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Review: Nook HD – A better screen than an iPad Mini

Allan Swann
January 14, 2013

This Nexus 7 slate rival has a great screen and is perfect for kids… but for anyone else?

You might not have heard of Barnes & Noble before, but it’s one of the leagest booksellers in the US. It’s an American Waterstones, if you will. Imagine if Waterstones one day decided to fight the digitisation of books by making a series of tablets, all based on Android, with its own app store for buying books, movies, apps and games.

Amazon have done something similar with its own Kindle Fire HD tablets – the consumption of content becomes more important than the device itself.

This helps you understand where B&N is coming from with the Nook HD. While Asus and Google just want to leave you alone to be happy with the seven-inch Nexus 7, Amazon wants you to buy stuff – anything (and as much of it as possible) – through its Kindle Fire series of tablets. B&N is a bit more relaxed, it just wants you to browse its shelves until you find something you like. Buy a magazine, have a read of a book, rent a movie. It’s a pleasant enough proposition, but for most, it won’t quite be enough.

SUPER SHARP SCREEN

On paper, the £159 Nook HD looks exactly like the Kindle Fire HD. It’s priced the same, it’s the same size, it lets you buy media and read it on your other devices as well.

The Nook HD's screen is brilliant

The Nook HD’s screen is brilliant

Surprisingly though, B&N has digital giant Amazon beat on the tech hardware. For starters, there aren’t any spammy adverts to be seen, one of Amazon’s ruses for getting its prices down. The bezel is substantially less wide; the pebble shaped 11.0mm slate feels thinner than it is, and the rubberized back is comfortable to hold with one hand. It doesn’t look beautiful, but with its distinct two-tone colour scheme and rounded edges, it’s its own man alright.

The screen however is spectacular: the seven-inch, 1440×900 resolution screen is the sharpest in its class and is visibly better than its competitors, with rich colours and nary a hint of pixellation, which makes reading a treat. If that’s not enough, you can output to a TV via HDMI with a separate cable too: it’s a great slate if all you want to do is watch movies and read digital magazines.

Our only real issues in this are are B&N’s use of a proprietary charging port – so you can’t just use any micro USB lead as you may be used to. It also has no cameras for video chat, as you can on newer iPads and many Android rivals.

Battery life proved perfectly adequate when compared with rivals – up to 10.5 hours of reading (as B&N claims) is accurate, and the standby time is impressive. We wore it down to the lowest bar, then left it, to return four days later to find it still breathing.

FAMILY PLANNING

The Nook HD technically runs on Android 4.0, and you’ll still occasionally see traces of it in the way notifications pop up at the top of the screen from time to time. However, it’s been so heavily modified as to be unrecognisable.

The Nook gets its own homescreen interface, and if you’re all about consuming on a tablet (rather than creating), it works. As well as app icons, you put and move around icons for individual books, magazines and videos on the screen – think of it as a library rather than an app menu, complete with a helpful shop assistant who gives you recommendations from the “Your Nook” drop down menu.

The core functions (library, apps, web, email, shop) are available at the bottom, along with a search bar to google anything; a tap of the status bar meanwhile lets you dig into settings. Hit the store, and you can choose from over three million books, along with movie and TV purchases you can stream or download. There’s also a real focus on digital magazines: you can “rip” pages from them to add to scrapbooks, and zoom in panel by panel on comics.
Much of this you can do with the Amazon Kindle app on any platform, of course (and it’s worth pointing out there are iOS and Android Nook apps too which keep your purchases in sync in the cloud and accessible everywhere). The Nook HD software goes a step further though with superb account handling that betters what Google now offers in Android 4.2.

You can have complete control over what types of media your kids can get at on the Nook HD and whether they can use the web, and there are admin and parent profiles, should you trust your significant other more than your children. And you can make all sorts of exceptions to these rules too, always the sign of a well thought out feature.

Loading your account is easy: on the lock screen, you just drag your icon to the centre, and presto, your account loads, complete with the books you were reading and apps you’ve installed.

POWER FAILURE

That is, if you wait a few seconds or more. You see, despite the 1.3GHz dual-core processor, which powers through HD video and plays 3D games just fine, there’s a whole lot of lag.

The homescreen, particularly, suffers, with long gaps and flashes as you swipe between screens, and even longer ones you as log into a different account. It doesn’t help that the web browser is bog-standard at best, with a nasty habit of getting stuck as you scroll down a page.

It’s not like it has to be this way. Last year, before Google released Android 4.0, it was needed: Android tablets were pants, and Amazon showed Google how to do a low price iPad rival. But things have changed: Google hasn’t just got its act together, it has almost bested Apple and iOS.

The Google Nexus 7 is very proof of that: it’s equally priced to the Nook and Kindle Fire, running Android 4.2 rather than mutated 4.0, unbelievably fast and packs the best mobile email app there is, Gmail. It has more apps too.

B&N’S CLOSED ANDROID FAILS

While the homepage and interface are easy to use, the app store is limited

This is the real point you need to make a decision on is this: can you live with only what you can find on the Nook app store? Because you can’t download them from anywhere or else, or sideload them and install either, as you can on Android gadgets that support the app-packed Google Play store.

There are a few heavyweight games and media apps (Netflix, Spotify, Words With Friends), but stray outside the confines of very mainstream taste and you’ll be in trouble very quickly. One great example: B&N have thoughtfully allowed you to change your keyboard, something you can do on most Android devices (though its own QWERTY effort is excellent). Except, of course, there aren’t any keyboard apps on the store to replace it with. So! That’s that.

Considering all of Nook goodies are avialable on other Android tablets, its hard to live with just the Nook store. A family considering caving in and getting a tablet as present might be able to. In the meantime, the Nook HD and its wonderful screen do us all at least one solid: they set a precedent for an iPad mini 2 with a screen just as crisp. Up your game, Apple.
What Barnes & Noble has pulled off in a few short years in the tablet space – hardware, feature and price parity with the biggest tech giants – is nothing short of amazing.

VERDICT

The Nook HD is well built, with a superb screen. But the Android software core feels like it’s modified not to benefit the user, but just to make sure only Barnes & Noble can make money out of the thing – same as Amazon’s Kingle Fire. The Nook HD is for film enthusiasts and families only.

+ Stunning screen
+ HDMI-out and heavy media focus
+ Superb handling of accounts

Lacks many of the apps of rivals
Achingly slow
No cameras

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