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Barnes & Noble Nook HD review: A media tablet for non-techies

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MSRP: $229.00
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The Good The Barnes & Noble Nook HD has a light, comfortable design with a sharp screen and a well-implemented user profiles feature. Books, videos, and magazines look great and the microSD slot takes some of the sting out of the lack of internal storage.

The Bad It’s missing some typical tablet features and 8GB is still a low starting point for storage. Fingerprints easily sully the screen and performance can be sluggish at times.

The Bottom Line The Barnes & Noble Nook HD's sharp screen and comfortable body make it an ideal tablet choice, especially for reading books, magazines and watching movies. Google Play now only adds to the allure.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

Review Sections

Editors' note, November 25, 2013: Due to increasingly stronger competition in the tablet space, CNET has lowered the score of the Nook HD.

The Nook HD is light, comfortable, and has the sharpest screen of any current 7-inch tablet. With full access to the Google Play store, "limited app availability" can now be crossed off as its major caveat.

The Nook HD's higher resolution screen makes movies and games look sharper than on any other small tablet. The OS still feels like a walled garden, but with access to now tons of apps and media content, that doesn't matter as much as it did when the tablet first launched.

While the Nexus 7 is still the best small tablet, the Nook HD's low price (especially now), sharp screen, expandable memory, and great app selection significantly increases its appeal.

Starting at only $129, the Nook HD is one of the best small tablets you can buy.

I spent days comparing the Nook HD to the top 7-inch tablets available and if there's anything I've learned in that time it's this: the devil's in the details. From a cursory glance, the average consumer might have a difficult time distinguishing one black, gray, or white slate from the next, but it's the little things that set them apart. Stuff like weight, corner design, bezel width, and texture are small things that play a big part in comfort and feel.

The Nook HD comes in both smoke (medium gray) 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. The tablet includes a 30-pin to USB cable that plugs into the included AC adapter. Dual speakers sit on the lower back and the top edge of the tablet seat a headphone jack and microphone.

The home button and the home screen. These are your options. James Martin/CNET

In middle of the bottom border, right above the bezel, is the hardware home button, last seen on the Nook Tablet. Like on the iPad, the home button is a great "just press this if things get confusing" solution for the ever-evolving tablet interface. Unfortunately, there's no built-in camera, no ambient light sensor, no Micro-USB, and no HDMI port.

The Nook HD's corners are smoothly rounded and at only 0.69 pound, it's the lightest 7-inch tablet available and feels perfectly comfortable when held. The device is as thick (depth-wise) as the Nexus 7 and a bit thicker than the Fire HD and though it's wider than the Nexus 7, it's noticeably narrower than the almost-too-wide Fire HD. Held vertically, the side bezel's width just about matches the Nexus 7; however you get a little extra space due to the black borders surrounding the Nook's screen.

Barnes & Noble Nook HD Amazon Kindle Fire HD Google Nexus 7 Apple iPad Mini
Weight in pounds 0.68 0.86 0.74 0.68
Width in inches (landscape) 7.65 7.7 7.8 7.87
Height in inches 5 5.4 4.7 5.3
Depth in inches 0.43 0.4 0.4 0.28
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) .3/.5 0.9 0.8 0.8

Even with its light weight, the Nook HD's build feels solid and durable; however, it proves susceptible to screen warping with enough pressure in the right place. Applying pressure to the back or along the right bezel yields a visible screen warping effect on the tablet' screen. Now, screen warping occurs to some extent on nearly every tablet; however, if you're just holding the Nook HD while reading a book or watching a movie, you'll likely have no cause to apply enough pressure to your Nook HD for this to be a problem.

The interface
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 sports a light gray, slightly textured aesthetic that permeates through all native apps and menus. The home screen shows Library, Apps, Web, Email, and Shop options near the bottom with a global search bar underneath. Directly above is a space to organize your content shortcut icons, and near the top of the screen sits your content carousel.

Once in your library, you'll have access to every piece of content available to you. James Martin/CNET

In the top-right edge of the screen is Your Nook Today, which shows the current weather as well as book and movie recommendations based on recent additions to your library. Also, if the opt-out-of-ads kerfuffle for the Fire HD turned you off, you'll be pleased to know that Barnes & Noble has no such ads on its tablets.

Settings can be accessed by tapping the gear at the very top right of the screen and includes options too many to name. If you've ever used a tablet before however, there's nothing included in the settings that will surprise you. The default software keyboard, thankfully, includes a tab, but typing didn't feel as as accurate as it does on the Nexus 7.

Nook profiles allow multiple users to use a single tablet, while keeping each person's content their own. James Martin/CNET

Nook Profiles can be accessed from the upper left-hand corner and allows users to set up multiple profiles on a single tablet. With a simple tap of the profile photo at the top of the screen, you can choose to switch to a new profile almost instantly. Once in the new profile, that user's content (and only that user's content) will be displayed and accessible. Lock-screen switching is also possible. Both adult and child profiles can be accessed and passwords can be added to adult profiles, ensuring that not just anyone can access your content. Nook profiles are simple to implement and feel secure and useful, likely appealing to families on a budget.

Overall, the interface is much cleaner and intuitive than the Nook Tablet's; however, I still have a few problems with navigation. As much as I like the Home button, I feel the interface relies on it a bit too much. If looking at a magazine for example, there's no built-in navigation to view all magazines and you're forced to use the home button and then navigate to another piece of content if you want to switch. Not a huge deal, but it's annoying in the moment.

Now PLAYing: Google!
As of version 2.1.0 of the Nook OS, both the Nook HD and Nook HD+ include full Google Play support. All apps, music, videos, books, and magazines available on Google Play can now be downloaded directly to the Nook HD tablets. The Nook Store and its content is still available.

Google Play. Now that's more like it! Screenshot by Eric Franklin

The chief criticism of the Nook HD tablets when they launched was the severely limited apps and media content ecosystem. With the additional of Google Play however, this effectively becomes an non-issue. Google Play is second only to iOS in terms of available content.

Chrome is now the default Web browser and all (aside from Google now) Google service apps -- Gmail, Magazines, and Books, etc. -- are automatically downloaded to the tablet once the update is installed.

Among the most popular 7-inch tablets, the Nook HD is the only device that includes a microSD card for storage expansion. James Martin/CNET

Nook OS
If you have an Ultraviolet account, any movies added to your digital UltraViolet library will show up in your Nook HD+ library as well. A Netflix app is also available, but there are no plans to bring HBO Go just yet. The tablet supports MP4, 3GP, WEBM, and AVI video files, and MKV files.

Hey, I hear the Nook HD does pretty well with books. James Martin/CNET

Thanks to its high-resolution screen, text in books is crisp and clean whether in Google Books or the Nook's own book app. On the Kindle Fire HD, reading options like X-Ray, the percentage-read counter, and immersion reading may give Amazon's tablet the slight edge here. For a pure reading experience on a large tablet, though, the Nook HD+ the best current solution thanks to its lightweight and comfortable build.

Like pure Android tablets, the Nook HD does not have access to the Amazon Instant Video app. Right now, the app is only available on Kindle Fire tablets and iOS devices. Something to consider if, like myself, you're an Amazon Prime member with a heavy Amazon video streaming habit.

The Nook's magazine app is still the preferred way to view your favorite periodicals. I includes a smooth page-turning effect and the option to easily cut any page and include it in a virtual scrapbook. So, depending on your magazine(s) of choice, you could easily make a workout or recipes scrapbook, which is a lot less cumbersome than taking screenshots. Unfortunately, your clippings are only stored locally and (probably thanks to copyright laws) there's no way to share them online. You can, however, share them with other profiles on your Nook HD+.

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