Editors' note (September 27, 2012): Barnes & Noble has cut the price of the Nook Tablet line: the 8GB Nook Tablet is now $179, the 16GB is $199. Prospective buyers should note that Barnes & Noble is planning to launch two new Nook Tablets in early November 2012.
Editors' note 2: Thanks to the release of recent high-quality tablets, the overall score of the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet has been adjusted down from 7.7 to 7.4.
Editors' note (February 21, 2012): Barnes & Noble has released an 8GB version of the Nook Tablet. It has half the storage and half the RAM of the model reviewed here. Read the full review of the 8GB Nook Tablet.
Editors' note (November 23, 2011): After additional testing, we have updated the reviews and ratings for the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet since their original publication. For additional information on which of these closely matched products is best for you, see Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet: How to choose.
When I reviewed 2010's Barnes & Noble Nook Color, one of my biggest complaints was that it felt a little underpowered for a tablet. Sure, it was fine for reading e-books, running games like Angry Birds, and surfing the Web, but it just didn't run as smoothly as an iPad.
Despite that drawback, the Nook Color was arguably the best 7-inch tablet out there for the money, and a lot of folks who "rooted" the device to turn it into a fully open Android tablet seemed to agree with that assessment.
Now we get the Nook Tablet. It costs the same $249 as the original Nook Color, which remains on the market for $199, but adds more storage (16GB, plus a microSD expansion slot), a faster dual-core 1GHz processor, a beefy 1GB of RAM, and an integrated microphone. In short, except for leaving out Bluetooth, Barnes & Noble has addressed many, if not most, of the Nook Color's weak points and put out a strong product that's easily recommendable at its price point.
People are asking two questions about the Nook Tablet: Is it better than the Kindle Fire? And is it worth $50 more? They're tough questions to answer, if only because it depends on how much of an Amazon or Barnes & Noble person you are and whether you prefer a simple black slate to the more refined, stylized look of the Nook Tablet (some people don't like the little loop in the bottom left corner that covers the memory card slot, for instance, whereas others think it's a nice distinguishing factor).
Personally, I give the nod to the Nook Tablet in both the design and specs department. But I must say that I like the Fire's interface and, as an Amazon Prime member and frequent Amazon shopper, when I got my Fire review sample I was able to log into my Amazon account and jump right into the services integrated into that device, including the instant video streaming. (A Prime membership costs $79 per year.) I'd also previously downloaded a number of apps from Amazon's Appstore for Android, and they were sitting there waiting to be re-installed as soon as I turned the Fire on and logged into my Amazon account.
Like the Fire, the Nook Tablet is running a highly "skinned" version of Android, but the device on a whole feels a little more open. True, unless you "root" the Tablet, you're still dealing with Barnes & Noble's customized, walled-garden interface, but having the expansion memory slot (and more internal memory--16GB vs. the Fire's 8GB) to add and store content instead of moving it on and off the cloud, is appealing--at least to me. And though the Tablet measures slightly bigger than the Fire (they weigh about the same), the Nook Tablet does feel a little better in your hand, largely because the border around the screen has a textured finish whereas the Fire has a glossy, translucent plastic border.
Despite their design and interface differences, the two devices share a lot in common. They both are multimedia tablets that allow you to read e-books, magazines, and newspapers (as well as comics and children's books), watch movies, listen to music, surf the Web, run apps, and check your e-mail. And both do what they're advertised to do and do it well--in some cases, very well.
As I write this review, I have both the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire sitting next to my keyboard alongside the original Nook Color (I also have an iPad 2 nearby), so hopefully you'll get a strong sense of how the Nook Tablet stands on its own as a product as well as how it fairs against its closest competitors.
Nook Tablet key specs:
In many respects, the Nook Tablet is very much the Nook Color 2.0. It's got the same chassis but weighs 14.1 ounces or 1.7 ounces less than the Nook Color, and the 7-inch screen is the same resolution as its predecessor. But--as you'd expect a year later--it gets the aforementioned faster CPU, more memory and storage, and an operating system upgrade.
Screen: 1,024x600-pixel "laminated, no-air" 7-inch IPS LCD (169 dpi, 16 million+ colors)
Weight: 14.1 ounces
Processor: 1GHz dual-core TI Omap 4
Platform: Customized version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
Internal memory: 16GB
MicroSD card expansion slot: up to 32GB cards
Integrated microphone: yes
Battery life: Up to 11.5 hours reading, 9 hours video (with wireless off and PowerSave mode on)
The full skinny:
I'm not going to delve into every last detail about the device, but here are my thoughts on some key areas and how they relate to the Kindle Fire and, to a lesser degree, the iPad 2.
The screen: Though the Nook Tablet has the same 1,024x600-pixel resolution as the Nook Color (and the Kindle Fire), B&N has says the new processor and software tweaks have improved the screen-rendering performance so that everything looks a tad better.
I took a look at the Nook Color and Nook Tablet side by side, and while I didn't notice a huge difference, the letters on book covers appeared crisper and images slightly more defined. I also compared two identical screensavers on both screens and found the screensaver on the Nook Tablet looked slightly richer.
The Kindle Fire's screen is also good, and despite Barnes & Noble's claim that its screen is less reflective and shows slightly less glare, it is difficult to see a difference--though I did think the Nook Tablet's screen had slightly better black levels (I compared both at full brightness). Both screens are in-plane switching (IPS) displays with good off-axis viewing (Barnes & Noble says its screen offers an 89-percent viewing angle).
Advantage: Very slight edge to Nook Tablet.
Performance: With a faster dual-core CPU and double the RAM of the Nook Color, the Nook Tablet is noticeably zippier than its ancestor (as I said, I always thought the Nook Color was a bit underpowered) and the overall experience operating the device was generally smooth, though the iPad 2 feels a bit more responsive.
The Kindle Fire runs the same 1GHz OMAP4430 processor as the Nook Tablet but the Tablet's inclusion of 1GB of RAM instead of the Fire's 512MB gives it a leg up in the multitasking department (running multiple apps at the same time).
Advantage: Nook Tablet.
Storage: This is a big one. Even before I laid a finger on the Kindle Fire, its 8GB, nonexpendable storage capacity gave me pause. Of that 8GB, only 6GB is user-accessible. By doubling to 16GB out of the gate--and offering the ability to add up to 32GB additional storage via microSD--the Nook Tablet makes me less anxious about storing all of the books, magazines, apps, music, and videos I want, without needing to worry about being within range of a Wi-Fi hot spot for real-time streaming from the cloud, as Amazon emphasizes for its product.
Advantage: Nook Tablet. The Kindle's 8GB of space feels thin compared with the Nook's spacious--and expandable--16GB.
Books: With a library said to be at 2 million titles and counting, Barnes & Noble's catalog is at or near the top of the e-book seller heap. I still think Amazon provides a somewhat better on-device shopping experience, but the Nook has closed the gap since its earlier incarnation (with the Nook Tablet's release, Barnes & Noble has once again revamped the Nook Store and it's clearly improved). And Barnes & Noble's early foray into color means that it already has a good library of illustrated children's books built up (you can now record and add your voice--or you children's voice--to those books, thanks to an integrated microphone).
It's also worth noting that Amazon now offers Prime members ($79.99 per year) the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, from which you can borrow one book a month at no additional charge. That's a feature you won't find on the Nook, but both Amazon and B&N offer limited lending to friends and access to free public library titles.
I'm not going to go too deeply into the reading experience except to say that it's very good. You can easily change fonts and set different backgrounds for night and day reading. You also can highlight words and passages (add notes); perform dictionary, Google, and Wikipedia look-ups by tapping on a word; and share quotes from books on Facebook and Twitter from within a book you're reading.
Barnes & Noble also offers a Nook Friends feature that allows you to join what's essentially a digital book club and share comments with your reading posse as you turn pages. On top of that, when you're in a Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store, you can stream e-book titles for free over the in-store Wi-Fi (you can sample a book for up to an hour before having to move on to another book). And while you're in a store, you can ask questions about your device and get help troubleshooting it. Needless to say, Barnes & Noble is touting that in-store help feature as an advantage over Amazon.
Advantage: Too close to call. Amazon Prime members may be tipped to the Fire--but that upgrade comes only after a yearly fee.