What's surprised me is that this is not a copy-and-paste of the regular Nook for Android app. Whereas the Nook application on my Moto X combines the library, search and store functions into one place, the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook contains different apps for all those things. Whichever you use, the core functionality is the same: In addition to reading content, you can access the store, highlight passages and rate/review stuff. But here, the icons are different, and you don't always have to drill as far into menus to get what you want (see: font options, search, table of contents). Highlighting text is also easier in the Samsung app than the regular Android one. If anything, the UI feels more similar to Barnes & Noble's e-ink e-readers, which is funny because that would seem to be an entirely different class of product. Certainly, this is a more pleasant Nook experience than what you'd get on other Android devices. Something to keep in mind if you're already a loyal Barnes & Noble customer.
Beside the various Nook apps, Samsung installed a few other third-party programs as well, including Dropbox, Hancom Office 2014, Netflix, OfficeSuite 7 (the more robust of the two office programs here) and the game Rayman Jungle Run. You'll also find a shortcut to Samsung's own curated app store -- you know, should Google Play not be enough. Obviously, this is a bit of a mixed bag, but to each his own. You can at least uninstall anything that doesn't suit you.
Performance and battery life
I only saw the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook for the first time last week, but already I've heard Barnes & Noble reps say several times that the tablet is built for reading. To some extent, they're just stating the obvious: Samsung and Barnes & Noble built a tablet together, and it's supposed to offer a great reading experience, because that's what B&N is good at. Duh. But I also suspect the two companies have been trying to keep our expectations in check. Even for a budget tablet, this thing is kinda slow, and I think Samsung and Barnes & Noble both know it. Under the hood, it has the same internals as the regular Galaxy Tab 4 7.0 -- a 1.2GHz quad-core Marvell PXA 1088 processor and 1.5GB of RAM, a combination that sorely trails the competition in benchmark tests. The results were so bad, in fact, that I thought at first the numbers might be flukes. Indeed, I ran the tests many, many times, and the results were always far below other tablets, even the similarly priced ASUS MeMO Pad 7, last year's Nexus 7 and the 7-inch Amazon Fire HDX.
That sluggishness rears its head in real-word use, too. The accelerometer was often slow to catch up as I flipped the device from portrait to landscape mode and back. Web browsing is smooth enough, though the benchmarks suggest you'd have an even snappier experience on competing devices. Cold-booting the device takes a long 24 seconds, forcing you to wait through animated splash screens for both Samsung and Nook. Multi Window mode works, but it can take a second or two for a new app to load if you decide to replace one of the two panes. Even the Nook library -- the app that matters most -- was often slow to load up my bookshelf. Like other Samsung devices, the Nook was initially slow to minimize apps when I pressed the home button. Luckily, there's a solution, and it actually has to do with S Voice, of all things: Just go into S Voice settings and uncheck the box "open via the home key." That way, when you press the home button, the device won't wait to see if you'll do a double-press to launch the voice assistant. With that issue, at least, I was able to improve the performance.
The problem, too, is that for the folks buying this, the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook isn't just for reading. If it were, they'd get a standalone e-reader and call it a day. But if you're going to get an Android tablet, particularly one with multi-window support and access to the Google Play store, you probably want to do more than just read e-books. You want to download apps. Stream movies. Browse the web. Maybe play the occasional game. The Galaxy Tab 4 Nook can do most of that, but not always smoothly. Another device -- even a competing budget tablet -- will probably feel faster.
Samsung says the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook's battery can last up to 10 hours. With light usage, that might well be true. But in our (admittedly taxing) video rundown test, the battery died out a few hours sooner. All in all, the tablet was able to last through about seven and a half hours of looping a 1080p video at fixed brightness, with social networks periodically refreshing in the background. Again, your mileage will vary, but it's worth noting that other devices can do better. ASUS' MeMO Pad 7 also got about an hour more than the Nook. Meanwhile, the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HDX managed nearly 11 hours in the same grueling test. Even the 2013 Nexus 7 gets about the same runtime as the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook -- and the performance is slightly better, too.
When the original Nook Tablet came out, it was easy to forgive some of its shortcomings, just because the price was fairly low. At the time, $249 was cheap for an Android tablet, especially when flagships routinely sold for $500 and up. This is a different time, though, and while $170 isn't bad for this new Nook device, it also faces stiffer competition. The ASUS MeMO Pad 7, for instance, has a lower price of $150, complete with an IPS display, double the internal storage, longer battery life, a microSDXC slot supporting higher-capacity cards and a quad-core processor that creams the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook in benchmarks.
Meanwhile, Dell sells the $160 Venue 7, which has a 1,280 x 800 IPS screen and a higher-resolution 5MP rear camera. (I haven't tested that, so I can't vouch for the performance.) Finally, it comes with 16GB of storage, and can accommodate memory cards as large as 64GB. It goes without saying, too, that any Android tablet is capable of running the standard Nook app. So far as I can tell, then, the one thing the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook has going for it is Multi Window support, but what good is that if the processor is too weak to handle it?
If you're willing to spend more, the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HDX starts at $229 with 16GB of storage ($244 without ads on the lock screen). For the money, almost everything is better: The battery life is several hours longer, and the performance is stronger, thanks to a fairly up-to-date Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM. The screen is sharper too, with 1,920 x 1,200 resolution and a tight pixel density of 323 ppi. You won't get Google Play access, unfortunately, but Amazon's own app store has grown steadily over the years, and its digital content selection is just as diverse as Barnes & Noble's.
Amazon even basically matches B&N on technical support: Whereas Barnes & Noble offers lifetime in-store service for its Nook tablets, Amazon's built-in "Mayday" feature lets you access live help anytime. Other than the fact that Amazon's tablet costs $50 more, it's hard to say why you'd get the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook instead. Because even if having access to Google Play is important to you, you'd still be better off with last year's Nexus 7. It costs $229, just like the Kindle Fire HDX, and it too has a 1,920 x 1,200 screen. The performance won't be quite as brisk as the HDX, but it should still be snappier than the new Nook tablet. The battery life is similar to the Nook as well, so you're not giving up anything in the way of endurance.
This should come as a shock to no one, but the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook is only a good idea if you're already a loyal Barnes & Noble customer. Setting aside the fact that it comes with free content (a gimmick, if you ask me), this tablet is appealing because it offers a better reading experience than even the regular Nook for Android app. Until Barnes & Noble redesigns its standard Android application, this is the best Nook experience you're going to get, short of buying one of B&N's standalone, e-ink e-readers.
Even then, that's a stretch: It's not like the regular Nook app is so bad that you shouldn't consider other Android tablets. If you're not even a Nook customer, then there's definitely no reason to buy this. Sure, the design is nice, and the screen is bright, but the battery life is short compared to competing devices, and the performance is slower. Adding insult to injury, you get less built-in storage for apps, books, photos and music, and the microSD slot doesn't officially support cards larger than 32GB. For people who just want a budget Android tab, and don't care where they buy their books, you can do better, even for $179.