Last year Barnes & Noble set out to prove that a low cost tablet-like device didn’t have to be crappy in order come in at under $300, it just had to get rid of some extra baggage. Do you need cameras? GPS? Bluetooth? Nope. All you need is a good display, a well-designed operating system and something to read.
Turns out they were right — the Nook Color proved a hit.
This week the Bookseller released an update to that device: the Nook Tablet. This $249 slate still doesn’t have camera, GPS or Bluetooth. It does have a dual-core processor, a lighter case and better software. Oh, and it’s a media tablet now.
Is the Nook Tablet worthy of that moniker? Does it still offer a good eReading experience? How does it stack up against the Kindle Fire?
Giving it an Editor’s Choice spoils the ending, I know, but read on to find out why I recommend the Nook Tablet.
Design & Hardware — Nook Tablet vs. Nook Color
You can’t talk about the Nook Tablet’s design without referencing the Nook Color, since they’re almost identical at first glance. Barnes & Noble stuck with what works (maybe they took their cue from Apple) and continued with the 8.1 x 5.0 x 0.48-inch size chassis that feels like metal but isn’t, rounded corners, soft-touch-back, minimal buttons and the 7-inch IPS display. All of this is good, because it’s what I liked about the Nook Color.
The Tablet is 14.1 ounces, 1.7 ounces lighter than the Nook Color, which is another good thing, since the latter is just a shade too heavy and the Tablet feels just right. The Tablet’s paint job is a few shades lighter to help distinguish the two.
This design is made to fit in the hand comfortably whether held in portrait or landscape. The few buttons — the n on the front, power on the upper left edge and volume on the upper right — are meant to be unintimindating so that even people who don’t “get” Android can feel like the Nook Tablet is approachable. This works, mostly. The real action happens on the screen.
The 7-inch VividView display is bright, offers rich colors, doesn’t completely wash out in the sun and crisply renders everything from pictures to small text. It also has wide viewing angles, so you don’t have to hold it in just the right spot to get the best experience.
Where the Nook Tablet moves ahead of the Nook Color is the hardware inside. The Tablet boasts a dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, meaning it performs better than the Color. You can feel the difference in little ways, such as when websites load a tad faster, or pages scroll and zoom in/out smoother. The Tablet is just snappier.
Another difference is the inclusion of a microphone so people can take advantage of enhanced children’s books that allow parents (or whoever) to record their own voices reading a book.
Rounding it off is a nice 16GB of on-board storage, expandable via microSD cards up to 32GB.
The bottom line here is that Barnes & Noble kept all the good aspects of the Nook Color and upgraded the rest for better performance.
As A Tablet
With the Nook Color, Barnes & Noble stressed that it was a tablety device but the real focus was the eReader bit. This time the word Tablet is in the name, so there’s a shift in the message from the company. Now the device is a Tablet, full stop. For readers. How does it stack up?
The Nook has the proper guts for a tablet. Everyone wants something “dual-core” these days, be it a phone or a tablet or the watch on their wrist.
However, the Nook doesn’t have many of the features found on other tablets, such as Bluetooth, GPS, camerasand mobile broadband. There’s only one thing on that list I’d peg as something I wish the Nook had: Bluetooth. Since B&N is positioning this as a media tablet, the ability to play audio via wireless speakers would be nice. I doubt most mainstream users will miss the rest.
One essential the Nook Tablet does have is an app store. As it’s barely a year old, the selection isn’t stunning. Plus, the original idea behind the Nook App shop was to offer up apps that went along with the “reader’s tablet” theme, so there isn’t a wide range. The selection isn’t skimpy, mind you. And there is an active developer community adding more all the time. This isn’t some rinky dink app store that will wither and die, leaving you without recourse. Still, the company needs to work double time building up the selection if it’s going to be a tablet app store.
With the apps that are available owners can play games (Angry Birds and more), stream music (Pandora), surf the web, and watch video (Netflix and Hulu Plus). All very tablety things.
The 7-inch display offers a quality video watching experience. Colors are bright, popping, and contrast-rich, blacks true, and viewing angles wide. This means that two or three people can share the screen (if they snuggle close or are small people) and not have to worry about color distortion.
The 1024 x 600 resolution is less than you’ll get with Honeycomb tablets, but the hardware is capable of smoothly streaming HD video from Netflix with no dropped frames or pixilation. The display is crisp enough that you don’t miss the pixels.
On the back there’s a speaker that doesn’t pump the world’s richest sound, but that’s normal for tablets. The volume is decent, though. And audio quality via the headphone jack is on a par with an iPod.
In a world where Honeycomb tablets are propped up as “proper” Android tablets, the Nook does just fine with its modified version of Gingerbread. The user interface is distinct and attractive, and it smooths over some of Android’s rough edges. This is another bid to make the Nook Tablet attractive to less tech-savvy users.
The functionality is Honeycomb-esque, especially since there are no distinct Home, Back or Menu buttons — users have to use on-screen versions in many instances.
The UI is easy to understand and use, though it’s basicness may annoy some hard core Android users. I like that the Home screen now has a bar at the bottom that puts what you can do with the device right up front: read books and magazines, watch movies, listen to music, play around with apps.
Just as with the Nook Color, there are three Home screens that users can customize with their favorite books, periodicals, and apps. (The ability to resize icons is also Honeycomb-tastic and was available months before Android’s tablet OS came out.) New items appear on a slider at the bottom of the screen.
Moving around the interface is pretty easy, though the one Achilles heel is the n button. Previously, clicking this would take users to the Home screen. Now it brings up a navigation menu, or it’s the Back button. Figuring out which function it would perform on different screens and different apps took me a minute to figure out, but it’s not always intuitive.
The one thing I think needs major improvement is the Nook Tablet’s keyboard. Typing on it is fine — it’s accurate and the keys well-spaced — but dealing with punctuation is a huge pain. There are two punctuation keys, and if you want something beyond a period or comma you have to press and hold to chose one. But, once you’ve chosen, you need to tap the x on the right to dismiss the punctuation window. Not a smooth experience.
Plus, there’s no auto correct.
The best Android keyboards put punctuation, numbers, and alternate characters one tap-and-hold away as secondary keys. This makes typing much easier. As does even basic auto-correct that changes youre to you’re and always capitalizes the letter I. If the Nook aspires to being a
real boy real tablet, then it needs a keyboard that doesn’t get in the user’s way.
As An eReader
I’m an eInk girl at heart. I prefer that kind of screen to LCDs when I’m settling in for a long reading session, as do my eyes. Despite this, I have actually read for hours on the Nook Tablet and enjoyed the experience.
The VividView IPS display helps. Outside, it handles natural light better than the average LCD, and black text on a white background stands out enough to keep it readable.
You’d think that the bright display would tire eyes out more, but because it is so bright at 100% you can turn it down very low or even fiddle with the background and text colors without losing crispness. That means longer reading sessions.
For books, the software hasn’t changed much. You can still tap or swipe to turn, tap in the middle to bring up options like text size and color schemes, search inside the book, add notes, bookmarks, and share quotes or reading status with friends. All of this is good, as it provides an immersive reading experience.
Magazine reading remains mostly the same as well, though now there’s an animation that goes with turning pages. The 7-inch screen is wide enough to see two magazine pages at once, though I always find myself zooming in or switching to article view because the text can get quite tiny.
Scrolling through the magazine contents via the thumbnails under the page is also much faster and smoother now, so you can virtually flip through pages.
Barnes & Noble’s Nook book store has over a million eBook titles, over 1,000 interactive children’s books, over 12,000 chapter books, and over 250 magazines and newspapers.
There are also dozens of books as apps in the app store aimed at kids that offer interactivity and animation.
Plus, the Nook Tablet can read ePUB files not bought in the Nook Store. Buy a book from Kobo, Sony, Google Books, indie stores Weightless Books and Smashwords, or borrow digital books from your local library, you can load them on the device and read them via MyFiles in the Library.
As a color eReader, the Nook Tablet gets high marks thanks to a combination of good hardware and software.
Nook Tablet vs Kindle Fire
The Nook Tablet’s closest competitor (besides the Nook Color) is Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Both are pared-down media tablets that share many features but also have key differences.
Where the Nook Tablet has the advantage is in design and hardware. Outside, the Nook is more attractive and is nicer to hold. It’s also a bit lighter — 14.1 ounces to the Kindle Fire’s 14.6. The IPS display has wider viewing angles and works better outside. Though both have powerful processors, the Nook has twice as much RAM, so it can handle more apps and tasks at once. And it has twice as much internal storage.
The Kindle Fire’s advantage is content. Amazon’s App Store is larger and more robust than B&N’s since it’s not restricted to just apps that readers might want. Also, users can access all of Amazon’s services, including MP3s, digital movie and episode purchases, and streaming instant video for Prime members. Since the company has been in the game longer, the Kindle store has a deeper store of recent books.
For consumers already tied into Amazon’s content, the Kindle Fire pulls it all together beautifully. And it’s currently the only mobile device (besides Windows laptops and tablets) that can play Amazon’s video content, be it paid or streaming.
However, if you don’t have much invested in Amazon content, the Nook Tablet’s superior hardware is a big draw. Between Netflix and Hulu Plus, you’re covered for movies and TV episodes, at least for streaming. Unfortunately, there are no options yet for buying content on the Nook. Barnes & Noble says it’s coming, but they haven’t yet released details.
Though the Kindle Fire is $50 less than the Nook Tablet, I would still choose the latter.
Barnes & Noble has once again created a compelling tablet without having to out-spec every other device on the market, including the iPad 2. The improved performance, extra features, and inclusion of video streaming options make this my top pick for media tablet in this price range. The light weight, excellent display, and wide selection make it my top pick for color eReader.