Nook HD Review (from an Android user’s perspective)

I’ll start off this review with an introduction: My name is Jason Dodge, and I’m an Android enthusiast. I’ve been using Android devices since the original Motorola Droid; from Android 2.1 to 4.2; on phones, tablets, and PCs. I follow Android news, get excited about new OS updates, and use 3rd-party Android ROMs on my phones and tablets.

 

Since last year, I’ve been looking to upgrade from my old Galaxy Tab 10.1 to something newer and faster. Having found 10” tablets too large for my taste, I wanted something smaller. With its decent hardware and promise of continuing support and OS updates at a low price, I was eyeing the 2012 Nexus 7. With that in mind, last month, I bought… a Nook HD.

 

This is my review.

Hardware

 

The unit I am reviewing is the 8GB Nook HD. On paper, this is a surprisingly impressive piece of hardware. Notable specs include:

 

  • 1.3GHz Dual-Core ARM CPU (TI OMAP 4470)
  • 1GB LPDDR2 RAM
  • 7” 1440×900 IPS LCD Display
  • 8GB onboard storage (5GB available) (microSD slot available for up to 32GB additional storage)
  • Nook interface (built on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich) w/ Google Play
  • Price as reviewed: $119 (currently $129 at barnesandnoble.com)

 

However, as is often the case, real-world use has exposed far more interesting information than exists on any spec sheet – both positive and negative.

 

Positives:

 

Fast CPU. Though firmly rooted in 2012, and therefore uncompetitive with this year’s high-end phones and tablets, the processor in the Nook HD is easily powerful enough for everything I’ve been able to throw at it. Browsing the web with Google Chrome, playing YouTube videos, and editing documents and spreadsheets with Kingsoft Office, all failed to slow this tablet down in the slightest.

Enough RAM. The 1GB of RAM in the Nook HD, while no longer competitive with the 2GB in top-tier phones and tablets, is still more than sufficient for everyday tasks and for gaming. In my use, I have yet to hit any RAM-related performance issues.

Solid Graphics Performance. Having previous experience with the gaming-oriented nVidia Tegra 2 processor in my Galaxy Tab 10.1, I was expecting this less gaming-focused tablet to, at best, match the gaming performance of the older 10” tablet. In reality, there is no contest between the two – the Tegra 2 cannot begin to keep up with the CPU in the Nook HD.

Fantastic Display. This is arguably what the Nook tablet line is best known for, and the HD does not disappoint. The 1440×900 display is vibrant and bright, with excellent viewing angles. No other budget 7” tablet can come close to this level of quality – Almost a full year later, the display on the 2013 Nexus 7 is a worthy competitor, besting the Nook HD at nearly twice the price ($229 on Google Play).

Expandable Storage. Ran out of storage space on your Nook HD? Throw in a microSD card for up to 32GB of additional space. This expandability is notably lacking in the Nook HD’s most direct tablet competitor, the Nexus 7.

Price! Not even a full year ago, the $130-and-below price range was firmly owned by questionable, underpowered no-name Chinese tablets. With the Nook HD at this low price, it’s honestly very difficult to want to look for a cheap tablet anywhere else.

 

Negatives:

 

Button Layout. Specifically, the Nook Button. This one is purely subjective, but as an Android user, I’ve found it disorienting to have the Home (Nook) button on hardware, while the others are rendered onscreen. I do have more to say about those onscreen buttons, but I’m saving that for later.

Build Quality/Quality Control. This is the big one; the crocodile in the room. Overall, when all goes according to plan, the build quality of this tablet is fantastic. It feels solid in the hand, it doesn’t flex under pressure, and its overall shape and grippy back generally make it a joy to hold and use. Unfortunately, B&N’s hardware quality control seems to be terrible. Within two days of receiving my Nook HD, the front bezel peeled up and tried to separate from the edge of the tablet. It seems that the glue used to keep the case together was under-applied, allowing it to fall apart. I promptly took the unit to my local B&N for replacement. Three Nooks later (their customer service was fantastic, and their employees surprisingly patient as I opened each package, checked around the edges, and handed them back), and I finally settled for one that is only somewhat loose around the edges. I certainly haven’t babied my Nook since then, but I have been keeping a close eye on it, and this one is holding up to my abuse so far.

Battery Life. Barnes and Noble likes to boast that the Nook HD can last ‘up to’ 10.5 hours of use on a single charge. This might be true if all you do is read with the screen brightness turned down, but if you start browsing the web, watching video, streaming video, or gaming, this number drops dramatically. Though I haven’t run formal battery usage tests, when using the tablet primary for YouTube, with some browsing and gaming in-between, the battery dropped from roughly 80% to 5% in around 3 hours. If anyone expresses interest in a more formal test of battery life, I can do so and update this review accordingly.

 

Interface

 

The software on the Nook HD will be simultaneously familiar and alien to anyone familiar with current (4.0 and above) versions of Android. Some of the basics are there – onscreen buttons along the bottom, notification panel along the top; while others are noticeably absent – a standard App Drawer being the prime example, although there is an apps list with some of the same functionality.

 

The default Nook HD home screen

The default Nook HD home screen

On the default Home screens, you’ll find a row of buttons along the bottom of the screen – shortcuts to frequently used tasks. There is a shortcut to your Nook library, an apps list, your default web browser, an email app, and a B&N app/content store. The rest of the Home screen is occupied by app and book shortcuts of your choosing.

 

The onscreen navigation buttons change depending on what you’re doing. On the Home screen, you only get a search box and a quick link to whatever book you were most recently reading. In the Library, you get a context menu. In the web browser, you get a Back button. The Android multitasking button, which allows you to switch quickly and easily between running applications, is not present, and there is no equivalent.

 

The notification bar along the top of the screen is visible everywhere except the lock screen, and competently covers most of the basics. Battery level, time, Wifi signal strength, and the currently logged-in user are all displayed clearly and prominently. Where the notification bar falls flat, unfortunately, is its competency in displaying notifications. Notification icons are displayed in the center of the bar, but despite having ample space on either side, only two icons can be displayed at any time. If you have two or more things vying for your attention (email, chat, and Facebook are all good examples), the second icon becomes a speech bubble, denoting that you have more notifications waiting for you. This problem is exacerbated if you’re using an app with a persistent icon (an anti-virus, for example), because that icon will appear above all other notifications, pushing all of your standard notifications out of sight.

Seriously, look at all of that free space. There is plenty of room for more information.

“You just took a screenshot! Oh, and I guess some other things might be happening too.” -Nook HD

 

Software

 

I’ll cut to the chase here. The most interesting software feature of the Nook HD, from the point of view of an Android user, is the Play Store. This is a fairly recent addition, having only been introduced a few months prior to this review’s publication, and without this addition I would not have chosen the Nook HD. The Google Play Store opens up the Nook HD (and HD+, which also has Play Store support) to the entire Android app ecosystem, and this allows the Nook HD to make the jump from an excellent ereader, to a good general-purpose tablet.

 

I’ll be honest – the first thing I did after receiving my Nook was to install an alternative to the Nook Launcher. Many excellent options are available on the Play Store, some mimicking the stock Android interface and some deviating entirely. I chose Smart Launcher for its simplicity, but for anyone who chooses to explore the selection of alternative launchers, it’s largely just a matter of personal preference.

 

Smart Launcher Pro on my Nook HD

Smart Launcher Pro on my Nook HD

This is where I hit my first snag: Without the Nook Launcher, I had no idea how to access my Nook Library or other such features. After a bit of exploration, I realized that the Library has its own icon, just like any other app, when you’re using a 3rd party launcher. This icon takes you to the Nook Library screen, with everything intact. Nice touch, B&N.

 

With this out of the way, I quickly browsed the Play Store and went about installing my most frequently used apps and games. All of the Google apps (Play Music, Play Books, Play Movies, Maps, etc.) installed without issue, as did competing ebook apps including Kindle and Kobo. My mobile office suite of choice, Kingsoft Office, installed and ran without a hitch, and with the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, my Nook quickly became an adept mobile workstation (Parts of this article were written on my Nook HD with a generic Bluetooth keyboard and Kingsoft Office).

 

I'm a writer!

I’m a writer!

I'm a writer with a fancy keyboard!

I’m a writer with a fancy keyboard!

Unfortunately, I have run into a number of bugs and incompatibilities. A few of my often-used apps identify as incompatible with the Nook HD and won’t install, even though they work well on other devices running Android 4.0. This hasn’t happened to a large percentage of the apps I tried to install, but it is frequent enough to become a minor annoyance. The other main issue I’ve experienced involves a number of the apps that came pre-installed on my Nook, most notably the Twitter app and Pandora Radio. These apps come linked to the Nook Store instead of the Play Store (when I received my Nook, the software was a few updates behind, and one of those updates enabled the Play Store). When the affected apps try to update through the Play Store, they throw up an error message which asks whether they should be replaced with their Play Store versions. I answer ‘yes’, but the error continues to pop up with the same set of apps almost every time they try to update, and sometimes they fail to update entirely. After talking with another Nook HD owner, I’ve verified that I am not the only one experiencing this issue.

 

All in all, the Play Store is a very welcome addition to the Nook HD, and I would not use the tablet nearly as much without it, but it is a far less satisfying experience than would be found on a ‘typical’ Android device.

 

Games

 

 

Gaming may not be the first activity that comes to mind when considering an ereader, but when considering one as a general-purpose tablet, it needn’t be ignored. I won’t load this section of the review with benchmarks and performance metrics – those can be found from many sources with a quick Google search. What I will say is that the Nook HD is a solid gaming machine for all but the most high-end titles.

 

I’m a gamer.

I'm a gamer.

I’m a gamer.

In my time with the Nook, I’ve played more casual titles like Angry Birds and Plague Inc., along with more demanding titles like Beach Buggy Blitz, Minecraft Pocket Edition, and Riptide GP2. Every game I’ve thrown at the Nook HD plays smoothly at the highest graphics settings with the sole exception of Riptide GP2, which wouldn’t run with the higher Shader settings, but ran well with every other setting maxed out. I’m looking forward to trying Grand Theft Auto III: 10 Year Anniversary, and I’ll update with the results when I do.

 

The biggest hurdle to gaming on the 8GB Nook HD is the general lack of storage space. Only 5GB of space is available for apps, and for a heavy gamer, that space will fill up fast. I don’t have a working microSD card to test with, so I’m not sure how its inclusion would affect the app storage situation.

 

Root/ROM

 

Though beyond the scope of this review, it’s worth mentioning that the Nook HD and HD+ have lively 3rd-party developer communities, and with a bit of courage and enough know-how to follow intermediate PC tutorials, the Nook firmware can be modified or replaced to your heart’s content. Android versions up to 4.2 (4.3 is already in the works) are available through 3rd-party channels, completely replacing the Nook experience with that of a fully up-to-date Android tablet. I plan to replace the Nook firmware with CyanogenMod 10.1 or 10.2 (Android 4.2 or 4.3, respectively) soon, and if there is enough interest, I can post an update about the install experience and about using the Nook HD after the change, and whether or not it fixes the frustrations I’ve experienced so far.

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

Overall, I am impressed with the Nook HD. It is a fast, capable tablet with a beautiful screen at an unbeatable price. With build quality issues, a terrible notifications system, a glitchy Play Store, and a far outdated version of Android, it certainly isn’t perfect, but if you can manage with these issues, this is still by far the best tablet you will get at anything approaching this price. It is my opinion that, if tablets like the Nexus 7 did not exist and revolutionize the way people look at cheap tablets, the Nook HD would be capable of holding its own at twice its current price.

 

Bottom Line

 

I haven’t found my dream tablet in the Nook HD, but I am more than satisfied with it, and I don’t think I’ll feel the need to upgrade again any time soon.

 

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