Barnes & Noble's Nook HD+ is a pretty impressive £229 (for the 16GB model) tablet. But a great larger screen (9in) tablet experience is as much about content as it is about hardware, and that's where the Nook HD+ falls short. The Nook has definite advantages over other tablets, but they're better realised in the £159 7in Nook HD, not in this larger and pricier 9in tablet.
The Nook design just says "book" more than other tablets. It's smaller than competing large tablets at 163 x 11 x 240mm (WxDxH), and lighter at 515 grams. The soft-touch back is easy to grip. In standard Nook fashion, the lower left hand corner is cropped, with a metal ring set into it. On the bottom panel, there's a microSD card slot and a charging port. This tablet is beautifully and sturdily built.
The Nook's 9in HD screen is certainly impressive, too. We’ve compared it side-by-side to the same-size 8.9in Kindle Fire HD (only available in the US) and the Nook has a higher resolution at 1,920 x 1,280 pixels, plus its colours seem better saturated. The Kindle's screen is 254 pixels per inch (ppi), and the Nook’s is 256ppi, with the £399 fourth-generation Apple iPad's screen only just sneaking past it at 263ppi. Only the £319 Google Nexus 10's screen is noticeably tighter at an even 300 ppi.
Keep an eye on your Nook cable and AC adapter. Rather than the micro-USB that almost every other Android tablet uses, the Nook HD+ comes with a proprietary 30-pin-to-USB cable and a special AC adapter. It'll charge from a computer, but it won't charge from other devices' adapters.
Just as with the latest iPad, the Nook HD+'s design requests politely that you use it in portrait mode – that way, the embossed "n" Home button is facing up. But that puts the Volume buttons in an awkward position on the top, so Volume Up is on the right, rather than the top. Turn the tablet into landscape mode and those buttons are in a more intuitive place, but then the Home button looks wrong. I found this half-and-half aspect of the Nook a little disconcerting.
Apps and performance
The Nook HD+ runs a highly skinned version of Android 4.0. It's the same software as on the Nook HD, so you can read our Nook HD review for more details on things like the interface and document format support. The software gives the Nook a clean, highly simplified interface offering the ability to arrange your books, magazines, and newspapers onto virtual shelves. There's also less of a focus on constant content selling than there is with the Kindle Fire. The HD+ supports multiple users with different content sets and profiles, just like the Nook HD.
The five main selections on the Nook's menu are Library, Apps, Web, Email, and Shop. The Nook uses a slightly modified version of the standard Android 4.0 browser, which is a good choice. It's responsive and displays pages well. It offers Flash as an option, although installing it is a little confusing (you have to try to play a Flash video and fail, then it offers to install Flash). And it scored better on the Browsermark benchmark than Amazon's Silk browser – 2,208 vs. 1,659, which would facilitate faster page loads if the Kindle Fire didn't have much faster Wi-Fi. An Article View button strips all of the ads off a page for a purer reading experience.
The Nook is powered by a 1.5GHz TI OMAP4470 processor, and while I couldn't run any system benchmarks, performance was fine, if not spectacular. The relatively slow Wi-Fi seemed to create most of the performance delays I saw when browsing the Nook Store for new content, for instance.
Battery life was very good at 6 hours and 53 minutes of continuous video playback with the screen set to maximum brightness. It pretty much matches the 7in Kindle Fire HD which hit 7 hours, and it certainly betters the iPad 4 and the Nexus 10.
Barnes & Noble locks the Nook even more strictly to its own app store than Amazon does. The Nook store has about 10,000 smartly curated apps, with lots of good casual games – but entire categories are missing. There's no music store, for instance, or any alternative video players. And unlike with Amazon, you don't have the ability to sideload apps from a PC.
I've always pegged the Nook's strongest advantages as being in children's books, magazines, newspapers, and comics. Children's books especially have interactive features that just leave the Kindle in the dust. But all of those categories, except maybe magazines, are just as readable on a more portable 7in tablet. I'm growing impatient with the Nook's comics selection, too. The store has very few single issues (it's almost all trade paperbacks), and the limited app store doesn't have Comixology or other apps that would allow you to download other single issues.
Larger tablets are used differently than smaller ones. They're better platforms for video due to their big screens. Unfortunately, the Nook HD+ falls short on every aspect of the multimedia experience.
Things start out well with storage. The Nook HD+ runs £229 for a 16GB unit and £269 for a 32GB model, and both tablets support microSD memory cards up to 64GB. System files take up about 3GB of the internal storage. You can drag over files from a PC by connecting a USB cable and using the standard Android file transfer software.
But the tablet falls behind when it comes to available content and playback options. Barnes & Noble has no music store. The Nook can play your own MP3 and AAC files copied over from a PC, but not WMA or OGG files. You'll probably have better results with a streaming audio player like Spotify, which you can snag from the Nook store. The Nook video store is live in the US, but still not open in the UK – though it should be imminently (Barnes & Noble have it pegged as a December launch).
The SD card slot indicates that this would be a great device on which to play your own videos, but format support is slim: H.264 and MPEG4 files only. Unlike on the Kindle Fire, you can't download any additional codecs of video players from the app store to beef up file support.
The Nook's single speaker, while loud enough, delivers much less immersive sound than the Kindle's widely-spaced stereo speakers. And the Kindle has a standard microHDMI jack for playing videos on a TV; Barnes & Noble has promised an HDMI cable for the Nook's proprietary port, but it isn't here yet.
Finally, I'm a sceptic when it comes to tablet cameras, but I can at least see the argument for a front-facing camera to use with Skype, and Apple, Amazon, and Google see that argument, too. The Nook has no cameras at all.
The Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ is a solid media and web tablet for £229. The slate has an impressive screen and build quality, and it’s cheap considering this. However, compared to rival larger tablets, the Nook HD+ lags considerably behind on content and app selection. There’s no front-facing camera, either.
Indeed, unless magazines are your killer app, the smaller, more portable Nook HD delivers all the best aspects of the Nook HD+ experience for just £159. I'd recommend the 7in Nook HD to people looking for an excellent tablet for children's books, for instance.
If you want a larger tablet, you’re best off exploring alternative options, although sadly in the UK if you want a Fire HD, you're limited to the 7in model as the 8.9in version is US-only. You could look at the Nexus 10, though, or other Android efforts, or indeed the new iPad (although the latter, at £399, is really best thought of as more of a general purpose computer rather than a simple media tablet).