UPDATE: Since our original review, the Nook HD has been updated to include the Google Play store. This gives you access to around 700,000 Android apps - a real bonus for existing owners, and a pretty compelling reason to choose the Nook HD over Amazon's Kindle Fire HD. You can't sideload apps (there's no way to install apps from unauthorised sources such as an SD card), though. Other changes include a switch to Google Chrome for the default web browser, and you now get YouTube, Gmail and Google Maps apps. Because of these updates, we've increased the Nook HD's overall score to 4/5 from 3.5/5.
See also: Nook HD+ review
Barnes & Noble isn’t too well known in the UK, but it’s an established chain of bookstores in the US. As well as launching a range of eReaders, the company has also jumped straight in with a pair of tablets under the Nook brand. The HD+ is a 9.7in slate with a previously unseen 1920x1080 Full HD resolution. See all Android tablet reviews.
Nook HD: specs and screen
This 7in model, known simply as the Nook HD, weighs about the same as an iPad mini and is comfortable to hold in one hand. There’s choice of two bezel colours: slate and snow (or white and grey to you and me). There are two capacities, 8GB for £159 and 16GB for £189. Although that doesn’t compare well to the Kindle Fire HD, a micro SD slot means you can add more for a few pounds. See also Group test: what's the best cheap tablet PC?
The Nook HD is has its sights set clearly on the Fire HD and Barnes & Noble is quick to point out that you won’t get bombarded by adverts on the lock screen and that there’s a mains charger in the box. That’s two of the Kindle’s flaws dealt with then.
It’s also thinner and lighter than the Fire HD but it's the screen that's the star of the show. This IPS display has 1440x900 pixels, giving it a pixel density of 243ppi – almost as high as the Retina iPad. In fact, it’s hard to tell the difference in terms of clarity and the colours and contrast of the Nook HD’s screen are excellent, as are viewing angles.
One annoyance is the proprietary dock connector, which means you'll have to carry the charge/sync cable around with you, or buy spares in case you lose or break the one you get in the box. An HDMI adaptor cable is said to be in the works, but we far prefer the Kindle Fire HD's industry-standard micro USB and HDMI connections. [Update: Following extra testing, we discovered that the Nook won't charge from any other USB charger, nor a USB port, so you'll have to carry the charger around with you as well as the USB cable.]
It's also a shame there's no camera for Skype but this is a device purely for content consumption, and B&N makes no bones about that.
Nook HD: interface and features
Like the Fire HD, the Nook HD runs Android Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s so heavily customised that it’s unrecognisable as Android, save for a few clues such as the volume slider. Press the power button on the left-hand side and you immediately find a feature we’ve been waiting a long time for on a tablet: user profiles. Rather than being a ‘kids tablet’ or an ‘adult tablet’, the Nook HD can be both.
You can create up to six profiles, and you drag an avatar onto the padlock to load that profile. Naturally, you can assign passwords so your kids (or your other half) can’t access your stuff. You can choose which apps and features are available to each person, as well as which content such as books and magazines (you need only buy content once for everyone). It’s a feature we wish Apple would bring to iOS.
Backgrounds can also be personalised for each user, and things like bookmarks and notes are user specific, even though several family members could be reading the same content. You can even have separate email accounts - there's support for Microsoft Exchange, too, which means you can access work email if your firm uses Exchange.
The main menu is similar to Amazon’s with a carousel of recently used apps, books and magazines but not web pages. Beneath this is space for a few shortcuts to favourite apps, books, videos and magazines. There are also shortcuts to email, the web browser, all apps and your library, plus the Nook shop.
Unlike the Fire HD, there are five home screens on the Nook, and you can easily drag app, book, magazine shortcuts to these.
Nook HD: content
The book selection is vast, although there are holes – no Gruffalo for kids, nor any Jamie Oliver cookbooks for example. Things are less impressive when it comes to magazines and newspapers, with few UK titles on offer at the time of review. The film / TV store doesn’t launch until December, but you’ll be able to buy or rent titles (including in HD) from all the big studios, we’re told.
When it comes to apps, your only option is the Nook store, which has a limited selection of popular titles. There's Angry Birds Star Wars and Words With Friends, but no BBC iPlayer or Lovefilm at the moment. There is Netflix, which is a consolation if you have a subscription to that service. The Nook HD is currently useless for catchup TV in the UK, as you can't even watch shows on providers' websites due to the absence of Flash in the web browser. [Update: a Flash app has just been added to the Nook store, which you'll have to install in order to watch Flash videos or use Flash-based websites. This is good news as it opens up the web and reduces the urgency for apps for watching catch-up TV and YouTube, for example.]
At least all the apps in the Nook store are curated so you won't find smartphone versions - only those tailored for the Nook's screen. You also won't find 20 different crossword apps - the best or most popular is chosen for the store.
The system is locked down so tightly it makes the Kindle Fire HD look like an open platform. You can't install any app that's not from the Nook store, so it isn't possible to side-load the Amazon Appstore or Google Play.
Music fans are out of luck as there's no music store, but the built-in Music Player will play your MP3s, while the Gallery app can show your photos.
Books and magazines from the Nook store look amazing, with high-resolution images that look lifelike on the HD screen. Page turns in magazines are slick 3D affairs, while in books, you simply swipe to instantly slide to the next page. With kids' books, you can double-tap to enlarge the text panel on each page to make it more readable, and it's possible to record your (or a grandma's voice) so they can listen to someone read the book to them, even if a child is using the tablet on their own.
It’s early days for the Nook store, so it’s a gamble buying a Nook HD right now compared to a Kindle Fire HD, but the potential is excellent.
Nook HD: performance
It managed 1199 in Geekbench 2 - a reasonable result and ahead of the Kindle Fire HD (which managed 1124) - but not quite on a par with the Nexus 7 with 1452. There's a possibility of an update to Android Jelly Bean in the future, which could improve performance. In our graphics benchmark, GLBenchmark 2.5.1, the Nook HD produced 14fps. Not a bad result again, but slightly behind the competition.
Subjectively, the Nook HD is fast. It loads apps and web pages quickly, rarely leaves you waiting and the interface never felt jerky. Plus, in casual games such as Angry Birds Star Wars, the frame rate was very smooth.
It isn't a huge deal, but the Nook HD lacks dual-band Wi-Fi, so operates only on 2.4GHz. Since few people have a router which works on 5GHz as well, it's going to make little practical difference.
Battery life isn't quite as good as B&N makes out. The high screen brightness immediately puts the Nook HD at a disadvantage compared to dimmer tablets, and it lasted 5 hours and 25 minutes playing video continuously at maximum brightness with Wi-Fi turned on. If you drop the brightness to a more sensible level, you could get an extra couple of hours. We'll re-run the test and update this review.