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Nook HD+ hands-on: Impressive $269 big-screen tablet counters Kindle Fire HD

Barnes & Noble's Nook HD and HD+ are coming in late October to challenge Amazon's Kindle Fire HD family.

Now playing: Watch this: Nook HD+: 9-inch tablet starts at $269

Earlier today at a meeting in San Francisco, I was treated to a behind-closed-doors unveiling of two brand-new Barnes & Noble tablets. Christened the Nook HD and Nook HD+, the tablets will go head-to-head with Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire HD 7 and $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9 this fall. The Nook HD is a 7-inch tablet priced at $199 for 8GB and $229 for 16GB. The 9-inch Nook HD+ will retail at $269 for 16GB and $299 for 32GB.

Although my hands-on time with the tablets was brief, I definitely walked away with a positive impression. Keep reading for the details of how they compare with the Kindle Fire HD. The tablets are available for preorder starting today from Barnes & Noble's Web site and will begin shipping around late October. The tablets are just the latest arrivals in what is shaping up to be a very crowded season.

One detail Barnes & Noble stressed during our meeting is how light each tablet is. The 7-inch Nook HD weighs only 0.69 pound, making it one of the lightest (if not the lightest) tablets around. The Nook HD+, with its 9-inch screen, hits 1.13 pounds. By comparison, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD weighs 0.88 pound and the 2012 iPad comes in at a comparatively hefty 1.48 pounds. However, at 1.25 pounds, the upcoming 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD is a lot closer in weight.

One complaint I expressed in my review of the Kindle Fire HD was about its width. The Fire HD's 5.4-inch spread is a bit too wide for a 7-inch-screen tablet and I felt the Nexus 7, at 4.7 inches, had a much more ideal width and felt more comfortable to hold as a result. The Nook HD is, thankfully, not as wide as the Fire HD, but at 5 inches wide it's not as narrow as the Nexus 7. Still, the Nook HD felt extremely light in my hands and its width wasn't a problem during my demo time.

Now playing: Watch this: Nook HD: lightest and highest resolution 7-inch tablet

As light as the Nook HD and HD+ are, they aren't the thinnest. They aren't fat by any means, but both the Kindle Fire HD and HD 8.9 win the supermodel contest compared with Barnes & Noble's entries. This is best illustrated in a chart or two:

Barnes & Noble Nook HD Amazon Kindle Fire HD Amazon Kindle Fire (2012) Google Nexus 7
Weight in pounds 0.69 0.86 0.88 0.74
Height in inches (portrait) 7.7 7.7 7.4 7.8
Width in inches (portrait) 5 5.4 4.7 4.7
Depth in inches 0.43 0.4 0.45 0.41

Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Asus Transformer Tab Infinity TF700 Apple iPad
Weight in pounds 1.13 1.25 1.32 1.44
Height in inches (portrait) 9.45 9.5 10.4 9.5
Width in inches (portrait) 6.4 6.5 7.1 7.3
Depth in inches 0.45 0.35 0.33 0.37

The Nook HD will come in both "smoke" and "snow" (kind of like ivory) and has a soft, rubberized back with a volume rocker on the top right edge and a power/sleep button opposite it on the left. On the bottom edge are a custom 30-pin charging connector and a microSD card slot covered with a door. In middle of the bottom bezel is the hardware home button, last seen on the Nook Tablet.

The "snow"-colored version of the 7-inch Nook HD. CNET

The larger 9-inch HD+ places its volume rocker and power button on the top edge and sports the Nook circle cavity on the bottom-left corner. The HD+ has a microSD and a 30-pin connector on its bottom edge as well.

Although Amazon charges you extra for the Fire HD's wall adapter, you can still use any Micro-USB adapter to charge the device. The Nook HD includes a wall adapter, which is the only way to charge the HD since its charging port is custom (and there's no Micro-USB port). Both tablets have a headphone jack; however, there are no cameras and they don't have built-in HDMI. Barnes & Noble will offer HDMI via a separate $39 accessory that allows you to charge the device while streaming the video signal to a larger screen.

The Nook HD and HD+ both sport a microSD card slot for expandable memory. That's something the Kindle Fire HD doesn't have; however, Fire HD models start at 16GB, while the entry-model Nook HD comes with only 8GB. CNET

What struck me most from a design standpoint was how light each tablet felt when held, especially the 7-inch Nook HD. I'll have to wait until I can get my hands on review units, however, to truly gauge their comfort.

Specs and more
Tablet screens are the most important and likely one of the more expensive components of a tablet. Barnes & Noble obviously realizes this and did not skimp. Each Nook HD tablet sports high resolutions with a high pixel-per-in (ppi) count. The Nook HD's 1,440x900-pixel resolution with its 243 ppi is the highest yet of any 7-inch tablet screen, higher than even the Kindle Fire HD's 1,280x800-pixel resolution. The 9-inch Nook HD+ houses a 1,920x1280 display and sports a 256ppi; slightly better than the Kindle Fire HD 8.9's 1,920x1,200 screen and 254ppi. The Nook's IPS display uses a bonding process similar to the one used in the Kindle Fire HD's screen and will purportedly decrease glare and allow for wider viewing angles. From my brief inspection, the Nook HD's viewing angle did at least seem on a par with the Fire HD's.

The Nook HDs will sport an OMAP 4470 processor; however, the 7-inch HD will run at 1.3GHz, while the 9-inch HD+ runs at 1.5GHz. CNET

The 7-inch Nook HD delivered noticeably sharp text in the few books I got to see. Text on the Web and both pictures and video looked stunning on the display. I can't say for sure if the tablet's higher resolution affords it a noticeably better picture than the Fire HD however, as I didn't get time to directly compare them displaying each type of media. Regardless, I walked away very impressed by what I saw.

The Nook HD and HD+ both house a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor, clocked at 1.3GHz for the HD and 1.5GHz for the HD+. Barnes & Noble claims a 33 percent faster overall performance for these tablets than the Kindle Fire HD (which features the 1.2GHz OMAP 4460) and up to an 80 percent increase in graphics speed. Unfortunately, I didn't get to test either the Nook HD or HD+'s graphical performance, but navigating the interface and Web was speedy on both. Additionally, both tablets house 1GB of RAM, and support 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Speakers use SRS TruMedia, but again I can't yet make a direct comparison with the Kindle Fire HD's superb speakers.

The Nook HD sports the highest resolution of any 7-inch tablet yet. Here's a taste of its 1,440x900 pixel count. CNET

Barnes & Noble expects the Nook HD's battery to offer up to 10.5 hours of continuous reading and up to 9 hours of video watching, with the Nook HD+ getting 10 and 9 hours for reading and video, respectively. These are Wi-Fi-off estimates.

A new OS brings new features
The Nook HD's operating system uses Ice Cream Sandwich as its base, with a custom-designed skin that feels like an evolution of the original Nook Tablet's OS. The home screen shows Library, Apps, Web, and Shop options near the bottom with a search bar underneath. The top portion of the screen is taken up by app shortcuts. Also, if the opt-out-of-ads debacle for the Fire HD turned you off, you'll be pleased to know that Barnes & Noble has no such ads on its tablets.

The Nook app store is still heavily curated and won't offer the breadth of content found in the Google Play store, but according to Barnes & Noble offers a lot more apps than it did last year.

Different profiles can be accessed from the lock screen or at any time while using the tablet. CNET

Nook Profiles allows users to set up multiple profiles on one tablet, so if you decide to give Junior access to your tablet, you can control the content to which he has access. With a simple tap of the profile photo at the top of the screen, the tablet switches to the new profile almost instantly. You'll also be able to add passwords to profiles so that not just anyone can access your unmentionable files.

Not to be outdone by Amazon and its Instant Video service, Barnes & Noble now has its own for the Nook HD and HD+. Nook Video will offer both standard-definition and high-definition versions of video content for purchase or rental, with HD video streaming supported as well. Nook Video will also support UltraViolet movies in your library. Nook HDs will still work with Netflix, but there are no plans to bring HBO Go just yet.

ArticleView, another app, gives you a formatted text version of Web pages and magazines for easier reading. Speaking of magazines, they get a noticeable facelift here, with smooth 3D page turning and the option to clip any page and include it in a scrapbook. Unfortunately, clippings are only stored locally and so far there's no way to share them.

Here are your home-screen options. Available at any time from the home screen. Yeah, not much else to say about that, huh? CNET

E-mail has been redesigned and now sports a cleaner, simpler interface and support for Microsoft Exchange, with syncing for calendars and contacts as well.

First thoughts
The Nook HD matches the Kindle Fire HD on price, but has half the initial storage, with no built-in HDMI and no camera. However, the Nook does offer a microSD card slot option and a higher-resolution screen. The $229, 16GB Nook HD also costs less than the $249, 32GB Kindle Fire HD.

On the larger side, a 9-inch tablet with a quality IPS screen, a resolution of 1,920x1,200 pixels, and 16GB of storage for only $269 is unprecedented. That's a lower initial price than the forthcoming $299 32GB Kindle Fire HD 8.9, which has a screen of the same resolution. However, as with the 7-inch Nook HD and Fire HD comparison, the Nook HD+ has only half the amount of initial storage.

One thing's for certain, Barnes & Noble is clearly serious about competing in the tablet space. Not only from a price perspective, but in performance as well. The company has taken the Nook Tablet concept and heavily iterated on it -- much like Amazon did with the Fire HD. It's too early to tell, of course, which offers the better value, but that will depend on more than just specs and pricing. Luckily, I don't have to decide that today, as this will be a tough one.

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