With the Samsung Galaxy Tab Nook, The Best E-Reader For Comics Takes a Massive Step Backwards

It's a rarity that we do tech reviews here. After all, we're a comic book website and even when [...]

It's a rarity that we do tech reviews here. After all, we're a comic book website and even when you expand that out to things like movies and TV related to comic books, there isn't much call for device reviews.

An exception tends to be when a new Nook or Kindle hits the market, and we make an attempt to at least take a look. For years now, ever since Barnes & Noble rolled out the Nook Color and became the first really comics-friendly dedicated E-reader, the Nook has been the device to beat -- and the Kindle in my opinion hadn't quite got there.

Now, to be fair, my spouse works for Barnes & Noble and so we have to have a Nook in the house. Still, as you'll see below, that's no guarantee that I'll love the device, or the way it presents comics.

Even with the recent release of the Kindle Fire, Amazon was basically just catching up with the now-two-year-old Nook HD+ in terms of the way comics were presented and enjoyed. 

As the Fire (and probably other Android devices, as well) have risen to meet the standard that iPad and Nook had set, though, Nook has taken a massive step backward with its newest offering, a modified Samsung Galaxy 4 Tab.

First off, we'll touch on the comics themselves, and then move onto the device.

As a comics reader, this leaves something to be desired, but it isn't terrible. This is about on par with how comics used to read on the Nook Color and Nook Tablet, back before the HD+ was rolled out. It's basically the same interface as Nook readers will be familiar with, but somewhat slower, with panel and page transitions less fluid.

This might not be a functionality or speed thing (although that's how it feels). The device doesn't have the same screen resolution as the Nook HD and Nook HD+ (the final generation of Barnes & Noble Nook tablets), and so it could be less performance and more presentation. In any event, bringing up the same comic on my Nook HD and my wife's Samsung Galaxy Nook, it may not be fair to say that the difference is jarring, but it's certainly evident. There has been a downgrade between generations here.

These may seem like niggling concerns -- the comics reader is, after all, materially the same and while the transitions may feel a bit slower and clunkier, who really is buying a device for the instants that happen in between the experience you're paying for? It would be like buying a comic for the gutters.

The problem is, the small hiccups in the comic reader itself are indicative of a broader problem for the device.

Before we get to that, though, there is one more important element of the comics reader: comiXology.

Here's where the device shines. Barnes & Noble's proprietary apps have all kinds of problems being the square pegs fit into the round holes of Samsung's backend, but as an Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 is pretty solid. The comics navigation is smoother and faster in comiXology than it is in the Nook app, with comiXology's Guided View doing much better than Barnes & Noble's Zoom View. In the past, it's been a toss-up, and this reviewer has opted to buy from Barnes & Noble for obvious personal reasons (well, for my DC books, anyway. Nobody else is day and date on Nookbooks). The new technology gives me a motivation to make the switch to comiXology.

If I had a complaint -- and this is minor -- it's that there is an Android menu that can be popped out by swiping your finger from the right edge of the screen inward. That's the same action you use to turn the page or, in the case of comics, to navigate between panels. You have to be very close to the edge of the screen for the menu to pop up, but the more swipes (panels), the greater the odds you'll run into the problem. So long as you're moving slowly enough that you don't accidentally hit an icon, it's a very minor and momentary distraction. If you inadvertently open or move an icon, it can be somewhat more of a pain.

Another problem? Download speeds...but that's getting into the hardware stuff, which...okay, so it's time.

Now, here's the root of the problem: Nook apps, which customers have paid for and expect to work, were designed to work on custom hardware and a custom-modified operating system. Yes, the Nook Tablet and everything after that was an Android device but it was a custom device that had its own set of rules and a unique interface.

The new device takes all of that and casts it aside in favor of a Samsung Tab with a few extra bells and whistles and while that might be appealing to Samsung owners (or those with a lot of Android tablet experience) who want to break into the Nook marketplace and for some reason haven't done so using the existing apps, it's making an awful lot of changes to something that worked well before, and in effect fixing something that ain't broken.

The reasoning behind this is obvious to anyone who's been paying attention: while Barnes & Noble's retail stores and website have been doing reasonably well, the company has been losing money hand over fist on the Nook division. Not the ebooks themselves, mind you: the devices and the personnel needed to provide support for them. There was some brief and well-publicized flirtation with Microsoft, but apparently it was Samsung who ultimately came to a deal to take over manufacturing of the Nook devices, and thus get the coveted exclusive retail floor space in Barnes & Noble, a store whose customer base is largely very brand-loyal and fairly affluent.

So Barnes & Noble gets to keep the Nook brand and the notion of exclusive hardware alive, while Samsung gets premiere placement in a large retailer for providing what, at the end of the day, appears to be basically just their existing tablet with a few minor tweaks.

And therein lies much of the problem with this device; the Nook has, since its inception, been a dedicated E-reader which, over time, took on additional features. It didn't have a camera, which some customers bemoaned, but you don't really need a camera on an E-reader.

What do you need in an E-reader?


The Nook and Kindle, more than probably any other Web-enabled device in our device-crazy culture, should be plug-and-play. Users should be able to pick it up and understand it in a fairly intuitive way, not least of all because it's meant to be taking the place of a book. Books are probably the easiest entertainment to understand. As soon as you move the cover aside, you can see that it's working.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab Nook throws all of that out the window, and it isn't just because the Nook-modified version of Android it's running gives you option overload.

My major complaints with the machine:

  • The size
  • The Wi-Fi
  • The profiles
  • The Nook storefront

A little elaboration on all that below.

For anyone who's consistently been buying the top of B&N's line, first of all, you'll be downgrading from a 9" screen to a 7". There is rumored to be a 9" version of the Galaxy Tab Nook coming sooner than later, but a quick Google search finds nothing specific on that device. If you're used to a 9" device, a 7" device feels a bit claustrophobic, and that's really nothing they can fix, except that it would have been nice if they'd offered a larger device at the rollout, like they did when they introduced the Nook HD and Nook HD+.

The Wi-Fi wouldn't ordinarily be something that I critique; I don't, after all, pretend to be an expert on the technical end of things. What I will say from anecdotal experience is that the signal is weaker than what the HD+ had. There were places in my home where I could sit and watch movies on Netflix on the HD+, but had to physically get up and leave to go someplace with a stronger signal in order to download small apps and eBooks. The difference in both speed and range is noticeable.

The profiles are the true nightmare of this device, and it's a shame because it was one of the best additions to the last generation of Nook. It seems the problem lies in the different ways that profiles act between Samsung devices and Nook devices, but if you've got kids, you will end up spending a lot of time messing with settings, trying to get the Samsung Nook usable for them.

Like, a lot. In the course of the first week of release, our device had a software update which somehow nuked all of the Nookbook and Nook app cover art in the kids' profile so that all of the cover art was just the Nook logo (with no writing to differentiate the dozen-and-a-half Nook logos on the home screen, for instance). We also had to find out through trial and error that any Nook apps that you designate as being available for the kids' profile have to be first downloaded under the adult profile. Even just owning them and designating them as for kids while they're in the cloud isn't good enough -- although the device will allow you to do that, which will leave you baffled as to why the download option doesn't appear on the other profile. After a few days, we've yet to go through one sitting with the device without some problem related to the kids' profiles popping up.

The Nook storefront is similarly buggy. Not everything you've purchased is searchable on the device, and you often have to go online to find a purchase so that you can download it. If that were a consistent practice throughout, it wouldn't be a big deal, but about half the time, there's an icon representing your purchased item, which you can tap to download the purchase. There seems to be basically no rhyme or reason as to why the device chooses one or the other.

In the end, the new Samsung Nook might be somebody's favorite device; certainly it's got versatility and a sleek design. The trade-off, though, is that virtually nothing works as well as the previous model: When the Nook Tablet gave way to the HD+, readers had weird, wonky problems with their memory cards...but the devices came with hard drives up to 32 GB, rendering the cars unnecessary for most users. Here, the 8 GB hard drive that comes standard can be upgraded to 40 GB with a 32 GB card...but that means that if you expand the new model out as much as possible you've lost 24 GB of capacity that the old one would have supported. For that, you get a clunkier interface, weaker Wi-Fi and a far, far less intuitive approach to the actual library...which, y'know, is a useful thing for an eReader to have.

But, hey! There's a camera!