Nook Tablet: Hands on with Barnes & Noble's Fire-eater

Barnes & Noble answers the Kindle Fire with the Nook Tablet--a 7-inch $249 tablet that one-ups Amazon.com's model on some key specs.

The Nook Tablet unveiled, November 7, 2011. Sarah Tew Photography

If you've preordered the Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble hopes you're now having second thoughts.

That's the message of the just-announced $249 Nook Tablet, the successor to 2010's Nook Color (which remains on the market for $199). The new 7-inch color tablet equals many of the basic specs of the Kindle Fire, but justifies its $50 price premium over Amazon.com's model by offering several notable upgrades.

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The Nook Tablet will offer more than twice the storage and twice the RAM of the Fire; it's got an SD expansion slot for even more storage capacity (which the Fire lacks), up to 32GB; and Barnes & Noble is already touting Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora apps which will come included on the device from the start (Amazon's list of third-party Fire apps remains undisclosed). Those features are in addition to the existing assortment of apps and features already available on the Nook Color (and on deck for the Kindle Fire)--e-mail and a Flash-enabled Web browser, in addition to a fully stocked e-book store and magazine and newspaper newsstand.

In short, the Nook Tablet immediately becomes the first real challenger to the Kindle Fire in the emerging bargain tablet arena. Here's why.

Nook Tablet key specs
In many respects, the Nook Tablet is very much the Nook Color 2.0. It's got the same basic chassis (just a hair thicker and 48 grams heavier) and the 7-inch screen is the same resolution as its predecessor. But--as you'd expect a year later--it gets a faster CPU, more memory and storage, and an operating system upgrade.

  • Screen: 1,024x600-pixel "laminated, no-air" 7-inch IPS LCD
  • Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Processor: 1GHz dual-core TI Omap 4
  • Platform: Customized version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
  • Internal memory: 16GB
  • microSD card expansion slot: up to 32GB cards
  • Integrated microphone
  • Battery life: 11 hours reading, 8-9 hours video (with wireless off)
  • Price: $249
  • Availability: Preorder now, ships November 17

I got an early look at the Nook Tablet last week, and here are my first impressions--and my guesses as to how it compares with the Kindle Fire.

The screen: While its Nook Tablet has the same 1,024x600-pixel resolution as the Nook Color (and the Kindle Fire), B&N claims that the in-plane switching (IPS) display offers an 89 percent viewing angle. I just know that the screen appeared brighter and sharper than last year's model, and the high-res video stream from Netflix looked really good. At the Barnes & Noble event, the screen looked just as good at extreme angles as the iPad.
Advantage: TBD. We'll wait to look at the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire screens head-to-head, but identical resolution, color depth, and dpi specs makes me think this could be a draw.

Performance: With a faster dual-core CPU and double the RAM of the Nook Color, the Nook Tablet was noticeably zippier than its ancestor (I always thought the Nook Color was a bit underpowered). Games and Netflix videos launched quickly during brief demos at the Barnes & Noble event.
Advantage: TBD. Same as above--hands-on testing to come, but the Nook Tablet's double RAM should give it a leg up.

Storage: This is a big one. Even before I laid a finger on the Kindle Fire, its 8GB, nonexpandable storage capacity gave me pause. Of that 8GB, only 6GB is user-accessible. By doubling to 16GB out of the gate--and offering the ability to add up to 32GB additional storage via microSD--the Nook Tablet makes me less anxious about storing all of the books, magazines, apps, music, and videos I expect to need, without needing to worry about being within range of a Wi-Fi hot spot for real-time streaming from the cloud, as Amazon emphasizes for its product.
Advantage: Nook Tablet. The Kindle's 8GB of space feels awfully thin compared with the Nook's spacious--and expandable--16GB.

Books: With a library said to be at 2 million titles and counting, Barnes & Noble's catalog is at or near the top of e-book seller heap. I still think Amazon provides a somewhat better on-device shopping experience, but the Nook has closed the gap since its earlier incarnation. And Barnes & Noble's early foray into color means that it already has a good library of illustrated children's books built up. But Amazon now offers Prime members ($79 per year) the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, from which you can borrow one book a month at no additional charge. That's a feature you won't find on the Nook, but both Amazon and B&N offer limited lending-to-friends and access to free public library titles.
Advantage: Too close to call. Amazon Prime members may be tipped to the Fire--but that upgrade only comes with a yearly fee.

Magazines and newspapers: Periodical reading was said to be a surprise hit on the original Nook Color, and Barnes & Noble is continuing to expand and refine its Nook Newsstand. It offers digital subscriptions to over 250 publications, including 100 leading magazines. As with certain magazine and newspaper apps for the iPad and Android tablets, in some cases, if you subscribe to the print version, you can get the digital version for free. (The Kindle Fire appears to have a strong newsstand section on deck as well.)
Advantage: TBD. We need to see both offerings firsthand before making a judgment.

Apps: Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer "curated" app stores on their customized Android devices, meaning that existing Android apps must be resubmitted and reoptimized on each respective tablet, giving each company veto power over which apps appear on its tablets). There's little doubt that Amazon has an array of strong in-house offerings on the multimedia front: a world-class video and music store, as well as its Cloud Drive storage service. And again, Prime membership pays off for Fire owners, as it gives them access to more than 10,000 movies and TV shows at no additional charge. But Barnes & Noble is offering some major third-party apps to help even the playing field. The company is touting Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora for starters, and I was told that a number of audio services, such as Mog and Spotify, are on the way. "Thousands" more apps--both free and paid--will become available in the coming year. (The Kindle Fire will also have many apps, but Amazon hasn't specified titles yet--and it's currently unclear if it will allow competitors like Netflix and Pandora into the mix.)
Advantage: TBD. We'll need to see Amazon's third-party app offerings, but Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora are huge wins for Barnes & Noble.

Drag and drop: Beyond app-based entertainment, the Nook Tablet is also designed to support "sideloading" a full array of video (MP4), audio (Non-DRM AAC, MP3, MP4), photo (JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP), and text (EPUB, PDF, DOC, TXT, DOCM, DOCX) files via USB. The Kindle Fire will do this too, but the Nook's extra storage space means you won't be sweating for free space if you dump a few movies on there for long plane trips, for instance. The Nook Tablet will also include a new PDF reader app called Page Perfect.
Advantage: TBD. Both units offer support for onboard media, but the Nook's extra space tips the early scales in Barnes & Noble's favor.

What's missing: The big no-shows on the Nook Tablet: no cameras (front or back); no Bluetooth; and no 3G wireless. None of these features are on the Kindle Fire, either. None of them are deal-killers (at least at this price), but the lack of Bluetooth is a shame, especially with those audio apps on tap--it would've been great to wirelessly stream to a Bluetooth speaker, and use the Nook as a big remote. Perhaps Sonos will ride to the rescue, and adapt its existing Android phone app.

The wild card--brick-and-mortar stores: Amazon has Prime, but Barnes & Noble has hundreds of stores--and it intends to take a page from Apple and use them as showrooms and tech support sites. For some consumers, that's exactly the sort of in-person service that could tip the scales on what's shaping up to be a neck-and-neck purchasing decision.

Is the Nook Tablet a Fire extinguisher?
Now, before you cancel that Fire preorder, take heart: Amazon's product still looks strong on paper, and it is $50 cheaper. And as evidenced by the comparisons above, we won't really know how the Nook Tablet and the Kindle Fire stack up against one another until we get to do head-to-head comparisons later this month. But Barnes & Noble has rebounded with a much stronger product than many of us would've suspected--it's definitely not ready to roll over in the face of Amazon's Fire blitz. And that sort of competition is always good for the consumer.

 

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