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Barnes & Noble Nook HD and HD+ hands-on review

Gorgeous screens and low prices take on Amazon, Apple

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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.

Barnes and Noble Nook HD+

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.

Barnes and Noble Nook Simple Touch GlowLight

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.

Verdict

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. ®

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