Not that I'm an obsessive reader--that Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith and the eyeglasses really freaked me out--but the drastic movement away from the tried-and-true form factor of books and into the modern realm of the eReader has been a fascinating revolution to watch. Not surprisingly, book purveyor Barnes & Noble has been actively involved in this migration to the digital realm with its growing line of NOOK products, offering bibliophiles the ability to read a multitude of tomes in a slim electronic device, and systematically adding features on top of that basic premise.
The new NOOK Tablet is poised to replace Barnes & Noble's previous flagship product, the NOOK Color, which is essentially a Wi-Fi-enabled eReader on steroids. The designers gave the new Tablet more under the hood to better embrace its many potential tasks: The processor, the RAM and the embedded storage capacity have all been significantly stepped up, along with the Android operating system, from version 2.2 on the Color to 2.3 on the Tablet.
Although it is not touted as an "Android Tablet," this newest NOOK is indeed Android-based, running Barnes & Noble's own customized version of Google's Android "Gingerbread" OS (the typically food-centric nickname for 2.3). Its two distinguishing characteristics are the unique esthetics of the user interface, with a NOOK-exclusive style, as well as the intentional absence of the Android Market. The latter makes perfect sense since B&N is first and foremost a retailer, and they would just as soon you made your purchases through their own virtual storefront. However, if for example I visit a site like imdb.com and an Android mobile app is available for it, I can then be directed to the Android Market via the website, where I can download the app as long as I am signed in to do business.
The Tablet shares the same dimensions with the Color (I don't currently own a NOOK case but apparently the same one will fit either device), although the new Tablet is actually more than ten percent lighter than its predecessor. The basic specs include a de rigueur dual-core 1GHz CPU, one gigabyte of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, although only one gigabyte of this is available for a user's personal content, with twelve gigabytes reserved for B&N purchases/downloads.
Crack Open the Binding
Upon the first power-up we are pushed a preloaded instructional video, and the rest of the setup process is straightforward, primarily configuring how the device will access the internet. NOOK is 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi-ready, but with no 3G/4G data service option as on more expensive devices. We must sign up for a (free) BN.com account during the setup in order to use the device, there's no getting around it, and then if we want to download pretty much anything (yes, even the free apps), we have to supply a credit card number as well. Gift cards can be used for purchases, but cannot be substituted for a valid credit card at this stage of the setup. Free samples of paid content including book excerpts can be downloaded without a credit card on file.
One minor design hiccup appeared quickly, in the location of the Power button on the top left edge directly opposite the Volume up/down buttons: Hold the device firmly in your hand in order to push one button, and you run the risk of accidentally pushing one on the other side, as happened to me more than once. One ergonomic detail that B&N does understand, perhaps learned from grumblings about the iPad's sexy but too-sleek metal derriere, the Tablet's back panel has a fine, pleasing texture that provides a welcome bit of friction.
I won't make a lot of comparisons to the iPad, which wouldn't really be fair, rather the holiday season of 2011 promises to be the war of the seven-inch alterna-tablets, each from a major bookseller. I'm not reviewing the competing Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, but I will point out that it costs $50 less, with eight gigabytes of embedded flash memory for storage instead of the NOOK's 16, and without the microSD card slot that is hidden neatly inside the NOOK's notched corner.
That tiny wafer can be difficult to insert/remove when you have big man-hands, but at least I earned a little musical tone when I got it right. The card was ready for use almost instantly, and interestingly it did not need to be reformatted, rather it just added new "B&N Downloads" and "My Files" folders to those already inside, allowing me to continue to enjoy the compatible media that I had previously loaded up for another device. I could access the contents of the card at any time by tapping the microSD icon on the bottom left of the screen.
The bundled accessories include a USB power adapter and a custom micro USB cable marked by an illuminated lower-case n that glows orange while we charge, then goes green when it's full, about three hours. But on an OCD-related note, after a day-and-a-half uninterrupted wall charge, the battery indicator reported only 98% full. Then again, I've now been using this thing extensively for days, and haven't had to recharge it once.
The Look of NOOK
Another important lesson in the ongoing tablet evolution: The screen is a mighty selling point. The NOOK Tablet soars with a seven-inch (measured diagonally) VividView LCD, a capacitive multi-touch screen with in-plane switching that displays more than 16 million colors. The resolution of 1,024 x 600 at 169 pixels per inch consistently renders clear, sharp images, be it the ubiquitous text of books, magazines, web pages or email, or the stunning reproduction of my prized family photos, or a variety of video. And at this particular size, the NOOK is easier to hold than a 10.1-inch-screen tablet, and it can even be tucked into a large pocket.
On a variety of fonts, page styles/colors and (adjustable) sizes, the contrast is exquisite, words are razor-sharp, and ArticleView mode makes them even easier to read. Some books include pertinent little videos embedded amid the text. When turned up full, the brightness is striking, but it might hurt sensitive eyes, and it will certainly run down the battery faster.
Photos too can reveal their true gorgeousness on the NOOK screen. We can flip through easily and resize with a simple pinch/reverse-pinch or double-tap, and the pristine clarity makes it almost like being there. Someone gave me a 12MP Panasonic Lumix camera earlier this year, and the detail within my shots exposed via extreme zoom-ins is nothing short of breathtaking. The Tablet supplies no camera of its own, and neither does the Amazon Kindle, but the iPad 2 offers two of them. The addition of one in a future model would be welcome.
Hundreds of apps are currently available, all optimized for use on the NOOK Tablet, including of course Angry Birds. And in addition to millions of books, there are also newspapers, interactive magazines and kids' picture books, as well as high-resolution NOOK Comics for all, with the largest third-party digital library of Marvel graphic novels, plus content from Archie, IDW and Dynamite.
What's In Store?
Barnes & Noble has the ability to do something for their customers that Amazon and Apple can't, namely offering a real-world destination that rewards NOOK users for dropping by. DISH Network too is in a similar position with their recent acquisition of Blockbuster and its remaining brick-and-mortar stores, developing some clever cross-promotions.
Like all of the 704 U.S. locations, my local B&N offers free Wi-Fi for all, but NOOK users receive something special, an onscreen invitation to "Read In Store" one of 100 specially selected best-selling books, for up to one hour each day. We can even come back the next day and continue, and the built-in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition helps us expand our vocabulary on the fly, whenever those ten-dollar words appear.
Additionally, "More In Store" offers us free samples of many more, perhaps lesser-known titles. Once again, these two features are only accessible by those with a registered credit card on their BN.com account. As was suggested by a pair of genuinely friendly, helpful employees, this is apparently done to separate the "visitors" from the "shoppers," with at least a chance that the latter will ultimately buy some form of the book. Special live NOOK events pop up throughout the year, too.
Now, reading is fundamental, but we are Big Picture Big Sound after all, so how else can we take advantage of this VividView screen? With Netflix and Hulu Plus naturally, both of which come pre-loaded on the device. I was able to reopen an old Netflix account right from the device, without a trip back to my computer, and take advantage of another free trial. The NOOK Tablet can work with Netflix streaming video up to 720p resolution, so it is compatible with what Netflix calls "HD," of course downconverted to work on the 1,024x600 LCD. Hulu Plus, also with a free trial, offers alternative streaming choices but I stand by my opinion that a paid monthly service for watching TV episodes should be 100% commercial-free. The only technical issue I encountered here, apart from the usual buffering glitches, were occasional lapses in the lip synch.
Also available is the downloadable Flixster app, which offers support for the recent UltraViolet Digital Copy initiative undertaken by several of the Hollywood studios.
And in a Flash, The Difference Was Clear
I didn't realize how much of the Internet depends upon Adobe Flash Player for its video needs until I started using my iPhone and iPad and iPod touch heavily and ran into frequent error messages and blank holes on countless web pages where the image should be. The NOOK Tablet, like the Kindle Fire, embraces Flash, and therefore allows us to get the most out of every site we visit. Yes, even the ones that offer free back episodes of TV shows.
Granted, some of the web video windows can be rather small, but with a quick reverse-pinch we can enlarge to fill the seven-inch screen as desired. And the resolution is high enough and the processor sufficiently capable such that we can readily appreciate the difference between the Standard, 480p and 720p versions as available. This freedom at this level of performance is perhaps a less-obvious but nonetheless vital feature of this versatile tablet.
Side-loaded video, that is media transferred from, say, the computer to the tablet via USB, is supported up to 1080p, once again downconverted for the display. I navigated from MyNOOK (which is how it appears on the connected PC, as an external drive) to "My Files" and then to the subfolder for Video, where I loaded up a 1080p MPEG-4 movie trailer from my hard drive. Even at this relatively small scale the detail was striking, with visual subtleties I was not expecting on a handheld device.
The rear-firing mono speaker is ported out of a series of pinholes a couple of inches wide. Despite its placement near the bottom of the back panel, when the device is laid face up on a tabletop, any sounds are still plenty audible. Compatible Music and Pictures receive their own folders as well. Music files are displayed with a generic but classy sheet music icon, but no cover art until the song plays, then it appears big on the screen. The Pandora music service app is also pre-loaded. Photos unfortunately do not display true thumbnails, rather just a standard image of a flower, all the same.
Over a week of frequent use, the extremely proficient dual-core processor revealed itself to be quite nimble, launching apps and loading web pages with an impressive quickness, the speed of online activity limited primarily by that of my internet connection at the time. And although pages are forgivably simplified for tablet formatting, I was able to do some real computing on this thing, including paying a couple of bills online when my laptop was acting up. A stop at Facebook was an enjoyable compromise between my main computer and my phone's flavors of the social network experience. The tablet layout automatically reorients from vertical to horizontal when we tilt the device accordingly, and this feature can be switched off if we choose. But not all apps, not even the Home screen unfortunately, can be reoriented to a horizontal view.
The present day for the NOOK Tablet is bright indeed, with speed, elegance, beauty and a deep well from which to draw a wide range of paid content. But if we compare the music and video service options here to those of the Kindle Fire, a disparity emerges. The rightly famous online giant Amazon offers video rentals and purchases that can be accessed by the Kindle Fire via The Cloud, while the $79-a-year Amazon Prime subscription now includes an all-you-can-stream menu, with lots of movies and TV shows and more being added. It's not free certainly, but keep in mind that they threw in the streaming this past February as a bonus to their Prime service--which makes two-day shipping free--at no increase in the annual fee.
For now, Barnes & Noble is content to keep its entertainment providers as third parties, which limits the NOOK Tablet's appeal as a true multimedia player. But if you plan to load up a microSD card with your own content, if you enjoy the whole brick-and-mortar bookstore scene (as I do), and if you want a compact, blazing-fast tablet computer with an eye-popping screen for two-and-a-half bills, you can't go wrong.
Where to Buy:
What's in the Box?