Revisiting the Nook HD+: Google Play and a price drop make all the difference
At Gizmag, we cover emerging technology. So it's natural that we'll gravitate towards the new: new devices, new services, new breakthroughs in science and technology. But every now and then, something that's been around for a while gets a fresh coat of paint and, in a sense, becomes new all over again. Like the Barnes & Noble Nook HD+. Do Google Play and a huge price drop make the tablet worth picking up, approaching a year after its release? We put it through the paces to try to help you answer that.
First, a quick walk down memory lane. The Nook HD+ launched in November of 2012 as the more expensive big brother to the Nook HD. At release, the Nook HD+ cost US$270. It wasn't a bad price for the hardware, but limited software (read: a crappy app selection) posed a problem, as it always has for B&N's Nook tablets.
But earlier this year, just as tablet shoppers seemed to have forgotten about the Nook, B&N dropped a bomb by adding Google Play to the Nook HD and HD+. The Play Store, Gmail, and Google Maps were officially supported. Hell, Chrome became the default browser. Suddenly a tablet that had been held back by a half-cocked version of Android became a full-fledged Android tablet.
Unfortunately even the addition of Google Play didn't seem to get many customers' attention. So last month, as Barnes & Noble was announcing its intent to abandon tablet development (something they've since changed their mind about), the Nook HD family saw a massive price cut. The seven-inch Nook HD dropped to US$130, and the nine-inch Nook HD+ fell to $150.
Once customers make up their minds about a product, it can be hard to change that. But perhaps it's time to expand your thinking about the Nook HD+. Meditate, ingest some peyote, whatever it takes. Because we're looking at a large, easily-hackable tablet with a high-resolution display, a solid-enough processor, and Google Play – all for $150. It's a combination we haven't seen before.
The funny-looking tablet you can hold in one hand
Beginning with 2010's Nook Color, B&N's tablets have always had a, shall we say, "unique" look. "Bizarre" would be another way of looking at it. We're looking at large, thick, plastic bezels with a loop built into its lower-left corner.
That loop, apart from adding a differentiating flair, can be used to attach a lanyard. But do you really need your tablet to dangle from your wrist or backpack? It's an odd choice, to say the least, and one which Barnes & Noble has stuck with for three generations, including on the Nook HD+. We don't mind it, and we applaud the company's originality. From a certain perspective, it even looks stylish. But it also isn't something we expect other companies to copy anytime soon.
The best thing about the Nook HD+'s build is that it's a piece of cake to grip with one hand. The 4th-generation iPad, which costs over three times as much, can be cumbersome to hold for long periods. It also isn't ideal for one-handed use. The Nook HD+, with its thick bezels and light plastic build (it's 21 percent lighter than the iPad), is much easier to grasp with one paw.
The Nook HD+ is a pretty beefy tablet (it's 11.4 mm thick), but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. A thin tablet can look sleek and sexy, but we're more concerned with how comfortable the dang thing feels in your hand. Here the Nook HD+ delivers. It's a great balance between one-handed comfort and screen size.
About that screen
Here in August of 2013, the Nook HD+'s screen isn't cutting edge. After all, it's been about 18 months since the first iPad with Retina Display launched, and the Nook's sits a half-step behind it in overall display quality.
But with that said, this display is still pretty darn good. Its 256 pixels per inch (PPI) density is roughly the same as the iPad's 264 PPI. Text and images aren't as crisp as they are on the new Nexus 7, but everything is all plenty sharp, as you can see in the image below.
We like the Nook's 9" screen size. It gives you a lot more real estate than mini-tablets like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire do. The Nook gives you 70 percent more screen area than those two (that's the new Nexus 7 on top of the Nook in the image below). But it's still small enough to lend itself to that one-handed use we appreciate so much. Its 3:2 aspect ratio also makes it more logical to hold in portrait mode than 16:10 or 16:9 tablets.
The IPS display is plenty sharp and a great size, but it isn't perfect. Whites have a slight yellow tinge to them. It isn't something we think will throw off your experience, but if you put its display side-by-side with an iPad or Nexus 7, those tablets' whites will look whiter. Brightness is also solid enough, but other tablets get much brighter on the highest settings.
Performance isn't mind-blowing, at least by mid-2013 standards. On a technical level, the Nook HD+ is running a dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor, clocked at 1.5 GHz. It's speedy enough for most uses, but pick up the Nook HD+, then pick up the new Nexus 7 or iPad 4, and you (unsurprisingly) see a noticeable boost.
If the Nook's combination of large, high-resolution screen and Google Play was sounding too good to be true, then performance is that compromise you were waiting for. The device isn't too sluggish, but be prepared for some minor lag here and there. It was enough of an annoyance that we rooted it, installed Cyanogenmod, and ran some root-level performance tweaks to level that playing field (more on that in a minute).
We don't sweat benchmarks too much these days, but for those keeping score at home, our Nook HD+ tallied a 437 (single core) and 765 (multi core) in Geekbench 3. When we installed a CM10.2 nightly build (based on Android 4.3), those jumped to 444 (single core) and 815 (multi core).
If benchmarks help you to put things in perspective, more power to you. Our experience-based perspective, though, is that the Nook HD+ delivers solid enough performance for most users, as long as you don't mind taking a couple steps back from the bleeding edge.
Battery life, and the case of the missing camera
Battery life isn't stellar, but it also isn't too much of a concern. In our tests, we streamed video with brightness set at 75 percent while connected to Wi-Fi. The Nook HD+ conked out after five and a half hours, almost identical to what the new Nexus 7 scored in the same test. The only caveat there is that 75 percent brightness on the Nexus looks brighter than it does on the Nook.
With more typical use, including periods of both activity and inactivity, the Nook HD+ should have no problem lasting a full day.
As for cameras, well, there are none. If you like to video chat, you'll want to use your smartphone or laptop, or just skip the Nook altogether. There's also no rear camera for those awkward tablet photo ops.
Barnes & Noble's version of Android, in itself, is par for the course for a content-subsidized tablet. It's built on top of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and styled heavily with light grays. Apps, books, and other media are highlighted on a carousel near the top of the homescreen. You naturally get a full selection of Nook-branded media apps. Similar to Amazon's Kindle Fires, a lot of it is designed to push you towards B&N content.
But the addition of Google Play, introduced in May of this year, takes a fairly ho-hum Android skin and makes it much more enjoyable. You get the full Google Play store, and the full suite of Google apps. Gmail, Maps, Google Now, and all the other usual suspects are in tow. Apart from the occasional compatibility issue, anything you could download on any other Android device is fair game here.
The addition of the Play Store and Google's services takes a down-and-out Barnes & Noble shopping mall, and invites the bigger and better shopping mall next door to take over half the stores. It makes the Nook HD+ a much a more versatile tablet than it used to be.
To hack or not to hack?
Nook tablets have always been easily hackable. You can chalk that up to the fact that they let you boot from their microSD card slots. You can root them, install custom software on them, and even run that custom software straight from the SD card.
Barnes & Noble obviously wants you to leave the stock firmware on there, buy lots of Nook e-books, and help them to fight their way back from hard times. But if you root your device and install a ROM based on stock Android, your $150 investment will go even farther.
We won't dig too deeply into the nitty-gritty details of hacking the Nook HD+, but if you head over to xda-developers, they have all sorts of instructions and files to help you out. The bottom line is you can grab a microSD, install Cyanogenmod, and come out with a pretty solid stock Android 4.3 tablet.
Hacking isn't for everyone, so we'd suggest browsing the various xda guides to see if you're comfortable with that kind of thing. Third parties will also sell you SD cards pre-loaded with the necessary files, but if you have a moderate comfort with technology, we'd suggest saving your money and reading some tutorials. Just know that you're voiding your warranty and are fully responsible for turning your device into a paperweight, should things go south.
The Nook HD+ isn't a new device, and its manufacturer shows all signs of being on the ropes. But the flip side of that is the company is desperate to get your attention, to the point where it's dropping a very solid tablet down to a ridiculous $150.
If it still cost $270, it would be hard to wholeheartedly recommend the Nook HD+, even with Google Play. The competition (especially the new Nexus 7) is too good, and it's only going to get stiffer in the coming months, with two new iPads expected.
But at $150, the Nook HD+ has been reborn into one of the best tablet values around. If you want plenty of bang for your buck, we recommend heading to a store with display models, playing around, and possibly walking out with the cheapest tablet you've ever bought. You might save yourself $350 or so in the process.
Product page: Barnes & Noble