The Nook Tablet: A Reader’s Tablet? A Techie Reader’s Review

I spent too much recenlty playing with Barnes and Noble’s latest Nook Tablet. Yeah, I know, I’m late to the party.

Before you start reading, let me make something clear: I reviewed the Nook Tablet, not the Nook Color. The Nook Tablet was released in November 2011, and currently retails for $199 $179 for the 8GB model and $250 $199 for the 16GB model. The Nook Color, on the other hand, was released in November 2010, and currently retails for $169 $149 for an 8GB model. Both can be found at your nearest Barnes and Noble.

So here’s the short of it: The tablet has good hardware, a great screen, and a splendidly crafted interface. But the experience marred by the Barnes and Noble App Market, which needlessly fails in nearly every measure. Want more details? Keep on reading.

Editor’s Note 8/15/2012 – Barnes and Noble recently updated the pricing of their tablets. You can read more about this and my thoughts on the move here. The observations and conclusions for this review still hold, however.  

Meeting the Nook Tablet

Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet

When you first open the Nook, it’s obvious Barnes and Noble took a hint from Apple’s playbook, with packaging as minimalist as that of the iPad (I’m talking more about the visual design than anything else: extra packaging has become so very passé.) Actually Barnes and Noble’s Nook team has said as much, even going so far as citing the Apple store as an inspiration for the Nook section’s sales floor in Barnes and Nobles stores. Left unsaid is that the Apple influence also shows up  in the way Barnes and Noble treats their app market, something covered later.

Looking at the device itself, it’s light, has a great tactile feel and focused on simplicity. There’s no camera, few buttons, and no extraneous bumps. The device has a very smooth feel. The only odd quirk is Barnes and Noble’s distinctive corner loop, inside of which you’ll find the MicroSD card port. This touch doesn’t get in the way, and in fact adds to the device’s visual and tactile aesthetic.

Nook Tablet MicroSD Port

Turning the device on, you’re greeted by a standard setup screen and after that, your Nook interface.

Barnes and Noble took care to simplify the Android interface, and made it more immediately usable for readers, by listing all the most recently read items along the bottom of the screen. For readers, this is a thing of beauty, and it was one of my favorite design changes. (Seriously, I was making dolphin sounds. It’s that awesome.) Apps and books can all be accessed via the Nook’s cataloging interface, which is accessed by clicking the nook “n” below the screen and clicking on the appropriate selection from the pop-up options.

Nook Tablet App Library: Very Simple Interface

But, speaking of apps…

The Nook Tablet App Market: Its Biggest Liability

The BN market really is anemic, to say the least. About 2000 apps, most of which are over-priced and/or meant specifically for kids. Now, Barnes and Noble is hitting hard and heavy at the parents with small children market with the Nook Color and the Nook tablet, but this is needlessly done at the cost of everyone else. If you’re looking for a tablet, don’t expect to find one here. This is, very squarely, aimed at readers.

And it gets worse. Side-loading apps on the Nook–that is, installing them by downloading them from a website or uploading them from a computer or memory card, instead of buying them from the Barnes and Noble market directly–is not that easy of a task on the Nook Tablet. Barnes and Noble did this specifically to “encourage” people to use apps from their pathetically small, sadly overpriced app market. Of course, you can get around that by either rooting the device (basically going in there and turning it into a regular tablet), dual booting using a memory card, by following these instructions, if you don’t care for either of the previous options. You can also find YouTube videos on the subject.

Once that’s done, you can side-load any of the Android markets, and download apps from those. I chose to go with the Amazon market because when I tried the standard Android market the tablet became unusable to me. (“I done broke somethin’!”)

Amazon App Store on Nook Tablet

But here’s the thing: while side-loading the Amazon market helped out, it should never have come to that, as Amazon has proven with their Kindle App Market, which I quickly installed on my device. Yes, I understand BN has been trying to follow Apple’s walled-garden approach, but really, all its doing is inconveniencing users.

Using Amazon’s market, I was able to install Go Launcher Ex, where I could actually load all the other side-loaded apps I’ve installed, since these didn’t even show up in the Nook installed app listings. (I prefer the Nook’s skin over standard Android.) And by “side-loaded” I mean “through the Amazon market”, not “through the MicroSD card.” After that I was able to install the Dolphin browser, the Google+ app, the free version of Angry Birds (the BN market version is, inexplicably, almost $2), better music and media management tools… you get the picture.

There’s More Good Than Bad

Despite its prominence, the BN market was about the only real negative I could find on the device. As far as reading is concerned, the Nook is quite nice. Reading text on it is wonderful, I love having magazines on it (RPG manuals look great on this, too, by the way, so gamers take note!), and the interface optimization really do emphasize that this is a device for readers. If BN offered to trade me a physical copy of my book for the ebook version I… don’t think I could turn them down. (I’d keep my Gene Wolfe collection, though.)  Video on it looks great, with no noticeable jerking, which plagued the Nook Color.

From a hacker’s perspective, it’s one heck of a device for the price, especially if you can find it used. In fact BN sells the them “certified pre-owned”, which I’ve never had a bad experience with: 8GB for $159 and 16GB for $179. (If you’re in the market for something cheaper, there’s also the pre-owned certified Nook Color 8GB for $139.) You can see the technical specs for the Nook Tablet at the Barnes and Noble Nook Developer website.

As a personal note, this thing with a standard Android market and the current interface would be pretty darn good, though I can see now why BN would want to discourage that: because of their screening, it’s less likely that the device would be infected by any sort of malware, whether from apps in the Google Market or sideloaded apps. The fact that they make more money by locking you in (and jacking up the prices on apps) is incidental, right? If the Barnes and Noble App Market had more than just 1/10 of Amazon’s apps, it might be worth staying BN-only. Hardware-wise, you can’t beat the expandable memory slot. Sure, you can use it to add more space on the device (which you’ll need, since you’re limited to 1GB of your own stuff, with the rest dedicated to BN-specific material)

Nook Tablet vs. Nook App for Smartphones and Tablets

Throughout all this you may have been thinking, “Well, Barnes and Noble has a Nook app for just about every smart phone and tablet out there.” You’re right. The company even has a Nook for Web interface (which I haven’t yet used), which means you can buy and read Nook books and magazines from just about any computer device.

So with all this, what’ the big deal about having the Nook hardware itself?

From a business standpoint it makes sense for them: a device that serves as a storefront for all their wares, specifically their books and magazines. But face it, they’re in this to make money. If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re OK with that, provided it’s an equitable exchange. (I have a few thoughts on what’s wrong with the publishing industry today, especially in regards to ebooks, but that’s a topic for another day.)

From a consumer’s point of view actually owning a Nook device entitles you to a few Barnes and Noble perks while at their stores. (And if you’re buying a Nook there’s a good chance that you already enjoy going out and relaxing at your local Barnes and Noble cafe.)

Barnes and Noble Nook In Store

Not only do you get free face-to-face tech support, but you also have access to their “Free Book Fridays”, where you can download a featured book for free. (Two of my favorite downloads have been Leland Gregory’s Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Through the Agesicon and Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About Mythology: Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned. Of course, they’re not just limited to non-fiction and history, I just happen to read a lot in that genre.)

In addition, while at the store you can read any book from their ebook selection for an hour, including books they don’t have in-store. If you’re thinking you can travel there for an hour every few days and finish off that book you’ve been meaning to read for a while but just can’t bring yourself to buy, don’t worry: this is sort of what they’re expecting. You also have access to coupons and specials that are updated regularly and sent directly to your tablet.

Note that these perks apply to owners of all Barnes and Noble devices, not just the Nook Tablet. They do not, however, apply to people who simply downloaded the free Android or iPhone app.

In short, if you’re only interested in another store from which to buy books, then downloading the app will do just fine. If you’re a bit of a Barnes and Noble fan and (like me) spend more time at their stores than you sometimes care of admit, then buying a Nook comes with a number of perks you’d enjoy.

Verdict

The Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet is an interesting device, one which I want to absolutely adore, which I want to be able to sit here and tell you, “Yes, buy this device because it’s awesome.” After all, they were the first big bookseller to the reader and tablet parties, and have been a trend-setter with their design choices. But I have to cap my excitement, due entirely to the Nook’s promise being stifled by by Barnes and Noble’s restrictions on the device’s usage and on the paltry app market options they all but force on consumers via those restrictions.

Still, my complaints are largely ideological. There is an audience for this kind of device and the functionality it offers, including its tightly controlled market. I would recommend to people (especially non-technical folks) looking for a device specifically meant for reading, watching Netflix or Hulu, or who have little kids and plan to buy a lot of children’s books. But even to them, I can only really recommend going with the 8GB model: the anemic Barnes and Noble app market–to which 7 of those 8 gigabytes are dedicated–all but guarantees that you will never use more than that, even if you plan to download thousands of books and magazines. In case you need more space, just buy a MicroSD card and put it into the expandable memory slot the device so wonderfully provides. (That feature alone may be the single biggest selling point for the device.)

If you don’t specifically fit into one of those categories, however, and are looking for the full tablet experience, you might do better to skip the Nook and find yourself for something else, especially at the $250 $199 range. Unless, of course, you spend a lot of time at a Barnes and Noble store. The perks might actually make it worth it.

Editor’s Note 8/15/2012 – Barnes and Noble recently updated the pricing of their tablets. You can read more about this and my thoughts on the move here. The observations and conclusions for this review still hold, however.  

Pros

  • The device is light and has a wonderful tactile feel. Important if you’ll be using this as a reading device, since often the biggest complaint about tablets is that they’re too heavy to be used as reading devices for long periods.
  • The Nook’s interface design is pretty good–I love the integration of books/magazines/apps in the “recently used” timeline, and the dedicated “take me to the last thing I was reading” button.
  • The print media integration is even better, and it’s evident that’s exactly what this device is intended to do.
  • For people who need a simple tablet, mostly for reading (particularly if they don’t have a smart phone or an E-Ink reader) this works great, and in fact, I’d recommend it: it’s light, has a beautiful screen that’s easy on the eyes, has marvelous features for readers, and has astounding battery life.
  • If you’re willing to hack this thing some then it’s a nice, cheap tablet if you can find one used.

Cons

  • The BN ecosystem stinks out loud. It can’t compete with the Amazon ecosystem, not to mention the standard Android ecosystem.
  • The 16GB model is pricey considering its age, unless you can get one either used, refurbished, or with that nifty deal BN keeps running where you also get a free $50 gift card.

Final Thoughts

Batman on the Nook

There are a few things about this device (or rather, this class of device) that make me leery of the tablet-for-reading concept:

  1. First, maybe it’s  just personal preference, but when it comes to reading, I’ll take E-Ink over a backlit screen nearly every day. The exceptions to this, are, of course, magazines and textbooks. For my books, I currently own a Nook Simple Touch, which my wife and I both adore. It’s easy on the eyes, better than paper in many respects, and the device itself is the perfect size.
  2. Second, as much as I thought I’d like the 7″ format… I think it’s a bit small for a tablet. Sure, it’s great for comic books and movies, but the size is too small for most magazines and textbooks, two markets for which BN has been pushing this device. (The third, as I mentioned, is parents with small children.)

(Speaking of comic books, if you want a tablet for comics, keep in mind that Marvel has a deal with Amazon while DC has a deal with Barnes and Noble.)

The Nook Tablet itself is not a bad reading device, and its design aesthetic is spectacular for the task, especially if you like the trade paperback format. The screen is crisp and clear, making for an enjoyable viewing experience, whether it’s words on a page, images in a magazine, or a movie from Hulu Plus. But if you’re looking for a tablet, go with a newer or more powerful model. At $250 plus tax for the 16GB device, this tablet is currently overpriced. (An argument can be made that the 8GB/$199 plus tax version is actually well priced, although even that pushes the envelope some by now.) If you need to pick between the two, get the 8GB model, no question: there’s not enough BN content to fill 16GB (and make no mistake, 15GB of that 16GB is for BN-downloaded content only), and you can always add extra memory via the MicroSD card slot. A 32GB MicroSD card will run you about $30 these days.

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the device. If you have anything you’d like to add, or if you have any questions, please drop me a line in the comment section below.

For more information about the devices listed, or to snag one for yourself, check out Barnes and Noble’s website:

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