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Hands on with the Nook Tablet

By: 27 December 2011 8 Comments

Back in November, the so-called “tablet wars” heated up when Amazon released it’s $200 Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble released its $250 Nook Tablet.

While the two were compared to the Apple iPad at length here and there, the two devices are really competing against each other and against other budget-priced Android tablets. The Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire, after all, boast similar hardware specs in that they both have dual core, 1 GHz CPUs and 7″ 1,024 x 600 displays that display 169 pixels per inch. Amazon.com and Barnes & Nobles are also similar in that they really boost the “reader” aspects of the tablets by tying bookstore/reader apps very tightly to the devices. The companies are also similar in approach by touting the media capabilities of their machines, attempting to lock customers into their own applications stores and building their machines on Google’s Android operating system.

There are some significant differences between the devices, so it’s important to point them out throughout this review.

What Barnes & Noble got right

First of all, $249 for a good reader is a great deal. That deal looks better still when one considers how easy it is to set up and use the Nook. Some Android devices in this price range are notoriously cranky and difficult to set up well, but that’s not the case with the Nook at all. Simply plug it into the  charger, go through a simply setup process and you’re pretty well done. The device tenaciously hangs on to a Wi-Fi signal once it finds it and is instructed to grab it automatically and that is a relief — I’ve had one tablet that dropped wireless signals constantly and set another one up this weekend that required a new firmware update to connect accurately. The Nook is, in a lot of ways, a “set it and forget it” device — one the owner goes through the setup process and has the device connected to the Internet, there’s not just a whole lot of tinkering left to do.

Also, the capacitive touch screen on the Nook is, quite simply, great. The screen is very responsive to the touch and is very clear — graphics are well defined and there’s little glare on the tough, scratch resistant screen. That means reading books on this thing is a breeze. As for the toughness of the screen, it can still break and can be scratched, but there’s one feature that seems little talked about when it comes to the Nook that protects the screen quite well — a raised bezel. The screen, see, rests a bit below the thick, rubber bezel, meaning the bezel will take the brunt of an impact if the tablet is dropped face-down. That added bit of protection is a nice touch.

The user interface is easy to navigate and makes it easy to get to books, media and applications. One of the highly touted applications that comes with the Nook is Neftlix, and that service simply sings on the Nook Tablet. The display is large enough to make watching movies a very pleasant experience and is sharp enough to render video in high definition (well, there’s some dispute on whether the display is capable of HD or not, but things are defined and clear enough that it’s likely only the pickiest viewers would notice).

The speaker built into the unit is best described as adequate. It doesn’t provide room-filling sound or well-defined bass, but it gets the job done. Watching movies on Netflix in a fairly quite room is a pleasant enough experience, but plug in some headphones if you want really good sound or are listening to music.

And a word or two must be said about the keyboard. Virtual keyboards tend to be awful, but the one on the Nook isn’t half bad. While you’ll not give up your computer for composing emails, the keys are large enough to make typing on it far less miserable than it is on, say, that dinky screen on the Apple iPhone. The accuracy of the touchscreen is really evident when it comes to typing. While it’s not on par with a physical keyboard, the virtual one on the Nook is quite good.

Furthermore, Barnes & Noble did a very good thing in sticking with the design from the Nook Color. Frankly, the two devices are hard to tell apart, but that’s not much of an issue — the tablet is light and comfortable to hold, making reading on it very enjoyable.

As for memory, the Nook comes with 1 GB of RAM for running programs and 16 GB for storage. Luckily, the Nook opted for adding a mini SD card slot for holding up to 32 GB of additional storage, and owners will need that as the internal memory is limited to 1 GB for user storage and a whopping 15 for Barnes and Noble stuff. While the Kindle Fire is limited to 8 GB of internal storage and no expandability through a mini SD card, at least Amazon will let the user allocate that memory as desired. Nook users aren’t so lucky and 1 GB is hardly adequate for storing data.

All in all, the Nook Tablet is a low cost machine that boasts impressive hardware specs, is easy to use, feels great, has a fantastic display and even gives owners the ability to download free content when visiting a local Barnes & Noble store. There is a lot to love about this table.

What Barnes & Noble got wrong

Sadly, there are also some things to hate about this tablet. The memory issue has already been addressed — a mere 1 GB out of 16 in internal storage is a drag. One can expand the device with an SD card, so that limitation isn’t so bad, but it still seems horribly unnecessary. All in all, it’s something one can live with quite easily.

What is not easy to live with has to do with the latest Barnes & Noble update — 1.4.1. Prior to that update, sideloading apps was easy enough and, alas, necessary. With that ability gone, the usability of this table is severely limited.

Here’s the thing. Prior to the update, getting applications was easy enough. One could easily load in the the Amazon app store and select from the thousands of applications there. Also, it was a breeze to pull apps in from the Internet and install them. Cutting off sideloading means a lot of users are stuck with the Barnes & Noble app store unless they want to heavily modify their tablets.

Yes, that’s the “walled garden” approach that Apple has used very successfully. The problem with Barnes & Noble utilizing that approach is that the company’s NOOK Apps store is, quite simply, awful. You get something along the lines of 2,000 applications out of the hundreds of thousands of applications available to Android users through the official Android Market. Apple users might be locked into the company’s official app store, but at least that market is huge and the only place iPad owners really need to visit. Being locked to that type of arrangement, then, is fine if you have an iPad, but crippling if you have a Nook.

Kindle Fire users have things a bit easier — Amazon wants to lock them in, too, but at least the Amazon store has a lot to offer. Also, Amazon has backed off of its decision to cut off third-party apps, but only time will tell if Barnes & Nobles will follow suit. If not, it’s hard to recommend the Nook Tablet — it makes a heck of a reader, but the pitiful selection of appls available through the company don’t do much to back up the argument this thing is a tablet.

Of course, the more adventurous Nook owners can always opt to root the tablet (i.e,. gain direct access to the OS and customize at will) and make sure they never get the 1.4.1 update. Visit the Nook Tablet forum on the XDA Developers boards for more details. Still, it seems a pity to have to root the Nook, particularly since the ability to sideload apps without having to go to such extremes was one of the things that made the tablet so attractive.

Conclusion

The Nook Tablet boasts impressive specs, is easy to use and is a great media tablet. Before the latest update, it was also a very useful one due to the ability to sideload the thousands of applications which aren’t available through that bad joke that is the NOOK Apps market. Here’s hoping Barnes & Nobles allows for third-party application installation again. If not, this tablet may well fail for want of meaningful support. Click here for more information about the Nook Tablet.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

8 Comments »

  • Lana said:

    You forgot to mention that at Barnes and Noble, tech support always is free for NOOK owners. You also can bring the NOOK into any store and read, for an hour, for free, any book on the Barnes & Noble WiFi. In addition, the NOOK is a fully capable Internet tablet and computer. You can even do Microsoft Word documents on it through a QuickOffice app available in the bn.com store. Also, try taking your Kindle Fire to an Amazon store to get tech support. What? You can’t find an Amazon store? Exactly. However, there are more than 700 Barnes & Noble stores nationwide to provide tech support through 40,000 employees. Furthermore, you forgot to include links to other reviews of the NOOK tablet and NOOK Color, through PC Mag, Consumer Reports, Gizmodo and other sites that compare the NOOK tablet very favorably with the iPad and note that the NOOK Tablet and NOOK Color leave Kindle Fire smoking in the ashes of inferiority and way back there in the dust of forgotten, hard to use and unsatisfactory devices. However, those who consider a tablet can be well advised to go to any Barnes and Noble store and see what NOOK has to offer for themselves. You can put your hands on it, try it before you buy it, ask questions and get tech support in person. Thank you for taking the time to do this review and mention all the NOOK’s great qualities!

  • Lana said:

    Also, NOOK owners can check out e-books from their local libraries or share books among other NOOK owners through the NOOK friends app. NOOK owners also can password protect their devices, just as one would do with an iPhone, and can password protect the downloads, so that someone has to enter a password in addition to merely hitting buy and then tapping confirm. In addition, the NOOK has more than 3 million titles from which readers can choose, including numerous free titles, while Amazon offers fewer than 2 million titles to Kindle owners.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Lana — all good points, but somewhat moot when one considers Barnes & Noble wants to chain us all to an app store that is pitiful. Barnes & Noble’s decision to ban third-party apps was boneheaded at best, fatal to the tablet’s future at worst. If a company wants to control a device, it had better have the “apps inventory” of Apple to do it.

  • Lana said:

    Ethan, what app do you want to use on a NOOK that you could not find at bn.com in the apps search? For example, NOOK has the most popular apps, including Doodle Jump, Angry Birds, Bejeweled Blitz and many more. I need specific examples of apps you want but could not access.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Seriously? OK:

    Dropbox
    ACV (Android Comic Viewer)
    Dolphin
    Firefox
    GO Launcher
    Airport Mania 1 or 2
    Plants v. Zombies
    Fruit Ninja
    Pirates & Traders
    eBay for Android
    Craigslist Mobile
    PayPal

    …and those are the ones just off the top of my head that I’ve sideloaded in the past couple of days (an ability that will be, sadly, cut off entirely when 1.4.1 hits).

    The NOOK Apps store is pathetic. The Nook Tablet has an edge over the Fire in terms of hardware, but this tablet is just a revved up reader without a healthy selection of apps. Apple’s combination of fair-to-middling hardware and a great apps selection works, whereas great hardware and a rotten selection is not. B&N has a great tablet, but the company seems intent on ruining it. Strange.

  • http://www.residentvisitor.com/ said:

    Superb, what a weblog it is! This webpage provides helpful information to us, keep it up.

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