This summer, rumors ran rampant that Barnes & Noble, after receiving a $300 million investment from Microsoft, would release the first tablet powered by Windows 8. Today, the company squelched that gossip by releasing two newly redesigned Nook readers, both powered by Android: the 7" Nook HD, and the new 9" Nook HD+.
Barnes & Noble has struggled to find a foothold in the crowded reader market: Kindle’s new Fire, Microsoft’s Nexus 7, and Apple’s rumored iPad Mini will offer stiff competition this fall. And previous versions of the Nook weathered controversies over spec misrepresentation and false advertising. Despite all that, the HD and HD+ make a strong case for Barnes & Noble. They’re lighter, faster, and higher res than their competitors—and most importantly, they’re far, far cheaper. When Barnes & Noble launched the first Nook, they called it "the Everybody Reader." The new Nook, then, is "the Everybody Tablet."
Here’s the first thing to know about the new Nook: It’s targeted at families. Barnes & Noble’s customer stats skew towards women and families—some of whom may find other tablets too costly. "There are plenty of families in the world for whom a $599 purchase is daunting," says Robert Brunner, the founder of Ammunition, the product design office behind the Nook. "The idea is to meet the iPad in functionality, with aggressive pricing. Many more people will have access to it." At $199 for an 7" HD and $269 for a 9" HD+, the pricing is aggressive indeed.
Brunner, whose company designs (and partially owns) Beats by Dre, tells Co.Design that more than half of tablet users share their device with a family member every day. Studies show the most common place you’ll find a tablet is the coffee table. So B&N devised a profile system that lets each family member create their own, personalized environments on the same device. As one B&N rep said, "it’s like having multiple devices in one."
To fit smaller hands, the design team shaved excess millimeters off the Nook’s edge grip; they also redesigned its lightweight magnesium midframe, making it the lightest tablet on the market. A rough, almost sticky plastic backing makes it tough to drop. When I checked it out at the preview, it was easy to put the HD down on your legs without it sliding off. "When you hold it, the difference is remarkable in terms of weight and size," adds Brunner. "It feels like a much more compelling product."
Though Barnes & Noble say the new Nook is still squarely focused on reading, they’ve made it easier to consume video content on the 1440 x 900 pixel screen, too. First, they’re introducing Nook Video, a streaming and download service for TV and movies. Second, the HD and HD+ will be the first tablets to boast UltraViolet, the universal system that lets you standardize your video downloads across all types of devices. And lastly, the new models come with a memory card slot, which means you can store larger files, like movies, offline. You’ll also be able to hook your Nook up to the TV or Roku box—a lure for those without cable. Still, it’ll be tough for the booksellers to compete with Amazon’s deep reservoir of films and TV shows.
The HD and HD+ represent a complete overhaul for Nook’s software. Along with email and web browsing come an expanded app store, plus a features designed to help you buy the stuff you’re reading about. A new Catalog app lets you touch products to buy them, while a quick swipe will add specific items to a "Scrapbook" app. (Scrapbooks aren’t Pinterest or Tumblr compatible yet.) Meanwhile, your homepage is updated every day with a new book, excerpt, or essay you might be interested in.
On hand to present the new models was Jim Mustich, Barnes & Noble’s chief bookseller and editor of the company review. It’s Mustich’s job to find out how to translate the joy of visiting a physical store into digital space—surely, one of the biggest user experience conundrums of the tablet era. "We wanted to figure out how readers discover books," he said. "What readers really mean when they ask for a book." For example, a reader who says they want something "like Unbroken," doesn’t necessarily mean they want to read a tome about World War II history. Instead, B&N developed a system of content Channels, handpicked by their team of booksellers, which are less obviously connected by theme and voice. Unbroken falls into the "Survival Stories" Channel.
Of course, a content browsing system based on subjectivity comes with hazards—think Netflix’s often inscrutable recommendations. Still, the HD and HD+ are fairly successful attempts to bridge the gap between what Barnes & Noble was truly good at—selling books—and what they’re attempting to be good at—selling content.
The 7" Nook HD (starting at $199) and the 9" Nook HD+ (starting at $269) pre-order begins today. They’ll appear in stores in early November.