The NOOK Tablet is based on a heavily customized version of the Android operating system. When you first turn on the device, you’ll watch a short video explaining its features, then you’ll be prompted to log in to (or create) your Barnes & Noble account. The home screen shows your most recent books, magazines, and apps, and can be customized by pinning particular books and apps to the screen or with wallpapers made of your own photos or from live wallpapers available in the NOOK app store.
Quick access buttons at the bottom of the screen act as shortcuts to books, the newsstand, movies, music, and other apps. Pressing the N button below the screen brings up a shortcut menu you can use to navigate to your library of content, go to the B&N online store, search your device, browse and shop for apps, surf the web, or view settings.
The overall use and reading experience is quite pleasant; even non-techies should be able to get started right away. When reading a book, tapping on a word brings up a contextual menu for highlighting a passage, making a note, sharing the passage via Facebook or Twitter, looking up the word, or accessing the search function to find other instances of the word in the book you’re currently reading. Tapping near the bottom of the screen brings up the navigation and settings menu, where you can navigate to a specific chapter, note, or bookmark, change the font or font size, or adjust the brightness of the screen.
The NOOK Tablet supports a variety of content formats, including epub (with or without Adobe DRM), PDF, Microsoft Office documents, and text files, plus MP4 movies, JPG/GIF/PNG/BMP photos, and MP3, AAC, WAV, and OGG formats, among others. One surprising disappointment, however, is that 15GB of the 16GB onboard memory capacity of the device is devoted exclusively from content you get directly from B&N. Only 1GB is allowed for storage of user content, which can fill up quickly if you intend to put a lot of your DRM-free eBooks, music, and movies on the NOOK Tablet–you’ll have to invest in a memory card if you don’t already have one.
One cool new feature is the ‘Discover’ button on that quick access menu, which offers suggestions for your “next great read” such as the next few books in a series, more books by the same author, or information about the other books customers bought who purchased the same one you’re currently reading. It’s a nice touch, and a good example of the real bookseller experience and expertise that B&N brings to electronic reading.
The same is true when shopping for new content from the NOOK Tablet, with B&N editor, picks and other features designed to help you find the right book to read, instead of just trying to sell you something/anything at all. As with all NOOK devices, you also have access to the ‘More In Store’ program that provides exclusive free content such as essays and author interviews when you connect to a B&N Wi-Fi network, and you can read any eBook for up to an hour each day when you visit your local store.
I found the NOOK Tablet to be extremely responsive to my every tap and swipe, and didn’t experience any crashes at all. Some apps are slower to load than others, but the wait to start Angry Birds wasn’t noticeably longer on the NOOK Tablet than on any other device such as the Kindle Fire, the iPad, or even my iPod Touch.
The web browser is quite capable, and easily handled all of the test sites that I threw at it, but it doesn’t have a lot of extra gee-whiz features. You can set bookmarks, open multiple windows, find a specific word on the page, and pinch to zoom. Scrolling is nice and smooth, the graphics and text look great, and whether you’re checking email, reading the news, or shopping online, the web browser can get the job done. Flash works great too, for a more feature-rich experience, and none of my Flash test sites crashed the device.
The NOOK Tablet doesn’t have a physical keyboard, so you’ll be tapping on the virtual touchscreen display to search for books, make notes on what you’re reading, enter URLs in the browser, etc. Since the device has a large display, typing on the screen is a pleasure, with large buttons. The main keyboard has the traditional QWERTY layout, plus shift, backspace, comma, and period keys. If you need numbers or punctuation you can access a secondary keyboard by pressing the ‘?123’ button on the bottom left corner of the virtual keyboard.
Battery life is at least as good as the original NOOK Color. B&N promises that the battery lasts for 11.5 hours of reading or 9 hours of watching video. I’ve been using the NOOK Tablet quite heavily for two weeks now and have only had to recharge it once. That usage includes watching 4 hours of video, reading two books, web browsing, a few rounds of Angry Birds and some of the other games included with the device, and tests of the other features such as the recordable NOOK Kids books.
The battery meter on the device is currently reading 26% – I like being able to get detailed information about the battery status and quick access to the most commonly used settings by tapping the small battery icon on the lower right corner of the display.
There’s no 3G option here, so Wi-Fi is your only choice for wireless connectivity. I found that it works great in B&N stores and on my home and office networks, just like the original NOOK and NOOK Color. Kindle devices simply won’t connect to my office network for some reason only my IT department can explain, but the NOOK family of devices always work. I didn’t experience any problems with connectivity or poor signal reception, and am very pleased with the NOOK Tablet’s performance in this category.
The NOOK Tablet comes with several apps already installed, including Chess, a Crossword puzzle game, and Sudoku, a contact manager and email app, a music player, My Media (a photo browser), and Hulu, Netflix, and Pandora. The email app works surprisingly well, with simple, almost automatic setup when you enter your email address and password. Messages load very, very fast, even when they’re full of photos, and tapping on a link takes you straight to the web browser. The only complaint I have about the email app is that my Gmail labels are out of order in the drop down menu, but I’m not sure if that’s truly a problem with the app or just a Gmail quirk.
Any of the apps you’ve previously purchased using your B&N account on other devices (like the NOOK Color) will be listed by icon; a single tap is all that’s needed to download them and install them on your new device. When it comes to shopping for more apps, the selection is more limited than what you’ll find on the Android Market; the B&N App Store could be described as a curated experience instead of a free-for-all.
If you already have an iPhone/iPad or an Android device, you’ll recognize many of the apps available for the NOOK Tablet: Angry Birds, Evernote, Quickoffice Pro, Epicurious, WolframAlpha, Taptu, Scrabble, and many more. The emphasis here is on games, education/reference, productivity, and lifestyle apps, with some wallpapers thrown in for good measure, but you’ll find some other apps as well, such as the Walking Dead Volume 1 from Graphicly.
The shopping experience is streamlined; it takes just a couple of taps to buy a new app, and a description, user reviews, and several screenshots are all available before you commit. You can also add apps to a wish list while you’re considering them for a future purchase; this makes it easier to find them later when you’re ready to buy.
The NOOK Tablet also includes a microphone for the ‘Read and Record’ feature in B&N’s NOOK Kids books. All of the B&N picture books for kids have a feature that parents can use to record themselves reading the story, so that when kids are looking at the book by themselves, they can hear their mom or dad or grandparents instead of the regular narrator. It’s a delightful feature and one that works very well with the NOOK Tablet. The recordings are clear, with lifelike voice quality, even when the microphone is partially obscured by a case protecting the tablet.
In keeping with that kid-friendly theme, there’s a special kids section on the main library screen. It isn’t a walled garden in the sense that you can totally lock your kids into that area when you hand them the tablet, but all of their content is in one place, including picture books, YA reading, and even kid-friendly free or purchased apps like the Smithsonian Channel and Bubble Pop. It’s a nice touch that makes bedtime reading a little easier when you’re ready to share a favorite book with your kids–and helps to ensure that they don’t see the somewhat suggestive covers of those romance novels you read as a guilty pleasure.