Barnes & Noble partners with Samsung to produce a reborn Nook

Tablets have become an accepted part of our households; they are the way we check email, surf the Web, watch videos and check in with our friends. However, unlike smartphones, which sometimes seem to go out of date only months after they hit the market, tablets seem to have a much longer lifespan -- in fact, sales are not growing at the pace expected. Yes, the newer ones have somewhat better processors and perhaps longer battery life, but except for that -- what impetus does a consumer have to buy a new one (short of dropping it on a hard surface)?

Lower prices, of course, can push consumers to buy another tablet -- and prices, especially for less high-end smaller tablets, have been dropping precipitously. But for companies such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, that isn’t enough. The two vendors have thrived on the popularity of e-books and e-book readers such as the Kindle and the Nook, and to keep their customers dedicated to their products, they've got to offer the appropriate -- and updated -- hardware.

Amazon responded to the challenge with its Kindle Fire tablet (and, more recently, its Fire phone). The 7-in. version of the tablet, which is limited to Amazon’s ecosystem and apps store, starts at a price of $139 with ads and $154 without.

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Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, has decided to partner with Samsung, one of the major manufacturers of mobile devices. The new Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Nook, which went on sale today, is a somewhat cut-down version of Samsung's 7-in. Galaxy Tab with a 1280 x 800 WXGA display running Android 4.4 (KitKat).

At first glance, it's a nice-looking device.  Weighing 9.74 oz., it’s pretty lightweight as compared to similarly-sized tablets. It comes equipped with a quad-core 1.2GHz Marvell processor; the 4,000mAh battery is, according to the company, good for up to 10 hours of video with the Wi-Fi off. (Incidentally, the tablet does comes with GPS, something new for the Nook line.) It comes with 8GB of storage but also offers a slot for a microSD card, giving it a possible total of 32GB of storage.

There is a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera and a back-facing 3.0-megapixel camera; the camera software is fairly simplistic by today’s standards but will suit for simple photos and video conferencing.

While I only had the chance to play with the Nook for a few minutes, I found it a rather pleasant experience. The pseudo-leatherette casing was pleasant to hold and felt as though it wouldn’t slip easily out of my hands. Because it is a Samsung product, it did have a physical home key, which I tend to think is unnecessary in an Android device, but which consumers may find reassuring. Equally reassuring may be the idea (which Barnes & Noble has always touted) that free customer support is available at their stores.

Barnes & Noble has always had a less restrictive policy than Amazon when it came to its e-reader tablets. The Nook has full access not only to its own apps but to the Google Apps store as well. There are a few small tweaks that show it to be a Samsung product -- for example, it offers a simplified version of Samsung’s multi-screen software, allowing you to share the display between two apps (according to a Barnes & Noble rep, any apps will work, not just a specified few). The apps are accessed from a side menu that pops out when you swipe from the right. I tried it out briefly -- it was simple, clean and potentially quite useful. In fact, perhaps more useful for everyday consumers than the somewhat more complex version found on Samsung’s other devices.

The Nook is not the most inexpensive tablet on the market today, even at a price point of $179 (with the $20 instant rebate). Even putting aside the Kindle Fire, there are other tablets such as the 7-in. Acer Iconia One 7, which also comes with a 1280 x 800 HD display and 8GB of storage (with a microSD card slot) for a list price of $140. And there are others on the market for even less.

Barnes & Noble is, of course, including a number of promotional encouragements, including a $5 credit and 14-day trial subscriptions to four magazines. That, along with the improved hardware, family-friendly apps and open policy toward Android apps in general may move book readers to give the new Nook a try.

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