Mere months ago, Apple was the undisputed king of tablets. The Californian company no longer sits so easily on that throne however, thanks to an influx of cheap tablets designed for downloading ebooks, movies and games.
Google's excellent Nexus 7 tablet is the one to beat, while Amazon's Kindle Fire HD device is useful, but lacks the ability to download video. US bookseller Barnes & Noble is wading into the battle for your cash with its 7.7-inch Nook HD tablet. But is this £159 gadget worth your time, or would you be better off with a tiny tablet from Google, Amazon or Apple?
Should I buy the Nook HD?
The Nook HD is a reasonable choice if you're looking for a media consumption gadget that's not too tough to get to grips with. This is a cheap, good-looking tablet that's easy to navigate and offers some neat software treats, but even if you're persuaded, I'd advise you to hold off on a purchase for a few weeks, because the Nook's video offering isn't available quite yet.
We know that when it does arrive in early December, videos will be playable offline, and we know that the screen has the potential to make hi-def movies look glorious. We don't know how many films will be on offer though, or how much they'll cost, and seeing as watching films is a big part of this device's appeal, that's a pretty big unknown quantity.
For now the Nook HD is a promising gadget, that -- if its video offering is up to scratch -- could just edge out Amazon's alternative when it comes to design and an attractive interface. If you're feeling just a little more ambitious or technically savvy however, a far superior choice is Google's Nexus 7, which does everything the Nook can do and a whole lot more, once you learn to navigate its Android interface.
Design is definitely the Nook HD's strong suit. It's a slim device with a soft-touch coating across the back and sides that makes it comfy to hold in one or two hands. The back of the Nook HD has a shallow indent with a recessed Nook 'n', while another tiny 'n' sits beneath the screen and serves as a home button, while the tablet comes in either grey or white.
The Nook HD isn't noticeably thicker than the Kindle Fire HD or the Nexus 7, but at 11mm deep it can't measure up to the iPad mini's 7.2mm frame. Apple's tablet is much more expensive however (£269 for the 16GB model), so you're paying a big premium for that design. This tablet feels well put together, and while I noticed a bit of flex in the plastic back, the Nook HD feels sturdy -- it'll survive the odd knock.
At 315g the Nook HD is much lighter than the 395g Kindle Fire HD. It doesn't feel particularly airy, but neither is it likely to cause your wrists any grief if you hold it for long periods of time. You won't fit it inside a pocket, but any rucksack or handbag would easily accommodate this slate.
The bezel around the display is partially covered by more of that soft-touch plastic mentioned earlier, so you're not confronted with great swathes of unsightly black gloss around the screen itself. There's a home button beneath the screen for hopping back to the Nook HD's homescreen, which is more useful and easier to find than the Kindle Fire HD's virtual button.
All things considered this is a good-looking gadget for the money you'll be paying. The Nook HD doesn't look as classy as the Nexus 7, but I think it's considerably easier on the eyes than the chunky Kindle Fire HD.
The best thing about this tablet in hardware terms is its 7.7-inch screen, which packs a honking 1,440x900 pixels. That's higher than the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD, both of which offer 1,280x800-pixel panels.
In practice the difference is slight, and chances are the displays on both those rival devices will be more than adequate for your needs. That said, this is a great screen, rendering text with a pleasing clarity and making videos, Web pages and photos look bright and sharp. Digital magazines look a treat too, with the high pixel count making it easy to read smaller chunks of text.
The distance between the display itself and the top of the screen is very slim, which gives the Nook HD a classy feel, and the viewing angle is generous so, if you wanted, you could crowd a few people around the screen without anyone getting a bad view.
Like almost every gadget out there however, the Nook HD's screen is terribly reflective, making the display all but unviewable in bright conditions. If you have dreams of lazing in the park on a sunny day enjoying an ebook, you'd be better off getting an E-Ink device such as the new Kindle Paperwhite, which handles sunny conditions with ease.
Software and performance
The Nook HD is powered by Android, though you'd never know it, as Barnes & Noble has created its own, heavily customised interface. Happily, however, that interface is easy to navigate, and looks good to boot.
The homescreen contains shortcuts to apps, books, movies and magazines from your library. There are five homescreens in total, accessible by swiping left and right, though you'll need a huge amount of stuff to fill all those panels.
Along the bottom of the display are links to your library, a list of apps, the Web browser, your email and the shop, where you buy new digital goodies. The library button lists everything you own, with media sorted by category into books, magazines, films and TV, apps, childrens' and newspapers.
That layout is slightly different to the Kindle Fire HD, which also runs a modified version of Android and displays links to your app collection, books, films and so on along the top of the screen. Neither device is particularly difficult to find your way round, but I'd cautiously suggest the Nook HD feels slightly more intuitive, and its homescreen certainly looks better than Amazon's somewhat spartan effort.
There's a 1.3GHz dual-core processor lurking under the bonnet, which keeps everything moving at an acceptable pace. I noticed occasional lag here and there when swiping through homescreens or browsing the Web, but for the most part things feel slick, and crucially movie playback appears smooth.
Importantly, the Nook HD has a microSD card slot, which lets you expand on the meagre 8 or 16GB of available storage. None of its main rivals at this price offer this.
There are a couple of nifty software touches worth highlighting. You can have multiple user profiles on one tablet, and choose which books, movies and so on appear on each profile. You can set up profiles for kids too, and choose which features of the tablet are enabled -- you can disable browsing in the shop, purchasing without an account password, non-childrens' content in the shop, Web browsing, video and even tinker with which movies appear by their age rating. If you share a device with other family members, the options are fairly comprehensive.
When you browse magazines you can get a quick preview of every page by dragging your finger along the bottom of the screen, and if you tap the 'your Nook' icon on the homescreen you'll get a weather report in your location, as well as some recommendations based on what you've been reading or watching, or taken from a list of interests you select when you make your profile.
Book, TV and movie selection
There's no point in buying one of these media tablets if the list of things you can download is shorter than Winnie the Pooh's shopping list, and this is where forming a judgement on the Nook HD gets a little tricky, as not all of its services are ready yet.
At the time of writing, if you go to the 'movies and TV' section of the Nook HD's virtual shop, you see a holding page which informs you that Nook Video is due in early December. That's not long to wait, but as we don't know yet how comprehensive the movie selection will be and how much videos will cost to rent or buy, it's hard to assess whether the selection is good value, or how it compares to rival tablets. I'll update this review when the store goes live.
As for books, Barnes & Noble boasts a library of 2.5 million editions, which on paper is more than Amazon's touted access to "over 1 million of the most popular books" on the Kindle Fire HD. Sheer numbers aren't much representation of what's available though, and whichever device you opt for, chances are there will be books you want to buy but can't access.
I tried searching for popular titles and didn't find any notable omissions, though some searches did reveal clutter you're unlikely to want, such as books about the book you're looking for, or summarised versions. The shop can also feel a little untidy -- a search for sci-fi author Iain M Banks revealed several of his novels translated into Spanish. The English-language options were present too, but further down the list. There's duplication too -- I spotted over six versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, all of which had different prices, and no clear way of telling the differences between editions.
Unlike Amazon's Kindle devices, the Nook HD supports the popular .epub file format, so you can read books that you've bought from a broad range of online ebook shops.
The magazine selection seems healthy, and contains a decent number of publications across a number of categories. Of the major UK newspapers only the London Evening Standard, the Independent and the Daily Star are represented.
The app selection isn't exactly mind-blowing either -- the Nook has its own store, and you can't add the Google Play store, so you're missing out on its vast wealth of widgets, tools and games. Popular apps such as Flipboard and Grooveshark are present and correct, as well as Twitter, Netflix and Dropbox. I couldn't find a Facebook app though, which is an unfortunate absence.
There are a few entertaining games, such as Fruit Ninja, Words with Friends and Angry Birds: Star Wars, but beyond these few major titles there doesn't seem to be much here that will keep you entertained in the long term.
Finally, unlike most tablets there's no music library, so don't expect to be purchasing and downloading albums using this tablet. If you've a penchant for tablet-based tunes, the Kindle Fire HD, Nexus 7 or iPad will cater to your needs.
Media selection seems stronger in some areas than others, then, while video is an unknown quantity. The Kindle Fire HD only lets you stream movies rather than download them for offline play, so it won't be hard to beat in this regard, but for now we can't really offer a verdict on which tablet is better when it comes to media selection.
Battery life is pegged as 10.5 hours of reading or 9 hours of video -- I found the battery seemed capable of lasting a whole day, but be aware that intensive games and downloading movies are likely to whittle power reserves down faster.
The Nook HD is a winner in hardware terms, thanks to a satisfying, sturdy design and a gorgeous screen. The interface is another plus, as it looks attractive and isn't too fiddly to navigate.
The cost is appealing too, though as noted above, there are worthy alternatives available for the same price. For now the Nook HD gets the same score as the Kindle Fire HD, but we'll take another look once the video offering has launched and revise the star rating if necessary.
If the Nook HD turns out to offer a mind-boggling range of movies and TV shows it could prove a better device than the Kindle Fire HD, but it's unlikely that it'll impress me more than the Google Nexus 7, which is one of the most capable devices money can buy.
If you can wrap your head around the more complex operating system on Google's tablet, you'll find it offers a simply enormous range of apps, as well as access to a wealth of video services, and ebooks via Amazon's Kindle app.