Released in November 2011, the Nook Tablet is Barnes & Noble's entry in the 7-inch tablet market and the successor to the previous Nook Color. While similar in form and interface to that previous device, the Nook Tablet packs a dual-core processor for speedier use, along with additional storage space and a microphone, plus better battery life and a lighter device weight.
Originally only available in a version with 16GB of internal storage for $249 (the version reviewed here), an 8GB option was released earlier this year for $199, seemingly to put the device head-to-head with Amazon's Kindle Fire.
As of this writing, however, the 7-inch tablet market has become significantly more competitive via the introduction of the Nexus 7 from Google and Asus, which delivers a pure Android 4.1: Jelly Bean tablet experience at the same $199/8GB and $249/16GB price points.
Despite that recent development, the Nook Tablet remains Barnes & Noble's best available option, with no official word from the company on when to expect a potential successor, and the selling price remains the same.
But with the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire pulling a lot of the buzz in the smaller tablet market, does this established reader brand have what it takes to compete?
Or has this device become so quickly dated by the others' advances that only those already firmly entrenched in the Nook ecosystem should pay it any mind?
Unlike the sleeker, minimalist designs employed by the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7, the Nook Tablet features a thick and raised grey plastic bezel around the screen, with a physical home button (shaped like the Nook logo) below the display.
A physical power button is found on the upper left side of the unit, while volume buttons are located on the upper right.
The headphone jack is located on the upper right, and on the bottom beneath the home button is a micro-USB port for connecting the device to a charger or computer.
Unique among the headline 7-inch tablets is the ability to utilize a microSD card (up to 32GB) to expand the storage of the Nook Tablet and access video and other media files. The opening is found through a small, magnetized flap on the lower right of the tablet's backside, which can be pulled loose and replaced with ease.
The Nook Tablet sports a plastic-heavy build with a rubberized touch and clearly differentiated pieces comprising the frame. The front bezel sits atop the lighter grey border piece, which holds a separate, thinner backing that has a little give to it.
The overall sensation is that of a cheaper build than other leading tablets – almost like a kid-friendly device might be.
And aside from leaving access for the microSD slot, the visible hook on the lower left side is an odd visual touch.
Along with the difference in internal storage between versions, the 16GB Nook Tablet features 1GB of RAM compared to 512MB on the smaller release, which should give the pricier model a slight performance boost.
Display and interface
Both models feature the same 1024x600 multitouch display seen on the Kindle Fire, which is solidly bright and detailed within many apps, though the main user interface and some bits of text look blurry at times. Rated at 169 pixels per inch, it's a dramatic step down in clarity from the Nexus 7 and especially the new iPad with Retina display.
Tapping the home or power button while in sleep mode brings up the lock screen, while sliding the green Nook icon to the right earns access to the home screen. Based on Android 2.3: Gingerbread, the Nook Tablet uses its own highly customized UI, which puts an emphasis on reading, while the home screen features ever-present links to various segments of the Nook Store.
Favored apps, books, and magazines can be dragged and dropped to anywhere on desktop-esque upper portion of the home screen, eschewing the typical hard-locked grid system utilized by many modern devices, while other recently-used apps and media are listed on a scrollable feed near the bottom of the screen. Below that are the links to the book, magazine, movie, music, and app marketplaces.
At the bottom is a bar for notifications, the clock, Wi-Fi signal, and battery life indicators, and tapping on any of those last three brings up the settings menu. You'll also notice a small book icon on that bar, as well as at the top of the screen, and clicking either will bring back to your last-read book or magazine in a snap.
Pressing the home button also brings up a shortcut menu with access to the web browser, personal files, and a more complete listing of apps and media.
Sadly, getting around proves a cumbersome experience. Everything seems to have an extra menu or two to dig into to get to what you really want, especially when it comes to browsing the apps marketplace.
Pressing the "Apps" button on the home screen triggers a pop-up that offers targeted recommendations plus links to your library and the wider store, and then once in the store, the unattractive design makes it difficult to find what you're looking for.
The Nook Store design is too simplified and lacking in detail to be of much use, not that there's much to find – keep reading for more on that point.
But it's a common trait within the entire UI: it's neither stylish nor refined, and while everything works, little is impressively executed.
Even getting around the menus has a sluggish feel to it – surprisingly so on the more expensive model that we reviewed, with its 1GB of RAM.
Internet and connectivity
The Nook Tablet supports Wi-Fi b/g/n, but only at 2.4Ghz speed. No 3G or 4G option is available, though Barnes & Noble offers free Wi-Fi access in any of its retail stores. Bluetooth is not available, making it a pretty barebones device in terms of overall connectivity options.
A built-in web browser proves capable, but not especially speedy or remarkable.
A combined search and URL bar is a nice touch, and the interface displays zoom in/out buttons for easier access after pinching, plus text can be reflowed with a double tap.
Bookmarks and history are viewable by pressing the star icon to the right of the URL/search bar, though accessing more advanced features – like flipping between and opening windows, or refreshing the page – are found a layer deeper by pressing the far-right button, which draws up a list of options.
It's not an elegant design, but it's functional – and power users can grab the free Dolphin Browser HD or consider other options in the Nook Store.
An email app is also included from the get-go, which is straightforward but effective for light usage. You can even star messages when using Gmail, though individual emails in a conversation are unfortunately not displayed in a threaded view.
Much like Amazon's Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet overhauls vanilla Android to create its UI experience based around the company's own digital ecosystem – in this case, Barnes & Noble's Nook Store, which hosts apps, games, books, and magazines.
However, the standard Android Market (or Google Play) is not accessible via the Nook Tablet, leaving users with the much smaller selection of apps found in the Nook Store.
We'll explore this subject further on page 6, but the difference in content availability isn't anywhere near a positive selling point for the Nook.
Battery life and storage
Battery life on the Nook Tablet comes in at 11.5 hours of reading and 9 hours of video, which actually puts it ahead of the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 in its size category, and the official estimates held up in our testing.
For those who want a small tablet primarily for reading, Barnes & Noble's device does offer a bit more uptime in that regard.
Having a 16GB version of the Nook Tablet for $50 more gives it a leg up over the Kindle Fire, which is still sold strictly as an 8GB version, though the Nexus 7 matched Barnes & Noble's dual-model approach. And the amount of space you actually have to work with for your own files is much smaller than assumed.
With the 16GB model we reviewed, the Nook website claims the Tablet allows just 1GB of space for personal files, with 12GB reserved for Nook Store content. But didn't bear out in testing, as we were able to utilize 8GB for personal files, while nearly 6GB was reserved for the Nook Store.
Meanwhile, the Nook website says that the 8GB Tablet model has 4GB available for personal files, which sounds more in line with reality, though we didn't have a chance to test that.
Still, those who want to put a fair amount of content on even the 16GB tablet will need an external microSD card to do so.
But as noted before, that's one of the big perks of the Nook Tablet over the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 – expandable memory.
The Nook supports a wide array of video and audio formats, and can read myriad types of documents, so for those reliant on their own stored-up media libraries, it's arguably the standout feature.
Apps and games
A quick glance at the Nook Store reveals a familiar array of apps: everything from Pandora, Twitter, and Flipboard to Angry Birds Space and Words With Friends. But beyond a small handful of headline options, the offers fall dramatically flat of what you'll find on most other tablets.
And that's just one of the issues with the media ecosystem.
The standard Android Market might pale in comparison to the iOS App Store, but at least it hosts a wide array of options. Amazon's marketplace, by comparison, is even leaner, but it's catching up – and has the benefit of video streaming through Amazon Prime. The Nook Store, by comparison, feels like it's being largely ignored by a wide array of developers and media producers.
You won't even find an official Facebook app here, and browsing through the listings reveals a lot of half-hearted games and knock-offs of popular experiences from other platforms, seemingly to fill the gaps left by the oddly MIA real titles. And as noted earlier, the storefront is unintuitive and not well designed, with no option to see best-selling or popular apps, and no special features or graphics. It's sadly utilitarian.
Perhaps worse yet, the Nook Store doesn't offer movie, TV, or music downloads; clicking either of those options from the home screen simply points you towards movie and TV streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus, or music equivalents like Pandora and Rhapsody.
Books, magazines, and newspapers are plentiful, but that just seems to echo the Nook Tablet's real intent.
It's a reading device with some basic tablet features, not a fully functional and connected media device.
For some users, that's fine – especially for those who have considerable Nook reading libraries.
But it feels stuck in the past compared to the options available on Kindle Fire, Nexus 7, and most other devices.
When the Nook Tablet shipped late last year, it seemed like a modest update to the earlier Nook Color, which itself felt like a middle step between a traditional e-reader and a true tablet. The Kindle Fire easily trumped it on UI and available media, though, and now the Nexus 7 has made both feel rather simplistic. So what purpose does the Nook Tablet serve now?
The ability to expand the storage via an optional 32GB microSD card is sure to be a perk for some users with extensive personal video or music libraries, and simply want a low-priced, portable tablet to run it all on.
While the UI doesn't do it any favors, the display is comparable to the Kindle Fire and apps and games that we're used to on other platforms with comparable specs and dimensions largely work just as well on the Nook Tablet.
Aside from some flexibility in how you arrange your apps and books and such, the UI isn't appealing. It's cumbersome in use, adding extra steps on your path towards both buying and using digital content, and text can look blurry in places.
The Nook Store is a pale shadow of what we've seen on other platforms, whether it's the startlingly paltry app selection or the lack of native movie and music stores. Even getting around the minimal app listings and finding what you're looking for can be rather frustrating.
Encased in various forms of plastic, the Nook Tablet feels a bit cheap, like a device designed specifically for kids. It's a bit awkward and heavy in the hand, even though the larger borders were seemingly designed to benefit reading.
Beyond the ability to run a fair bit of media from an external microSD card, nearly everything else about the Nook Tablet experience is either adequate or worse compared to other seven-inch options like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. From the meager app offerings to the clunky UI and cumbersome build, it's a device that feels significantly older than it really is at this point.
Surely Barnes & Noble has something more advanced on the horizon, but for now, the only users we can see even considering a Nook device like this are those already so entrenched in the Nook reading ecosystem who wish only to occasionally surf the web, check email, or use apps like Netflix and Angry Birds. More advanced needs should be pursued with more advanced tablets, even at the $200 level.