Hands On: Nook HD and HD+ take aim at Kindle Fire

Check out our review of the Barnes & Noble Nook HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ tablet/e-readers.

Today Barnes & Noble has unveiled two completely new tablets, the Nook Tablet HD (7-inch) and Nook Tablet HD+ (9-inch). In a refreshing change of pace from similar events, where company reps keep quiet about their competition, Barnes & Noble reps I spoke with enjoyed pointing out just how inferior the Amazon Kindle Fire HDs are to their new Nooks in every way. According to the book retailer-turned-digital seller, its new Nook tablets are faster, lighter, more feature rich, and easier to hold than any Kindle Fire. But is it true or just optimistic crowing from marketing flacks? Judging from my first experiences with the new Nook HD and HD+, B&N may have good reason to go on the offense.

Lighter, faster, and easier to hold

The first device I held was the Nook HD. From the moment I picked it up, I was impressed by how comfortable and easy to grip it was. Instead of going with an entirely flat glass front screen like almost every tablet these days, Barnes & Noble has surrounded its screen with a pleasantly grippy plastic, which is supposed to make it easier to hold and cut down on unwanted fingerprints. The grippy plastic curves right around to the back of the tablet, which now resembles the Nook E Ink e-readers more than the old Nook Color. The new tablet is not only easier to grip, it’s much nicer on your arms, weighing only 11.1 ounces (315 grams), much lighter than the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. The Nook HD also beats its competitors in pixel count with an impressive 1440 x 900 pixel screen, exceeding the 1280×800 pixel norm.

The Nook HD+ is a larger tablet, but also feels very lightweight and more comfortable to hold than a typical tablet, an important point for Barnes & Noble, which still says these devices are made for reading, when push comes to shove. The HD+ takes on the iPad and Kindle Fire HD 8.9 with a unique 9-inch screen with an impressive 1920×1280 pixel resolution. Placed vertically atop an iPad, it seems to be about the same thickness (maybe a hair more) and height, but because it employs a 3:2 aspect ratio, it’s much narrower. This aspect ratio, again, makes it resemble and feel more like a book. In fact, B&N believes the HD+ is also well-suited for magazine viewing, video, and comic books — so well-suited that Barnes & Noble has opened up a new video store and expanded its magazine offerings. You can now create scrapbooks out of your downloaded magazines. A new HDMI peripheral even lets you stream 1080p movies to your HDTV.

nook hd and plus hands on streaming to a tvNeither tablet will blow your britches away in the spec department, but they hold their own against Amazon’s offerings (maybe not the Nexus 7, however). Both Nook HDs have microSD slots, 8-32GB of internal flash memory storage, and dual-core OMAP 4470 processors (1.3/1.5GHz) with 1GB of RAM, which B&N points out is faster than the Kindle Fire HD’s OMAP 4460 processors. Both devices also run on a heavily modified version of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which I’m told has helped B&N’s ability to court developers and improved the quality of apps available. Its store now carriers more than 10,000 apps.

Did I mention the battery life? Barnes & Noble estimates that the HD will get 10.5 hours of reading and the HD+ will manage 10 hours. Not bad, especially considering that the batteries have not grown in size since the Nook Tablet. Somehow B&N has been able to improve all of its specs, even the screen and improve battery life without increasing the size of its batteries.

Multiple logins for the family

One of the coolest new ideas B&N showed off is the idea of having profile accounts for everyone who uses a tablet anyone, with a family twist. No Android tablet has gotten multiple logins right, but Barnes & Noble seems to have figured it out. Families can create profiles for everyone complete with separate email, apps, and content. If you’re a parent, you can even restrict your kids to certain books or features and secure your login with a passcode. Finally, no one will have to know how many times you read Fifty Shades of Gray on your HD Nook.

nook hd and plus hands on  profiles

Nook Channels

Another of my favorite new features is Nook Channels. Barnes & Noble has been selling books for many decades and this feature takes advantage of that expertise. Instead of simply recommending new e-books based on genre or what other, similar, customers purchased, B&N is using real humans to create and curate ‘channels’ of content specially tailored to you based on the books you read. In a sense, it’s like a simplified version of Pandora, which also uses actual music experts to categorize songs. 

Slow interface

Unfortunately, it’s not all roses for the new Nook HD and HD+. I’m hoping that what I saw were developer units, but the interface featured looked a bit cartoony and animation lagged significantly. Sadly, it reminded me of the one thing that would make a B&N executive cry: the Kindle Fire. Amazon’s first tablet (and the Nook Color, if we’re going to be fair) was underpowered and felt slow compared to higher-end tablets. Judging from the specs, there really isn’t a reason why these tablets were so slow. Hopefully it is a software issue that’s already been fixed. I’m also hoping that a bit more work goes into the design of the interface. While completely serviceable, it doesn’t match the sleekness of the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7 user interfaces, though the bubbly, brightly colored interface may appeal more to moms and families, who B&N is obviously pining for. Still, even moms don’t want laggy tablets.

Good pricing

I’m hoping Barnes & Noble doesn’t launch a line of laggy tablets. Assuming these issues are fixed before the new tablets launch in late October, the Nook HD and Nook HD+ are two extremely capable and competitive consumption devices. The Nook HD will retail starting at $200 for 8GB of storage. The Nook HD+ will start at $270 for the 16GB model and $300 for the 32GB model. At about half the price of an iPad, the 9-inch version should be especially compelling. Overall, I’m excited to try out the new Nook models. It’s easy to forget that Barnes & Noble is a player in the tablet space, but it showed today that it’s not going anywhere. Amazon, watch out! You can pre-order the Nook tablets at Nook.com and check them out at Barnes & Noble and some other select retailers around the U.S. and UK.