They’re both $199 tablets with 7″ screens. They both use customized versions of Android to provide experiences that emphasize the consumption of content — books, magazines, video, apps and more — that you’ve purchased from the company that sold you the tablet. It’s the same basic idea from two different bookselling behemoths.
And yet, for all their similarities, the two tablets aren’t carbon copies. Even if a company decides to forsake most or all of its profit in hopes of making it up on later content sales, it’s impossible to sell a decent $199 tablet without making certain tradeoffs. And some of the decisions Barnes & Noble made are substantially different than Amazon’s.
The Nook HD has a higher-resolution screen. It’s got 1440-by-900 pixels, a meaningful increase over the Kindle Fire HD’s 1280-by-800.
It’s narrower and lighter. The Nook HD’s curvy case (available in white and gray versions) is 5″ wide vs. the Fire HD’s 5.4″, a difference that sounds insignificant but makes for a more single-hand-friendly design. And at 11.1 oz., it’s enough lighter than the 13.9-oz. Fire HD that you notice the difference as you hold it up to read.
It doesn’t have a camera. Skype video calls via the front-facing camera are a major selling point for the Kindle Fire HD, but Barnes & Noble says that it doesn’t think most consumers care all that much about video calling.
The $199 model has 8GB of memory rather than the Fire HD’s 16GB. The skimpier capacity won’t matter if you’re just downloading books, but might be tight if you’re storing video and other memory-hungry content. But the Nook HD, unlike the Fire HD, has a MicroSD slot, letting you add more capacity by plugging in a card. (A 32GB MicroSD will run you around $20.) Or you can spring for the 16GB Nook HD, which is $229.
If you’re doing your price-comparison math down to the last nickel, take note that the Nook HD comes with an AC adapter; with the Fire HD, that’ll cost you an extra 10 bucks.
A bigger difference between the two tablets: The Nook HD’s low price isn’t subsidized with the ads and other in-your-face marketing Amazon uses to help cover its costs. With the Nook HD, there’s no equivalent of the Fire HD’s “special offers” screensaver — which you can remove for $15 — and the Barnes & Noble shopping experience is all concentrated in one section you can explore or ignore, rather than distributed throughout the interface as it is on the Fire HD. Overall, the interface has a more low-key, customizable, less hypercommercial feel.
The Kindle Fire HD has a feature called FreeTime, enabled in a recent software update, which lets parents create custom profiles for one or more kids, limiting the content they see to appropriate materials and setting maximum amounts of usage per day. The Nook HD’s Nook Profiles feature is roughly comparable; it doesn’t have the usage-limit option, but does let up to six family members of any age share the tablet, with everyone getting their own personalized content library.
Overall, though, the Fire HD has more features, including X-Ray, which annotates books and movies with information on their creators, characters and more, and Immersive Reading, which lets you read a Kindle e-book while listening to the Audible audiobook version. Barnes & Noble also doesn’t have a counterpart for Amazon’s $79/year Prime membership, which lets you stream a growing library of video and borrow books at no extra charge.
With 3 million e-books (including picture books for kids), almost 500 magazines and 44 newspapers, Barnes & Noble was already in solid shape when it came to reading materials. But while Amazon has been building its collection of movies and TV shows for years; Barnes & Noble is a newcomer to selling and renting video, having relied on Netflix and Hulu in its previous color tablets. It says it’s signed up Disney, Fox, HBO, Sony, Starz, Viacom, Universal, Warner and other providers for its fledgling video service, and will have thousands of offerings by the time the first consumers get their Nook HDs on Thursday, and “a broad collection” by the holidays.
When I tried the service prior to public release, there wasn’t much there yet: My search for “Paul Newman” only retrieved one movie, for example. But the video I checked out was noticeably crisper than the same stuff on the Kindle Fire HD, presumably because of the higher-resolution display.
As for music — well, Barnes & Noble isn’t getting into that business itself, so it has no direct equivalent of Amazon’s well-stocked music store. Its app store does have some relevant offerings, including Rhapsody and TuneIn.
Speaking of apps, the Nook HD has access to 10,000 of them, including many Android notables, from Angry Birds to Flipboard. That should be enough to keep anyone productive and entertained, but it’s only around a third of what Amazon says it has in its Appstore. And it’s an even dinkier drop in the bucket compared to what you’ll get on a tablet which has unfettered access to Google’s Google Play Store. If having access to the most apps is important to you, the $199 tablet you want is Google’s own Nexus 7.
One last point in the Nook HD’s favor: The review unit I had ran nearly-final software that seemed to be in good shape. That was a refreshing change from the Kindle Fire HD in its initial, profoundly buggy form. (The recent software update from Amazon has made that tablet much more usable.)
The Nook HD certainly doesn’t trump Amazon and Google’s competitors, let alone the iPad Mini. (Here’s Jared Newman’s feature comparison of all four tablets.) And if you plan to watch much video, I’d confirm that Barnes &Noble’s movie and TV show selection is as impressive as the company claims before opting for the Nook HD over the Kindle Fire HD. But with its featherweight form factor, sharp screen and pleasant user interface, the Nook HD — which is being joined by a 9″ big brother, the $269 Nook HD+ — keeps Barnes & Noble in the cheap-tablet game it helped create with its original Nook Color. Anyone who’s got $199 to spend on a tablet should give this Nook a look.