Jeff Gelles: Amazon, Barnes & Noble unveil competing 7-inch tablets

Amazons Kindle Fire, at $199
Amazons Kindle Fire, at $199
Posted: November 17, 2011

With a swift strike and counterpunch, Amazon and Barnes & Noble just opened a new theater in the Tablet Wars. Call it the Battle of the Booksellers, 7-inch edition.

Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's $249 Nook Tablet, unveiled in quick succession Tuesday and Wednesday, each hope to capture part of the territory Apple staked out less than two years ago when its hugely successful iPad created a whole new product niche.

With its 9.7-inch touchscreen - a size that many, including Apple founder Steve Jobs, considered perfect for personal use - iPad owners can read, watch movies and TV, play games, surf the Web, or basically do anything else imaginable on a computer.

So far, nobody has had much success battling Apple for the $500-plus tablet market, despite plenty of effort. But now the nation's largest book retailers are going head-to-head for the holidays and raising a question: Can a pair of devices that basically split the size difference between a smartphone and the iPad capture some of that same enthralled audience - or at least be good enough and cheap enough to significantly expand the market?

To be sure, the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire aren't the first in their size range - tablet-makers, looking for the killer formula, have experimented with sizes that run from 7 to 12 inches.

What the booksellers hope will set them apart is a combination of capabilities and cost that will make consumers put up with their size, or even embrace it as a plus.

Size and cost are hardly their only similarities. Each of the new tablets uses a proprietary version of the open-source Android platform that Google first created for smartphone-makers eager to compete with the iPhone. And each helps promote other aspects of its manufacturer's business - a synergy that undoubtedly helped Amazon and Barnes & Noble pare their prices.

Later on, Tech Life will take a closer look at how each of the new tablets performs. Today, here's a quick preview of what you'll soon see online, in stores, or in the lap of the woman sitting beside you on the train or plane:

Kindle Fire. At a Best Buy store in Plymouth Meeting on Tuesday, it was easy to see how price sets the Kindle Fire apart.

Nearby was an HTC Flyer, a well-regarded Android tablet with twice the Kindle's 8 gigabytes of memory, selling for $299. Next to that was a 16-gigabyte 7-incher, RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, for $499. Around the corner was the $329 Acer Iconia A100, another 8-gigabyte Android tablet, albeit one that uses Google's tablet-specific Android Honeycomb operating system rather than the HTC's Gingerbread version.

Steve Alvarado, a Philadelphia network administrator and "technology enthusiast," was trying out the new Kindle, and ready to buy one despite what he thought were lukewarm early reviews critical of the Fire's technological compromises: not just the memory, but shortcomings such as the lack of a camera, microphone, or memory-card slot.

Those are real limitations. For instance, you won't be able to video-chat on the Kindle Fire.

"But for $200, what do you expect?" Alvarado asked, pronouncing the tablet's performance "all right" after playing with it briefly.

Alvarado could have written the sales pitch for Amazon, which says cloud storage compensates for the Fire's lack of internal memory.

"I do a lot of purchasing from Amazon: books, music, movies," he said. "This makes it easy to access all that content I already have."

Nook Tablet. Early reaction has been a bit more positive to Barnes & Noble's new tablet, which may be why the company rushed it into stores a day earlier than planned.

One reason is that for the extra $50, the new Nook appears to make fewer compromises. Among its specs are 16 gigabytes of storage, an SD-card expansion slot, and a microphone.

But the Nook Tablet's key advantage, much like the Kindle Fire's, may be how well it is integrated into its manufacturer's core market. In Barnes & Noble's case, that means paying close attention to readers, especially women.

One feature - using the built-in microphone that Kindle Fire lacks - allows parents to record their own voices, or a grandparent's voice, to accompany the reading of a children's book.

"If you have a 5-year-old at home who's just learning to read, you can record the 5-year-old's voice reading a book and keep that forever and ever," said Wendy Bronfin, B&N's senior director of children's digital products.

Some things are clearly priceless. But the booksellers are betting big that small tablets will take off at a better price.


Contact columnist Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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