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Hands on: Nook HD and HD+ are much improved thanks to Google Play

Nook HD with Google Play

Barnes & Noble is now rolling out an over the air update to Nook HD and Nook HD+ tablets that brings the Google Play store to the platform. Previously restricted to the Nook app store, now the Nooks have access to almost any app in the Android ecosystem. The update not only adds Google Play but also tweaks the user interface so that apps work even though the Nooks run heavily modified software. We downloaded the update from Nook.com for the HD+ and took the new software for a spin. We were eager to see if the tablet retained all the things we like about it while adding a feature sure to get customers to take note.

Nook GP Update - Home

Once we updated the Nook HD+ and the system rebooted, the only noticeable difference in the Home screen was the addition of the Google Play store icon and a small ‘n’ icon that appeared in the corner of our existing apps. This is how you can differentiate between apps that came from the Nook App Store from those that come from Google. The existing apps can’t be updated via Google Play, though you can just uninstall and reinstall them if you want. The experience of using the Google Play store is the same as on any tablet. We went through a list of previously downloaded apps and started installing our favorites.

Like any other Nook content, new apps appear in the carousel at the top of the main Home screen. The icons are not optimized to be this size, so they look low res and fuzzy. Owners can add apps from Google Play to their Home screens as normal and even enlarge the icon. Again, they aren’t optimized for the size, so don’t look as nice as those from the Nook store.

Nook GP Update - Navigation

The underlying Android version on the Nook HDs is Ice Cream Sandwich, which is designed to work in a buttonless environment by putting Back, Home, and Recent Apps icons on the bottom of the screen. Pre-update, the Nooks had a recent apps and a search icon on the bottom of most apps and a back arrow in the apps that needed it. Now the Back icon is persistent at the bottom of the screen most of the time. Just like stock ICS, when these buttons aren’t needed or you’re in a full screen app, they fade away to faint dots. So even when the app developer doesn’t provide a way to go back, the operating system does.

We’re impressed that the Nook developers integrated all the necessary functions so seamlessly into their existing user interface. Using the Nook now is pretty much the same as it was before the update.

There are no restrictions on the apps you can download except those imposed by the hardware. For instance, you can’t download any camera-based apps since there’s no camera. B&N isn’t blocking Kindle or Kobo or any competitor’s e-reader app, and we took a perverse pleasure in installing Kindle right away. We also downloaded SwiftKey Tablet because the Nook’s keyboard, while decent, is not the best. It stepped aside gracefully and SwiftKey works the same as ever. All of the apps we downloaded worked just fine and gave us no issues.

In addition to the Google Play Store, HD and HD+ owners also got Play Books, Play Magazines, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, Gmail, YouTube, and Chrome in the update. Tapping the Browser icon from the Home screen takes you to Chrome, but the Mail icon still goes to the old mail app. Gmail is in the list of all apps. All the Nook services that were available before, including the App Store and Nook Video, are still available and accessible.

Google Play recognizes apps first installed via the Nook store and, if automatic updating is turned on, will replace them if you allow it. The benefit is that updates will probably come faster to the Google Play versions. You’ll lose the crisp icons, though.

Nook GP Update - Replace Apps

We noticed that the HD+ felt a bit sluggish, so we ran the Quadrant benchmark just to get a baseline for performance. The score of 3043 isn’t bad for a dual-core system. Still, we predict that Barnes & Noble may have to roll out another update to smooth out a few performance kinks.

The addition of the Google Play Store raises the Nook HD+ to another level. The hardware is still great; the reading experience is top notch; and now you don’t have to wait for your favorite tablet apps to come to Nook’s store in order to use them. The interface is still just as streamlined and easy to navigate as before. And apps not made for the Nook won’t cause you any extra stress.

Bottom Line: this update is the best thing to happen to the Nook line since the HD and HD+ came along.

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