Barnes & Noble Nook HD and HD+ hands-on review
Gorgeous screens and low prices take on Amazon, Apple
Review Giant US book retailer Barnes & Noble is coming to the UK, setting up shop here to sell e-books online rather than finding a foothold in the High Street. Its weapons against established retailers and arch-rival Amazon: the Nook Simple Touch GlowLight 'backlit' E Ink e-book reader and a pair of new tablets able to take the fight not only to the Kindle Fire and the Asus-made Google Nexus 7 but also Apple's dominant iPad.
B&N reckons its USP is the screen technology it's building into the two tablets, and when the company put one of each in my hands this week, I could immediately see why. The specs tell part of the story: the 7in Nook HD sports a screen resolution of 1440 x 900 - the same as my 15in MacBook Pro, for example. That, says B&N, is the highest resolution yet found on a 7in tablet.
B&N Nook HD: seven-inch smasher
It's certainly knocks the socks off my Nexus 7's 1280 x 800 display. Photos don't do it justice. Text is crisper, obscuring the pixellation I can see on the Nexus, especially on italics. It's also brighter at any given point on the brightness slider control, and colours are much more vivid. It's a gorgeous display – the best I've seen on a seven-incher.
Unlike the Nexus, the Nook HD is powered by a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor clocked to 1.3GHz – the Nexus runs an Nvidia Tegra at the same speed. I wasn't able to play games, but the Nook felt no less responsive in general use than the Google tablet.
Packed within is a 4050mAh battery good, says B&N, for 10.5 hours of reading, though that's with the device's 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi radio turned off, something most folk won't do, not least because both Nooks are so much handheld shopfronts for B&N goods. Wi-Fi shouldn't eat too much into the battery life while reading, so you're probably looking at a battery life comparable to the Nexus' eight hours.
The Nook HD is slightly shorter and wider than the Nexus, and fractionally thicker, so it doesn't feel much different to hold. The extra width makes for a bigger bezel, if you like plenty of room to grip your tablet. But the B&N machine is noticeably lighter: 315g to 340g. The Nexus is by no means heavy, of course, but weight slowly and surely plays a part when you hold a device for a long period of time. Less it better.
The Nook HD has a pair of stereo speakers with SRS sound enhancement but can do Bluetooth audio too and there's the inevitable 3.5mm port. To me it sounded fine through the Bluetooth speaker B&N had set it up with. It'll do HDMI out, by the way, but only with an optional adaptor connected to its proprietary dock port.
The 9in – 8.9in to be precise – Nook HD+ has a more standard 1920 x 1080 pixel array, close enough B&N claimed, to the iPad's 2048 x 1536 to make no odds. I'm not sure I agree, but I have to say the HD+ display is a worthy alternative to it. Being smaller, it still yields a pixel density of 256ppi – not so very far below the iPad's 264ppi. It's also a very nice screen. Plastic backed, it weighs 515g – 80 per cent of the iPad's 652g. Again, you'll come to appreciate the difference if you hold either tablet for long periods of time.
The Nook HD+ offers an iPad-comparable viewing experience at a fraction of the cost
The HD+ internals broadly match those of the HD, though the CPU is clocked at 1.5GHz and the battery is bigger: 6000mAh for a claimed ten hours' no-wireless reading time. How well those claims match reality remains to be seen – the HD and HD+ aren't shipping until November, so it'll be a while before El Reg gets reviews samples to test.
The HD will come with a choice of 8GB or 16GB of on-board storage. The HD+ will have 16GB or 32GB. Users wanting more space can slot in a Micro SD card – both machines have suitable receptacles. You'll easily be able to afford a card or two. B&N said the 8GB and 16GB HDs will retail for £159 and £189, respectively, both very competitive prices, matching the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, both of which present lesser screens. They do have cameras, absent from the Nooks, but I'd say that's a deal-breaker for very few potential Nook owners.
Kindle Fire dowser, iPad price beater
The HD+ will come in a £229 for the 16GB model and £269 for the 32GB version. That's £170 and £210, respectively, less than the equivalent iPad 3s for a very nice tablet with a retina-level display that's only eight per cent smaller in the diagonal. As a comic buff, reading digital comics on the Nook was no less a joy than it is on the iPad's slightly larger screen. It's the first large-format tablet other than Apple's I'd consider buying.
B&N promises there will be plenty of titles available at launch, with all the major and many of the key second-tier publishers included. The company is promising access to more than 2.5 million books too, plus a raft of UK-oriented magazines and newspaper when it launches the UK version of the Nook Store next month. Video is coming in time for Christmas, not only to the Nook line but to iOS and pure Android devices too. A truly novel touch: periodical pages can be 'torn' off and saved for future reference, handy for folk who tear recipes or other clippings out of the papers.
Easy on the eyes, easy on the arms
The Nook tablet UI – Android sits well hidden beneath – is geared very much to the buyer: it's a virtual shopwindow, after all. Me, I like my devices to be less 'Buy! Buy! Buy!' than that, but that's not going to worry most buyers, and there are generic tablets for the rest of us. Nook's magazine UI provides publishers with a range of navigation tools 'for free', so that should encourage more periodicals to hop on board, especially those unwary of investing in native app development. And for parents worried their kids might discover their digital copy of Fifty Shades, the tablets support multiple user profiles – drag down from the top of the screen and tap a photo icon to activate one – allowing a tablet to be easily shared among family members.
The book store is set to go live mid- to late-October, to tie in with the availability here of the Nook SimpleTouch e-book reader. It's a nice device, with the customary 6in, 16-greyscale, 600 x 800 E Ink Pearl panel overlaid with a touchscreen. Unlike the Kindle Touch, the Nook also has physical page-turn buttons. It's cheaper too: the Kindle Touch is £109, the basic Single Touch £79. Of course, Amazon's non-touch Kindle is only £69. As someone not keen to have touchscreen tech on my e-reader, I favour the lower price and thinner casing, as the touchscreen thickens the device and the bezel on both Touch devices. Overall, the Simple Touch is clearly a better-built product, solid but not heavy and not as rattly as my Kindle 4. It's worth the extra tenner on that alone.
With GlowLight, the Simple Touch makes for a great bedtime reader
Pay £109 – the same as the basic Kindle Touch – and you'll be able to get the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. Technically, this isn't a backlight: six LEDs shine down through the top of the screen, set at a patent-pending array of angles to ensure the light reflecting off the back of the E Ink panel comes out as evenly as possible. There's room for improvement, for sure, but it's great to have an e-reader you can easily read in bed. The backlight dims right down, yet the screen remains well readable.
With the light on, you'll get a month's reading out of a full battery charge, B&N says, rising to two months if you just use natural light. Both Simple Touches have on-board 2.4GHz 802.11n.
Barnes & Noble is undoubtedly entering the UK e-content market at a gallop. It has four excellent products here – two e-readers, two tablets – that match or beat the best in their respective categories on price and deliver some impressive display technology. Since all devices of these two types are, first and foremost, designed to be looked at, that matters.
As I say, some folk may be put off by the vendor centricity – each device is as much a B&N shop as a content viewer, after all – but for most consumers, that's not going to matter overly. And since B&N supports the ePub format with Adobe DRM, its gadgets are compatible with many existing e-book shops, such as Kobo's and Sony's. Each Nook supports a broader array of other, DRM-less media formats than Amazon's offerings do.
Amazon has, at last, some very strong competition on its hands. And, given the price of the Nook HD+, so does Apple. B&N's only hindrance is Apple's marketing budget – expect saturation iPad advertising in the run-up to Christmas, especially if the iPad Mini surfaces next month – and the investment people who have already gone digital have made in Amazon e-books. B&N may not have Apple's marketing budget, but it will have its kit highly visible in Blackwell’s, Currys, Dixons, Foyles, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose shops. Even it it doesn't try to convert Amazon's customers – and I'd like to see it come up with some innovative new-books-for-old deals to encourage them to do so – there are plenty of Brits without e-readers or tablets who will love the Nooks. ®