In the tablet wars, Barnes & Noble is the scrappy underdog. Lacking the development resources, vast content stores and marketing muscle of deep-pocketed rivals like Apple and Amazon, it still somehow manages to remain competitive.
The latest example is the new Nook HD, B&N’s entry into an increasingly crowded market of similarly sized compact color devices that includes Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, Google’s Nexus 7 and Apple’s somewhat larger iPad mini. Measured against them, the Nook doesn’t excel, but does at least hold its own.
Its biggest asset is its display, which is a pleasure to behold. The 7-inch-diagonal screen has a resolution of 1440 by 900 pixels, putting it first in its class. E-book text was sharp and crisp, while the movie “The Dark Knight,” with its deep blacks, was appropriately creepy.
At 11.1 ounces, the Nook is also lighter than either the Kindle or Nexus 7 — and nearly as light as the iPad mini. Its starting price, $199, matches those of the Nexus and the ad-supported version of the Kindle, and is $130 cheaper than the iPad mini.
Barnes & Noble has also improved the user interface, making it easy to create new accounts and set parental controls so family members can share a device without worrying that the kids might access unsuitable content. B&N says the Nook HD delivers up to nine hours of video or 10.5 hours of reading between charges; I found the battery life decent if not spectacular, depending on what I was doing and whether I had the Wi-Fi on or off.
But the Nook HD has a significant set of shortcomings as well.
Unlike the other contenders in this class, there’s no camera, front or back, so forget about using it for Skype. The base model also comes with only 8 gigabytes of storage, less than the others (though you can expand it at extra cost using its SD storage slot). And while its book selection is very good, Barnes & Noble is only just starting to build out its stores for movies and TV shows. Music? Forget about it.
Apps are another weakness. The Nook HD, like the Kindle Fire HD, runs a tweaked version of Google’s Android operating system. But also like the Kindle, you can’t install garden-variety Android apps on it.
Instead, you’re limited to ones that are approved by B&N and available only through the on-board store. It’s got some of the biggies — Netflix, Angry Birds, Evernote — but is lacking the depth and richness of Apple’s ecosystem, or even Google’s library of blown-up smartphone apps.
In short, the Nook HD has a beautiful screen, but not many other compelling reasons to choose it over the competition. Unless, that is, you like rooting for the underdog.
Then again, don’t we all?