Posted by Jim Martin 23 May 2013
Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ review: a low-priced tablet that's great for films and magazines
Barnes & Noble first showed off its Nook tablets way back in September 2012, but it's only now that the 9in HD+ model is being allowed out for review.
The wait has been worth it. Not only is the hardware great value, but B&N has opened a new gate in its walled garden and allowed the Google Play store in. That means you now have access to some 700,000 apps and games that were previously unavailable to Nook tablet owners. Google Play also offers films, music and magazines, giving you a broader choice than the Nook Store alone.
Nook HD+ review: design and build
The HD+ differs from the plain HD by having a bigger screen. We like the size and weight of this 9in tablet, and the Full HD 1920x1080 resolution is a joy to behold. Everything looks sharp and detailed (cramming in 244 pixels per inch sees to that), and it's bright and vibrant to boot.
As it's an IPS panel, viewing angles are excellent and contrast is good. It means movies and TV shows look great, and reading a book or magazine on the Nook HD+ is just about the nicest experience short of the printed versions.
Although it's made from plastic, the HD+ feels sturdy and built to last. It doesn't bend or creak like inferior tablets and feels lighter than its 515g mass.
It's designed to be used in a portrait orientation, and has a volume rocker and headphone socket on the top edge. A sleep/wake button is on the right-hand side and you'll find a proprietary dock connector and a micro SD card slot on the bottom edge.
We'd have preferred a standard micro USB connector for syncing and charging, and a mini or micro HDMI output as well. However, the memory card slot is a bonus you won't find on the likes of an Amazon Kindle or Google Nexus tablet. You can add up to 32GB to the tablet's 16GB or 32GB of internal storage.
A mono speaker (which is reasonably loud) fires from the rear like an iPad, and that strange hole which looks as if it's for attaching a bunch of keys serves no purpose: it's a design quirk.
Nook HD+ review: software
Like Amazon's Kindle tablets, the Nook HD+ uses a heavily customised version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich. It's a triumph in many ways.
It's intuitive, fresh-looking and - importantly for families - offers password-protected user profiles and good parental controls. Few tablets tick the latter two boxes, and the ability to restrict apps and other content for your children (as well as personalising the look with different wallpapers for each user) is valuable.
Amazon's Kindle HD 8.9 is the Nook HD+'s closest rival and its dark interface looks cheerless by comparison.
When it originally launched, the Nook HD and HD+ were locked into Barnes & Noble's world, so if you wanted to install an app, buy a book or subscribe to a magazine or newspaper, it had to be from B&N's curated selection.
With Google Play, the choice is significantly broader. Content from the Nook store has a little 'n' icon so you can identify it in your library.
Another change is that the old web browser has been replaced by Google Chrome. If you use Chrome on your PC, it means you can easily sync bookmarks, logins and more. Browsing is zippy enough but gone is support for Flash so you end up with the same issues as the iPad (although you could install a different browser from Google
You also get Gmail, YouTube Google Maps apps pre-loaded.
One thing that hasn't changed is the lack of an option to install apps from other sources, so there's no side-loading of apps from, say, Amazon's App Store.
Nook HD+ review: performance
On paper, the HD+ has decent specifications, so it should be as slick and fluid as the best tablets. It has a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU and - according to Geekbench 2 - 768MB of memory.
In Geekbench 2, the Nook HD+ managed an average of 1332, which is ahead of the Nook HD (1199) but behind the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (1398).
Our gaming benchmark, GLBench told us the Nook HD+ ran the Egypt HD test at 12fps (an identical result to the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and 2fps behind the Nook HD). That sounds bad, but not many tablets fare better. All three are fine for casual games.
However, what benchmarks won't tell you is how fast a tablet feels in general use. The Nook HD+ fares worse than the Kindle Fire here as it can be slow to respond at times, whether that's loading an app or merely navigating through menus. Interface animations, such as the carousel of recent apps and content, also stutter from time to time.
Nook HD+ review: battery life
B&N claims the Nook HD+ will last 10 hours if you're reading a book, or nine hours if you're watching videos. We ran a film on loop, at full brightness and with Wi-Fi turned on, and it lasted for six and a quarter hours. However, turning brightness down to 50 percent (a more sensible level) increased this to over nine hours - a good result.
Charging takes 4-5 hours, and that's with the included mains charger. The Nook HD+ won't charge from a USB port, and it wouldn't charge from other USB chargers we tried, either.
Nook HD+ review: verdict
Chances are, you're weighing up whether to buy the Nook HD+, Kindle Fire HD 8.9 or possibly an iPad mini.
The iPad mini is perhaps the easiest to dismiss. It's more expensive, has a much lower resolution screen and a new version is surely on the cards in the not too distant future.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 starts at £229, but you can't add storage and you have to pay extra if you want a mains charger and don't want lock-screen adverts. You're also locked into Amazon's walled garden, with no access to Google Play.
That leaves the Nook HD+ in pretty good shape especially since - at the time of review - the 16GB model cost a trifling £179, and doubling internal storage to 32GB would give you change from £200.
The lack of cameras will be a turn off for some (you won't be making video calls with Skype, for example) but despite this and the stuttery interface, the HD+ is easy to recommend. Buy one now before the price goes up.