, and is a particularly intriguing proposition for consumers who are willing to stray from the Apple iPad juggernaut.

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