The tablet market is absolutely exploding these days. Apple launched the innovative iPad almost three years ago, and for a while it was the only player in town, but now it feels like Android is catching up, and products like the Nexus 7 are making decent tablets a lot more affordable these days. In our house the geekdaddy hasn’t picked up his iPad since getting his Nexus 7. Personally I don’t like the Android interface and I’m quite happy with my iPad mini, thank you very much. However, it’s just possible there’s another player coming in to the market, with amazingly good credentials and an extremely serious offering. We’ve been loaned a Barnes & Noble nook HD, and for the last few weeks we’ve been putting it through its paces alongside our other tablets to see how it compares.
What is the nook HD?
The nook HD is a 7 inch tablet, manufactured by Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble are the largest online book retailer (yes, they tell me that they have a larger catalogue than Amazon). You may not have heard of it before, but their new nook tablet has a good pedigree – Barnes & Noble have been producing eReaders in the US for a while now, and they like to think they know a thing or two about producing hardware that can be used for extended periods of time to read or watch video. The nook HD has the highest resolution 7″ screen on the market today, and is the lightest tablet in its class. Although it’s evolved from previous eReaders, the nook HD is so much more than an eReader. It’s a fully functional internet connected tablet which allows you to browse the web, check your email and buy all sorts of content from the nook store including books, magazines, videos and apps. It’s based on the Android operating system, but this has been highly customised, resulting in a simpler, and, in my experience, easier to use interface than you get with pure Android. Most interestingly to me is that it’s been built from the ground up with a focus on family usage. You can set up a maximum of 6 different user profiles on the device, and each profile can be set up with different access levels and content controls.
The nook HD is going to get compared to the iPad mini and the Google Nexus 7, who are the market leaders in the 7″ tablet class. I’m not sure if this is a fair comparison as the nook HD is not trying to do the same things as the other two. Barnes & Noble are aiming for the nook HD to do a subset of the things the other two will do, but do them better. Their advertising tag line is “the world’s best 7″ tablet for reading and entertainment”. So for example the nook HD does not have a camera, but it does have the most integrated interface for accessing content of all types (books, magazines, movies) that I’ve ever seen. It’s probably fairer to compare the nook HD to the Kindle Fire, but I can’t comment on that as I’ve never played with one. I have heard that there is a lot of cross selling on the Kindle Fire which makes me nervous about recommending it to families, but the nook HD is entirely ad free, which makes me very happy. The nook HD is available with either 8Gb of internal storage for £159 or 16Gb for £189. So it’s a little more expensive than the Nexus 7, however (better than the Nexus 7) the it also comes with a microSD slot so you can expand its storage by an additional up to 64Gb should you so wish. And I will say that the beautiful 1440 x 900 resolution screen with 243 pixels per inch is noticeably clearer and nicer to look at than either the iPad mini or the Nexus 7. It’s also really comfortable to hold as well, with a wider frame than the iPad mini, and a soft touch plastic back.
There’s perhaps only one disappointment in the hardware, which is that the nook HD comes with its own custom connector, rather than the much-more-standard micro-USB that most Android-based tablets use. Whilst it’s not a major problem it does mean that if you want to be able to have charging cables dotted around the house you’ll have to buy multiple cables rather than being able to share cables with any other devices you might have.
Without a shadow of a doubt the user profiles are the biggest selling point of the nook HD. You can set up a maximum of 6 different user profiles on your device, and each one can be set up either as an adult or as a child. Adult profiles can access all the content on the device, and child profiles can have parental controls applied to them (more about this later). Whenever you purchase something from the nook store you can choose when you buy which profiles should be able to see that content. So if you really must buy a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” you can assign it just to your own user profile and be sure the kids won’t be able to get at it. This also means that your screen won’t get cluttered up with all the kids content as well. This works for all nook content – magazines, books, apps and video. You can further protect your adult accounts by assigning a screen lock PIN – anyone trying to use an adult account will then be prompted for that PIN, but the kids accounts can be used with no need for a PIN. In general even app settings are protected between accounts (so each profile can have different email accounts set up for example), but we did notice that the web browser remains the same between all profiles (so if you leave yourself logged in to your Google+ account in the web browser then your kids could access that from their profiles). I reported this to my nook contacts, and a nook spokesperson has confirmed that they are currently evaluating this behaviour and plan to address it in a future software update.
I think the parental controls on the nook HD are really intuitive and easy to set up. When you create a child account you are asked to enter their date of birth. The nook HD uses this to work out their age, and then assigns a suitable set of parental controls, which you can tweak. I found the options were self-explanatory, and in most cases they are just a simple “on or off” control. I thought the easiest way to show you how the parental controls work was to show you all the options, so this screenshot shows you all the settings there are for controlling your child’s access to content. At first glance they might look simplistic, but when you start using them you realise that you can customise the setup pretty well with them. The only thing I thought would be nice to have was some kind of time restriction setting – if you want to limit your childs time on the nook you’re going to have to physically take it away from them.
Books & Magazines
I think it’s fair to say that the nook HD has evolved from the world of eReaders, and so it’s primarily a content consumption device. The nook store is packed full of books as you’d expect from Barnes & Noble. I was particularly impressed with their selection of children’s books – I have previously struggled to find decent kids books in electronic form, and the nook store is packed with them. In addition many of the kids books gave extra features – like the option to have the story read to you, or to record your own narration. The geekson has fallen in love with Dragons and has been reading it over and over again. I must confess to not being a great reader of books myself, so I haven’t dug much into the book content, but my friend Nickie who blogs over at Typecast has also reviewed the nook HD recently and she tells me that the bestsellers are usually competitively priced with Amazon, but some of the less well-known books can be a little more expensive. To make it easier for you to find out if the content you’re interested in is available on the nook before you buy you can browse around the nook book store on the web.
Reading books on the nook HD is a very pleasant experience – the combination of the high resolution screen and the light, easy to hold form factor makes me feel I could curl up on the sofa for hours with it.
In addition to books, the nook store also offers a large selection of magazines and newspapers. I was pleased to see a number of my favourite magazines in digital format, and I found it easy to read and navigate my way around the magazines too. Another impressive feature of the nook HD is that you can switch your magazine between standard view and what nook calls their Article View – a text-only view of the article, making it easier to read. You can see a comparison of the same article in both views alongside this paragraph. Again you can see what magazines and newspapers are available in the nook store if you want to see the selection before making a purchase decision.
And if you’re a keen magazine reader, I suspect you’re going to love the scrapbook feature of the nook HD as well…
One of the reasons people tend to prefer printed magazines to digital versions is that you can tear articles you like out of printed magazines to keep. I have quite a collection of recipes taken from various magazines over the years which I refer to frequently. Up until now, there’s been no way of saving parts of digital magazines. The nook HD has a scrapbooks feature, which enables you, simply by dragging two fingers down the screen, to virtually “rip” a page out of your magazine or catalogue and save it to a named scrapbook. So you could easily clip favourite recipes into a scrapbook, making it easier to find them when you’re meal planning. Scrapbooks are shared across all user profiles on the nook, although whilst child accounts can attach pages to scrapbooks they can’t browse through existing scrapbooks. My nook spokesperson told me that in a future software update they plan to enable a feature that will allow adults to assign specific scrapbooks to the child’s profile so they can access it at any time, which I think will be a very useful update.
Movies and TV shows
In addition to books and magazines the nook store also offers video content in the form of both movies and TV series. The video streams in HD fast, and again it looks great on the nook’s lovely screen. Shows and movies can be either purchased or rented, and are priced similarly to other online offerings. I was impressed by the selection of movies available, but at the time of writing I would say the range of TV shows is quite limited, being mostly HBO offerings (although it does include the rather excellent Game of Thrones). I have been told that there are BBC shows available as well, but I’ve not been able to find any. That said, I have seen the offerings increasing on an almost daily basis whilst testing the device, and it is clear that Barnes & Noble are adding content all the time. I have found it difficult to find TV shows in the nook store, as at the moment there is no “browse” facility and you have to know what you’re looking for. That said, my nook spokesperson informed me that a curated list of “Top TV Shows” will be available in the shop section by the end of this month for easier browsing, which I think will make life a lot easier.
You can also access some online video content with the nook HD – there is a Netflix app for example, but disappointingly no iPlayer access, even through the web browser. It also allows connection to your Ultraviolet account if you have one, although it will only allow you to access any Ultraviolet content that is also available in the nook store, so I was sadly unable to play my library of Bugs bunny cartoons on the device! You can also copy your own videos in MPEG4 and H.264 formats across to the device for viewing.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that there is no music available in the nook store, but you can copy your own mp3 across and the nook HD will play them, and if you’re a Spotify user you’ll be pleased to know that the app is available in the nook store so this device can stream music that way as well.
Although it’s been built on the Android operating system, the nook HD is restricted to only being able to get apps from the nook store, and you can’t connect to the Google Play store or any of the other sources of Android apps. This does mean there are far fewer apps available for the device compared to other tablets. I was initially worried that this would be limiting, but actually Barnes & Noble have done a pretty good job of selecting the very best apps to make available in their store. A lot of the classics are there – Angry Birds and Cut the Rope for starters – but there isn’t the huge selection we’re used to on other platforms. A search for Twitter apps for example reveals only one – the official one from Twitter themselves, and there are no Facebook or Google+ apps (although you can of course access these sites through the web browser). If you’re used to other platforms with wider selections this might not be for you, but I think for the less tech-savvy users a smaller selection of quality apps might be a positive selling point.
An interesting discovery I made whilst testing the unit was that there are even some apps that are available on the nook that aren’t in the Google Play store. I was particularly delighted to find that some of my favourite iOS kids apps like Ladybird: I’m Ready for Phonics and a couple of apps by Nosy Crow have been released on nook before being more generally available on Android. In my mind this does make the nook HD a viable alternative to something like the nexus 7 if you’re looking for a family tablet.
What is most impressive about the content of the nook HD is how well integrated it all is. On my iPad if I want to access one of the kids’ stories I have to remember if it’s an app in it’s own right, or if it’s in iBooks or the Kindle app. On the nook I can see each individual item, whether it’s a book, a movie or an app, and I can organise them into logical groupings, either on a virtual shelf in the library, or on the home screen. This makes it easier for kids to interact with the content as well, and both my 5 year old and my 2 year old have had no problems navigating around the device and finding the content that they want.
There is one down side to all this integration, which is that you need to be a bit careful when you’re searching the nook store, and be sure you’re buying what you want. As an example, a search for my very favourite tablet game “Where’s My Water” reveals three results in the nook store, none of which are the game (see image). They are all books detailing the strategy for the game, but I can see it would be easy to end up buying a book when you really wanted an app, particularly for kids. I recommend using the “refine” option on the search results page to narrow any results to just your desired category before purchasing.
We really like the nook HD, much more so than I expected. It’s great for books, and has a good selection of other content – not yet as much as other tablets but I can see Barnes & Noble are actively working to address that. The nook’s user profiles are really well designed, and make it easy for the whole family to have access to their own selection of content. I think the nook HD would suit a family who are looking for a single tablet for everyone to share where the main use would be for content consumption. Out of the box the nook HD is the most family friendly tablet I have ever experienced, and if you’re looking for a device that will allow you to read books, watch movies and play a few games, this could be the tablet for you.
Please note: I have not produced an enhanced audio version of this review because it’s rather to long to squish into a 5 minute audio segment. However for my audio fans the geekdaddy and I discuss the nook HD in a episode 14 of our podcast Parental Geekery.
*Updated 14/05/2013* Barnes & Noble have made a significant update to the nook HD which addresses some of my concerns about the device. You can read my updated thoughts here.
Disclosure: Barnes & Noble lent us a nook HD for review purposes.