Nook HD £159
10th May 2013 | 15:22
The lightest, highest resolution 7-inch tablet, but is it any good?
The Nook HD from bookstore giant Barnes and Noble makes some big claims for such a small tablet, as it looks to steal the limelight at the budget end of the market.
With the likes of the similarly priced Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD for company at the £159 price point, plus the slightly more expensive iPad mini, the Nook HD really needs to bring the fight if it wants to succeed.
Originally launched with a very much locked down operating system, the Nook HD has now received a software update which has seen the likes of Google Play and Google Chrome land on the tablet, and we've updated this review accordingly.
Out of the blocks it seems impressive, boasting the title of 'the world's lightest 7-inch tablet', tipping the scales at just 315g – just a shade heavier than the pricier, 7.9-inch iPad mini.
Another trump card for the Nook HD is its display, packing an eye-popping 1440x900 resolution with a 243ppi density – making it the stand-out candidate in the 7-inch market.
And with a price tag of just £159 ($199) for the 8GB model and £189 ($229) for the 16GB version you will see that on the surface at least, the Nook HD has the potential to cause an upset.
Barnes and Noble may well be a household name in the US, but elsewhere in the world it's got an uphill battle to educate consumers on the brand and its products, so it's teamed up with big retailers in an effort to get the Nook HD in front of customers.
The Nook HD itself is certainly unique in its looks; gone is the slab of glass we see slapped across and the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, with Barnes and Noble instead implementing a curved, raised bezel around the 7-inch display.
It's a look which makes it stand out from the crowd, but it looks a little cheap, almost toyish – although the family sector is a key demographic for the firm and this product, and it fits a little more into the 'robust' category there.
When we first picked the Nook HD up, we tried to peel off the bezel mistaking it for a rubberised cover, but to our despair it wouldn't budge – it's actually part of the tablet.
B&N claims that this raised bezel – which comes in an appealing 'Smoke' (read: grey) or 'Snow' (that's white to you and me) – helps when holding the tablet in one hand.
While it does detract from getting fingerprints on the glass, we wouldn't say it made is easier to hold than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD, with the lightweight design of the Nook HD a better factor which it came to one-handed usage.
Round the back you'll notice that the Nook HD does not sport a rear-facing camera, nor does it have a front facing one – B&N claims that its customers want a tablet to consumer media on, not to take photos with or make Skype calls.
The only significant features of note on the soft-touch rubberised back are the dual speaker grills at the bottom of the tablet, the large 'n' logo and dipped centre – allowing for a better grip.
On top there's a lonely 3.5mm headphone jack, with physical buttons found on the sides, power/lock key to the left and a volume rocker to the right.
Thanks to the relatively petit body of the Nook HD, measuring 194.4 x 127.1 x 11mm, you can reach both sides pretty easily even when holding the tablet in one hand.
We found that we did have to shuffle it a little to hit the keys, but thanks to the Nook HD's grippy rear, we never feared dropping it.
The final physical button is located on the front of the Nook HD and takes the form of the Nook logo – it's nigh-on impossible to hit one-handed, so you'll need to call in reinforcements from your other arm to help you out here.
Unfortunately there's no microUSB connection on the Nook HD, with a 30-pin port instead residing at the base of the tablet, meaning you're forced to use the bundled cable to charge and connect to a computer.
However all is not lost on the bottom of the Nook HD, as there is a little treat for you in the form of a microSD card slot – hidden behind a small plastic door which isn't the easiest to remove, but once opened reveals a way of boosting the storage of the tablet by up to 64GB.
This gives the Nook HD a clear advantage over the storage locked Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD and iPad mini – although the Google and Apple devices do offer larger internal storage capacities.
The Nook HD is a sturdy, well-built tablet with an impressive screen and weight, but the cheap plastic bezel does make it painfully clear that this is a budget device, and when you put it side by side with the competition the HD struggles to look 'grown-up'.
That said we reckon the Nook HD could withstand bumps and knocks, with the screen slightly more protected thanks to the aforementioned bezel, and with the tablet aimed at a lifestyle including children this finish may be better suited to the job in hand.
Interface and performance
At its core the Nook HD is running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but you'd be hard pushed to see any sign of Google's operating system here.
Similar to what Amazon has done with its Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD interface, Barnes and Noble has rebuilt its Nook OS from the ground up, giving a completely different feel to the Nook HD than other Android tablets.
Instead Barnes and Noble will constantly assess the Nook ecosystem and supply software updates as and when it sees fit.
Although the power seems to be there, the Nook HD doesn't seem to make particularly good use of it, with the whole system feeling slow and unresponsive.
We wouldn't go as far as to say it was lagging, but that second or so wait for the screen to wake after the power/lock is pressed was a little frustrating.
A nice feature on the Nook HD is the ability to set up various profiles, with the choice of adult and child options – perfect for adding all the family on one device.
This allows you to filter content across accounts, with kids only seeing child friendly apps, books and movies, while adults can divulge in 50 Shades pleasure without fear of little Timmy asking awkward questions.
Adult accounts can be password protected, ensuring prying eyes can't creep in, and the lock screen displays all the users set up on the Nook HD – allowing you to easily select your area.
Once into your area you're greeted by a homescreen, with five in total. The main attraction is an animated carousel which shows your most recently used items.
Press and hold on a blank space and you'll pop up a menu window, allowing you to populate the panels with apps, books, magainzes and movies, pin bookmarks and change the wallpaper – giving you a personalised interface.
The drag and drop system is intuitive, as is the simple navigation bar towards the bottom of the screen, providing five options; library, apps, web, email and shop.
This additional level or personalisation is nice, as it offers a better set up than the in-your-face content of the Kindle Fire HD, and for first time users it's a lot less complex than the pure Android experience on the Nexus 7.
Below the menu options is the search bar, allowing you to quickly find a particular book, app or other piece of content without having to flick through a vast library or collection, while in the right corner is Nook's answer to multi-tasking.
It shows your recent activity, allowing you to hop between apps without having to return to the homescreen via the physical Nook button - flick up over an app in this menu and it will be removed from the list.
The Nook manages to switch between apps relatively quickly, but it does come a little unstuck if you want to switch users.
Return to the homescreen and press your image icon and a panel will slide down showing you everyone who is set up on the tablet, as well as giving you the option to add more if you haven't filled the quota of six accounts.
Tap another person's profile and the Nook HD takes a couple of seconds to load their personalised homepage, sometimes longer if both profiles are heavily populated.
It's easy to forget that the Nook HD has Android at its core, albeit very well hidden, but it does mean there's a notification bar of sorts – instead of the traditional pull-down motion we're used to, you'll need to tap the centre of the bar at the top of the display.
You can then easily remove alerts one by one by swiping across them, or hit the clear all button to completely flush out the panel.
Prod the sticker icon which says "Your Nook today" on the homescreen and you're taken to a pane which shows the weather in your current location, along with recommendations for various content based on your recent activity.
It's in short, a very basic Google Now feature, which is handy to check the weather, but we didn't find ourselves returning particularly often.
Apart from rearranging your homescreens and moving around the limited menu items, there's not a lot more to do on the Nook HD which will frustrate power users who are familiar with the openness of the Android operating system.
We are disappointed at the lack of zip the Nook has, even with the basic day to day tasks of unlocking and navigating around – it was noticeably slower when compared to the lightning-quick Nexus 7 and iPad mini.
Internet and email
Thanks to the recent update Barnes and Noble has pushed out to the Nook HD you now get the Google Chrome browser as standard.
This provides you with the familiar surroundings you find on most Android devices and offers users a cleaner, fresher version of the stock browser which was present pre-update.
Tabbed browsing is still found at the top of the display, but this along with the URL bar have been condensed from the previous version giving more screen real estate to the web pages themselves.
There's a menu button to the right of the URL bar which gives you access to your bookmarks, browsing history and deeper web settings, but it's not all good news here.
On the original Nook browser we were given features such as offline reading, dedicated reader mode in the form of ArticleView and a quick link to the email client to share a particular site with others.
There are plenty of sharing options in the menu of Google Chrome, but the missing reader and offline modes are a real shame.
The lovely high definition 7-inch display on the Nook HD means that text and images are pin sharp – making websites easy on the eye.
In terms of speed the Nook HD impressed us, which was pleasing especially after the sluggish performance we'd experienced in the general interface.
The full-fat version of TechRadar finished loading, banner ads and all, in five seconds, while mobile sites were done in two to three seconds.
Panning, scrolling and zooming were smooth for the most part, but we did find that the Nook HD didn't always pick up our gestures, which led us to feverishly pinch and flick the screen, resulting in zooming in too far or scrolling down way past the point we wanted.
The ailing Adobe Flash platform may be on its way out, but many sites still use it, and the good news on the Nook HD is that support is there, with the plugin available to download from the store.
The Nook HD comes with its own email client as well, and as with the browser this is your only choice when it comes to managing your mail – unless you use your provider's website.
It's easy to set up your accounts, just type in the email address and password, select the sync options you want and the Nook HD will do the rest.
You can view all your accounts as one unified inbox, or if that's all a bit cluttered, tap Mailbox at the top of the screen and select the one you wish to cast your eye over.
The client itself is well laid out, with your various folders displayed in a column down the left, and your list of emails on the right.
Select an email and it will fill the whole screen, allowing you to easily read your messages and view fancy-looking HTML newsletters.
It's a no thrills service which provides you with all the basics required to send and receive emails in a simple, intuitive package.
The keyboard on the Nook HD isn't anything special, but it is functional for the odd email here and there.
The dainty dimensions of the tablet mean that you can easily reach all the keys with your thumbs when held in portrait although things are a little trickier if you opt for the landscape view.
It is relatively responsive and accurate, and while not the best keyboard we've used, it's by far not the worst.
Unfortunately there's no option to download a third party 'board, nor is there any fancy swipe or voice input methods which we've become accustomed to on purer Android tablets – no big problem, but it may irk some.
Movies, music and books
Consuming content - that is the reason why Barnes and Noble has created the Nook HD, and also the reason why you won't find a front or rear camera – people just don't want that on a tablet, apparently.
Instead of cameras, the focus has been put on the weight and screen of the Nook HD, making it easy to hold for long periods of time and providing an excellent image.
Seeing as content is at the heart of the Nook's purpose it's a little surprising that it only comes in 8GB and 16GB variants – which will fill up quickly if you stick a couple of HD movies on the tablet.
Luckily there's some salvation in the form of the microSD slot house on the base of the Nook HD, allowing you to bump storage by up to 64GB – giving you a lot more breathing space.
However you'll need to format the SD card before sticking content on it, as the Nook HD doesn't like a card which has just been pulled out of an Android phone – highly annoying as we like to use one card in various devices.
Getting content on and off the Nook HD is simple enough, use the bundled USB cable to connect it to your computer, allow the drivers to install and you're then able to use the tried and tested drag and drop method to shuffle your stuff.
With that impressive 1440x900 screen resolution and 243ppi pixel density, the Nook HD is well suited to movie and TV shows playback – supporting 720p video on the 7-inch display.
An initial stumbling block though is that internal memory – we had an HD version of Sherlock which was 6GB in size – if you had the 8GB Nook then it would be full before you even considered books, apps or music.
Therefore a microSD card is a must if you want to download movies on the Nook HD.
Once you get over the storage hurdle video is, unsurprisingly, very good. The HD display means you get crisp, sharp images and coupled with the lightweight design of the Nook HD, we comfortably watched the whole movie without issue.
If we get picky the colours could have been a little bolder, and while the screen didn't appear washed out, we felt the images could have 'popped' a bit more on the LCD screen.
The dual speakers round the back are reasonable if watching with others, but a decent set of headphones will give you a much better movie-watching experience.
Your videos are stored in the Library menu, along with all your other content, with no dedicated video player app for you to launch.
Tap on a video and it will open in the player, which itself is a very basic affair, offering up play/pause, skip, scrub and volume controls - this makes it very easy to navigate, but may not suffice for power users.
The Nook HD supports a handful of video formats including MP4, AVI and MKV, but we were unable to play our DivX clips, so you may need to check your collection before loading them on.
If you own DVDs or BluRay discs which come with a digital copy of the movie or TV show hosted by Ultraviolet, then this copy will be compatible with the Nook HD.
You can sign into your Ultraviolet account on the tablet, allowing you to gain access to any digital editions you may have, which is a handy little feature.
Barnes and Noble offers customers its own library of films and TV shows to buy and rent with its Nook Video service, which can be found in the Shop on the Nook HD.
There's a decent range of titles on offer with most film rentals ranging from £2.50 to £3.50, while you'll need to shell out £5 to £12 if you want to buy a movie outright - with a couple of pounds difference between HD and SD quality.
It's much the same over in the TV section with single episodes generally coming in around £2.50, while complete seasons can be anything from £10 to £25.
When Nook Video does launch you'll have the option to stream or download movies and TV shows in HD, although pricing details are yet to be announced.
Your not stuck with just this offering however, as Google Play is also on the Nook HD now, giving you access to the search giant's over library of film and TV.
Prices in Google Play tend to be a little cheaper compared to the Nook Shop, which makes us question why you'd stray from Google Play - but there you have it.
On of the few pre-installed applications on the Nook HD is a music player, which offers up a very simple interface to mange your tunes.
To access your music you'll need to open up the app menu and select the music player, which shows you a crude list of all the songs on the Nook HD.
You can choose to organise the list by artist, album or song title, while a playlist function is on hand if you want to make one on the fly.
Select a song and you're taken into the Now Playing panel, which displays a lovely big album art image above the obligatory controls play/pause, skip, shuffle, repeat and time-scrubbing bar.
There are no further options available here, so don't expect to be able to dabble with a graphic equaliser or find sharing options to stream to your hi-fi – the Nook HD is keeping it basic. Really basic.
Audio playback is acceptable, but it certainly won't blow you away. For a casual listener it will suffice, but for the more discerned audiophile the Nook HD will come in below par.
Once again the built in speakers round the back reach a relatively high volume, but you sacrifice clarity for room filling sound if you do opt to use them.
While movie fans will be catered for with Nook Video, there's no such luck for music aficionados, with no way to purchase and download music direct from the Nook itself.
Barnes and Noble does pre-install Spotify for your listening pleasure, but with Google now offering its own music service it's disappointing this hasn't made it onto the Nook HD.
Thankfully Google Play steps in to save the day in the music department, offering up a huge range of tracks to suit all tastes.
Singles can be picked up for 99p while albums tend to start at £4.99.
Books and magazines
Reading on the Nook HD should be a great experience considering this is bread and butter stuff for Barnes and Noble, which already has a range of e-readers on the market including the Nook Simple Touch GlowLight.
Its not just books which are on offer here though, on the Nook HD you can also get your mitts on magazines, comics and newspapers via the shop, ensuring you have a veritable feast of reading material at your finger tips.
While you may be concerned that it will struggle to match the variety and volume found on Amazon's Kindle store, Barnes and Noble is a book retailer first and foremost, claiming to have a library of 2.5 million books available to its Nook customers.
Book prices range widely, with most novels falling in between £4.99 and £14.99 – which is generally steeper than the books in the Kindle store, some of which can be had for just a few pence.
If Nook's offering isn't big enough you can always head over to Google Play which has its own selection of book and magazines for you to download.
There are free samples to be had if you fancy taking a novel for a spin before parting with your cash.
The reading experience is a solid one, with various controls allowing you to change the size and style of the font, background colour, line spacing and margin gap, so you're bound to find a combination which suits you.
The high resolution 7-inch touchscreen means words appear crisp and shape, which is far kinder on your eyes and allows you to read for longer – although you may want to turn the screen brightness down, as it can become irritating after a while.
The e-ink screens of a dedicated e-readers are still the best way to read a book on an electronic device, but the Nook HD, along with the Kindle Fire HD, offers a more than acceptable alternative.
There's are no physical buttons allocated for page turning on the Nook HD, so you're required to tap or swipe the screen to navigate between pages.
Press the small up arrow at the bottom of the screen to bring up the menu bar, where you'll find a page slider, allowing you to quickly jump to a particular section in the book.
You can also type in a particular page number if you know exactly where you want to go, and hitting the binoculars icon will allow you to search the entire book for a word or phrase.
If you like annotating and/or highlighting your novels as you go along then you are well catered for here – just hold down on the word or phrase you wish to manipulate and a menu will pop up with various options such as add note, find in book and highlight.
All the commands are pretty intuitive, and even if you're new to reading on a digital device, it won't take you long to master the basics on the Nook HD.
If you prefer magazines, then you're in for a bit of a treat on the Nook HD with a lovely page turn animation and page overview mode - showing you thumbnails of the entire magazine, allowing you to jump to articles of interest while skipping those pesky double-page ads.
The ArticleView function found in the web browser also makes an appearance here, stripping out the fancy magazine formatting to give you an easily digestible text document – great for those with poorer eyesight.
Apps and games
When the Nook HD was first launched Barnes and Noble did away with Google's own-brand app store, in favour of a more refined offering.
However the company has now seen the error of its ways and has brought back Google Play with its latest software update for the tablet.
This means you now have access to the 700,000+ applications available in Google Play - or so you may think.
It turns out that not every app is compatible with the Nook HD and after a brief 15 minutes of searching we found five apps which we couldn't download, including Shazam and Foursquare.
Barnes and Noble's original app store remains as part of the shop but there's no need to use this now with Google Play offering up a much better selection.
In terms of pre-installed apps the Nook HD is relatively light – in the UK it comes with music streaming service Spotify already on board, while over in the US you get its rival Pandora.
Aside from that there are the stock apps, browser, calendar, contacts, email and music player, but that's your lot – the Nook HD is pretty much a clean slate out of the box.
Accessed via the Shop menu on the Nook HD, the app store does feature some classics such as Netflix, Twitter and Flipboard, but we were disappointed to find how many of our favourites were missing,
There's no Facebook app, which is pretty criminal in the world of mobile devices these days, leaving you to use the social network's mobile site in the browser only.
Large corporations also seem to be missing from the Nook shop, with the likes of Sky, BBC and ITV not represented.
We're not fans of the way the app store is laid out either, while there are top lists, staff picks and featured applications; the navigation is far more clunky than the sideway swipes required to move round Android's native Google Play.
Another thing which irritated us was the search function within the store. Even if you're already in the app section, typing in iPlayer will search the whole shop, including books, newspapers and magazines, returning a deluge of content as a result.
This can then be filtered to show just apps, but it would be better if the store was smarter than this – like in Google Play.
Apps on the whole are also a little pricier, and in some cases a lot more expensive than Google Play, which seems to be just a simple money making scheme unless a HUGE amount of curation is needed to bring them to the Nook HD.
As far as games go the Nook shop currently has just over 1,700 on offer, although lots of big names are missing such as Temple Run, Need for Speed and Real Racing 3.
As we've mentioned though Google Play is now on the Nook HD, giving you access to all three titles above plus a host of others.
The graphically intensive games pretty much all seem to be absent on the Nook HD, although that's no great surprise considering the tablet struggles to load the general interface efficiently – the 3D requirements of Dead Space may melt this little slate.
Less intensive games such as PacMan and Angry Birds ran fine, with games taking around 10-20 seconds to download and install.
As with the apps, games are generally more expensive than in Google Play. Take Angry Birds Space for example – 69p in the Play store, but a massive £2.29 on the Nook for the same game! Madness.
Battery life and connectivity
The size of the battery inside the Nook HD is unknown, although Barnes and Noble claim you'll be able to squeeze 10 hours of reading time out of the tablet, or a respectable nine hours of video.
From our tests we're inclined to agree, with the Nook HD holding up well as we surfed the web, watched videos and flicked through magazines.
Slightly annoyingly there's no auto-brightness function, so you'll want to make sure you've only got it on full illumination when it's really needed, otherwise battery life will take a hit.
We were easily able to get through a day without worrying about running out with power, and with slightly more limited use we were able to go at least three days between chargers.
There's not a great deal of connectivity options adorning the Nook HD, with the Wi-Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth standards making their typical appearances.
We were pleased to find the Nook HD offered up a microSD card slot, something which few tablets have built in.
This is a handy addition, as the rather paltry 8GB and 16GB models don't give you a whole lot of storage, especially if you want to download videos onto the tablet.
It supports cards up to 64GB in size and from the settings menu you can set the SD card as the default video storage, if you don't want to clog up the HD's internal space.
Annoyingly the Nook HD doesn't come with the traditional microUSB port, instead opting for a 30-pin option, which forces you to use the bundled USB cable to charge and connect to a computer.
Hands on gallery
At such a competitive price point we'd normally find it very difficult to knock a device which offered so much for such little payout.
Unfortunately for the Nook HD the budget tablet market has come alive over recent months and the likes of the Google Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and even the iPad mini have set the standard very high.
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The Nook HD does have an excellent screen, which makes watching movies and consuming web pages an enjoyable experience.
Battery life is something which is always a concern with today's mobile tech, but thankfully the Nook HD manages to keep going, even with that screen – meaning we weren't left scrambling for a charger.
Although it may not be the best looking device, the Nook HD is certainly comfortable to hold, even in one hand, and extended reading sessions or movie marathons are easily manageable thanks to its lightweight design.
The fact that you can set up multiple accounts, with the option of both adult and child areas, is likely to tempt the family market looking for an inexpensive, durable tablet for everyone to share - although the Nexus 7 has now added in the multiple account functionality with the Android 4.2 update.
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Sadly it's not all good news, and for all its early promise the Nook HD is left wanting in a few areas. First up is the sluggish interface, which is no where near as slick as the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7.
Users who enjoy the highly customisable ways of Android will also be disappointed with the Nook HD's relatively limited UI, which offers up the basics, but nothing more.
The app selection has been greatly improved thanks to the inclusion of Google Play in a recent software update, but there are still a handful of apps which won't work with the Nook HD.
Other nagging issues are the cheap design, which really makes the Nook HD look the part of 'budget tablet', especially when you consider the basic movie and music players and lack of streaming options.
Is the Nook HD the best 7-inch tablet on the market? In short, no.
It's cheap and cheerful design and interface at a sub-£200 price tag would have blown us away a year ago, but such is the fast pace of the tablet market these days, the Nook has been left behind by superior competition.
It could be the perfect family or kids' tablet – capable of taking a few knocks while keeping content separate, and secure, between users, but it does look and feel like a toy rather than a tablet.
But if you're looking for the best value for money at the budget end of the tablet market, we would have to recommend the more powerful Google Nexus 7 over the Nook HD.