Apple's announcement Wednesday of a new iPad only continues questions about that device's place in the market. By the end of 2012, Apple is expected to rack up cumulative iPad sales of more than 100 million units. An observer might conclude that the iPad is about all there is in tablet-land.
Such an observer would be wrong, however. Major booksellers are in the tablet space, figuring, perhaps rightly, that e-books will eventually trump paper books, and it's better for Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble to sell a digital book on a hardware "platform" of their choosing than to sell no books at all.
The printed book isn't going away, not yet at least, and I believe the tablet age is in its infancy. But neither fact has stopped Barnes & Noble, one of the country's oldest booksellers - and now one of the largest - from offering its own line of e-book "readers" and even an Android-based tablet, the $199 or $249 Nook Tablet, the price depending on whether you want 8 gigabytes or 16 gigabytes of memory installed.
I've played with a 16-gigabyte Nook Tablet model and I must say, it's nicer than I'd thought and certainly a device that shows promise in a crowded marketplace. While I was (and remain) a bit lukewarm about the $199, 8-gigabyte Amazon.com Kindle Fire tablet , the Nook is nicer.
There are frustrations with the Nook: Barnes & Noble pre-installs a link to the Mog.com music service - the same one that didn't work on the Kindle Fire I tested last fall - and while I could (sort of) log into Mog, it wouldn't respond with music. Other Android apps might not be available, and Barnes & Noble didn't respond to a question of whether such items can be "side-loaded" or transferred to a Nook via a cable connection to a computer.
Then again, Pandora Radio worked just fine, and there are plenty of applications available to cover just about any interest. If the one I want isn't yet available, a substitute can likely be found.
So what makes the Nook Tablet a thing of value? Several features. One is the screen, a supersharp, colorful 7-inch display that's great for television shows, movies and magazine layouts. Watching some brief television clips on Hulu Plus was a hoot: wonderful video, and the sound was OK with the built-in speaker. (More serious viewing - not to mention the comfort of your neighbors - would suggest using a headset.)
Books - presumably the primary thing for Nook users - are fun to read; the feel is natural, and the type easy to read and easy to re-size. I can attest that the Nook Tablet is durable, too: dropping one onto a carpeted floor wasn't a problem, as I discovered while dozing off during testing.
Battery life seems better than the Kindle Fire as well: Barnes & Noble promises 11.5 hours of reading time and 9.5 hours of watching videos. And unlike the Kindle Fire, both times are with Wi-Fi connectivity functioning. Like the Kindle Fire, there's no 3G wireless option.
I was a bit concerned that Barnes & Noble's e-books might not be easily transferrable to other platforms if, say, a user ditched the Nook for an iPad or another Android tablet. Apps from Barnes & Noble will handle that, a company spokesman said. They didn't say - but I have found out - that you can fairly easily hack a Kindle Fire to run the Android Nook application.
So portability of books isn't a concern, as it frankly is with Apple's iBook platform. That's good. Barnes & Noble has a ton of titles, and the prices seem as fair as any e-seller's.
For my needs, wants and desires, I'd probably stick with an iPad. But for a smaller-sized, useful, reading-and-tablet experience, I'd also say that the Nook Tablet is, for now, the one to beat.
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