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Nook Tablet lead
Nook Tablet lead

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Nook Tablet review

Does the Nook Tablet have what it takes to extinguish the Kindle Fire?

Exactly one year ago, Barnes & Noble made an interesting move, one no other company in the tech industry had yet been bold enough to make: it released the Nook Color for just $249.99. The 7-inch Color was positioned as an alternative to E Ink e-readers; it was a bit more expensive than the traditional Nook, but you could reach out and touch the screen, enjoy rich color publications and books, and surf the web in the Android-based browser. It was a fairly big hit, but even more interesting was that, without the assistance of B&N, the Color became an even bigger hit amongst techies — many of them turned it into a cheap tablet by rooting it and loading it up with Android apps.

The Nook Tablet is the realization of the vision those techies had for the original Color — it’s a real tablet, so much so that B&N even put it in the name. With a new dual-core processor, 16GB of memory, improved app store, and a few more multimedia features, this year Barnes & Noble is hoping that the Tablet can capture the hearts of those out there looking for an iPad alternative that’s more than just a color e-reader. But will it? We’re not talking about a holiday season like last year’s, where Android tablets were still in hiding and Amazon wasn’t on the scene. Does the Tablet live up to its name? Can it extinguish the Fire? Read on to find out.

Video

Video Review

Hardware

Hardware / design

The B&N motto: don't mess too much with a good thing

If you’ve ever seen the Nook Color, then you’ve pretty much seen the Nook Tablet. While B&N subbed out the black borders for a silverish grey, the overall design is largely the same. But that’s not a bad thing. Yves Béhar — the man behind the design of the OLPC XO, Jambox, etc. — came up with a beautifully unique original aesthetic, and even a year later I consider it to be the best looking 7-inch tablet around. Yes, that means I much prefer the Tablet’s bolder style and the unique design quirk — the hook on the left corner — to that of the rather bland, unassuming Kindle Fire. Of course, I still have no idea what you’d do with that aforementioned hook; I can attest that clipping the tablet to my pants with a carabiner or wearing it as a necklace was of absolutely no use. Beyond looking good, the Tablet, despite being made mostly of plastic, still feels very solid in hand. I didn’t think twice about just tossing it in my purse without a cover.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Nook Tablet 8.1 x 5.0 0.48 0.88
Nook Color 8.1 x 5.0 0.48 0.99
Kindle Fire 7.5 x 4.7 0.45 0.91
Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 7.62 x 4.82 0.39 0.76
HTC Flyer 7.69 x 4.8 0.52 0.93

There may not be a drastic design change, but the Tablet actually feels a lot better than the Nook Color thanks to a noticeable weight loss. As you can see in the chart above, the Tablet hasn’t actually gotten thinner, but it now weighs only .88 pounds — 0.11 pounds less than the Color and 0.03 pounds less than the Fire. Size-wise, the Fire is narrower and shorter than the Tablet, but I actually found the soft-rubber back of the Tablet to be a tad more comfortable when held up for longer periods. I’ve said this throughout my 7-inch tablet reviews, but it is worth repeating: I prefer the smaller-screen form factor when it comes to reading and also thumbing emails and tweets.

Our Kindle Fire review contains complaints about the lack of physical home and volume buttons, but you won’t find that here. A camouflaged volume rocker lives on the right edge, a power button along the left edge, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top. A MicroUSB port for charging and transferring media lines the bottom edge and a Nook home button dwells on the bottom bezel of the screen. Lastly, flip over the tablet and lift the small latch by the hook and you’ll have easy access to the microSD card slot, which supports up to 32GB cards. What you won’t find on the Tablet is a camera — look, some things had to be cut for that $250 price point.

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Screen / speakers

Screen and speakers

The Tablet's display has a slight edge on the Fire's

What isn’t missing is a beautiful 7-inch 1024 x 600 IPS display. The panel is the same as the one on the Color, but again I don’t blame B&N for not messing with a good thing. The "VividView" treatment does achieve its mission of reducing glare, but what’s extremely noticeable is how superb the viewing angles are. In a side by side comparison with the Fire, not only was the Tablet’s display brighter — with blacks and dark blues looking even deeper — but I could see everything on the Tablet’s display when looking at the screen at a 90 degree angle, while the Fire’s colors started to fade at that view. That’s not to say the Fire doesn’t have a good display, I just found the Nook’s to be a smidgen better.

There’s more on software performance below, but the screen is very responsive to light taps and swift swipes.

The speaker on the back of the tablet is a mixed bag. At max volume, both a locally stored song and the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol trailer sounded very low and tinny. That same song on the Kindle Fire was a bit louder, but not by much. However, when I fired up one of the Read and Play-supported children’s books (which reads the text of the book aloud) the sound was full, loud, and not too muffled, even when I blocked the speaker by laying the tablet on my lap. Still, the speakers are nowhere near as full or loud as the set on the iPad.

Software

Software

Not much has changed with the software, either. Like the Color, the operating system is based on Android (2.3 to be exact), but has been heavily hidden with a deep coat of Barnes & Noble’s paint and primer. Everything centers around the homescreen which is split into the main screen, where you can rearrange icons, and the shelf of recently used books, apps, etc. There’s definitely much more customization freedom than the Kindle here, though I do wish there were some more widget options and that you could add web shortcuts to the homescreens. The physical home button has two functions; one tap brings up a list of shortcuts, including Web, Apps, etc., and two taps take you back to the homescreen if you’re in another app. That list of shortcuts feels clunky and the fact that this is the only place to access the browser seems like a major OS oversight for a tablet. Below is a deeper look at some of the apps within the OS, but I do have to say that it feels like enough wasn’t done to truly make the software tablet ready.

Browser

The first place Barnes & Noble has failed at making the Nook Color OS more tablet-like is with the browser. It uses the same browser as the Color, which means, among many things, that there are no tabs. Tabs really do make a world of difference on a tablet, and the experience is just disappointing in comparison to the Fire or any Honeycomb tablet. In terms of browser performance, the Tablet holds its own and actually seems a bit faster than the Fire. However, it isn’t as fluid as the iPad or even a Honeycomb tablet like the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus when it comes to scrolling and pinch-to-zoom gestures.

EMAIL, Keyboard

The email app continues to be pretty bare bones. It will do most of the things you want it to, but it doesn’t have a great inbox search. Regardless, I was able to fire off emails at a brisk pace thanks to the very well styled and laid-out keyboard. I found myself typing faster and with fewer typos on the Tablet than I did on the Fire.

Reading (Newsstand, books, etc.)

Obviously, the Tablet shines when it comes to reading. You’ve got your pick of over a million books and the new "Read and Record" feature lets you record the audio of a children’s book through the microphone and then play it back in sync with the text. The B&N’s Newsstand also has access to a solid selection of newspapers and magazines. The mobile site-like format of newspapers is disappointing, though the magazines are fairly basic and look great on the LCD. If you haven’t been following Amazon and B&N’s content war, it’s one that’s been fought across tons of different content types, including comics and magazines. Rather than list the selection, I’d suggest checking where your favorite content is available and heading there. As Paul Miller likes to say, "home is where the ecosystem is."

Media player

The Nook starts to fall behind the Fire right here. Without its own multimedia services like Amazon has with its Music or Instant Video, the only way to get multimedia on the device is to sideload content. Not only is it inconvenient to go through that process, but B&N has only allocated 1GB of internal space for sideloaded files. Of the 16GB of storage, 3GB is for the OS and 12GB is for B&N content, leaving only 1GB for files. That’s more storage space than the Fire’s 8GB, but at least Amazon doesn’t put stipulations on how you use the leftover space. To its credit, there is that microSD card slot, which isn’t subject to any sort of limit. Also, for what it’s worth, B&N did tell me that it has plans to team up with a movie rental service soon.

Third-party apps

Third-party apps

I’d like to think the app future for the Tablet is bright, but I’ll admit I’m not optimistic
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To make up for those lacking multimedia apps, B&N has teamed up with a bunch of third-party music and video services, including Rhapsody, Pandora, MOG, Netflix, and Hulu. Those are some big players and will take care of your media needs when you have a Wi-Fi connection, but the rest of its app ecosystem trails behind. When I went looking for apps like Rdio, Twitter, Facebook, and others in the app store I came up empty-handed. B&N says there are thousands of apps to choose from now and that it’s adding hundreds every week, but at the moment it cannot compete with what’s available in the Google Market, on Honeycomb tablets, or even Amazon’s store. Of course, those are all way behind the selection and quality of apps available for the iPad. While B&N claims that each app is being tweaked for the 7-inch display, they really do just look like enlarged phone apps. To make matters worse, B&N doesn’t allow sideloading APKs and installing them, like you can do on the Fire. The hacks are starting to roll, of course, in and my friend Brad at Liliputing has a neat trick for installing the Amazon App Store (of all things!) to the Tablet. While that’s something, it still requires too much effort to get the apps you want.

It’s here that I’ll repeat something that we said in the Fire review. I’d like to think the app future for the Tablet is bright, but I’ll admit I’m not optimistic. With Google moving on to Ice Cream Sandwich and now with the Fire, another app store for Android tablets seems insane and an unlikely target for app developers. B&N can keep trying to pull in developers and getting them to tweak their offerings for their platform with its own SDK, but that’s not going to make for a compelling experience and it’s going to continue to be a tougher sell as the company keeps on using Android 2.3 at the core.

Performance / battery life

Performance / battery life

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What really sets the Tablet apart from the $200 Nook Color is now specs, and the new dual-core TI OMAP processor and 1GB of RAM really do make a difference in everyday performance. In a number of side-by-side tests with the Color, the Tablet consistently opened apps / menus faster and was more responsive to quick swipes. However, while the Tablet is fast, it’s not the snappiest experience I’ve seen. Like the Fire, I felt that even some Honeycomb tablets were faster, especially when it came to scrolling in the browser. B&N’s also boasting that the Tablet can play 1080p video, and while it wouldn’t make sense to do that since the display isn’t even considered HD, it does in fact play local 1080p video very smoothly. Similarly, streaming videos on Hulu Plus and Netflix was smooth; no hiccups or random crashes.

Sunspider Quadrant Battery Life
Nook Tablet 4169.1ms 2302 6:57
Kindle Fire 2541.9ms 2011 5:47
Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 1634ms 3590 7:07

B&N promises nine hours of reading on the Tablet, and while I didn’t have time over the past few days to read for nine hours straight, it did last six hours and 57 minutes on The Verge Battery Test, which loops a series of websites and images with brightness set at 65 percent. The Kindle Fire actually got about an hour less at five hours and 47 minutes, though I've found that both of them can last a good day with average use. All in all, the Tablet provides a decent amount of juice for the size and should get you through a flight from LA to New York. However, you’ll want to remember to pack your charger. Even though it uses a common MicroUSB port, it requires the cable that came in the box, which has a longer connector. This may seem like a relatively small annoyance, but I’d argue it’s more than that. This isn’t the type of cord you’ll just be able to rely on other people to have around; if you lose it or leave it behind, you can bet you’ll be stuck with a dead tablet. But hey, at least the charging plug has a LED-backlit Nook "n".

Quick clarification: You can use a regular MicroUSB port to connect the Tablet to your laptop, but it will not charge the device.

The charger situation is more than just a small annoyance
Charger2

Taken by itself, it’s hard to not like the Nook Tablet for $250. It continues to be a great piece of hardware: the screen is beautiful, the fresh internals make it quicker than ever before, and the price makes some of its flaws (the charging issue, storage allocation, no tabs) somewhat forgivable. But here comes the however... the Kindle Fire is $50 cheaper and provides a better ecosystem of multimedia content and applications. Sure, the Nook Tablet has streaming services like Netflix and Pandora and some handpicked apps in its store, but Amazon’s offering way more for less cost on that front. (Of course, if you can spend a bit more on an Android tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 or an iPad, you’ll get it all, but those are really in a different tablet category now.) B&N’s improved specs and slight tweaks make it a better value than the $200 Color, but both of them are priced too high to take on the Fire’s content offering. But hey, thanks to some techies, the app selection on the Tablet’s already improving, which seems to just put B&N back, well, where it was a year ago.

Want to see how the Nook Tablet stacks up against the Nook Color, Kindle Fire, iPad 2, and Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus? Check it out right here in our product comparison!

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