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Nook HD+ & Play Store: Old dog & new tricks?
B&N recently kitted out their Nook HD+ tablet with the Google Play store as well as slashing the price to stimulate sales. Is it enough to make a forgettable tablet desirable?
When the Nook HD+ first came out, you might have spared it a passing glance. 9" 1080P screen? Very good! 16/32GB models with microSD expansion? Very good! Dual core TI OMAP CPU and 1GB RAM? Good enough. Customised Android build? Bad. Closed ecosystem with no Play Store? Very bad. £229 / £269 price point? Goodnight.
And so it was, that the Nook HD+ came to pass in November last year and it was largely overlooked by everyone but the most ardent of Nook fans. Intrigued Android enthusiasts tinkered in low numbers but a runaway success it certainly was not.
Fast-forward to May 2013 and something's changed. The future of Nook looks far from secure and a B&N fire sale has slashed the price of all their products, with the range starting at only £29 in the form of the Android equipped, e-ink Nook Simple Touch. The very top of the line Nook HD+ 32GB is now officially £199 (£189 from Currys), with the 16GB coming in at £179 and even better deals to be had if you're willing to hunt around and/or buy a refurbished unit.
What really makes a big difference though is that the walls around the Nook garden have crumbled and a new software update brings the full Google Play suite to the device. The Play Store, Chrome, Gmail etc. are all installed right off the bat giving the device far more versatility than before, although you are still subjected to Nook's custom UI to a degree (for notifications for example).
My tablet use nowadays really focuses around content consumption. Magazines primarily, but also news (via Currents), books, music, video with the odd bit of social (Twitter / G+ / Facebook). For this use the Nook HD+ seems perfect. A little smaller than the often overwhelming 10" tablets but with a no compromise 1920x1080 screen. As the price dropped (although it's still a lot more expensive than the insane US price - $149 / $179 for 16GB / 32GB respectively) I couldn't resist pulling the trigger and picking one up!
Let's start with the hardware first. Raw specs are only part of the story, but for a device that isn't brand new they're pretty respectable. The processor is a 1.5 GHz OMAP 4470 dual core item - not bleeding edge but not horrible either, 1GB RAM, that 9" / 1920 x 1280 / 256 PPI screen, microSD expansion, stereo speakers with SRS TruMedia support, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. No cameras of any description and a proprietary charging port (ugh) are the main flies in the ointment. The device weighs a not inconsiderable 515g and measures 240.3 x 162.8 x 11.4 mm. A sizeable 6,000 mAh battery is no doubt a significant contribution to the overall weight.
Holding the device in your hands it feels weighty but solid. On the front you'll find the huge screen (set back from the front of the device rather than flush fronted, unusual these days) a shiny silver physical Nook 'n' button and that strange 'cut off' corner with the hole in it for... well... I have no idea what that's for!
The colour is officially 'slate' which describes it well, dark grey. The screen is protected if you place the device face down on a surface. The back of the device has a soft touch coating which makes it very pleasant in the hand with a large embossed 'n' in the middle, more subtle 'nook' branding down the bottom and a speaker hole on the bottom left. Although the device does have stereo speakers with SRS, you're not going to get much stereo representation from the relatively small holes. The bottom of the device has an Apple-esque proprietary charging connector (a USB cable and 2 AMP charging adaptor ship in box) and a microSD slot behind a plastic cover. The power button for the device is on the top of the right edge, the 3.5mm headphone socket is on the top as are (strangely) the volume buttons, leaving the left edge completely empty. The edge of the device is a much darker grey (nearly black) and the overall look is very smart indeed.
After you fire it up and complete the setup wizard, you're presented with the customised UI showing links to your content and buttons along the bottom to open your library / apps / email etc. Down the bottom is a bar containing a search box and a task switching button and up top where you'd normally find the Android notifications is a bar with a user switcher on the left, a clock and clickable link to key shortcuts on the right and a notification indicator in the middle. So far so relatively easy to understand for anyone who is familiar with an Android device.
While the custom Nook UI is nice enough to look at, most of us will want to replace it with a 'regular launcher' and thankfully doing so is incredibly easy - just fire up the Play Store and download the launcher of your choice (I tried out both Action Launcher Pro and Nova and both worked admirably). This gives you a much more conventional Android feel although the customised top and bottom bars will always be retained.
The device's on screen keyboard is custom but once again, if you don't like it you can install another (e.g. SwiftKey tablet), straight from the Play Store. The recent release of Google Keyboard means you have another excellent, free alternative for the 'stock' look and feel.
If you use your launcher to fire up the Settings application you'll be in for a bit of a shock... there's not much in there! You can set up your WiFi and Bluetooth, toggle powersave and lock rotation, setup your keyboard and manually specify the brightness. There is no light sensor on the Nook HD+, so no auto brightness. An 'Applications' menu in Settings lets you specify preferences for the built in applications in a central place and accounts can be added and removed much like any other Android device. An option is also present to link the Nook to your UltraViolet account for playing video. Adobe Digital Editions is supported on the device. Automatic device backup / restore is provided by virtue of the new Google suite support (which, as we all know is patchy at best!), you can manage your internal storage (around 13.6GB is free on a 16GB device), network based location can be enabled / disabled and finally you can view the device information and factory reset. That is literally ALL the settings, a lot less than you would find on a regular Android tablet.
So that's a quick overview of Nook's changes to the base Ice Cream Sandwich OS... what about in real world use? After starting up the device and installing the latest OS and various app updates, I set about customising it to suit my use better. First up - installing a launcher. I opted to use Action Launcher Pro to give me a consistent user experience between my Android devices... it's actually well suited to the HD+, with it's tall, high resolution screen it's quick and easy to find what you want in the list.
Launcher done, I installed a battery monitoring widget (Battery Widget Reborn) to drop on the desktop giving me a better way of keeping an eye on battery. There is an indicator in the top right of the screen but it doesn't really tell me an awful lot and being a new device, I wanted to keep an eye on it.
Next? The reading apps. I installed everything I might think about using - Amazon Kindle, Currents, Nook (of course), Play Books, Play Magazines, Press Reader and Zinio. Amazon Kindle and Play Books are pure, simple, book readers and as you'd expect, work perfectly. Currents is actually unexpectedly awesome on the device - I've used it primarily on my phone in the past but it looks stunning on the tablet, with it's sync options too it's probably great if you commute. There's no need for me to tell you that the Nook app is very good on the HD+ is there. Play Magazines is the application I use most and boy, do magazines look fantastic on the device. It suffers from the same issue I have on every device without exception though... sometimes page turning can be a little slow in really rich publications. I can't honestly say that it's unbearable or it's obvious the 4470 processor is straining more than on my other devices here though. PressReader and Zinio, again, both flawless on the HD+. It's shaping up to be a great content consumption tool.
So, social. If you've used a tablet at all you already know that Facebook on tablet is an embarassment. Nothing's different on the Nook, although as it's designed to be used in a portrait orientation it looks a lot better than if you were to fire it up in landscape. For Twitter I use Plume which is fantastic and Google+ is well optimised for tablets nowadays so no complaints there.
The screen itself needs to be exceptional on the HD+ as it's the key selling point and thankfully, it is. The lack of automatic brightness can be a bit of a chore, but loading up my favourite magazine on the Nook alongside a Tablet Z I happen to have here and a Nexus 10, it really can hold it's own. In fact, I think the colour representation is probably better than on either of those.
The speaker on the device looks very small on the back, but it actually packs quite a punch. As you'd expect, there's not a ton of bass but it is loud! Being on the back you'll get better sound if you flip the device over but at least if you do so, the screen isn't touching the surface you're on.
Predictably, a great screen and a decent speaker combine to make a good device for video. A kickstand case is a good idea if that's going to form a significant part of your usage scenario. I loaded on TVCatchup, iPlayer, YouTube etc. and they all performed well. TVCatchup (the strangely named live-tv-not-catchup app) in particular is superb. I didn't yet install my video player of choice (Archos Video) for playing MKV files, so that might be worth checking if you plan to play a lot of 'downloaded content'.
Does the availability of the Play Store on the Nook HD+ really mean there's life in the old dog yet? I have to say, coupled with the price drop, yes - it does. There's some uncertainty about what Nook will be in the future but it doesn't matter really as there's a wealth of other ways to get content. If you're looking to drop sub £200 on a tablet then it's well worth considering. If you're in the US then at $149, it's an incredible bargain. Read through my pros and cons, maybe have a quick play in a store perhaps (John Lewis have display models) and go from there.
PS - I have also spent time with a Nook HD (the 7" model). Nice enough, but there are better options in the market.
Nook HD+ Pros
- 9" screen is an under-provided for market
- Excellent high resolution screen
- Solid build quality
- Google Play suite
- Very good value for money (especially in the US)
- No cameras
- No auto brightness
- Quite heavy
- CPU is a little old now
- Unknown future upgrade path
Nook HD+ pricing
Nook HD+ (32GB) @ Currys - £189.99
Nook HD+ (16GB) @ Argos - £179.00
Nook HD+ (32GB 'A' grade) @ CEX - £140.00
You can learn more about the Nook HD+ on the official UK site.
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