Review: Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ is the best value in a large tablet, if you can live within its limits

Barnes & Noble grows its Nook HD family, literally, with its first large-screen tablet, the Nook HD+. With its roomier, 9-inch display and reasonable $269 price (for the 16GB model), the Nook HD+ continues the Nook tradition of providing a great reading experience. This tablet enters a crowded field, and yet it manages to deliver terrific value. However, the Nook HD+'s more limited app selection compared with the competition remains a sticking point.

If reading, Web browsing, emailing, and bringing along your own media content are the core components of how you use a tablet, the Nook HD+ is a tremendous value—particularly considering that the 32GB model sells for $299. That's $70 less than the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and $100 less than the Google Nexus 10, both with the same capacity; or $30 less than the lower-resolution, smaller-size 16GB Apple iPad mini or $100 less than the 16GB Apple iPad 2.

Design

The Nook HD+ is the smallest and lightest tablet for its size class. It weighs just 1.14 pounds, compared with 1.25 pounds for the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (with, natch, an 8.9-inch display), and 1.44 pounds for the 9.7-inch iPad. And it measures 9.46 by 6.41 by 0.45 inches—respectably compact given its 9-inch screen size.

Its proportions and relatively light weight make the Nook HD+ a pleasure to hold. While I will welcome tablets of this size falling even closer to the 1-pound mark, the Nook HD+ strikes a satisfying balance.

The solidly built tablet has an evenly spaced, slate-gray bezel around the display, with a passing similarity to the bezel on the previous Nook Tablet. The back of the tablet differs in appearance from that on the 7-inch Nook HD: There's no comfy indentation that doubles as a hand-grip, though the back is covered with a fingerprint-prone soft-touch paint. The most distinctive design element on the Nook HD+ is its circular notch at the lower left corner; it almost feels as if it's there to slip a carabiner or a lanyard through, but, really, its presence defies logic given the tablet's size.

In portrait orientation, the volume buttons are at the upper right edge, next to the earphone jack; the power button sits along the upper right edge. The buttons are made of a higher-grade plastic than those on the Nook HD, and they feel easier to press.

At the bottom edge (also in portrait), you'll find the MicroSD card slot, under a protective cover, and the proprietary 30-pin adapter for power and data transfers (USB power adapter included). The slot supports cards up to 64GB; that right there gives Nook HD+ an extra flexibility that its pricier competition can't match.

On the back in the lower right sits dual-driver speakers, piped out of a single speaker grill. I preferred the true dual-speaker stereo experience on the Nook HD and on Kindle Fire HD 8.9; audio on the Nook HD+ sounded reasonably good, but still tinny and constrained compared with the aforementioned models. This was the case even thought the tablet includes SRS TruMedia audio.

Emphasis on display

With the Nook HD+, Barnes & Noble's attention to display quality is once again visible from the moment you first boot up the tablet. The Nook HD+ doesn't push the resolution bar in the same way as its 7-inch sibling, though it still looks lovely. The 9-inch display carries a 1920-by-1280-pixel resolution, which works out to 256 pixels per inch (ppi)—practically the same as on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and just shy of the Apple iPad with Retina Display's 264 ppi. Barnes & Noble says it chose the 9-inch display for its 3:2 aspect ratio, which the company describes as “perfect” for use with magazines and books.

In my use, the tablet felt like a nice size for reading. The display was roomy enough to provide a comfortable width for pages and a satisfying field to play Angry Birds Star Wars, watch Castle on Hulu Plus, or view my pictures.

Text looked sharp, and images viewed in the included Gallery app looked attractive, with impressive color balance and crisp detail. The one distinction here was the white level: The Nook HD+ appeared to have a warmer display and more yellowish cast than Nook HD, which led to white backgrounds (such as those in books or Web pages) looked brighter on the smaller tablet. Skin tones were warmer on Nook HD+, too.

Barnes & Noble again uses optical bonding on its display, so image contrast appears strong, and glare is minimal. I was disappointed, though, that the screen seemed prone to show fingerprints, same as on the Nook HD.

Performance

Inside the tablet is a 1.5GHz Texas Instruments OMAP4470 dual-core processor with 1GB of RAM, which is a slight boost over the 1.3GHz processor OMAP4470 in the Nook HD. It should more than suffice for handling high-definition video playback and casual gaming like Angry Birds Star Wars HD. (We couldn't run our usual graphics tests on the tablet since the benchmark is not available in the Nook store.)

If Nook HD+ can be faulted, it's for some missing features: Like its smaller sibling, it lacks GPS, a front-facing camera, and a rear-facing camera. Barnes & Noble had its reasons—and internal research—to back these choices, but the reality is that there are some viable uses for these features, and their omission may take the Nook HD out of consideration for some consumers as a general-use tablet. You'll be able to add HDMI via the docking port, but that will require a separate $36 adapter. At least this dongle has a full-size HDMI port, which means you can use a widely available cable with the device. The tablet outputs 1080p video, too, which makes the HDMI adapter more useful.

The Nook HD+ does have Bluetooth connectivity in addition to 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi.

Software refinements

(Editor's note: Since the Nook HD+ and Nook HD share the same software interface, portions of this section echo what was said in the Nook HD's review.)

Barnes & Noble's tablet operating system is now based on Android 4.0. Not that you can tell from the tablet's front face: Visually, the experience is entirely different from what you'd find on plain Android, and in a good way. Mostly.

On the whole, the Nook 2.0 operating system, as found on the Nook HD and HD+, reflects a rethinking and reorganization of Nook content. But it's not so jarring that current Nook users will find themselves lost.

The lock screen reflects the first major change: You can now add profiles—up to six. That makes the Nook HD, the Nook HD+, and Google's Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 (running Android 4.2) the only tablets with bonafide user profiles. The Nook's profiles are more personally targeted, though, and segmented by adults and kids. The Nook will even recommend content for you based on your interests and, in the case of kids, age and gender. You can customize a profile for a boy or girl, and set it up so that the account can access whitelisted content that's safe for children.

To enter the tablet, you pick your profile from among the ones floating around the unlock button icon, and drag it into the center. The tablet then opens your profile, and greets you by name on the top of the screen. Want to change to a different profile? Tap at the top of the screen, select the profile, and you're in. You can password-protect each profile, and assign downloaded content to specific profiles (so your profile isn't littered with your kid's games, for instance).

Each profile calls up the apps, preferences, and email associated with that particular user. You can limit a profile's ability to shop for content or to access the Web, for example, which is perfect for when you want to hand the tablet over to a child.

The home screen has five available desktop spaces for organizing your content. A carousel for recently accessed content at the top of the screen is easy to customize: If you don't want something to show, simply tap and hold the icon of the item and remove it from the screen. Beneath that is a space for any app or content icons you want to keep easily accessible.

Along the bottom of the home screen are icons for Library, Apps, Web, Email, and Shop; beneath that is a search bar. The home screen remains highly customizable, complete with widgets and your own wallpaper or live wallpapers. You can also pin apps or content to the home screen for easy access, and you can add content with a simple long press on the home screen.

I did have trouble understanding a few aspects of the new navigation. Some navigation icons looked ambiguous, and I found that there were almost too many different ways to do the same thing. Nothing was insurmountable, but I occasionally had to tap around more than I expected.

Other aspects of navigation were smooth and simple. At the top of the screen, a pull-down shade—similar to the one on the Nexus 7 and 10—gives you access to settings such as the brightness control, Wi-Fi controls, airplane mode, and rotation lock. I wish that finding the precise amount of remaining battery life didn't require digging deeper into the settings, and I would have appreciated changes in brightness that were a bit more apparent, but the experience overall was very positive.

The built-in email, music player, and gallery apps have all received an overhaul since the previous Nook Tablet OS; these areas were obvious weaknesses in the past, and prevented the original Nook Tablet from feeling like a full-featured tablet. In contrast, the new music player is attractive and easy to use (though it could stand to be refined further still—especially for the bigger display), the Gallery smoothly showed off my high-resolution pictures (albeit with a slight sharpening delay), and the email app was quite usable—with a vastly improved interface over last year's Nook software, and support for multiple profiles and accounts as well as for Microsoft Exchange. The Web browser has an articles view, a tabbed interface, and the ability to save pages for offline viewing.

The software keyboard benefits greatly from the larger display. The keys have added width, which typing easier and more precise than it is on the smaller Nook HD.

As an e-reader, the Nook HD+'s sharp text keeps it a strong player for this specific purpose. It has two fewer font-size options than Kindle Fire HD, but it offers line spacing and three additional background colors beyond what Amazon's tablet provides, including a light gray textured background that mimics paper and preserves the paperlike theme running through other native app screens.

Content matters

(Editor's note: Since the Nook HD+ and Nook HD share the same store content, portions of this section echo what was said in the Nook HD's review.)

Because the Nook HD+'s software is a custom Android build, you're locked into loading apps available from the Barnes & Noble store, rather than from Google Play. As a result, the tablet lacks both Google certification and the Google services that accompany certification (such as apps for Google Maps, YouTube, Google Books, Gmail, and Google Movies).

If all you want to do is read, browse the Web, handle email, or watch videos, however, none of that will matter. Even the app store for the Nook is better than I expected, though the games selection remains a weak spot. Barnes & Noble claims that it now has more than 10,000 apps in its app store, all of them vetted to run on the Nook HD+'s 9-inch display. By comparison, Amazon's similarly sized app store contains a number of apps that will only work on phones.

Barnes & Noble now presents its magazine collections in high definition, with a new navigation style that closely resembles the Semantic Zoom functionality in Microsoft's Windows 8. The company has also added catalogs to its repertoire. I liked the new feature that complements magazines and catalogs: I could digitally “snip” a page and add it to my own scrapbook for later viewing, albeit, unfortunately, only on the tablet itself. That's the kind of thoughtful touch that separates the Nook HD+, like the Nook HD before it, from other tablets.

The Nook HD is the first tablet to offer native support for UltraViolet, Hollywood's standard that lets you download and share content that you've already bought on physical media. You can easily link your UltraViolet account to the tablet via the Account Settings screen.

However, I can say that the movies I tried out played smoothly and looked terrific. You have the choice of renting a video (which you have 30 days to watch and 24 hours to finish) or purchasing content outright. Videos took longer to download than I would have liked, but that's in part because they arrived at full-HD 1080p resolution. That extra resolution is useful if you want to output video over HDMI to a TV. The good news is that you can start playing a movie once it's 20 percent downloaded.

Spotify and Pandora are preloaded on the tablet, along with Hulu Plus, OfficeSuite Professional 6,and Astraware Crosswords.

Bottom line

Together with an attractive price and expandable storage, Barnes & Noble's Nook HD+ makes a compelling tablet choice, especially for those who plan to use it primarily for reading and Web surfing, and less for finding the latest hot app. Like its smaller sibling, the Nook HD+ is optimized for reading but it also delivers a well-rounded and personalized—if not complete—tablet experience. Granted, you won't have the obvious app advantage of a full-blown Android or iOS tablet. But if you aren't turned off by the idea of a curated app collection, the Nook HD+ is a terrific deal for a large-screen tablet.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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