New Nook HD+ initial review and impressions

Barnes & Noble’s Nook HD and HD+ tablets were introduced to the tech community back on September 26th, 2012, and were given a scheduled release date of November 1st. Within the past few weeks, that release has been postponed until November 8th, according to their bn.com product pages. Complications have arisen since, including shipment delays caused by Hurricane Sandy, but, luckily, my local Barnes & Noble received a few Nook HD+ (16GB) units on time. I have been calling this store for the past two weeks in an attempt to track down a device for review. Having just sold my Google Nexus 7 tablet on eBay (in order to avoid devaluation caused by the recent price drop/storage increase), I was eager to replace it with one of this quarter’s new tablet offerings. With the iPad Mini out of the question and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ release at least seventeen days away, I decided to grab one of the four Nook HD+s available for sale at my location. Although the 16GB model was the only one in-stock (the 16GB is $269 while the 32GB is only $30 more), I decided against waiting for the extra storage and opted for the HD+ Lautner cover instead. Amazon recently ran a sale on SanDisk MicroSDHC Class 10 memory cards, and thanks to the Nook HD+’s microSD slot, I can easily expand the storage with the 32GB card I purchased. The external storage feature is well-integrated into the OS, with menu options to boot movies and media from the card first, and SD files show up alongside on-board titles in your content lists. It has only been three days of use, but I thought I would go ahead and write down some of my initial observations and impressions. I will add to this review as needed.

Tablet: Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ 9″ 16GB tablet

Cost: $269.00 USD

The Good:

  • 9″ screen size is perfect for reading
  • 1920 x 1280 (256 ppi) fully laminated display, reduced glare
  • Expandable storage with microSD slot (the only new tablet to include one)
  • Excellent value at under $300
  • Power adapter included, “no annoying ads”
  • Thin and light – “the lightest 9″ tablet ever made”
  • Great build quality and choice of materials
  • Decent eReading application and eBook store
  • Improved tablet OS
  • Display is very easy on the eyes, even at bright settings

The Bad:

  • Extremely limited app store compared to Google Play and Amazon
  • Software leaves a lot to be desired; few advanced options and occasional glitches
  • Reader application is riddled with glitches, crashes, kinks, and bugs
  • Refuses to permit downloads from PG, ManyBooks, or other eBook sites
  • Occasional spotty WiFi connection
  • Nook Video (movie and TV store) most definitely not ready for prime time
  • Screen coating prevents smooth touch gestures (at least when it is first used)
  • HDMI adapter costs $40, proprietary connector
  • Third-party apps not allowed without rooting or $30 N2A card
  • Does not show up on Calibre

Overview

Nook HD+ is Barnes & Noble’s first 9″ high-definition tablet offering. The HD and HD+ are also the first tablets released after Microsoft’s major investment in the company, reportedly meant to improve and expand their technology credentials and bolster the Nook brand. By placing greater emphasis on digital content and advanced software/hardware, Barnes & Noble hopes to remain viable in an ever-changing media economy. The consumer push towards eBooks and mobile devices has been a detriment to their business in the past, but there is hope that they will continue to adapt to emerging trends and avoid the fate of Borders. In a September 2010 letter to shareholders, CEO William J. Lynch, Jr. stated that one of the company’s highest priorities going forward is to “establish B&N as a top retailer of content in the exploding digital market.” Barnes & Noble has made major strides towards this goal, establishing Nook as a strong competitor among eReader and tablet brands. They were the first company to release a 7″ tablet (the Nook Color) aimed at readers and the first to release a front-lit eReader. Their latest developments, Nook Video and Nook Catalogs, will continue to help them compete with Amazon, Apple, and Google’s digital content models. For video and magazines, a larger-screened tablet is a must, and Barnes & Noble has worked hard to provide its customers with a great tablet experience. The Nook HD+ is one of the nicest tablets I have ever used for long-form reading purposes.

Hardware – Look and Feel

The Nook HD+ immediately stands out from other tablets. It has retained the look and feel of the original Nook Tablet in many ways, keeping the pronounced bezel and unique carabiner hole. The front of the device is composed of a smooth metallic/plastic material, while the back has a soft, rubbery feel. Fingerprints and smudges have not been an issue with either side. Instead of going with a 10.1″ or 9.7″ display, B&N has wisely chosen a 9″ screen size. It is quite a bit larger than 7″ tablets, but it avoids being bulky or cumbersome, an impression I sometimes get from the iPad. The Nook HD+ is marketed as “the lightest full HD tablet,” and I must say that it is noticeably lighter than other large tablets. Holding it in one hand is possible for short periods of time, but I have found two hands more comfortable. The HD+ weighs in at 1.13 pounds.

I’m not sure, but the screen feels like it might be covered in a clear, fingerprint resistant/anti-glare coating, but I haven’t seen that mentioned anywhere. It feels very resistant to the touch, and it makes smooth touch gestures and swipes rather difficult. Playing Fruit Ninja on this display would be impossible at this point; my finger is always getting stuck after a couple of centimeters, and it gives me chills in a chalk-squeaking sort of way. This sensation is very unpleasant. There is a major difference between the ease-of-touch-sliding (that’s the best way I can describe it) on my Nook HD+ and my iPhone 4S. Even the slightest bit of moisture on my fingertips will cause the display to feel sticky, but I haven’t noticed a major issue with glare, fingerprints, or smudges.

The volume rocker is on the top of the device, along with the microphone and 3.5mm headphone jack. The power button is conveniently placed on the upper right side. The proprietary 30-pin port is centered on the bottom, with the microSD memory card slot just to the left of it (unfortunately, the magnetic flap on the back has been replaced by a harder to open, thin plastic strip that pulls out). The iconic Nook Button is the only physical button on the front of the device, at the bottom center of the screen (this wakes the device from sleep mode and serves as a home button). All of these buttons and ports are expertly placed and don’t get in the way. Button resistance is just right, and they feel smooth and easy to use.

Driving the HD+ is a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 1.5GHz processor. It has 1GB of RAM, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi connectivity, and Bluetooth. Barnes & Noble brags that both the Nook HD and the HD+ are 33% faster in overall performance than the Kindle Fire HD and that users will see an 80% increase in graphics speed. At the bottom right corner on the back of the tablet, there is one speaker grill covering two SRS enhanced TruMedia stereo speakers. Both are side-by-side, but audio reproduction is clear and loud. I watched a few videos on the HD+ and found the speakers quite adequate. They sound good, but not amazing (I am anxious to compare them to the Kindle Fire HD’s Dolby speakers).

I have had some problems with the Wi-Fi connection occasionally, and it doesn’t appear to be as powerful as my Nexus 7, but I still get a good signal most of the time.

Overall, I have no complaints about the design other than the harder-to-access microSD card slot. Holding it in portrait or landscape mode feels natural, and the device has a good build quality/weight balance. Barnes & Noble has designed the perfect tablet for this new, 9″ form factor.

The Display

The Nook HD+ features a 9″ 1920 x 1280, 256 ppi LCD display. Is this the “revolutionary screen technology” that a B&N representative hinted to bloggers a few months ago? Well, the 1900ish x 1200ish resolution has been featured on a few 10.1″ Android tablets since this past summer (most prominently the ASUS TF700 Transformer Infinity and the Acer ICONIA Tab A700), so it isn’t anything radically new. The HD+’s 9″ screen size ensures that that this resolution will look slightly better because of the smaller scale, but I think the B&N rep wasn’t talking only about the resolution. Designers fully laminated the HD+’s display to the screen, eliminating glare-causing air gaps and improving on the already good viewing angles of the older Nook Tablet (I think that the original Nook Tablet was the first to feature a laminated display). By sticking the display right to the glass, the visual clarity and color reproduction of the Nook HD+ is outstanding, but, more importantly, it is incredibly easy on the eyes, even at high brightness settings. This is its greatest asset for readers.

I don’t know exactly what the “revolutionary screen technology” is, but whatever they did, the Nook HD+ has the best display of any tablet I have used, including the iPad 3. The colors (especially the whites) are vivid, yet soft. You know that strained feeling your eyes get after reading on a tablet for awhile? I always had to keep my Nexus 7 turned all the way down to the lowest brightness setting which resulted in lots of glare. I have found that the HD+ can comfortably be kept at mid to high brightness without the slightest bid of eye strain. Text looks sharp, white backgrounds are soft, and the extra brightness prevents 99% of all glare in every lighting situation I have tried. Even in a totally dark room, I found that I could read without the need to switch over to night mode (black background with white text). With a display quality this good, it truly feels like I am reading on a next-generation tablet.

I have always wanted to get an Onyx M92 9.7″ E Ink reader because I love reading books on a larger screen, but hate the hassles, brightness, and glare of tablets. The screen quality of the Nook HD+ is so good that I no longer need to turn to an E Ink display for comfortable long-form reading. Text rendering, the color and lighting of the display: all are perfect for people who want to use their HD+ to read. It really is impressive.

Video capabilities are impressive with full 1080p full HD video playback and HDMI output (with an adapter). YouTube, Vimeo, and SnagFilms looked great on the high-resolution display with beautiful color reproduction.

The Software

The Nook HD+ is running a customized version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. This was the top-of-the-line Android operating system until Google pushed ahead with 4.1 Jelly Bean and Project Butter for their Nexus 7 tablet release; however, the Nook-modded OS seems to be just as dependable as my Nexus 7’s 4.1.2 OS (Project Butter made some improvements, but it isn’t perfect). Productivity apps (Dropbox, Calender, Evernote, the web browser) open almost instantaneously. Panel changes and home button commands are smooth and fast. The only crashes or glitches I have experienced have been in the Reader application, but I’ll get into that later.

Occasionally I will find it hard for the display to recognize taps, especially when trying to open the tiny settings and notifications icons at the top of the screen. Even after multiple tries, sometimes, the icons won’t open.

On the home screen there is a classic Android Apps drawer, and a recent apps carousel at the top of the display, reminiscent of the Kindle Fire. The Library drawer lists all of your books, periodicals, videos, apps, shelves, and files. Barnes & Noble has added a nice email application for the Nook HD’s release. Just sign in with your preferred email account and you mail will be neatly displayed on an uncluttered, well-organized interface. It looks like a simplified, cream-colored version of Google’s Gmail application. It is basic, but very functional. The Nook web browser just added multi-tab support and although it is also very basic, it does the job. I can’t figure out how to pull up a list of downloaded items though. There is an icon to clip and save the page you are on, a search feature, and a share option, and various options in browser settings dealing with history, cached data, passwords, and formatting.

The Nook Store

Apps

Barnes & Noble’s applications store, the Nook Store, is the most woefully inadequate of all the app stores I have ever used. In total, they offer about 4,000 apps (mostly low-rated games and productivity apps), while the Google Play Store offers over 450,000. The Amazon App Store has over 50,000 apps, while the Apple App Store offers around 700,000. Hundreds of thousands of apps can obviously be overkill, but I do expect app stores to offer the essentials; the Nook Store does not.

The Nook Store is missing the following popular applications:

  • Wikipedia
  • eBay
  • YouTube
  • MX Player and other alternative video players for FLV format
  • Google apps suite (Google Drive, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Reader)
  • Feedler
  • Temple Run
  • ES File Explorer
  • ES Task Manager
  • Only Nook and Dolphin web browsers available
  • Amazon non-digital shopping apps
  • Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later)
  • Bluefire Reader
  • ColorNote Notepad Notes

This is just a small sampling of the most important applications unavailable on Nook tablets. Other apps (like the GSam Battery Monitor) that are free in the Play Store cost $1.99 to $2.99 in the Nook Store. Of course, you can use your web browser to access Google Maps and YouTube, but you would think that Nook would provide ‘an app for that.’ I was also confused to see that all of the major news apps that are offered in the Play Store are missing (SlateThe Huffington Post, ABC, CNN, ect). There are plenty of news subscriptions for sale in the Nook Store, but no free applications.

It is highly unlikely that their app store will integrate with Google Play, and soon after the Nook Tablet was released last year they closed the loophole that allowed users to side-load apps via USB or download them from the Internet. The Nook HD+ would be a totally different device if this was permitted (which is why many users root their Nooks as soon as possible; I will be doing this as well).

Nook Video

Also making its debut with the Nook HD line is Nook Video, an on-demand TV and movie service which offers “thousands” of SD and HD video downloads (to rent or own). This addition—undoubtedly intended to help B&N stay in the game with Amazon, Apple, and Google Play—provides Nook Tablet users with a more complete content ecosystem. Now you can buy eBooks, magazines, periodicals, catalogs, and videos right from your HD+. This is good news for loyal B&N customers, but, in its early stages, Nook Video options are extremely limited. When you first tap on the TV shows section of the store, only two shows come up, Workaholics (???) and True Blood. You have to swipe more than half way down the page to find other listings (none of which have cover art or are recognizable to me). That is basically it. No Breaking BadMad Men, Modern Family, or Revenge. If you are looking for the latest popular TV programs, don’t look on Nook Video.

Their movie selection is also laughable. Sherlock HolmesBatman, and Sex and the City are the only two titles I recognized from their favorites carousel. Everything else looks like it came from the $5 overstock bin at Walmart. Their “top movies” category has just 26 films.

Nook Video is quite understocked at the moment, but this will hopefully improve with time. NBC Universal and 20th Century Fox are among their video content partners, and titles will be added every week as the tablets reach stores.

Don’t forget, with a microSD card slot you can expand your memory by up to 64GB, and your side-loaded videos will conveniently display along with your Nook Store-purchased titles.

The Nook HD+ as an eBook Reader

The HD+’s Reader application offers six different color themes, including standard white, sepia, brown, paper white, and tan, all with different font colors. These themes look superior to other variants I have seen on competing tablets. Fonts include Georgia, Gill Sans, Dante, Baskerville and more.

As I stated before, the Nook HD+’s display is absolutely amazing in that there is no eye strain or fatigue associated with prolonged use. They have created the perfect reading tablet. The Nook Store is well stocked with titles, and you can side-load your Adobe DRM ePubs bought from the Kobo eBook store or elsewhere by activating your Adobe ID. Non-DRMed ePubs and PDFs works as well, of course. There is an Office Suite document viewer for Word documents, .txt files, and PDFs. PDFs take forever to render when flipping pages (at least 2 to 3 seconds). ezPDF Reader and Repligo Reader are $2.99 in the Nook app store. The Reader application works fine for basic PDF viewing.

Unfortunately, after a few hours of reading, I came up with a whole laundry list of issues with Nooks Reader app. Here are some of the consistent problems I have been having while trying to read standard ePub eBooks:

  • Drop caps didn’t display correctly on a side-loaded file
  • Switching between the different page turn animations crashes the eBook every single time.
  • There is no easy back button to return to your eBook after an in-dictionary Wikipedia or Google search; you have to exit out of the browser and reopen the eBook.
  • You cant choose what highlight color your want to use. You have to select the text, tap ‘highlight,’ then tap on the highlighted text again and choose a different color.
  • Changing the font results in page-back commands. I changed the font three times in a row and found myself six pages previous from the page I started on.
  • There are three line spacing and margin options, but only one setting is really worthwhile. Limited customization of text with only two practical font sizes and one margin/line spacing setting.
  • The full page turn animation (the one where you see the whole page peel back slowly, like a page on a real book) is extremely jagged and glitchy. It goes by so fast that you don’t even get to enjoy the animation. Page turns are also slow to respond after a swipe in this setting. The ‘page slide’ option is equally annoying. I keep both of them turned off. Also, when the full page turn animation is on, you can’t highlight or tap text at the bottom right of the screen. It thinks you are trying to pull the digital page back.
  • The screen froze once after I changed the font, and I had to exit out of the application.
  • It sometimes takes ten tries to tap on and highlight a word.
  • Overall, it is a very basic and limited application (I think I have used these adjectives a little too much in the HD+’s software review).

As you can see, the Nook Reader application has quite a few issues, and is nowhere near as stable as other Android reading apps. After four months of using Cool Reader, I have gotten used to having precision control over my line spacing and font options. The Reader application is your only option on the Nook HD+. No other eBook reading apps are available in the Nook Store. With the page turn animations off, and a little patience, you can get used to the quirks and move along nicely in your book. I do lots of highlighting and dictionary searches, and the Reader app does fine with this (I would say I ran into technical issues about 30% of the time).

I really must stress that the amazing display quality makes up for these initial deficits, and a lot of these things could be taken care of by a good firmware update. We will probably get one of these in the near future.

Conclusion

The Nook HD+ is a powerful tablet that rivals its competition in many ways. You will notice the positive attributes much more than the negative. The high-definition display, expandable storage, and physical design make the Nook HD+ the best value in its class. Once N2A develops a Jelly Bean boot package, it will be the best large tablet money can by. It is the perfect device to be paired with an open Android 4.1 OS. Even without rooting, the Nook HD+ is an excellent option for a larger-screened tablet.

I covered most of the essentials in this review, but I plan on updating a few things over the next week. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask in the comments section. As always, let me know what you think. If you ordered online, your Nook HD+ might be arriving in your mailbox soon. Enjoy.

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4 Responses to New Nook HD+ initial review and impressions

  1. Melissa says:

    Nook HD+ is supported by Calibre. I did have to unistall Calibre 0.9.6 and reinstall it on Windows 7 for it to recognize the device.

  2. BruceMcF says:

    What are the prices on the movie rentals and download to own?

    • Andrew says:

      I think most TV and movie prices are comparable to Amazon, but on major titles Amazon beats B&N by a buck or two. Amazon also has Prime, something that B&N can’t match right now. Of course, it depends on what titles you are looking for. Nook Video selection is so limited right now that I would wait about six months if you are planning on getting a Nook HD for video purposes. Right now, it is mainly an eReading device.

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