Review: Barnes & Noble Nook HD wows with stellar display

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At a Glance
  • Barnes & Noble Nook HD

Barnes & Noble isn't trying to do everything with the Nook HD. Instead, the company's 7-inch tablet focuses on doing what its Nooks have always done best: delivering the best reading experience you can get on any tablet today. By combining a high-resolution (243 pixels per inch) display with an attractive price and expandable storage, Barnes & Noble has positioned the Nook HD as a compelling tablet choice, especially if you plan to use it primarily for reading and Web surfing, though less so if you want to run the latest hot apps on it.

The Nook HD starts at $200 for the 8GB model, and the 16GB version retails for just $30 more. Though slightly pricier than the latest Amazon and Google tablet offerings, the 16GB Nook HD costs $100 less than Apple's iPad mini—a tablet that has a noticeably lower screen resolution. More important, unlike any of the other three tablets mentioned, the Nook HD has a MicroSD card slot, so you can easily add up to 64GB of storage if you need it. That feature gives the Nook a degree of flexibility that the others can't match.

All about the display

The Nook HD's display sets it apart from the rest of the 7-inch tablet pack: The stunning 1440-by-900-pixel display has the highest resolution of any 7-inch tablet, according to Barnes & Noble; by comparison, the resolution of the Google Nexus 7 tops out at 1280 by 800 pixels.

The Nook HD's display translates into a pixel density of 243 pixels per inch. That matches up well against the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD (at 216 ppi each) and the iPad mini (at 163 ppi). The Nook's higher pixel density makes a big difference: Text looked universally smoother and sharper on the Nook HD, even when using the same fonts as the Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7. For example, when I read Game of Thrones, the Nook HD showed less pixelation in text displayed in Georgia typeface than did the Kindle Fire HD using the same font.

Images that I viewed on the Nook HD in the included Gallery app looked brilliant, with impressive color balance and crisp detail. Whites looked brighter than on (for instance) the Kindle Fire HD, though not quite as bright as on the Nexus 7; this aspect of the display is especially noticeable when you're looking at (or reading) ebooks.

As on earlier Nooks, Barnes & Noble uses optical bonding on the Nook HD's display: The screen and its glass cover are glued together, eliminating the air gap that typically exists between these two parts on other tablets. As a result, the Nook HD's screen has minimal glare and good screen contrast.

Sharp design

The Nook HD has a noticeably sleeker design and lighter weight than its predecessor: 0.69 pound versus 0.88 pound for the previous Nook Tablet. That puts its weight in the vicinity of the Apple iPad mini, and makes it a fair bit lighter than the Kindle Fire HD (0.86 pound) and the Nexus 7 (0.75 pound). The difference in weight might not sound like a big deal, but it becomes quite significant when you hold the tablet for long periods of time.

In my extensive use of the Nook HD, I found that that even over long stretches of use, the tablet felt well-balanced and comfortable to hold; I sometimes hated to put it down. Compared with the previous Nook Tablet, which was built like a tank—and felt like one, too—the Nook HD is a joy to use.

The Nook HD measures 5 inches wide and is 0.43 inch thick, which means that it's narrower and thinner than the Kindle Fire HD. The Google's Nexus 7 is narrower still, at 4.72 inches, but not appreciably so.

Barnes & Noble's new unit has four hardware buttons: a power button on the left edge, volume up/down controls on the right, and an 'n' button beneath the display that serves as a home button.

The Nook HD comes in two case-color options: a snowy white, and a smoky gray. The white Nook HD strives for Apple's white aesthetic; but I liked the gray version better, as the neutral gray coloring helped boost the on-screen contrast. My one complaint about the plastic bezel is that it looks and feels plasticky (which it is). But at least its matte finish doesn't attract fingerprints, as some plastic bezels do. The bezel is cleverly asymmetric: When held in portrait mode, it's narrower on the sides than at the top and bottom. This uncommon design choice works well in practice and makes better use of the available space.

The Nook HD feels first-rate, with a slightly indented soft-touch back that resembles the one on the Nook Simple Touch, and gives the tablet a convenient-to-hold grip

Missing features, beefy processor

The Nook HD's biggest shortcoming is its lack of front- and rear-facing cameras and a GPS capability. Barnes & Noble has its reasons for omitting these features, but anyone who has ever used maps or videoconferencing on a tablet knows how handy these features can be—and their absence may cause some consumers to drop the Nook HD from consideration as a general-use tablet. The Nook HD does provide Bluetooth connectivity, in addition to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.

The built-in dual stereo speakers are situated on the back of the tablet toward the bottom, and they're optimized for holding the tablet in portrait mode. Though my fingers usually didn't block the speakers, the longer I used the tablet, the more frequently I found myself inadvertently covering them. The on-board audio is better on this device than it was on previous Nook tablets, but if you want to fill a room with sound, you'll want an external speaker.

I was pleased with the sound quality produced by the built-in SRS TruMedia-enhanced speakers. It's hard to choose a winner in audio output between this device and the Kindle Fire HD, with its Dolby Digital Plus-enhanced audio: I found that the tablet I preferred changed from track to track. Loudness was better on Kindle Fire HD, but Barnes & Noble says that its first software update will adjust the Nook HD's loudness, so this qualitative difference may be addressed.

You'll be able to add HDMI output via a (yet-to be released) dongle that connects to the tablet's new 30-pin dock connector. The tablet outputs 1080p video, and the dongle has a full-size HDMI port, so you won't have to fuss with specialized cables.

A MicroSD card slot lets you add up to 64GB of storage to the Nook HD. Learning from its mistakes, Barnes & Noble now gives you full use of all the space on a memory card (that wasn't the case with the Nook Tablet).

The Nook HD comes with its own proprietary charger, which you'll need to juice up the tablet. You can use the well-designed 30-pin-to-USB connector to transfer data from your PC to the tablet; however, I was annoyed to discover that the cable wouldn't work with any other power adapter.

Inside, the Nook HD has a 1.3GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor and 1GB of RAM. We couldn't run our usual graphics tests on the tablet (GLBenchmark isn't available on the Nook Store), but the processor appears to handle games fairly well. For example, I compared Vector Unit's Riptide GP on the Nexus 7 to the same game on the Nook HD, the differences between the two were slight, though the Nexus 7 version (which is optimized for Tegra 3) predictably showed some enhanced graphics.

Software refinements

Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble brings its OS up to modern standards by building it on top of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. But as with the Amazon Kindle Fire, you'd never guess that the Nook HD has Android inside. Visually, the experience is entirely different—in a good way.

On the whole, the Nook 2.0 operating system, as found on the Nook HD, reflects a rethinking and reorganization of Nook content. But the changes aren't so jarring that current Nook users will feel lost.

The lock screen reflects the first major change: You can now add up to six different user profiles. That makes the Nook HD and the Google Nexus 7 (running Android 4.2) the only 7-inch tablets with bona fide user profiles. Nook's user profiles are segmented into adult and kid sections, and the tablet will recommend content for you based on your interests and (in the case of kids) age. You can even customize it so the profile is for a boy or a girl, and set it up so that the account can access only whitelisted content that's safe for children.

To enter the tablet, you pick your profile from among the ones floating around the unlock button, and drag it into the center. The tablet then opens your profile, and greets you by name on top. Want to change to a different profile? Tap at the top of the screen, select the profile, and you're in. You can password-protect each profile, and assign downloaded content to specific profiles (so your profile isn't littered with your kid's games, for instance).

Each profile calls up the apps, preferences, and email associated with that particular user. You can limit a profile's ability to shop for content or to access the Web, for example, which is perfect for when you want to hand the tablet over to a child.

The home screen has five available desktop spaces for organizing your content in. A recently accessed content carousel, sitting at the top of the screen, is easy to customize: If you don't want something to show, simply tap the icon and remove it from the screen.

The home screen remains highly customizable, complete with widgets and your own wallpaper or live wallpapers. You can also pin apps or content to the home screen for easy access, and you can add content with a simple long press on the home screen.

I did have trouble understanding a few aspects of the new navigation. The library, apps, Web, email, and shop icons at the bottom of the home screen were a bit faint, and some icons in the navigation were ambiguous. Everything was all learnable, but I occasionally had to tap around more than I expected.

Other aspects of navigation were smooth and simple. At the top of the screen, a pull-down shade—similar to the one on the Nexus 7—gives you access to settings such as the brightness control, Wi-Fi controls, airplane mode, and rotation lock. I wish that finding the precise amount of remaining battery life didn't require digging deeper into the settings, and I would have appreciated changes in brightness that were a bit more apparent, but the experience overall was very positive.

The built-in email, music player, and gallery apps have all received an overhaul since the previous Nook Tablet OS; these areas were obvious weaknesses in the past, and prevented the original Nook Tablet from feeling like a full-featured tablet. In contrast, the new music player is attractive and easy to use, the Gallery smoothly showed off my high-resolution pictures (albeit with a slight sharpening delay), and the email app was quite usable—with a vastly improved interface, and support for multiple profiles and accounts as well as for Microsoft Exchange. The keys on the software keyboard are still too small, but otherwise nothing limits the broad usefulness of the Nook HD as a tablet.

The sharp text vaults the Nook HD to the head of the class as an e-reader. It has two fewer font size options than Kindle Fire HD, but it offers line spacing and three additional background colors beyond what Amazon's tablet provides.

Content matters

Because the Nook HD's software is a custom Android build, you're locked into loading apps available from the Barnes & Noble store, rather than from Google Play. As a result, the tablet lacks both Google certification and the Google services that accompany certification (such as apps for Google Maps, YouTube, Google Books, Gmail, and Google Movies).

If all you want to do is read, browse the Web, handle email, or watch videos, however, none of that will matter. Even the app store for Nook seems better than I had expected. Barnes & Noble claims that it now has more than 10,000 apps in its app store, all of them vetted to run on the Nook HD's 7-inch display. By comparison, Amazon's similar-size app store contains a number of apps that will only work on phones.

Despite Barnes & Noble's qualifications process for apps, I encountered several apps that had unresolved problems. Some of the issues I stumbled on were attributable to Android compatibility oddities; others had to do with touch responsiveness. The company was quick to act on the issues I found, and says that it is working with its developers to encourage them to submit Android 4.0-compatible versions of their apps.

I ran into a few Nook OS crashes, but the device recovered after each hiccup, and Barnes & Noble will (I hope) address such software glitches soon. Barnes & Noble says that the software I tested was near-final; however, the company will issue an over-the-air firmware update on Thursday, November 1, when the tablet starts shipping.

The apps I found that were optimized for the high-definition screen looked gorgeous and ran well. Even a processor-intensive game like Riptide GP played smoothly, and Angry Birds Space HD never looked better.

Barnes & Noble now presents its magazine collections in high-definition, with a new navigation style that closely resembles the Semantic Zoom functionality in Windows 8. The company has also added catalogs to its repertoire. I liked the new feature that complements magazines and catalogs: I could digitally “snip” a page and add it to my own scrapbook for later viewing. That's the kind of thoughtful touch that separates the Nook HD from other tablets.

The Nook HD is the first tablet to offer native support for UltraViolet, Hollywood's standard that lets you download and share content that you've already bought on physical media. That feature wasn't available in the late-production software I tested; and because the store was still in the process of being digitally stocked at this writing, I was unable to gauge the selection.

However, I can say that the movies I tried played smoothly and looked terrific. You have the choice of renting a video (which you have 30 days to watch and 24 hours to finish) or purchasing content outright. Videos took longer to download than I would have liked, but that's in part because they arrived at full-HD 1080p resolution. That extra resolution is useful if you want to output video over HDMI to a TV. The good news is that you can start playing a movie once it's 20 percent downloaded.

Bottom line

The Nook HD is impressive on many levels: Its display is currently second to none, and its expandable storage adds to the tablet's flexibility. Though optimized for reading, the Nook HD also delivers a well-rounded and personalized—if not complete—tablet experience. Google's Nexus 7 has the obvious advantage of being able to use all Android software, and not just the software offered through the Nook store. But if you aren't turned off by the idea of a curated app collection, the Nook HD is one of the best values you can find in a 7-inch tablet today.

This story, "Review: Barnes & Noble Nook HD wows with stellar display" was originally published by TechHive.

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At a Glance
  • The Nook HD is optimized for reading, but it also delivers a well-rounded and personalized, if not complete, tablet experience.

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