There's a new line in the sand drawn for 7-inch tablet pricing, and that number is $199.
Barnes & Noble and Amazon were already locked in a fierce rivalry in the "bargain tablet" space with the $249 Nook Tablet and the $199 Kindle Fire. Barnes & Noble delivered better specs for that $50 premium (double the RAM, double the storage, and a microSD expansion slot). But now B&N has removed the price difference between the two products by releasing a new step-down Nook Tablet that levels the playing field on both specs--halving the internal storage and the internal memory to match that of the Kindle Fire--and price, dropping $50 to match Amazon's single 7-inch color tablet product.
Barnes & Noble is also tweaking how much of the storage space on the Nook models is available to users for "side-loading" their own local content (think movies and music). It was formerly limited to 1GB of space before the user was required to add an SD card. It's detailed and nerdy, but that small change could well be the tipping point for some potential buyers when making a purchasing decision. (See below for more details.)
Finally, Barnes & Noble also dropped the price of its 2010 Nook Color to just $169, making that older but still worthwhile model attractive to bargain hunters.
So that leaves us with three Barnes & Noble reader tablets from which to choose, in addition to the Kindle Fire. How does the new 8GB Nook Tablet compare with the Kindle Fire, and to the legacy Barnes & Noble color tablets currently on the market? Let's start by looking at how B&N is changing how it handles local storage, and then see how the units compare.
Nook storage--how it's changing
One of our biggest disappointments with the original 16GB Nook Tablet was that--while it was ostensibly twice as capacious as the 8GB Kindle Fire--only 1GB of its space was accessible for side-loaded user content. So, unless you invested in a microSD expansion card, you couldn't drag and drop a lot of music and movies for those times where streaming Netflix or Pandora won't cut it (such as when you're on a long flight).
With the 8GB Nook Tablet, 4GB of space will now be user-accessible. That adds a significant amount of space for those aforementioned personal files (videos, music, PDFs, EPUB, whatever). On paper, that's a nice upgrade for the Nook Tablet. Yes, it's still limited, but unlike the space-challenged Kindle Fire, you can always add that microSD card (for up to 32GB more).
What's the catch? The "Barnes & Noble content" (apps, books, magazines, games, and the like) is limited to 1.5GB. With apps and magazines getting beefier, that could mean more uninstalling and reinstalling (or redownloading) as space gets tight.
How about owners of the existing 16GB Nook Tablet? Here's what a Barnes & Noble spokesperson told us:
To give customers their requested ability to carry more of their personal content side-loaded on Nook Tablet (16GB), in mid-March Barnes & Noble will offer customers an optional reallocation of memory partitioning. If customers choose to change the memory scheme it will be: 5.5GB for Barnes & Noble content and 8GB for personal content. (Plus, the expandable memory.) When this update is available next month, customers can bring their device to any of Barnes & Noble's nearly 700 bookstores where a Nook seller will make the change for them. (More details will be announced in March.) Nook Tablet (16GB) devices produced and shipped after we make the memory partitioning update available will ship the new scheme.
So, much more room to play with on the 16GB Nook Tablet, but existing owners will need to visit a Barnes & Noble to get that upgrade implemented.
With the storage issue addressed, let's see how the products compare.
8GB Nook Tablet vs. Kindle Fire
These two products are now exactly the same price, with exactly the same internal specs (same CPU, same 512MB RAM, same 8GB of memory). We'll have to see if the reduced RAM affects the Nook's speed or media handling ability. In the meantime, the Nook's major advantages include a slightly better screen and better ergonomics (physical volume and home buttons, both lacking on the Kindle). The Fire, meanwhile, still wins for many people on the "ecosystem" issue: if you're already an Amazon customer, you have easy access to all of your Amazon-based book, video, and music purchases. Amazon Prime members, meanwhile, get access to a huge library of movies, TV shows, and books at no extra cost beyond the $79 annual membership fee.
For more information, check out "Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet: How to choose."
We were hoping that B&N would've taken this refresh opportunity to add Bluetooth to the Nook Tablet (for easy wireless audio streaming), but it's still not to be found. Oh well.
Bottom line: the 8GB Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire have the same onboard storage and RAM, but the Nook Tablet has an expandable microSD card slot and a slightly better screen. The Kindle Fire, however, has better cloud-based music and video download services.
8GB vs. 16GB Nook Tablet
Do you want to spend $50 to get twice the RAM and twice the storage space? That's pretty much the choice here. Now that the user-accessible space is being expanded (see above), the 16GB Nook Tablet may have enough space for the average user without needing to resort to an expansion card.
The halved RAM on the 8GB Nook Tablet (512MB vs. 1GB) might make some apps run more slowly, but it's hard to tell before review.
8GB vs. Nook Color
Confusing the landscape further, Barnes & Noble continues to sell the original 7-inch Nook Color tablet for $169. The Nook Color has a slightly slower processor (800MHz vs. 1GHz), but the same amount of RAM (512MB) and storage space (8GB) as the $199 Nook Tablet. Both have a microSD card slot. You save $30 by going with an older model, but it's unclear whether some newer apps that hit the Nook Store might run with difficulty on the older Nook Color or work perfectly fine. The screen quality is improved on the newer Nook Tablet as well.
Bottom line: We'd recommend splurging for that extra $30 to get at least the 8GB Nook Tablet.
Other affordable tablet alternatives
If you're not in a rush to buy, patience is your friend. There are more and more bargain tablets hitting the stores, but most of them are downright awful--you should definitely stick with one of the three mentioned here: the 8GB Nook Tablet, the 16GB Nook Tablet, or the Kindle Fire.
That could change in the months ahead, however. The Asus MeMo 370T is a full-fledged 7-inch Android tablet slated to hit in the second quarter of 2012 for just $250. That could mean that the "bargain" tablet space would no longer include a long list of compromises.
In the meantime, stay tuned for the full review of the 8GB Nook Tablet.