Barnes & Noble picked a tough time to revamp its lineup of tablets. On the one hand, the 7-inch market is both more crowded and more mature than ever thanks to the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, and iPad mini. Meanwhile, the newest iPad is better than ever, and the Nexus 10 and Kindle Fire HD 8.9 are both solid options as well. But the company soldiered on, bringing both the Nook HD and Nook HD+ to market in time for the holidays.
When I reviewed the Nook HD, the smaller of Barnes & Noble's two new tablets, it didn't measure up to the formidable competition. It was slow and buggy, and having a great screen and $199 price tag didn't give it a real advantage over its competition.
The Nook HD+'s larger display may not be the best in its class (not when there's a Retina-equipped iPad out there), but its price is. It starts at just $269 for 16GB of storage, easily the cheapest large tablet from a major brand, and the $299 32GB option is an even better deal. The 9-inch tablet also has a faster processor than its smaller sibling, and Barnes & Noble has rolled out software updates that it says fix the problems I experienced. My hopes were high as I started this review — I love what Barnes & Noble is trying to do, and the pieces seem to be in place for the company to make a great, affordable tablet for readers. Did it pull it off?
Much more manageable than most larger tablets
Any discussion of how the Nook HD+ looks and feels has to start with its bottom left corner. That's where the tablet's gray matte plastic gives way to a different color of gray matte plastic, with a silver circle cut out of the corner. I have no idea why this exists, or why it's existed on every Nook tablet since the original Nook Tablet. It looks like where you'd attach a carabiner to clip the Nook HD+ to your belt, but that seems like a bad thing to do with a 9-inch tablet. In truth, it's probably purely a design decision, intended to differentiate the Nook from other black and gray tablets (which is basically all of them). It certainly does set the Nook HD+ apart, but it's an odd way to do so — and I still can't help but want to do something with it.
It's sturdy and rigid, and feels like a device that costs more than $269. As you hold the HD+ vertically for reading or web browsing, there's a power button at the top of the right edge and two volume controls on top, next to the headphone jack. It's a slightly awkward layout — volume controls feel out of place on top, with no intuitive direction for increasing or decreasing sound — though it makes far more sense in landscape mode, holding the device sideways while you watch a movie.
Everything else is designed with portrait use in mind, though: the n-shaped home button and proprietary charging port are on the bottom if you hold the Nook HD+ in portrait, but awkwardly on the side in landscape, and the indented "n" logo on the back is vertical as well. I think it's probably just a bad place for volume controls, not a subtle nudge to use the Nook HD+ a particular way. Like the smaller Nook HD, the HD+ has no camera — that doesn't matter much to me, but make sure you don't need it before buying this device.
Otherwise, the HD+ is a pretty normal-looking tablet. I actually love its size: the 1.1-pound, 0.5-inch-thick body is light enough that you can hold it in one hand, and the rubbery material doesn't slip out of your hands — the device only comes in "Slate," a dark gray, and the material is the same everywhere but that one corner. The bezel around the screen is large enough for your thumbs to rest on, but because the screen is larger the edges don't feel as big as on the smaller Nook HD, where they dominate the design.
Display and speakers
My eyes are happy, but not my ears
When I first met with Barnes & Noble to talk about the new Nooks, reps spent more time talking about the display than any other single feature or spec. I was encouraged by that, because a tablet's display is easily its most important feature. And upon closer inspection, the Nook HD+'s 9-inch, 1920 x 1280 panel is every bit as good as Barnes & Noble said it was.
The LCD is bright, crisp (256ppi is definitely Retina territory), and incredibly accurate. That last part is the most important, I think — from magazine images to movies to simple black text on white backgrounds, everything appears exactly as it should. The panel is also laminated to the glass, which makes it feel like you're actually tapping on a word or icon rather than the glass pane in front of it. That lamination also theoretically makes the Nook HD+ less prone to glare than some other tablets, but I didn't notice that as much — it's still pretty reflective.
I'm very confused by the speaker on the back of the Nook HD+. It clearly can be loud — I got a system update notification when I had the volume all the way up, and the "ding!" was so loud I jumped about nineteen feet in the air. Other system sounds are equally loud. But then I turned on Sherlock Holmes or Million Dollar Baby, or watched a video on YouTube, and I had to hold the speaker right to my ear in order to hear anything at all. When Barnes & Noble rolled out a software update to the Nook HD, it promised to fix these audio issues; the latest version hasn't done that, but there's clearly the hardware here to produce good sound. Or at least loud sound, anyway.
Software and performance
Nook OS, a custom version of Android 4.0 that looks and feels nothing like Google's version, powers both the Nook HD+ and the Nook HD. Barnes & Noble tried to take Android in a simpler direction, eschewing some of the customization options for a user interface that should be easier to use and understand. Calling it an Android tablet isn't even really fair — it's just a tablet that happens to be powered on a base level by Android. Read my Nook HD review for a full rundown of the software features, but the story here is a simple one: Barnes & Noble has a lot of good ideas, but hasn't polished the OS enough. Not by a long shot.
First, the good features. My Nook Today is a great way to find new things to read, and Barnes & Noble's recommendation engine is spot-on. The reading experience, as you'd expect from a bookseller, is excellent – there are plenty of ways to customize books to your liking, and text looks great on the sharp screen. It's easy to set up multiple user accounts, and to control what's accessible on each — the Nook HD+ is a good tablet for kids, though thanks to Amazon's new Kindle FreeTime Unlimited service there's probably more for your kid to do on the Kindle Fire HD. The Nook Video store adds a lot of good movies and TV — though it's neither as broad as Amazon's store nor as good a deal as the Prime offerings — and Barnes & Noble's bookstore is definitely as good as Amazon's. The Nook HD+'s web browser now has tabbed browsing, and though it's not particularly robust it's a decent app.
The gray UI itself is nice-looking, too, in a reserved and simple way. There are few crazy animations or flashy visuals; book, app, and movie icons appropriately dominate the interface whether you're on the home screen or in the store. While Amazon's tried to make its Kindle tablets about more than just reading, Barnes & Noble is sticking to its core — the Nook HD+ is a device for reading books and watching movies, and its interface reflects that.
Barnes & Noble is clearly thinking the right ways
So many good ideas, so little time to wait for them to load
But for every good feature and pretty app, there's a crippling performance issue. I like the persistent Favorites button that lets you jump quickly to your most-used apps and books, but I stopped using it because it takes three or four seconds to load every single time. The store is pretty, with big icons for every item and a very browseable interface, but it's incredibly slow and stuttery. Same goes for the web browser, which has a real problem with scrolling. Switching user accounts takes at least 10-15 seconds each time, and it briefly shows your current account before moving to the new one — not exactly a "private" setup. Few things crashed or appeared fully broken, but there's a level of fine-tuning and detailing that Nook OS has clearly not undergone even in its most recent incarnation.
The TI-made 1.5GHz dual-core OMAP 4470 processor inside the Nook HD+ is quite powerful, and it does fine with things untouched by Barnes & Noble — even intensive games like Asphalt 7: Heat play smoothly (though only after an interminable loading process), which is a noticeable improvement over the Nook HD and its older TI silicon. That's why I can't help but blame Barnes & Noble for the slowness of the interface — the hardware here is perfectly capable of running Android well. Nook tablets have always been hacker favorites, and I'd imagine that the HD+ will be as well — the Nook HD+ with CyanogenMod could be a great tablet — but for now the gorgeous screen and fast processor are overshadowed by the performance problems.
The other disadvantage of not simply running Android is that the Nook HD+ can't access the Google Play Store; instead, you get a curated set of apps from Barnes & Noble. Most of the big-name apps are present, but there are a lot of very new apps that you can't get on the HD+, and a lot of good, obscure ones that aren't available either.
Battery life, at least, is really good. I used it really heavily for three full days – lots of browsing, watching movies, and waiting for things to load — before it died. Then I charged it, and ignored it for almost a week. I pulled it out of my bag expecting it to be dead, and the battery meter was still full. Given that my Nexus 7 dies in about three days whether I use it or not, I'm pleasantly surprised by what the Nook HD+ can do.
Barnes & Noble seems to have figured out how to compete with the iPad: build a light, nice-looking tablet with a great screen, offer a bunch of different ways to watch and read things, and charge a reasonable amount for it. $269 for a 9-inch tablet is a great deal, and if you want a Netflix and Hulu machine this is a pretty good one — as long as you're happy using headphones all the time. But Barnes & Noble shoots itself in the foot over and over, with a slow and bug-riddled interface that is often infuriating to use. I waited a full minute for it to switch accounts at one point, and several minutes to load a game — that's not acceptable.
Even worse for Barnes & Noble, other companies have figured out how to make inexpensive tablets with great screens and much better experiences. Google makes a cheap(ish) tablet with a big screen, the $399 Nexus 10. Amazon's $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9 fits the bill as well — I'd recommend either over the Nook HD+ until Barnes & Noble fixes the performance problems. And, of course, there's still the iPad mini, which isn't much smaller or much more expensive than the Nook HD+, and gives you access to the giant iOS app ecosystem (though its screen isn't anywhere near as good as the HD+). Those devices share many of the same advantages offered by the Nook HD+, and all offer far better and more consistent performance — the Nook models do have a few cool and unique features, but they're ruined by the lag and freezing. The Nook HD+ won the price war, but unless that's your absolute only consideration, you can find a better tablet without looking very hard.