With the Nook HD, US bookstore giant Barnes & Noble entered the wide-open 7-inch tablet market, but with the 9-inch Nook HD+ it faces a single and much more daunting foe.
The full-sized tablet market continues to be thoroughly dominated by the device that defined it - Apple's peerless iPad. When even Google and its technically impressive Nexus 10 can't make an impression at retail, what hope does the Nook HD+ have?
With a super-sharp 9-inch display, a slim and lightweight body, and a £229/US$269 full price tag for the 16GB version - or £269/US$299 for the 32GB model - Barnes & Noble certainly has some notable bullet-points to put on the box. But does the user experience match the raw specs?
In that respect it needs to learn a few lessons from close rival the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9, which got the price and performance just about right, but failed as a full-fat tablet experience.
The Nook HD+ wins instant points for its unique design. While you'd struggle to pick an Amazon Kindle Fire HD from a lineup of budget tablets, here we have a device that sports a couple of key visual flourishes.
Chief among these is the large hole-grip situated on the bottom left-hand corner of the tablet (in portrait view). It might be there to hook a lanyard through, but it also serves as a handy thumb-grip when handling the device, enabling you to get real purchase on it with a single hand.
Yes, unlike the iPad, this is a full-fat tablet that's light enough to hold in one hand - at least for brief periods. At just 510g (18oz), the Nook HD+ is almost 140g (5oz) lighter than the iPad 4. That's roughly the weight of an HTC One shorn from its body.
This has been achieved, inevitably, through the heavy (or should that be light?) use of plastics, though that's not to say the Nook HD+ feels especially cheap. It's no iPad mini on the premium components scale, but it feels fairly firm in the hand.
We did get some disconcerting flexing and creaking when we applied a little two-handed pressure, but in general usage it's a reasonably solid construction.
One slight negative from an aesthetic point of view is that typical bulging Nook bezel, which provides a raised ridge around the screen. With the aforementioned corner grip sitting flush with the screen, it makes the Nook HD+ look a little like a skinnier tablet that's been slid into some kind of protective bumper.
Still, the thick border aids handling, and will doubtless provide protection should you put the device down screen-first when in a hurry (shame on you).
Around the back, the Nook HD+ has a pleasingly tactile matt finish that reminds us of the Kindle Fire HD range. Curiously, there's only one speaker grille here compared to the dual setup of the smaller Nook HD.
In terms of hardware buttons, the Nook HD+ benefits from a physical home key on the front, although the tiny n-shape doesn't feel as reassuringly clicky as Apple's iPad equivalent. But then, it only has two simple functions to fulfill - to wake the device up and to return you to the home screen.
The other physical keys are even more vague, with the power button situated at the top of the right-hand side (again when held in portrait view), and the volume rocker just around the corner on the top edge, with a 3.5mm jack alongside.
These hardware keys are small and non-descript, and it takes a while until you can reliably hit them without having to look or feel around the edges.
One component that definitely punches above the Nook HD+'s weight is its 9-inch display. With a resolution of 1920 x 1280, it's virtually as sharp as the latest iPad's Retina display, and it's also remarkably clear.
If you're used to the colder, bluish tinge of the iPad, you might find the tone of the display a little yellowish, but it makes for an easier text-reading experience (Nooks are, after all, ebook readers above all else) and isn't as pronounced as, say, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7.0.
Finally, along the bottom of the device we have a proprietary 30-pin port rather than a universal micro USB port. If like us you love the fact that you can lug a single charger around for your Android tablet, Android phone and point-and-shoot camera, you'll find this particularly annoying.
There is some good news to be found along the bottom edge of the Nook HD+ though, in the shape of a microSD slot. Yes, unlike the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and the iPad, you can expand the Nook's memory by up to 64GB relatively cheaply.
All in all, the Nook HD+ is a well constructed tablet with a fine screen and an appreciable weight advantage over its rivals. It may not look the prettiest, but we'd back it to go a year or two without picking up any noticeable bumps or nicks, which is more than can be said for any iPad we've owned.
Indeed, Barnes & Nobel has taken a leaf out of its formidable rival's (e)book in producing a simplified home screen that pushes media content to the fore, ahead of even core tablet functions such as email, internet or widgets.
Curiously, despite this simplified approach the Nook HD+ interface feels sluggish, with frequent and noticeable stutters throughout.
This can be seen from the first time you wake the device from its sleep, which seems to take half a second longer than it should.
Speaking of the lock screen, it's possible to access multiple accounts straight from here, as you would on a PC. This enables you to filter out unsuitable content for a child's profile, for example, or to remove the ability to access the internet or settings menu.
You can switch between these (or set up a new profile) at any time by hitting your profile picture at the top-left of the home screen, though it can take a good few seconds for the Nook HD+ to make the change.
Past the lock screen and into the home screen you'll find a content carousel that, like Amazon's Silk UI, features the most recently accessed apps and multimedia content.
This too seems afflicted by the general lethargy found elsewhere in the operating system, with the panning and scaling of the icons far from buttery smooth.
Admittedly the Nook HD+ is hardly powered by the most cutting edge of processors, but its 1.5GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4470 CPU should really be capable of running such a lightweight UI without a hitch.
In terms of general layout, though, the Nook HD+'s UI is more or less as clean and unfussy as that of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD.
Adding app and media shortcuts to one of the five home screens is a simple matter of pressing and holding on an empty area of the screen.
This brings up a nicely arranged sub-menu that separates items in categories such as Library, Apps and Wallpapers.
There's even a Bookmarks category that pulls out your favourite internet shortcuts from your selected browser (which is now Chrome by default).
Dragging these icons around the screen is far quicker and more fluid than any other tablet OS we've used. In fact, it's almost too easy to do - you just need to touch and drag, with no holding or confirmation phase whatsoever.
Below these secondary app icons (or to the right if held in landscape orientation) is a row of five fixed icons that provide a handy shortcut to key functions including Library, Apps, Web, Email and the Nook Shop.
At the very bottom of the home screen is a search command that enables you to scour your Nook for a particular app or piece of media.
Alongside this to the right is a multitasking command which - like the search function - remains constantly available in the Nook HD+'s permanent black border, regardless of the present app or task you're in. Pressing it brings up a list of recent tasks that can be jumped to instantly.
Disappointingly, these aren't thumbnails of the specific tasks as in the stock Android OS, but simply their representative icons. But at least B&N has given some attention to the matter of multitasking, unlike Amazon.
There's also a notification menu of sorts, although it lacks the tactile pull-down shutter operation of stock Android and most of its bespoke variants.
Rather, you simply press the top-centre of the screen to raise the notification pane. Items such as messages, app downloads and calendar appointments can then be jumped to with a touch or dismissed with a swipe, as usual.
Touching to the right of this notification area, which contains the time, Wi-Fi connectivity symbol and settings and battery icons, will bring up the settings menu.
Just below this is another original Nook flourish - a circular icon containing the words 'Your Nook Today.' Press this to get local weather information from AccuWeather, as well as multimedia recommendations based on your recent library activity.
Internet and email
Following a recent update, the Nook HD+ uses Google's own Chrome web browser by default.
This is largely a positive move, since Chrome is pretty much the best tablet browser around. It works here just as it does on any other Android tablet.
You can add and flip between tabs by touching on the appropriate section along the top, launch searches or type in specific web pages in the unified URL field just below this, and access your bookmarks and other settings from a still-rather-clunky drop-down menu to the right.
However, you will have to make do without some of the neat functions of the original Nook browser, such as an offline reading mode and the ArticleView reader mode.
Still, a download of Pocket or some other decent reader app will cover this loss.
And the general familiarity and speed of the Chrome mobile browser - not to mention its ability to sync bookmarks with the desktop version - makes it a worthwhile trade.
Performance on the Nook HD+ is good, with web pages being rendered predictably well on its crisp HD display.
However, there seemed to be a slight lag when it came to scrolling and pinch-to-zooming on web pages.
Image-rich websites such as TechRadar really didn't seem to perform all that well on the tablet.
The Nook HD+ comes with its own native email app, as represented by the fixed email shortcut on the home screen. Naturally this can be supplemented by specific email apps, particularly Gmail.
As default email apps go, though, the Nook's is as good as any. It's extremely quick and easy to set up your account - just the email address and password are typically all that's needed - and you can also feed multiple accounts into it without things getting too confusing.
A nifty colour-coded tagging system enables you to bundle all of your disparate emails together into a combined view.
Alternatively, you can switch between each account by touching the Mailbox command at the top of the screen.
As has become the accepted standard for tablet apps, the basic email app layout involves a split between folder options on the left and a list of individual emails on the right.
Tapping an email opens it out to the full page in portrait orientation, or three quarters of the page in landscape format.
The email app handles embedded images and HTML newsletters very well indeed, with no noticeable formatting or performance issues throughout our test.
It's here that you'll likely come into contact with the Nook HD+'s custom keyboard the most, and it acquits itself reasonably well in terms of accuracy and layout.
However, without a word suggestion system or a swipe-based input option we soon headed for the Google Play Store to seek out a more fully featured alternative such as SwiftKey.
Fortunately such a move is now at least possible, following the recent addition of the Google Play Store to the Nook HD+ package. More on this on the next page.
Movies, music and books
And so we come to the core reason for the Nook HD+'s existence - media consumption. Like the Amazon Kindle Fire series, Barnes & Noble's tablet is designed to be the focal point for thousands of books, movies, magazines and newspapers through the Nook Shop.
With the recent addition of the Google Play Store, you can now open that out to music as well.
With such a wide variety of HD content available for the Nook HD+, then, that microSD card slot starts to look like an inspired inclusion - and one that other Android tablet manufacturers need to emulate if they're going to continue offering 16GB entry-level models.
Transferring content from PC to Nook can be achieved the old-fashioned way, using the bundled USB cable to hook up directly. It's then a simple matter of dragging and dropping the relevant files.
Watching films on the Nook HD+'s 9-inch display is a joy. Indeed, with a 1920 x 1280 resolution, Full HD 1080p content feels perfectly at home on the tablet.
Of course, nothing eats up storage space like Full HD films - the HD version of The Bourne Legacy that B&N provided with our test device took up a whopping 7.31GB of space. If you plan on carrying a lot of high definition films around on your Nook HD+, we'd recommend going for a full 64GB card.
Playback quality is unimpeachable. The Nook HD+ handles the extra detail levels with aplomb - and more importantly without stutter.
As with virtually every tablet we've ever used, headphones are a must. The sound emitted through the Nook's single speaker grille is pretty crisp, but it obviously lacks clear stereo separation and low-end punch.
Thanks to the relatively low weight of the Nook, it's also a lot more comfortable to sit holding the device in your lap for two hours than it is with, say, an iPad.
You can find your own transferred videos in the Library section in among all your other media, or you can go through the Gallery.
In terms of file support, you're fine for MP4, 3GP and xVID content, but like with its little brother the Nook HD we couldn't get DivX files to work on the Nook HD+.
On the plus side, UltraViolet is fully supported, so you have a ready home for all those digital movie files you've been acquiring through your DVD and Blu-ray purchases.
In fact, you can sign into your UltraViolet account directly from the Nook HD+ settings menu, making transfers a doddle.
Of course, you can also rent or purchase films and TV shows from the Nook Shop.
New HD film rentals seem to cost £4.50 to £5 (US$5 to $6), with SD versions generally around the £3.50 ($4) mark. New HD films tend to be around the £14 ($20) mark to buy and keep forever.
Naturally, older films are cheaper - around £3.50 ($4) for an HD rental and £8 ($15) for an outright purchase.
When the Nook Video service finally launches, you'll also be able to stream TV shows and films directly to your Nook.
Add in the Google Play Store and its own vast selection of video content and you won't be stuck for something to watch on your Nook HD+ any time soon.
Music is not Barnes & Noble's speciality, so with the recent software update it's wisely handed such matters over to Google.
Google Music is the new default music-playing app for the Nook HD+, and it's as slick and intuitive as it's ever been.
It can be located in the Apps folder, and booting up a transferred music file from storage for the first time will offer you the option to play through Google's service or the Spotify app, which also comes pre-installed.
Playing tracks appear in the notification bar, alongside pause and skip controls, though there are no lock screen music shortcuts.
Of course, Google Music isn't just a music player - it also offers you access to any music tracks you've uploaded to the cloud through the service (up to 20,000 tracks for free), enabling you to stream or download them directly to your Nook.
The Google Play Store also has a fairly comprehensive library of MP3s to purchase and download.
While it's not quite as extensive a selection as, say, Amazon's, it's generally decent and extremely competitively priced.
Needless to say, our advice to use headphones applies even more with music than it does with movies, since that single rear-pointing speaker array really doesn't cut it.
Books and magazines
While B&N doesn't do music, it certainly does do books and magazines. It's what the American company is built on, after all.
Sure enough, the top two categories in the Nook Shop are books and magazines, and there's a massive range of both to browse through and download.
There are plenty of books available for under £2.99 ($2.99) in all categories, while you can also subscribe to magazines and newspapers from within the appropriate section.
In both cases you can download free samples to get a taste of the book or magazine before committing to a purchase.
While B&N has the literary side of things pretty well sewn up on the Nook HD+, you also have access to Google's own books and magazines through Google Play.
The reading experience itself is very accomplished, with a reliable swipe-to-turn system and the ability to annotate, share and look up text with a press and hold on appropriate sections of text.
Pressing the arrow at the bottom of a page brings up further settings menus and options, which enable you to skip ahead, change the font size and type, play with line spacing and even tinker with the background colour.
The Nook's HD display renders plain text very crisply, and that slightly yellowish tinge we mentioned before actually seems to make the screen a little easier on the eye than the harsh iPad display.
It's still no replacement for a dedicated ereader, but if you're just reading a few pages a day it's more than up to the task.
The magazine reading experience, meanwhile, is really something special on the Nook HD+.
B&N has provided a lovely page-turning animation that reacts contextually - so if you swipe from the top corner of the page at an angle the page will 'fold' accordingly, revealing a part of the following page.
Gimmicky? Most definitely, and you'll doubtless overlook it after the initial novelty phase wears off.
But it makes navigating these digital magazines a surprisingly tactile experience that's second only to, well, a physical magazine.
You can also 'cut out' pages from your magazines and save them to a virtual scrapbook for later reference, which is a genuinely useful feature.
Apps and games
As we've already mentioned, the Nook HD+ now comes with access to the Google Play Store for apps - and it's a good thing too, given how poor the default Nook Shop is.
It's still presented front and centre here, but we predict that you'll swiftly forget about it (or at least attempt to) in favour of the vastly superior Google alternative.
Where the stripped back Nook Shop interface works reasonably well for books and movies, here, with a series of already basic app icons, it comes across as inefficient, unfinished and unappealing.
Navigation feels curiously cumbersome, with excessive horizontal and vertical scrolling for seemingly too few visible apps.
Speaking of too few apps, the selection in the Nook Shop is woeful. Off the top of our heads we can state that there's no Facebook, no Pocket, and no Feedly - and there are plenty more major omissions besides.
Even more inexplicable is the decision to unify the Nook Shop search function, so that seeking out the above three apps returned loads of unrelated books and magazines as well as apps.
You have to select apps from the additional drop-down Refine menu in order to narrow the field down, which is ridiculously clunky.
Thank goodness for Google Play, then. While you might find a couple of apps that don't run on the Nook, as we noted in our Nook HD review, most of the big hitters are present and accounted for.
This means around 700,000 apps are at your fingertips, many of which won't cost you a penny.
Google Play has really come into its own in recent years, and the latest redesign is a thing of stylish-but-functional beauty. It certainly puts Apple's App Store to shame for speed, intuitiveness and functionality - if not quite yet for range.
One tiny issue that the late addition of the Google Play Store has created is a split between official Nook apps and those from the main Android app store. This has been handled reasonably - if not exactly elegantly - by adding an 'n' to the icons of any apps downloaded from the Nook Shop.
On the plus side, the Google Play Store will recognise that you have a different version of its apps installed and offer you the ability to upgrade them, so there's really no compatibility issue here - just a spot of untidiness.
The games situation on the Nook HD+ reads much like the wider apps situation - a woeful default provision dramatically bolstered by the belated introduction of the Google Play Store.
Suffice to say, if you thought the range of general apps was poor on the Nook Shop, you won't believe the meagre games offering.
There's no dedicated section for games on the Shop, only a sub-category in the main apps menu.
We won't mention all of the major titles that are missing here (there are fewer than 2,000 titles on there in total), suffice to say that we hadn't even heard of nine out of the 11 games highlighted in the meagre Must Have Games selection under the Apps category - and we're avid tablet gamers.
So let's move swiftly on to the Google Play games offering. As with apps, the Android gaming scene has improved immeasurably in recent years, thanks to the platform's sky-rocketing popularity and Google's improved support.
The result is a selection of games that's still notably inferior to Apple's, but is comfortably the second best mobile games offering out there.
Thanks to the capable dual-core TI OMAP CPU and PowerVR SGX544 GPU at the tablet's core - the same as can be found in the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 - the Nook HD+ will run the vast majority of games on the Google Play Store, and run them well at that.
You might think it would suffer for the lack of a modern quad-core CPU, but the truth is few if any games really take advantage of such a multi-core setup.
We tried one of our favourite games for testing out a device's gaming chops, FireMonkey's 3D arcade racing extravaganza Need For Speed Most Wanted, and found that it played well, with just the odd stutter here and there.
Considering the game has to push out some highly detailed 3D models to the Nook's HD display - which means a large hike in pixels to be rendered - that's pretty impressive.
Naturally your 69p ($0.99) casual wonders such as Angry Birds and Cut The Rope will play like a dream.
Battery and connectivity
Barnes & Nobel claims that you can get up to 10 hours of reading time and nine hours of video time out of a single charge of the Nook HD+'s 6,000mAh battery, but a brief glimpse at the small print should tell you to take these claims with a pinch of salt.
These figures were obtained with Wi-Fi tuned off and power saving mode switched on, which cuts the screen brightness to less than half, effectively reducing the Nook HD+ to an extremely dim - and somewhat dumb - media player.
In moderate real life use, which involves cranking the brightness right up, leaving the Wi-Fi on and using the tablet for occasional web browsing, a little reading and the odd five minutes of gaming here and there, it's more than up to the task of lasting a couple of days like any other tablet.
We also applied our standard battery test of running a 90 minute 720p video with notifications and Wi-Fi on and screen brightness set to high, and seeing how much juice was left at the end.
The average result was around 77%, which is about par for the course, but works out to be far short of the nine hour best-case scenario that B&N quotes in its blurb.
There are no connectivity surprises with the Nook HD+. It's a Wi-Fi-only tablet with no 3G option, so don't expect to be able to download a new page-turner while you're sat bored on a beach this summer. Unless said beach has Wi-Fi connections, of course.
Bluetooth support is also included, as expected.
In terms of physical connections, we'll reiterate what a joy it is to have expandable memory in the shape of a microSD slot on the bottom of the tablet.
It really does open up the storage possibilities without adding a massive price premium. Alongside this is a custom 30-pin connection for charging and hooking up to your computer.
Again, we'll state what an annoyance this is when a standard micro USB port would have been easier on the eye and a whole lot more convenient.
As it stands, you'll have yet another charger to lug around with you on your travels.
Hands on gallery
The Nook HD+ is an undoubtedly flawed device that, at launch, looked like a poor proposition relative to its rivals.
But Barnes & Nobel has since adapted its offering, to the point where the Nook HD+ is now seriously worthy of your consideration as a budget full-sized tablet.
At £229/US$269 for the 16GB version, its full price matches that of its closest competitor, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9, while offering the same performance, a slightly superior display, expandable storage and - crucially - access to the Google Play Store. Currently reduced to £179 in the UK Nook Shop, it's now cheaper too.
The Nook HD+ sports a truly excellent screen that brings high definition media content to life.
It's also extremely light for a full-size tablet, making it as easy on the arms as its crisp picture is easy on the eye. If you're after a cheap but high-quality media player for a long journey, these two factors alone make it a serious contender.
We also applaud B&N's belated inclusion of the Google Play store. While it might muddy the user experience ever so slightly, it more than makes up for it by massively expanding the range and quality of multimedia content available for the tablet.
There are also a couple of original features that we approve of, including the possibility of setting up multiple accounts. Tablets are often shared among multiple family members, and this thoughtful touch increases that feeling of ownership - not to mention security and parental control.
Screen aside, the Nook HD+ isn't a particularly pretty tablet to look at. Its bulging bezel makes it look like a much sleeker tablet has been slipped into a cheap case.
For all the improvements that access to Google Play has brought, the Nook Shop is still at the core of the Nook HD+ experience, and it's sorely lacking. For apps and movies it's now practically redundant, and even its book offering has been compromised somewhat.
Beyond that, the Nook's custom UI continues to leave us cold. It's sluggish, sparse, and the potential for personalisation is severely limited compared to other Android tablets.
Ultimately, in general use it's bettered by any 'normal' Android tablet you care to mention.
We found the 7-inch Nook HD to be uncompetitive in a crowded field, but the Nook HD+ may well have carved out a niche for itself as an ultra-affordable full-sized tablet.
Its custom UI is clunky, its own media store is a bit of a write-off, and it won't win any awards for its looks. But for HD multimedia kicks on a budget, there aren't many better-value alternatives out there.
It's far from the best Android tablet experience available, but with its recent UK price cut, fine HD screen and all-new access to the Google Play Store, the Nook HD+ has somehow suddenly become worthy of consideration - certainly above the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9, at any rate.