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Nook Tablet, Amazon Kindle Fire ‘mini-tablets’ will shake up market

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Everyone really wants to make a tablet these days. You can’t turn around in your local electronics retailer without bumping into some variant of either an iPad 2 or Android device.

And those devices cover a wide range: from cheap and disposable $99 models for those willing to put up with drawbacks, such as sluggish performance or unattractive design, to high-end offerings from Sony and Samsung. Most people are opting for the $499 iPad, if market share shows us anything. But there is another class of tablet that’s on the rise: something in between.

Barnes & Noble has joined this fray by adding the Nook Tablet to its Nook family. Last month, Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

If the Nook Tablet looks a lot like the Nook Color, which was released last year, that’s probably because they’re nearly identical.

These new tablets accomplish about 80 percent of what you can do with an iPad, are backed by companies consumers know and trust and cost roughly half of Apple’s base model. And I think they’re going to make a huge impact on the market.

Let’s call them the mini-tablets.

Barnes & Noble’s newest model, which will start at $249, is clearly intended to compete with the likes of the $199 Kindle Fire. The devices sport the same size display, have dual-core processors, put content consumption (such as reading books and magazines, watching movies and listening to music) front and center, and run a deeply customized variation of Google’s Android operating system.

The Nook Tablet has a leg up on its competition in a couple of minor categories — mainly the internal memory (1GB) and the storage available (16GB expandable to 32GB, vs. the Fire’s 8GB). Barnes & Noble says that its screen technology is better than Amazon’s and that it has better customer service. It does have real stores, after all.

The Nook Tablet comes pre-loaded with Hulu and Netflix software and plugs into its parent company’s vast library of books. They’re lean-back tablets, maybe even more than the iPad 2. But in many ways, these devices are shockingly similar and clearly aimed at the same audience.

Both devices will have separate, non-Google-approved app stores. Amazon says the Fire will launch with more than 10,000 applications. Barnes & Noble says “thousands” of titles are available for its platform. For developers, the situation is somewhat of a nightmare, as they must customize their software for each tablet, and for Google’s own operating system. I feel for them.

But what will make buyers choose Barnes & Noble’s model over the Fire, iPad 2 or the myriad of other Android options?

That’s a very good question, one I’m not sure the bookseller has a great answer for. At the company’s presentation Monday, representatives took great pains to distance themselves from Amazon, pointing to product design and earlier sales of the Nook Color.

According to Barnes & Noble, the Nook Color is the second-best selling tablet in the United States, behind only the iPad 2. Will the Nook Tablet help the company hold that position?

From a content standpoint, that’s unclear. Sure, the Nook Tablet has Hulu Plus and Netflix, but Amazon will offer all its streaming services (which now include TV, movies and music) along with its book catalogue (a large and quickly growing selection). Also, Amazon will offer its Prime subscribers thousands of content titles for no additional charge.

More important, the Fire is cheaper than the Nook Tablet and will be available sooner; $50 is significant when you’re talking about sub-$300 tablets. And Amazon clearly has an edge here.

From a retail perspective, it should be interesting to watch Amazon and Barnes & Noble duke it out. Amazon has a massive online footprint and says it will be in 16,000 old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores, a place where Barnes & Noble traditionally holds ground.

One thing is sure: As the prices for tablets fall and more desirable partnerships are struck, consumers will be waking up to a whole new way of thinking about content — how they get it, where they get it from and how they use it.

The first test of this new world is about to come. If either Barnes & Noble or Amazon can prove there’s a viable tablet out there besides the iPad and can do it for less, it could have ripple effects throughout the technology industry. A few years ago, cheaper, lower-powered, “just good enough” netbooks upended the laptop market and made computer makers rethink their strategies. This could be a repeat performance.

For consumers, it means more choice. And that’s a really good thing — especially if the choices don’t stink.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.
com
), a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and the former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

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