Barnes & Noble Nook HD tablet elevates the game

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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.

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