The Nook brand stormed back into relevance a couple weeks ago with the announcement of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 custom-designed for reading. But did it really? Does the new Nook experience knock your socks off? When I used the Nook tab, my socks stayed firmly on my feet.
What Is It?
The new Nook tablet ($180 with instant rebate) is simply a Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 (on sale for $170 until 9/13, $200 thereafter) with some proprietary Barnes and Noble software installed. In other words, the tablets basically cost the same, but if you get the Nook version, you're stuck with the Nook software.
The Galaxy Tab 4 itself is a very middle-of-the-road option if you're looking for a small tablet. The Nook software lets you buy e-books from Barnes and Noble, as well as enjoy some personal recommendations. To boot, there's a convenient, custom Nook launcher that lets you return to what you were reading last from the home screen. These little treats are supposed to be enough to justify buying the Nook over a competitor.
Who's It For?
This device is geared towards people who want to read e-books on a tablet but who want to do other stuff on a tablet, too. These are the same kinds of people who would consider buying a Kindle Fire HD ($140 ) or HDX ($230). They might even consider the Nexus 7 ($230), though it's a bit more expensive—and more powerful—than the Nook tablet. But they might be looking for something a little bit sleeker with the word "SAMSUNG" on it. Barnes and Noble makes it extra enticing by throwing in $200 worth of content—and $5 worth of credit to buy, uh, a comic book?
I'll admit it. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 looks nice. The aluminum trim around the outside adds a certain elegance to the design, and it's lighter than a Goosebumps book. It's small enough to slide into your back pocket or slip into your purse. The 7-inch display is just the right size for reading books.
The tablet's textured plastic back, however, is the first of many indications that something is amiss with this device. That crispy vinyl, car dashboard sort of effect combined with the featherweight case doesn't quite sit right. The tablet feels cheap and flimsy, like something that would snap in half if you dropped it on your kitchen floor. But it looks nice!
Remember: the Nook tablet is for reading. So it's worth admitting that a beefy processor and sturdy case aren't actually necessary if you just want to read Game of Thrones on a tablet. The 1280 x 800 pixel screen isn't the best screen in the world. Both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX boast crystal clear 1920 x 1200 pixel displays. But the Nook renders text fine, albeit a little bit rough around the edges. The book-buying process is wonderfully streamlined, because of course it is. And despite feeling kind of flimsy, the lightweight nature of the device really feels like a feature if you've been holding it for hours.
Then things get a little bit ugly. As soon as you open up the Nook Store and try to scroll through the books for sale, you'll notice a lag. You can't not notice the lag. It's bad. At times, I'd swipe my finger upwards and would have to wait half a second for the screen to follow.
It feels like Samsung put an underpowered engine in the tablet. The Nook's 1.2 GHz quad-core processor certainly can't keep up with the 1.5 GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro in the Nexus 7. That's not all, though. The bulky Nook software slows everything else down. (At least that's what an employee at the Samsung store told me.) While some users might get used to the screen loitering a bit after a gesture, I couldn't stand it. I tried moving my hand more slowly so that the software could keep up, but navigating the device so lethargically became equally as frustrating.
So about that Nook software—it's confusing, at best. At worst, it's just unnecessary. The four main apps that differentiate the Nook tablet from a regular Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 are your Nook Library, the Nook Store, Nook Search, and Nook Today. Each one serves a specific purpose, but all of the features could easily be combined into one app. Heck, why didn't Barnes and Noble just integrate everything into the launcher app? It's confusing, for instance, that Nook takes up space with a specialized search app, when the functionality could simply be integrated into the device's homescreen. Similarly, Nook Today is just a recommendation engine. But why build a standalone app, when you could simply build the engine in the Nook Store?
The Nook Store isn't that bad, by the way. It's comprehensive, easy-to-use, and nice to look at. Buying books is easy, and downloading samples is even easier. If Barnes and Noble wasgoing to include a special app, it should be this one. But the silly thing is that you don't even need the special Nook tablet to enjoy all that the Nook Store has to offer. The Nook app for Android and iOS is very similar.
The Nook Library is less elegant. It works as a widget on your home screen and is designed to give you easy access to the books, magazines, movies, TV shows, and apps you've downloaded from the Nook Store. Good luck navigating it, though, because you can't swipe through the library. That gesture just moves you off the home screen. Instead, you have to tap tiny little arrows to the left and right of your content. It annoyed me every single time I used the tablet.
I really do like holding the Nook tablet. The size is perfect for one hand—and fits neatly in your back pocket. Plus it's so slim and lightweight, it feels like holding a magazine.
The classic Samsung Galaxy design is classic, so much so that I find myself admiring the curves pretty often. Things take a turn when you start actually using the thing, though.
The lag! It's everywhere, and it stinks. I stopped by the Samsung store near Gawker HQ to compare the latency to a normal Galaxy Tab 4, and the kind gentlemen helping me assumed that my Nook tablet had a dual core processor instead of the standard quad core. It's the same processor, but it's weighed down by bulky software, he concluded.
The Samsung rep was stunned by how much space the Nook software and related content was taking up. The Nook app alone takes up about 1.5 gigabytes. Separately, the content takes up space—and that can be deleted, of course. But it's weird for an out-of-the-box device to be so loaded down with books and videos and games that it doesn't work well.
It really doesn't work very well. Beyond the reading experience—which is okay!—all of my favorite apps took a step longer to load than they should've. Watching video content was okay at first. But when I tried to skip ahead in Orphan Black, one of the free shows that comes with the Nook, the sound got borked, so I gave up. In terms of pure user experience, Samsung's TouchWiz interface steals a little bit of the elegance away from the Android Kit Kat operating system.
It just feels like there's software on the Nook that doesn't need to be there—namely, the Nook software. Too bad for you, you can't uninstall it. You could, however, just buy the regular Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 and possibly save a few bucks.
Should I Buy It?
Nope. What's the point? On its own, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 is a mid-range tablet with mediocre performance. With the addition of the Nook software, it's just plain frustrating to use.
That said, the Tab 4 sans Nook software is a decent option at that price point. It's at least better than most of the cheaper tablets out there. If you really want a 7" tablet that can do it all, just cough up another $50 or so and buy the Nexus 7. It's great . If you're really hungry for a reading-centric tablet experience, go with the Kindle Fire HD. If you're feeling fancy, go for the Kindle Fire HDX. Any of these three devices serve as an excellent stand in for the Nook tablet.
If you really want a reader, buy a reader with e-ink. The Kindle Paperwhite is the best . Enjoy the awesome battery life and lack of glare. Read your heart out.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Nook Specs
• Networking: Wi-Fi
• Display: 7" display, 1280 x 800 pixels
• Processor: 1.2GHz Quad-Core
• Memory: 1.5GB RAM
• Storage: 8GB, expandable to 32GB via MicroSD
• OS: Android 4.4 (KitKat)
• Camera: 3MP rear / 1.3MP Front
• Dimensions: 4.25" x 7.36" x 0.35" inches
• Weight: 9.74 ounces
• Battery: 4,000 mAh Li-Ion
• Price: $180-$200
Photos by Nick Stango