The new Nook Tablet: Can it compete?

While tablets seem to be the “in” devices this year, there has been some feeling that they could do even better if they didn’t cost so much. (A feeling supported by the rush that was caused by the recent HP Touchpad firesale.) What’s the solution? How about an upgraded e-reader?

Three of the leading e-reader vendors -- Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble -- are introducing three similar Android-based e-readers, all with 7-in. color touchscreens and all costing in the $200 range. They’re in a neck-and-neck race to lure customers who want a lightweight tablet-like device but who can’t shell out the $500-odd demanded for full-featured tablets like Apple’s iPad, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab or Motorola’s Xoom.

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Amazon led the pack by introducing its $199 Kindle Fire on September 28, along with several other lower-cost e-readers. The Fire, which will ship on November 15, offers a dual-core processor and 8GB of storage (together with the promise of additional cloud storage).  The Kobo Vox eReader, which officially began shipping on October 28th (although as far as I can tell, no reviewers have actually received the device), is also offering 8GB of storage together with an SD card slot and a slower 800 MHz processor with 512MB RAM.

Barnes & Noble, of course, couldn’t be left behind, and this morning it announced its own contender: the Nook Tablet. This latest Nook will have a dual-core 1.2GHz processor with 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage along with an SD card slot which can add up to an additional 32GB.  It will be available late next week for $249.

William Lynch, CEO of Barnes & Noble, was quite straightforward in what his company is doing: Going directly up against Amazon's Kindle Fire.  And there's no arguing that this tight competition gives customers some real options to choose from. Those who are already, of course, heavily invested in Amazon’s KIndle format or Barnes & Noble’s Nook can probably upgrade to the new devices with some degree of confidence. Others, however, have more of a choice to make.

For example, the Kindle Fire offers 8GB of storage with no SD card expansion -- however, it does offer streaming media via Amazon Prime, an advantage that makes the Fire as much a media source as an e-reader. The Kobo Vox doesn't have the market visibility of either of the others, and comes with a slower processor -- but uses the popular ePub format for its ebooks, a far more flexible choice than the Kindle’s format. And the Nook Tablet offers a fast dual-core processor with 1GB of RAM, along with the same ePub open format, but costs $50 more than the others. 

Interestingly enough, in its introduction today, B&N also pushed the fact that Nook users have a brick-and-mortar store they can go to in order to see the tablet and get help with it.  I'd be interested to know how much of a difference this can make -- I have to admit that sometimes just walking to a store and picking up a gift for a friend rather than shopping online is the better of the two worlds. (And sometimes not.)

There have been changes to Barnes & Noble's other products as well. The Nook Color, its previous high-end reader, has been dropped to $199, and the interface has been upgraded. According to the B&N rep, users can "look forward to greater functionality."  In addition, the monochrome Nook Simple Touch has been given, according to B&N, a faster and crisper E-Ink display and the price has been dropped to $99. B&N also proclaimed that the Nook Simple Touch's "sleep" screen would include "no annoying ads" -- a direct reference to Amazon, which charges $40 extra to buy their lower-priced devices without advertising.

One question that will not be fully answered until all three devices are available for more complete hands-on testing will be the openness of their Android interfaces. Most of these do not provide open access to the Android Market -- not surprisingly. When asked why its Nook Tablet wouldn't include the main Android Market, B&N reps explained that the apps they provided would be optimized for a 7-in. screen.

However, I can imagine that there are other reasons as well. For example, it's possible that the reason that a company feels it can cut the cost of an e-reader down to the bone is because it will make its profits selling books (and possibly apps) to its customers -- a completely open Android device could negate that. Otherwise, what would prevent the owner of a Kindle Fire from installing the Nook Android app? 

We look forward to reviewing all three of these new e-reader/tablets, and finding out whether they are really as similar as they seem.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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