Barnes & Noble adds Google Play store to its tablets

The Nook HD and HD+ may not be fully "open" Android tablets, but they're now much more open than they were.

Bowing to market pressures and customer demand for access to the full breadth of Android apps, Barnes & Noble has made the bold move of adding the Google Play store to its two latest tablets, the Nook HD and Nook HD+. The free software update, which also includes the Chrome Web browser, doesn't turn the company's tablets into true "open" Android devices, but it does make them much more open than they were. It will be available today to download from bn.com and will be rolled out to devices in the coming days via an over-the-air Wi-Fi update.

Despite positive reviews for its tablets, in recent months Barnes & Noble has encountered fierce headwinds as Apple, Amazon, and Google released well-regarded tablets of their own in advance of the 2012 holiday selling season. From a hardware and price standpoint, not much separates the products, but Barnes & Noble's app offerings have lagged behind those of the competition, even as it worked hard to expand its app store. Such a drawback can give consumers a reason to pause before buying.

Real Racing 3 on the Nook HD+ (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

I got an early preview of the software update on a Nook HD+ and what's a little bit surprising is that Barnes & Noble hasn't held anything back from the Google Play store -- it's as you would expect it to appear on any open Android device, complete with apps, music, movies, games, and yes, even e-books.

Not often is it that you see a company place a direct competitor on its device after investing so much in its own store. But that's what Barnes & Noble has done, giving customers the option of buying apps, books, and movies from the Nook Store or the Google Play store a few swipes away.

Google video offerings will go head-to-head against the Nook Store's. Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're wondering whether you can add the Kindle app to the Nook, the answer is yes. Kobo, too. But more importantly, Nook owners can also grab the HBO Go app that has been missing from the Nook Store. Or any number of games and apps that also aren't there.

Barnes & Noble reps said that the Nook Store would continue to coexist side-by-side with the Google Play store and users will be able to import their bookmarks from the Nook's old browser to the new Chrome browser. With the Nook HD and HD+ you can also create separate profiles for different users, and parents will have the option of giving their kids access to the Google Play store -- or not.

To distinguish apps that you've bought in the Nook Store, a small "n" will appear as part of its icon in the navigational carousel at the top of the screen. Content bought in the Google Play store, such as movies, music, and e-books, will be accessible through Google's "players," not Barnes & Noble's.

Whether this best-of-both-worlds strategy will pay dividends isn't clear at this point, but it does seem apparent that Barnes & Noble's walled-garden approach wasn't working.

With the changes, the company is seeking more parity with Amazon, which has created a competitive advantage with its free video streaming and Kindle Lending Library e-book offerings for Prime members. Amazon has its own fairly expansive app store (Appstore for Android), though it doesn't offer the Google Play store on its Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Fire HD 8.9. Meanwhile, Google's Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 appeal to users who are looking for completely open Android tablets. The Nook HD and Nook HD+ offer an expansion slot of additional memory; the aforementioned competing products and Apple's iPads don't.

We'll be updating our reviews of the Nook HD and Nook HD+ in the coming days. In the meantime, let us know how much of a game changer the addition of Google Play will -- or won't -- be for Barnes & Noble's tablet line.

Editors' note: This Google Play store software update is only for Barnes & Noble's latest tablets, not earlier models.
 

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