It's been a year since Barnes & Noble's Nook Color first hit store shelves. But the biggest question about the Nook Tablet isn't if it's better than its predecessor. It's how it holds up against some very convincing competition.
Why It Matters
The Nook Color established the half-tablet, half-ebook reader category last year nearly singlehandedly. This year's follow-up is evolutionary, bumping up the specs with a dual-core processor, a gig of RAM, more storage, and some new software tricks underpinned by Android 2.3. But is it enough to keep pace with Amazon's Kindle Fire?
Holding the Nook Tablet brings pure, instant tactile joy. Almost anywhere your hand interacts with the device—screen notwithstanding—is covered in soft, rubberized plastic that makes you forget you're holding a gadget. Physical buttons are used sparingly, but wisely, and have a satisfying click to them. And, to be honest, they're welcome change after using the touch-dependent Kindle Fire. I wouldn't go as far as to call the Nook Tablet feather-light, but it's not so heavy that you can't put in a solid reading session without feeling like your arm is going to fall off. I even threw the Nook Tablet in the back pocket of my jeans and forgot it was there as I was walking around.
The Nook Tablet is built around letting you arrange your stuff the way you like it for quick access. Tapping the home button fires up the lock screen, which opens up into the home screen. There's a free area for you to arrange your favorite/current/most used books, magazines, and apps as you wish. Below that is an icon bar that scrolls marquee-style, presumably for secondary apps. And at the very bottom are permanent shortcuts to your book, news, music, movie, and app libraries, along with a notifications bar. Hitting the home button brings up a universal navigation bar, which lets you search, shop, browse the web, and access settings. Up top is the book/magazine you were reading most recently, and a drop-down menu option for a full list of recently accessed content.
For all intents and purposes, the Nook Tablet does everything it claims it will. You can watch TV and movies, read, and browse the web without a problem. It may not be the most powerful or most fluid device out there, but for the price, it's pretty damn good.
It's an efficient little guy; for the most part, there are only a couple of layers to navigate down into before you're in an app or book or movie or magazine. Rarely will you find yourself digging through multiple menus to find what you're looking for. And if something you frequently access is buried by default, you have the option of pinning it to your home screen.
Video playback in the two streaming apps is for the most part smooth, and only encounters the occasional hiccup. Though the screen resolution is only 1024x600, the tablet's more than capable of handling a 720p Netflix stream.
The act of flipping through pages in books and magazines is also quick and responsive. Apps are noticeably zippy thanks, presumably, to that dual-core processor. The browser's got some punch as well. The screen, in general, is very receptive to gestures, and rarely has an issue with inaccurately registering touches. Kids books that talk and interact and allow you to record yourself reading the book are cool if you have a child you care about but don't really want to interact with?
The Nook platform also has a solid social element to it that lets you see what your friends are reading, recommend books back and forth, and even share favorites amongst one another. Although honestly, how many (normal) people actively discuss their e-book reader activity unless they're in a book club or some sort of enthusiast forum? At least you can link your Facebook account to your Nook and to see which of your friends are also Nook owners, giving you a starting point for your book-centric social activity.
Much of the Nook Tablet feels incredibly familiar, mostly because it is. Almost everything Barnes & Noble has changed or added is for the better, but because those changes aren't readily apparent on the surface, the device just doesn't feel particularly new or exciting. The exterior design and screen are the same. Most of the changes to the software work behind the scenes. Many of the new features are also now available on the Nook Color (though that device doesn't have the same muscle for HD video and games). There's something to be said for consistency, but there were some areas for improvement in the Nook Color that were overlooked, like the visual design of the interface.
The UI is fine and functional, and generally well thought out. But it lacks style, or that ooooh factor that something has when the design is great (see: Windows Phone 7). And for as much as Barnes & Noble wants this to be a simple device, there's something inherently not simple, chaotic even, about devoting the majority of the home screen real estate to a no-holds-barred zone where you can stack book, magazine and app icons any which way. The home screen of the Kindle Fire runs with the same idea and structure, but it's much tidier.
Then there's the whole matter of storage. Those 16GB? The Nook Tablet only lets you fill 1GB with whatever you want; the rest is reserved for Barnes & Noble apps and content. Partitioning and controlling how the flash storage is used in the name of simplicity isn't completely lost on me. But there are surely more elegant ways of managing that problem than roping off all but a very small fraction of the 16 gigabytes. It won't ruin most people's Nook experience, since the target audience probably won't be sideloading onto this thing. But if you're paying for 16GB, you shouldn't have to root or buy an extra SD card to use it all.
Panning, scrolling and zooming are all noticeably choppy, though not to the point of being unusable. Flash video playback worked better in the browser than I imagined—partially due to some custom trickery by B&N's technical wizards—but audio had a tendency to fall out of sync.
Oh, and reading the NY Times is tragic on this thing. I felt like I was looking at a web page coded in 1995.
Should you buy it
If you're looking for a sub-$300 device, have already dropped a fair amount of money building a Nook library and don't already have the Nook Color, this is a no brainer. The Nook Tablet is a very capable device that will suffice for 90% of the tablet-using population. But for $50 less, the Amazon Kindle Fire offers nearly all the same essential features and performs at the same level, plus has a smaller footprint. Will you notice the benefits of having laminated screen and extra RAM enough to warrant the extra cash? Doubtful. It's hard to argue against value.
Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet
Screen: 7-inch IPS, 1024x600
Processor: 1 GHz dual-core
Storage: 16 GB internal, Free Cloud Storage for Books and Magazines
RAM: 1 Gigabyte
Weight: 14.1 Ounces
Dimensions: 8.1" x 5.0" x 0.48"
Battery: 11.5 hours reading/9.0 hours video (advertised)