It may have the Fire, but now Amazon's the one feeling Barnes & Noble's heat.
On September 28, Amazon sent shockwaves through the tablet and e-reader space by announcing the $199 Kindle Fire and two new low-priced e-ink readers, the $79 Kindle and $99 Kindle Touch. At the time, a lot of people wondered if Barnes & Noble, mum after Amazon's announcement, would be able strike back with both a compelling product and pricing that could blunt Amazon's blitz.
The answer appears to be yes, as Barnes & Noble today unveiled the $249 Nook Tablet, a more powerful and faster successor to 2010's Nook Color, which remains on the market for $199 (a $50 price cut).
The company also dropped the price of its Simple Touch e-ink reader from $139 to $99, matching the price of Amazon's ad-supported Kindle Touch With Special Offers (due to ship on November 21). Along with the price drop, Barnes & Noble says that it's managed to improve the battery life of the Simple Touch e-reader, quickened page-turn times by 25 percent, and improved "font rendering" to make text appear clearer. Those performance boosts will be available to existing Simple Touch owners via a software upgrade starting today.
The newly priced Simple Touch is available today for $99 while the Nook Tablet is available for pre-order with an expected ship date of November 17. (Read CNET's hands-on preview of the Nook Tablet and the CNET review of the Nook Simple Touch.)
More expensive--but worth it?
On paper, some aspects of the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire stack up pretty evenly. Both have 7-inch color LCD screens, 1GHz dual-core Texas Instruments CPUs, run custom versions of Android, offer Wi-Fi connectivity to the Web and their respective e-book and app stores, run Adobe Flash, and claim about 8 hours of battery life (with wireless switched off). Another similarity: like Amazon, Barnes & Noble is billing its Nook Tablet as a "media" device, with ample access to music, games, and video.
Neither the Kindle Fire nor the Nook Tablet offers cameras, Bluetooth, or 3G wireless options--all of which can be found on the more expensive (and larger) Apple iPad 2. (See Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet for a detailed breakdown.)
But despite the similarities, Barnes & Noble claims to have the edge. CEO William Lynch told CNET, "This is the best media tablet hands-down on the market. We've done some things to optimize performance that just aren't available on the Kindle Fire."
For starters, the Nook Tablet comes with 16GB of built-in storage (twice as much the Kindle Fire); it also has a microSD expansion slot (the Fire has none). The Nook boasts a "laminated, no air-gap" display that offers a 89 percent viewing angle, and it includes 1GB of RAM (twice as much as the Kindle Fire's 512MB), which helps with multitasking.
While the Nook Tablet looks a lot like the Nook Color, at 14.1 ounces it weighs less and has a lighter-colored finish. It also has an integrated microphone that allows you, for instance, to record your voice (or your child's voice) while reading interactive kids e-books.
Lynch said that despite the Nook Tablet's higher price it was a better value than the Kindle Fire.
"Those hardware extras alone are well worth $50. Our screen is better and the 1GB of RAM makes a big difference," he said. "You also get more memory. We just don't think you can have a media tablet that only offers 6GB of usable memory."
According to Lynch and Jamie Iannone, President of the Digital Division of Barnes & Noble, who helped demo the product, the company worked with Texas Instruments to improve the performance of the display and video streaming.
"The processor really does make a difference," Lynch said.
Apps, media, magazines, and more
As part of the transition from moving from a so-called tablet e-reader (Nook Color) to a full-fledged media tablet (Nook Tablet), Barnes & Noble has hitched its wagon to Netflix and Hulu in a big way. Both streaming services will be available at launch; so, too will a number of audio services, such as Pandora and Mog and more, including Spotify, are on the way, I was told.
When asked about Vudu's video service, Lynch said that it wouldn't be on the device at launch, but that a movie-rental service "would be on board in the near future." You can also side-load video files for viewing on the device like you can with any Android tablet.
The inclusion of those third-party apps and media capabilities are doubly important for B&N, since--unlike Amazon--it currently doesn't offer video and audio content over the Web.
Additionally, Barnes & Noble is expanding its integrated app store and has redesigned the interface for both e-book and app shopping. It's also continuing to expand and refine its Nook Newsstand (magazines and newspapers) and offers digital subscriptions to over 250 publications, including 100 leading magazines. As with certain magazine and newspaper apps for the iPad and Android tablets, you can--in some cases--get the digital version for free if you subscribe to the print version. (The Kindle Fire is also slated to offer a large assortment of periodicals, but Amazon hasn't yet clarified how or if they'll be linked to corresponding print versions.)
When Barnes & Noble launched the Nook Color last year around this time, it had no app store, which led to a lot of people rooting or modding the device to run an open version of Android that included the Android Market. An app store was added in early 2011 a a steady trickle of apps have made their way into the store over the last several months. Barnes & Noble says that trickle will grow to more of a flood, with "thousands" of apps--both free and paid--becoming available in the coming year.
The device includes an e-mail app at launch along with a new PDF reader app called Page Perfect. Lynch also talked about special "enhanced" editions of Angry Birds that would be available to play in Barnes & Noble stores against other customers.
Like Apple, Barnes & Noble sees its stores a competitive advantage and has now expanded the size of its Nook Boutiques in many of its top stores, doubling the space devoting to selling Nook devices to 2,000 sq. feet. Those boutiques also offer customers in-store Nook support.
"A lot of people want to know they can take their device into a store and get help with it," Lynch said.
As for battery life, Iannone noted that while the battery is the same one found in the original Nook Color, their engineers had improved the power-saving options. He said the Nook Tablet would be rated at 11 hours for reading time and up to 9 hours for video playback.
If you're a Nook Color owner, you won't be able to upgrade to Android 2.3 (the Nook Color runs on a modified version of Android 2.2, or Froyo), but Barnes & Noble will be offering a software upgrade in early December that gets you the newly designed interface and many of the new features found in the Nook Tablet.
I told Lynch that I wasn't sure why someone would spend $199 a Nook Color with the Nook Tablet clearly worth the extra $50 (I told him that we would definitely recommend to our readers to spend the extra dough on the new device).
Fighting "Fire" with fire
What's this mean for the Kindle Fire? Well, Amazon clearly still has a strong offering for the price and will have its media and Web services tightly integrated into its product. But it doesn't seem like quite the slam dunk that it did a few weeks ago. Barnes & Noble now has two products competing against the Fire--the new Nook Tablet and the soon-to-be-upgraded Nook Color.
Similarly, the ad-supported Kindle Touch no longer stands unopposed, with the ad-free Nook Simple Touch now retailing for an identical $99. (That said, The Kindle Touch wins out on features, as it offers compatibility with audiobooks and MP3 music; the Nook Touch has no audio capabilities.)
At the launch of the Fire, Amazon reps made it a point to talk about how easily people would move content on and off the device and take advantage of the company's cloud-based storage.
"You get free, unlimited storage for Amazon content in the cloud, so you never have to worry about running out of space," an Amazon rep wrote me in an email. "If you want to store some content locally (if you're traveling, etc), you can store 80 apps plus either 10 movies or 800 songs or 6,000 books on the device."
Hundreds of thousands--and maybe even millions--of customers who've pre-ordered the Kindle have bought into that concept. However, Barnes & Noble is trying to get them to think twice about their decision and the company has definitely made things interesting with today's announcements.