First impressions of Barnes & Noble's Nook HD and HD+

Ahead of the announcement of the Nook HD and larger HD+, Barnes & Noble invited us and other reporters to a thorough preview event in New York City. There, we were able to get a better idea of what to expect when the pair of high-def tablets lands this November.

I wasn't a fan of either the Nook Color or Nook Tablet. Both were unfocused, caught between trying to offer a robust multimedia experience alongside the e-reading that Nook is known for. The end result was sloppy, with a reading experience subpar to what you'd get with an E-Ink screen, and hardware that didn't quite have the muscle to handle everything else. With the HD and HD+, Barnes & Noble apparently read my mind: the Nook team saw these weak spots and attacked them head-on.

Rebooting The Hardware

With the Nook HD and HD+, Barnes & Noble threw the Nook Color and Nook Tablet out the door. It can be said without a whiff a cliché that the new tablets have been built from scratch.

Barnes & Noble's Bill Saperstein, vice president of engineering for its digital products, likened this approach to one that dealt in "parts instead of modules." That is to say, after deciding on the various components that would go into a Nook tablet — most significantly its screen and guts for processing and storage — instead of buying what manufacturers are selling, Saperstein and his team worked with their part suppliers early on to design the right bits rather than buy existing modules and make them fit.

This hardware-first approach has led to two devices that don't feel iterative. The screen on the HD+, for instance, is a full 9-inch display as opposed to the 8.9-inch screen on the new Kindle Fire HD — a size the Nook team would have had to work with if it bought modules instead of parts. The HD and HD+ also have fully laminated touchscreens, which cut down on glare and reflection and make for a crisper-looking image overall. Just how nice these screens look was clear even in the near-final prototype units we were playing with: the 7-inch Nook HD manages 243 pixels-per-inch (at a resolution at 1440 x 900) and the 9-inch Nook HD+ packs in 256 PPI (at 1920 x 1280), both of which get pretty close to the iPad 3's 264 PPI on a 9.7-inch, 2,048 x 1,536 screen.

Another important part of the design process was tooling the tablets for one-handed operation. To that end, they're as light as can be, and at 0.69 pounds, Barnes & Noble wages it has the "lightest 7-inch tablet" around. Interestingly, the Nook HD and HD+ aren't as slim as they could be. They are svelte, but Saperstein pointed out that the contoured backs of the tablets are deliberately thickened so you can comfortably hold them, rather than going with a future-chic, sleek backpanel that slides against the fingers.

We won't know until we can check out the final units, but both the HD and HD+ left a good first impression in terms of hardware, especially when you consider that the basic Nook HD and HD+ retail for $199 and $269, respectively.

Profiles & Channels

Two new features coming to the Nook's software impressed: Nook Profiles that allow for more control of your library (especially for parents), and Nook Channels that — surprise! — aren't for music and video, but rather for books.

Nook Profiles will let you split up your single device with up to six people. This helps keep things tidy if you're one to share, and your library won't be filled with a bunch of books you have no intention of reading. It also gives parents more control over what kids can access on the Nook. Nook Profiles are split between "adult" and "child" accounts, and adult accounts can restrict access to child accounts in terms of content and purchasing power. One nice detail: an adult account can preview a book, comic or what-have-you before sending it along to the child account. Profiles on the Nook are easy to switch between, too.

The new Nook Channels are, for someone who still enjoys reading, the most enticing feature on the way: each Channel pulls together a bunch of book suggestions into one list, but what you'll find there is a step beyond an auto-generated "What Others Bought" section as you'd find on Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other websites. Channels are curated by hand and by algorithm together, and are designed to speak very directly to a certain kind of reader. An example of this we saw was two history Channels that were similar in genre only: one list provided books that were big, detailed histories, while the other Channel was for fans of history written with more of a narrative, such as Robert K. Massey's Peter the Great: His Life and World (a book that I have on my own shelf). 100 Channels will be available at launch and more will be added regularly.

Barnes & Noble confirmed to us that this Channel functionality would find its way onto the Nook with GlowLight, too.

Nook Video

Nook Video will be familiar to anyone who has bought a movie off of iTunes or, say, Android Market. It's meant to be an easy-to-use hub for everything that isn't a book on the HD and HD+.

The Nook Video store has a lot of promise if you're into enjoying movies and television on the go. You can stream or download anything you buy. Where you stopped watching a video syncs in the cloud, too, so you can pick up where you left off just like you can with a book, even if you go from your Nook HD+ to the Nook Video app on your smartphone. Just as Kindle and Nook expanded onto pretty much every other device in app form, so will Nook Video.

Some other bells and whistles: you can pair the HD or HD+ up with any Bluetooth-capable speaker you have to boost your sound, and, similarly, both tablets can output full HD (at 1080p for the HD+ and 720p for the HD) onto another screen, such as your TV at home.

Both the Nook HD and HD+ will also be fully integrated with Ultraviolet through Nook Video, if you're into that.

The Bottom Line

Both the Nook HD and Nook HD+, especially for the price, are by all appearances a pair of solid contenders. That said, both tablets are unabashedly content consumption machines. Neither device has a camera, and the focus here is on reading and watching, not on writing, filming and generally doing. This is typically something that tablets take some heat for, but at the low price points the HD and HD+ are launching at, it's pretty easy to forgive.

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