The Barnes & Noble Nook HD (£159 for the base 8GB model, £189 for 16GB) has the best hardware of any 7in tablet in its price class. It's light and well built, with a grippy body and an absolutely stellar screen. As long as you use it to read Barnes & Noble's books, it's spectacular. But tablets nowadays do a lot more than that, and the Nook HD doesn't. That makes the Nook HD a great reader's tablet, but not a leading tablet overall.
Design and storage
The Nook HD is a pleasure to hold in the hand. It comes in grey and white colours (well, “smoke” and “snow” as B&N would have it). At 127 x 11 x 194mm (WxDxH) and 315 grams, it's narrower than the Amazon Kindle Fire HD but slightly wider than the Google Nexus 7, and the whole thing is covered in a tactile grey material with a bezel just the right size for wrapping your fingers around.
The Nook HD's screen is distinctly better than the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 – or for that matter, the Apple iPad Mini. It's the best small tablet screen available right now. That's not just about the tight 1,440 x 900 resolution, which makes text sharper than on the other tablets. The screen is also noticeably less reflective and has deeper blacks than either the Kindle's or Nexus' screens, which makes reading easier. The viewing angle is the best I've seen on a tablet so far. I thought I loved the Kindle Fire HD's screen, but this one is even better.
On the bottom of the slate is a microSD card slot, which takes up to 64GB cards, along with an annoying, proprietary charging port. Barnes & Noble says it'll have an HDMI-out cable for the Nook HD in the future, but that still compares poorly to the Kindle Fire HD's more standard micro HDMI port. There's also a relatively quiet speaker. The headphone jack is on the top.
The microSD card lets the Nook HD store a lot more data than competing sub-£200 tablets, but its utility is limited by what you can play. The Nook HD plays MP3 and AAC music files, and MPEG4 and H.264 videos. The tablet can also view unprotected ePub-formatted eBooks, CBZ-formatted comics, PDFs, and Microsoft Office documents stored on a memory card, but they're buried two levels down in the Library screen.
DivX and Xvid videos are out, and you can't sideload apps. Although the ePub and CBZ support is welcome, there are no alternative video players or book readers in the Nook store to display content not downloaded from Barnes & Noble, so support for third-party formats falls well short of the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7.
Battery life, at 5 hours and 16 minutes of video playback with the screen at full brightness, was noticeably shorter than the 7 hours I got on the Kindle Fire HD.
Performance and apps
The Nook HD runs a TI OMAP 4470 processor at 1.3GHz, which is considerably faster than the processor in the Kindle Fire HD. I couldn't run our benchmarks on the tablet, but page turns were smoother, applications loaded more quickly, and there were fewer delays as page thumbnails loaded than I experienced on the Kindle Fire HD. Casual games like Bad Piggies and Fruit Ninja played smoothly. This is a Wi-Fi-only tablet with 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, but not the 5GHz support featured on the Kindle Fire HD.
Like the Kindle Fire HD, the Nook HD runs a heavily altered, basically unrecognisable version of Android 4.0. It's even simpler and more pared-down than the Kindle's interface. When you turn on your Nook, you get the option to choose between your user profiles – I'll explain those below. Then you see a screen with a configurable "shelf" of your favourite apps and five options: Library, Apps, Web, Email, and Shop. That's it.
Hitting a button at the top of the screen pops down Your Nook Today, which gives you the weather and some shopping suggestions based on what you've been reading.
The Library is, essentially, the file list, both of your B&N content and the stuff from your memory card. The web browser is a skinned version of the Android 4.0 browser. It has a neat reader-style "article view" option and the ability to save pages offline, and it had comparable performance to the Nexus 7. There's no Flash, but that's becoming less important nowadays.
The Email app is quite limited. It supported my Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft Live accounts (all automatically configured via IMAP), and it also supports Exchange, but to load a Google Apps account you have to manually set it up as IMAP. More importantly, most HTML emails didn't format properly for the screen and required horizontal scrolling to read the full text.
Apps are thin on the ground and limited to those supplied by the Nook store, as sadly you can't snag apps from the Google Play store, or other alternative app stores (or indeed sideload apps). The situation isn't as bad as it sounds, though, because Barnes & Noble has done a great job getting popular, big-name apps into its small selection. Of the top 36 apps in Amazon's store, for instance, 21 are available for the Nook, including big names like Angry Birds. There's a light but well selected group of social and productivity apps, too.
The user profiles are a nice touch (pictured right). You can set up six distinct users, a mix of adults and children. They can each set up their own home screens, and receive their own in-store suggestions based on what they like to read. For children's profiles, adults can restrict access to the shop, web browser, and various kinds of content by age rating.
Clearly, B&N has an audience in mind here, and that audience includes a lot of kids and people who play casual rather than "serious" games. They'll be satisfied with the Nook HD's selection, but the limited choice ensures that, as we've already noted, this is a "reader's tablet" rather than a general-purpose computing device.
With faster page turns and smoother fonts, the basic reading experience on the Nook is better than on the Kindle or Nexus, and the Nook offers more design and colour options for book text. The Nook bookstore is also smarter, with intelligent "channels" of books selected by actual human editors; the Kindle store looks like it's run entirely by algorithms.
What Amazon has, though, is gimmicks. There's nothing on the Nook to match the Kindle's X-Ray feature, summarising names and places within books, and the Nook completely lacks the Kindle's integrated audiobook support.
Children's books, comics, and magazines are all better on the Nook than on the Kindle. With comics, page turns are smoother and you can see thumbnails of individual pages, which you can't do on the Kindle. You can look at whole pages or individual panels, and zooming is smoother and more sensible than on the Kindle. But the comics selection is hurt by the lack of a Comixology app; Barnes & Noble has a decent selection of comics, but Comixology's list is just much deeper.
Children's books are better laid out and sometimes have interactivity and audio. With their fun, clickable elements, kids' books on the Nook are a better experience than on the Kindle, where most books just look like straight scans.
With magazines, once again page turns are smoother, page thumbnails render more quickly, tables of contents are better looking, and you can throw any magazine article into a text-only "reader view." I don't like how newspapers display on either platform, but the Nook edges out the Kindle there, too, with a more tablet-style two-pane view rather than the Kindle's very WAP-page-like experience.
The Nook HD also supports catalogues, which I find a little perplexing; aren't those the things you throw out when you get them in the mail? For magazines and catalogues, you can tear pages out into "scrapbooks" which you can store on the Nook. It's a cool idea, but without Pinterest integration or any kind of sharing, it doesn't really go anywhere.
I might as well remind you that the Nook HD is completely locked to Barnes & Noble's store. On the Nexus and iPad, of course, you can use both Nook and Kindle books, and the Kindle can sideload apps. While you can use free eBooks on the Nook, it's the most limited of all the tablets.
The Nook has neither a camera nor a music store. To play music, you can load it onto a microSD card and listen to it with wired or Bluetooth headphones. You can view photos stored on a microSD card with the built-in Gallery app, but of course you can't capture new ones.
Video, for now, is all potential. The Nook movie store hasn't launched in the UK yet – although of course, neither has the Nook HD itself, but when the tablet arrives on 22 November, we may have to wait a little longer still for the video service. In the US, though, the store has just a paltry 199 movies currently, divided into five categories. However, Barnes & Noble promises "thousands" of movies and TV shows are on their way, including material from Sony, Warner Brothers, Disney, Fox and other big names.
The service also works with Ultraviolet, the confusing movie industry system which gives you a free downloadable copy of a film if you buy it on DVD. This is a great deal for people who like to buy Blu-ray discs to view at home, although it's unclear if the "Ultravioletised" films on Nook will be in HD resolution.
Barnes & Noble's smart, focused goal is to have the best entertainment tablet available. In the £159 Nook HD, it certainly has the best colour e-reader available. The Nook HD has superior hardware to the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Google Nexus 7, but it's let down by a much more limited content selection.
You won't notice this if all you're doing is reading books and playing the Nook's smartly selected set of casual games. But you'll notice it if you want to watch videos, and especially if you want to use content that isn't in Barnes & Noble's store.
The Kindle Fire HD allows you to sideload additional apps, and plays a wider range of video formats when you include third-party video apps. The Nexus 7, while it has by far the dimmest and most reflective screen of the three, is just infinitely more flexible as a tablet – it can read Nook content, Kindle content, and far more.
We haven't reviewed Apple's iPad mini yet, but it looks to have similar advantages and disadvantages as the Nexus 7: A lower quality screen in exchange for much more freedom in where you get your media from and how you use it.
Ultimately, that makes the Nook HD a very good tablet, but one suitable for fewer people than the Kindle Fire HD, the Nexus 7, or the iPad Mini. Barnes & Noble needs to step up its content selection to compete, or step aside and let others provide it.