Nook HD Hands On: Is Having the Best Display Enough?

Here's Barnes and Noble's rebuttal to the Kindle Fire HD: The 7-inch Nook HD and the 9-inch Nook HD+. This is B&N's frontline offensive against Amazon, as well as the rush of smaller tablets muscling in on the turf it tried to stake out. Does it have a chance? After spending a little time with it, well, maybe.

Hardware

The 7-inch Nook HD has 1440x900 display that more than matches up with the competition; its 243ppi outguns the 216ppi on the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD by a good margin. The 9-inch HD+'s 1920x1280 screen is at 256ppi—right up there with the retina iPad's 264. The viewing angles on both are great; color doesn't warp or degrade much within normal viewing positions, and the colors look vibrant and crisp. On white backgrounds, the Nook is a little whiter than the Fire HD, which B&N chalked up to a little more blue in the mix. It's not clear if that will make for a more comfortable read in the long-run, but it certainly looks sharp.

Nook HD Hands On: Is Having the Best Display Enough?

And it's light! Oh man, this thing is so light. You forget just how much lighter it is; the 7-inch Nook is 20 percent lighter than the already featherweight 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, while the 9-inch weighs in at a mere 515g. The Kindle's flatter, wider design makes it feel lighter than it is—which closes the gap some—but the difference in weight is still obvious.

Guts? Guts! The 7-inch Nook HD uses a 1.3GHz OMAP 4470, while the 9-inch has a 1.5GHz version of the same chip. They clock a bit faster than the Fire and the Nexus—and have a bit faster memory—to deal with the extra pixels.

B&N claims the battery on both Nooks can withstand up to 9 hours of HD playback and 10.5 hours of reading, though you're probably not going to get anywhere close to either of those numbers at max brightness.

Barnes and Noble didn't let us listen to the 7-inch's speakers, but the 9-inch Nook was neither loud nor crisp, a noticeable drawback compared to the Kindle Fire HD. Despite stereo software that's supposed to give the impression of fullness of sound, it's still obviously coming from one side of the device.

Nook HD Hands On: Is Having the Best Display Enough?

Here's the problem: The Nook HD doesn't look like premium tablet. It could be the tough-but-cheapy plastic exterior, or maybe the dorky hole at the bottom left of the 9-inch—as though it's crappy enough to just toss on a keychain or carabiner. The Nook HD has an aesthetically utilitarian design. It prizes screen quality and ergonomics. But it looks junky. And people just don't buy things that look and feel junky anymore, no matter how good their components are.

Software

The Nook nudges ahead of the Kindle a bit in software, but just by a nose. And it still leaves you sort of wishing for a clean Android Jelly Bean install like the Nexus 7. Barnes and Noble wouldn't answer whether the software we saw was at release candidate stage, but its software gurus have got a lot of work to do before it ships. We were still able to get a good sense of the overall design.

On the surface, it's a lot like Kindle OS. It, too, is built on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and has a carousel of recently used apps and items at the top of the home screen. Below that are some pinned favorites, and below that are your Library, Apps, Web, Email and Shop buttons. It's a better idea than Amazon's junk drawer design, which tosses a few Favorites off in the corner. That said, the Library can't bring a Books or Music or Video button to the top level, so you're always a few clicks away from an individual title. So the Nook is more organized, which is good, but is also in some ways less convenient. Which is, you know, bad.

Nook HD Hands On: Is Having the Best Display Enough?

You can toggle between six user profiles, including handy parental controls that determine what kids' accounts can access and buy. It's not quite as gamified as the Kindle FreeTime, but it seems just as useful.

One of the more interesting things Nook's trying with its software is what it's calling Channels. They're a lot like Netflix's nuanced suggestion channels—think "Critically Acclaimed Documentaries" or "Witty Buddy Comedies"—but across all the kinds of content that Barnes and Noble sells. So Notorious American History would be populated with books, audio books, apps, movies, and comics about defining moments in American history. It's effective, and seems more helpful than Amazon's "You read a Batman comic? Here are a LOT MORE BATMAN COMICS" approach.

B&N's horses can mostly keep up with the competition's books and comics and magazine offerings, but Kindle clobbers its new video outlet. There's no Amazon Prime bolstering people's free and owned content. And while Nook's got all the partners you'd want from a video store—HBO, Sony, STARZ, Viacom, Warner Bros., and Disney are all on board, so it's hard to go looking for something and not find it—it's just tough to imagine that many people willing to jump to a new ecosystem this late in the game.

Nook HD Hands On: Is Having the Best Display Enough?

When (And How Much)?

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The 7-inch comes in 8GB and 16GB versions for $200 and $230, respectively, and the 9-inch is 16GB and 32GB at $270 and $300. B&N will sell an HDMI adapter separately for $40 (Fire HD has built-in HDMI-out). All models will ship in late October.

But should you buy them? This was just a quick hands-on; we'll reserve full judgment for a full review. It's clear, though, that Barnes and Noble has a seat at the table for this round of tablets. It's got ideas. But how much that matters depends on whether people are willing to consider a very good alternative that's, well, kind of dumpy-looking.