Elegant design, superior video—and some surprising flaws

November 19, 2011
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In terms of size, weight, screen, CPU, and base operating system, the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire are virtually identical. In many ways, both devices share the same strengths and weaknesses.

But subtle variations do exist in terms of aesthetics, media capabilities, and price. Are any of these differences a deal-maker or deal-breaker? Not really. Even the lack of keyboard auto-correct in email, and some odd design decisions around internal storage won't bother most people.

It would be easy to argue that Barnes & Noble needed more unique features and oomph in its tablet in order to hold its own against Amazon. The truth, however, is that existing Barnes & Noble Nook users will be very content.

Initial impressions are good
I can say this about the Nook Tablet: it looks better and feels more comfortable than the Kindle Fire.

The signature touch is the bottom left-hand corner loop, which is open and contains an SD card port. It’s an elegant design. The slightly rubberized gray-silver bezel makes this more comfortable to hold than most tablets, even without a case. The raised Nook button at the bottom is also striking, and sets this this apart. In a universe filled with glossy black slippery tablets, Barnes & Noble has designed a rare outlier.

At 8-inches by 5-inches, the Nook is a half-inch longer and one-third of an inch wider than the Kindle Fire but because of the bezel design and half-ounce lighter weight, it actually feels less cumbersome. You can hold it comfortably without a case.

Another rarity—of the bad variety, this time—is that you are forced to use the official Nook micro-USB charger. A proprietary design restricts you from using anything else. I tried every other micro-USB charger in the office—including the Blackberry PlayBook’s 1800mAH version—and nothing worked.

The good news is that the charger appears to connect to a superior battery. My very early impressions are that the Nook Tablet battery gives about 30% more life than the Kindle Fire.

The perfect 7-inch display?
The Nook Tablet’s 7-inch 1024 x 600 display is remarkable. The 169 pixel-per-inch density matches that of the Kindle Fire. Both exceed the iPad 2, which has a higher resolution, but the Nook’s video quality is superior in every regard thanks to the HD sourcing of the files streaming via Netflix and Hulu. Images are much sharper, and colors are more vivid, making this a perfect device for watching Netflix or Hulu Plus, both of which come pre-loaded.

Unfortunately, if you want to watch videos from your own collection and want to transfer more than 1GB of content (this includes music, pictures, and more), you’ll have to store them on an external microSD card. For some strange reason, you can’t store more than 1GB of your own content on the tablet.

The other downside to video—and it’s a big one for consumers as well as Barnes & Noble—is that Barnes & Noble does not have a video store. Until the company signs a video rent-or-buy partner, you can only watch Netflix, Hulu, or rip and transfer your own content. This is a problem.

(The same shortcoming exists with music. You’ll either have to transfer your own audio files, or you’ll have to make do with free/subscription services like Pandora, Mog, or Napster.)

The Nook’s screen is bright enough for reading in direct sunlight, and in contrast to the Kindle Fire, it dims to a low-enough level that you can comfortably read it in dark environments.

Performance is good, interface is a mixed-bag
Android is on a roll. I said this earlier this week when I reviewed the Kindle Fire, but the 2.3 “Gingerbread” variant of the Android OS is ideally suited for the Nook’s specifications (dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of system memory). Navigating from menu to app to the home screen is a peppy experience. I witnessed no stuttering, hanging, or slowdown. This stands in marked contrast to many Android Honeycomb tablets, which all seem to bog down from time to time.

Barnes & Noble’s lightweight, custom Android 2.3 interface is at least partially the reason for the snappy OS responsiveness. It’s elegant, and it's also a little more flexible than Amazon’s custom variant for the Kindle Fire. Instead of closing it off, the Nook partially embraces Anrdoid’s notion of multiple home screens. The tablet’s desktop consists of three of these screens, which you can move between by swiping left and right. Books and magazines can be stored on these screens. There are no widgets to be found, however, and all app icons are placed in the “Apps” section of the interface.

At the bottom of the home screen are two more interface layers. A scrollable quick-launch bar allows you to quickly browse and access your most recent apps, books, and other media by tapping on the appropriate icon. Below that, a row of five nav elements (books, newsstand, movies, music, apps) allow you to quickly access these categories of information. Very efficient.

Like the Amazon Kindle Fire, there is no multi-tasking. To get back to an app you previously used, you have to go back to the home screen.

One puzzling and unforgivable shortcoming is the tablet’s inability to auto-rotate into landscape mode in various areas, including the main interface and the book/newsstand library. If you’re operating an app or watching video in landscape mode, you’ll have to rotate the tablet or your eyes to move around.

Barnes & Noble has developed its own proprietary app store. Although I found it easy to navigate and easy to use, I also found that some notable apps were missing, like Dropbox and SwiftKey's third-party Tablet X keyboard. This is the downside of a filtered app store.

Web browsing is as fast as Kindle Fire (initially, at least)
Unfortunately, like many Android 2.x devices, the Nook Tablet automatically defaults to the mobile version for many websites instead of the desktop version. That’s frustrating, although given the reduced real estate of a 7-inch tablet, it’s somewhat understandable. This only makes Amazon’s achievement with the Kindle’s Silk browser even more impressive, despite the concerns around privacy.

Surprisingly, site loading times weren’t too much faster or slower than the Kindle Fire. I tested this with desktop and mobile sites, and couldn’t find any significant difference. In fact, because the Nook Tablet often loads the lower-KB mobile versions of sites, it often beat the Kindle. This said, lots of reports indicate that you have to use the Kindle browser for some time before it fully takes advantage of Amazon’s hybrid cloud-based approach to mobile browsing.

Broken record: books are good, magazines and newspapers are not
The Nook Tablet is an excellent device for reading plain text, as well as more visually stimulating content. A number of adjustable fonts allow you to tailor the background, font size, and font style to your liking.

Unfortunately and not surprisingly given both devices’ e-ink roots, the same content woes that exist on the Kindle Fire exist here. Across the board, newspaper content absolutely pales in comparison to the iPad’s Newsstand offerings. Instead of giving you video and image galleries and up/down swipes, you get a boring, linear, blog-style stream of stories.

Magazines aren’t much better. Again, no surprise given that the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire are using the same source files. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. Every month that passes without Amazon, B&N, and publishers addressing this equals that many more iPad converts who will be lost forever.

One subtle difference I noticed is that the Nook's default background white when reading books and magazines and newspapers feels a little harsher than it does on the Kindle Fire, which uses a slightly more off-white default background color for text. This can be adjusted in the font settings, but not to a fine degree. I never quite found a perfectly satisfying background.

Workability =  subpar
From the small screen to the Barnes & Noble backing, it’s clear that the Nook Tablet does not claim to be a serious creation/productivity tablet. However, even a 7-inch media device should allow you to check and send email, keep notes, and do some light writing in a pinch.

So how does the Nook hold up? I found it wanting in a few ways. While the interface for email looks better than the Kindle Fire and even holds its own with the iPad, the keyboard doesn’t auto-correct or suggest corrections. This is a major omission that’s going to cost users a lot of time—particularly those of us accustomed to their phone or tablet correcting obvious mistakes on the fly. Here’s hoping that Barnes & Noble updates the keyboard ASAP.

Other omissions are the lack of landscape view for email, and the absence of a calendar.

The other surprising roadblock to personal productivity is that the cross-platform app I use the most for work—Evernote—requires you to insert an external microSD card to store app data. That’s disappointing and somewhat ridiculous when you consider that the Nook Tablet has 16GB of internal storage.

Final thoughts
The same question applies here that I asked about the Kindle Fire. Is the Nook Tablet capable of replacing my iPad? Again, the answer is no, but even more emphatically due to the lack of landscape for certain modes and apps and the keyboard/productivity misses detailed above.

And how about Amazon? Is the Nook Tablet better than the Kindle Fire? Again, no. It would be easy to argue that I’m biased because, like so many others, I’m already invested in Amazon’s marketplace and media. However, consider this: Because Amazon allows the purchase of music and movies in addition to books and newspapers, the investment pays off in a bigger way than it does with Barnes & Noble and the Nook.

This said, if you have a nice library of Nook books, and/or watch a lot of Netflix, and don’t mind waiting for a few much-needed OS updates, this is a good, solid option. The Nook Tablet costs $50 more than the Kindle Fire, but that’s still a better deal than most tablets.

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