Top-notch e-reading experience. Interactive children's books and magazines. Streaming video apps.
No way to download music or video. Few apps.
The Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet is the best small tablet for reading books and magazines, but falls short with multimedia.
The reader's tablet is back. The new Nook Tablet delivers the best color e-reading experience available, especially for magazines and for children's books. It's a better e-reader than the Amazon Kindle Fire ($199, 4 stars), our Editors' Choice for small tablets. But the Nook doesn't quite match the Fire on music, video or apps, and the Nook Color ($199, 4 stars) offers the same great e-reading experience for less money. Make no mistake, the Nook is a very good small tablet, but the Fire delivers a better all-around tablet experience, and the Nook Color offers better value as a color e-reader.
Physical Design and User Interface
Feeling a little more 'book-like' than the Amazon Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet is significantly taller and slightly wider at 8.1 by 5.9 by 0.5 inches (HWD) thanks to its much bigger bezel, but it's lighter at 14.1 ounces compared with Amazon's 14.6. There's a standard 3.5-mm headphone jack, and a curious little loop in the bottom left corner, which serves as both a handle and a way to conceal the reader's MicroSD card slot, just like on the Nook Color. In fact the Nook Tablet and the Nook Color are almost identical save for the a slightly lighter-color metallic finish. The Tablet has physical Power button and volume controls on the side panels as well as a single, "N"-shaped home button at the bottom of the 7-inch, 1024-by-600 touch screen.
Barnes & Noble has made a big deal out of how its IPS LCD screen is less reflective than Amazon's, but after using both screens for long periods taking several photographs of each, I found I had to squint to tell the difference. It's there, but it's by no means pronounced enough to be a dealmaker. Both displays are much less readable in daylight than the e-ink screens on devices like the Amazon Kindle Touch ($149, 4 stars).
The Nook Tablet, like the Amazon Kindle Fire, runs a very highly customized version of Android 2.3 on a TI OMAP4, 1GHz dual-core processor. But the Nook's user interface looks nothing like Amazon's (or, for that matter, Android's.)
Rather than shelves, here you have three free home screens where you can plunk down large icons representing your favorite books, magazines, or apps. (No widgets; this isn't standard Android.) Along the bottom of the screen are your most recently used items in a scrollable list, along with some links to promotional screens plugging B&N's various stores, and its favorite music and video related apps. (You can hide those links.)
Press the Home button, and you'll get seven main options: Home, Library, Shop, Search, Apps, Web and Settings. Your Library contains, on separate panes, Books, Magazines, Newspapers, Apps, Kids, and My Stuff, a catch-all for any of your own music, video or document files you may store in the Nook's 1GB of user-accessible memory or on a MicroSD card up to 32GB. You can also create your own custom shelves within My Stuff to arrange books by topic, for instance.
Notice what's missing: Unlike on the Kindle Fire, the Nook lumps music and video under the catch-all of "Apps," and breaks out books, magazines, and newspapers more distinctly. That's actually on purpose, and it shows one of the major differences between the two tablets.
Barnes & Noble Is a Bookstore
Nobody beats Barnes & Noble when it comes to books. If childrens' books are going to be a big part of your tablet experience, this is your tablet. Nook books for kids are full of animation and interactivity. They often offer read-along audio versions as well as the ability to record your own voice, if you want to read a distant child a bedtime story. (Recording your own voice is exclusive to the Tablet; it isn't on the Nook Color or the Kindle Fire.)
Nook magazines flip pages more smoothly than the Kindle, and when you double-tap on articles in the magazine page view, the text pops out in an attractive scrolling column. Magazines and books—especially cookbooks, from what I saw—can also incorporate embedded audio and video.
Compared with these, the Kindle's childrens' books look like cheap flatbed scans, its cookbooks lack panache, and its magazines look awkward.
The Nook's whole UI encourages you to keep reading. On the home page, the top status line lets you jump back to the most recent book you were in. A pop-down menu shows your most recently read books and magazines. An omnipresent small book icon at the bottom immediately reopens your book to where you left off.
Adult books are better than on the Kindle too, mostly through an interface with fewer mysterious icons and more clearly explained options. I also greatly prefer the Nook's accounting of pages and chapters over the Kindle's weird, disconnected "locations."
Barnes & Noble enhances the reading experience with its 700 brick-and-mortar stores, letting you read anything you want for an hour on the in-store Wi-Fi network, letting you browse physical magazines and tomes before buying them electronically, and offering up its staff to suggest books. Amazon has nothing to compete with that.
The one area the Kindle triumphs is in comics. The Nook has a limited selection of comics, and you pinch to zoom. The Kindle will have Comixology as well as exclusive DC comics, double-tapping lets you flip through specific panels, and you can load a third-party comic reader if you have CBR-format comic files. That's a much broader comics experience.
… But It's Just a Bookstore
Barnes & Noble is a bookstore. It isn't a music store, or a video store, or an app store. And that's where the Nook Color falls short.
Tapping on the music and video options just brings up a list of preferred third-party apps. There's no tightly integrated music or video store like on the Kindle or the iPad; in fact, right now there's no way to legally download videos to the device at all. (B&N says a downloadable video service is coming next year.)
You can stream videos from Netflix and Hulu Plus, and play music from Pandora and Rhapsody. This all functions just fine. But the Kindle has even better streaming options, plus downloadable music and video, and the Kindle's speakers are louder; the Nook Tablet's speakers can sound anemic at times.
The Nook Tablet also falls way short on apps. Sure, it has an app store, but you can count the number of apps in some categories on two hands; this is much, much smaller than Amazon's app store, which is, in turn, smaller than the Android Market. And unlike on the Kindle, Barnes & Noble is flat-out opposed to users running apps not available from its store. There's a workaround, but it's kludgier than sideloading on the Kindle, and Barnes & Noble could easily shut it down with a software update.
Barnes & Noble says it currently has more than a thousand apps, with a focus on games and children's apps, and it's adding hundreds each week. Fashion, cooking, travel, and health apps will especially ramp up over the next few months, the company said. But because Barnes & Noble is so intently curating its store, it looks like there will just be less of a selection than Amazon has now, and over time.
The Nook store has some prominent, top-line apps, but its list is extremely shallow. While you can find Evernote, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, Bejweled, Flight Control and Angry Birds in there, I could only find 7 of 38 tablet-relevant top apps from our Top 50 Android Apps list. There's no IMDB, no Slacker, no Yelp and no Cut the Rope, for instance. It's a high-quality selection to be sure, but a very tight one.
You can load your own content if you have a Windows PC (there's no Mac compatibility), but only 1GB of the Nook's internal 16GB is available for files from your PC. (Another 12GB is available for files downloaded by apps on the device.) The answer: pick up a MicroSD card and slip it into the Nook's convenient slot (something you won't find on the Kindle Fire). You can use the whole card, up to 32GB, for your own data.
The Nook Tablet played our H.264 and MPEG4 videos at up to 1080p HD resolution, but no other video formats. Music played in AAC or MP3 formats either through wired headphones or through the tablet's somewhat anemic speaker.
Battery life, at 4 hours, 22 minutes of video playback time, was slightly shorter than the Kindle Fire, which scored closer to 5 hours, and is on the low side for a 7-inch tablet.
Networking, Web and Email
Like the Kindle Fire, the Nook is a Wi-Fi only tablet. Also like the Kindle Fire, the Nook connects to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networks, but only on the 2.4GHz frequency band. The Nook comes with the standard Android 2.3 Web browser, which supports Flash, along with a POP/IMAP email program. You can download Nitrodesk's Touchdown from the Nook app store for Microsoft Exchange support, just like you can on the Kindle Fire.
The Nook's browser didn't benchmark nearly as well as the Kindle Fire's special, accelerated Silk browser; rather, its performance (including with Flash) was similar to dual-core mobile phones. That didn't seem to create a major difference in page load times, except that I noticed Flash videos played more smoothly on the Fire; on the other hand, the Fire's browser promises to get better with time because of Amazon's server-side acceleration technology.
The email program supports attachments. I was able to view JPEG attachments, and Microsoft Office documents opened up in QuickOffice, Barnes & Noble's approved third-party document editor on the tablet.
There's no Bluetooth and no camera on this tablet, although there is a microphone. At the moment, the microphone is only used for recording your own narration on children's books.
What are you going to use your budget tablet for? If you're a big reader, especially of children's books and magazines, the Nook Tablet could be your new best friend. The only problem is, the Nook Color offers the same reading experience for $50 less. Most of the Nook Tablet's advantages over the Nook Color—more memory, video and music apps, and a faster processor for video and games—don't have to do with reading, and don't outpace Amazon's competing Kindle Fire.
If you're more into multimedia and comics, along with dipping into a broad array of apps, the Kindle Fire is not only $60 less expensive (after you buy the nearly-mandatory SD card for the Nook Tablet), it's a better fit. The Kindle Fire is also much more open to power users doing things like sideloading their own apps.
Although the Nook Tablet is very good—a four-star product—it's essentially flanked by that pair of $200 devices, with the Nook Color offering the same excellent reading experience, and the Kindle Fire, which is superior on apps and multimedia.
Neither tablet replaces the larger, more unwieldy, but considerably more powerful Apple iPad 2 ($499, 4.5 stars), but that's fine. The iPad 2 is basically a keyboardless laptop, able to match many PCs on productivity, with tens of thousands of apps. These tablets are content consumption devices, and much more usable when you're on the run. The real threat is to midrange tablets like the Acer Iconia Tab A100 ($329.99, 4 stars), which have neither the iPad's wealth of apps nor the Kindle and Nook's easy-to-use interfaces.
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