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Nook Tablet review: Great hardware, stiff competition

Wilson Rothman / msnbc.com

Barnes & Noble has a problem. It's not software. It's not hardware. It's Amazon. 

The B&N Nook Tablet, successor to the underground hit Nook Color, is a terrific tablet, with a vibrant screen, a speedy CPU and a nice offering of books and other media. If you buy it, especially for reading, or streaming from your Netflix video or Pandora music accounts, you'll likely be quite happy. For $250, it's hard to find a nicer media-focused 7-inch Android tablet.

But there's a war on. 

Amazon didn't have a tablet when people were snapping up Nook Colors (or is that "Nooks Color"?). Now that it does, Amazon has priced its own 7-inch Kindle Fire deliberately low, at $199, and tied in a ton of no-extra-charge videos and books from the $80-per-year Amazon Prime. Amazon doesn't stop there: It also piles on new-release videos to buy or rent, a cloud-based music player that you can upload your own music to, an MP3 store and an Android app store that has already been powering phones for half a year. 

My point? Amazon is a multibillion-dollar powerhouse that is using a 7-inch tablet as a beachhead in an all-out media war against Google and Apple, and it has no intention of letting a brick-and-mortar retailer with no big media play stand in its way. Barnes & Noble can compete surprisingly well on books, magazines, children's interactive storybooks, comics and still more formerly printed media. But for video and music, it must cozy up to partners that are in no shape to fend off Amazon either, and that will likely prove to be Barnes & Noble's Achilles' heel.

OK, doom-and-gloom forecast aside, let's talk about what all of this means right now.

Hardware
There are a few reasons why the Nook Tablet is superior to the Kindle Fire. The screen is the same, and I didn't really notice a speed difference. But the battery life on the Nook Tablet is noticeably better than the Kindle Fire's. During an overnight test, both starting from fully charged, the Kindle flashed the 15 percent alert, while the Nook Tablet was still at 42 percent.

Nice volume buttons!Wilson Rothman / msnbc.com

The Nook has physical buttons for volume control, and has a nice big home button you can actually press, unlike on the Kindle.

The final big differentiator is internal storage, but that's not a clear-cut thing. While the Nook Tablet has 16GB of internal storage, versus the Kindle Fire's 8GB, users can only access 1GB of the Nook's storage to put your own content. And because the only way to get a non-streamed movie on there at the moment is to rip a DVD and copy it over yourself, that means there's really only room for one movie. If you want more storage, however, you can expand it — something the Kindle Fire won't allow. A 32GB microSD card will cost you less than $40.

Reading
Barnes & Noble has built a reading experience that surpasses the competition in several ways. Thanks to the Nook Color, the company now has an impressive library of kid's books. If you have kids, but you're indisposed, the books will read themselves aloud. And traveling or ultra-busy parents might enjoy the fact that they can even record their own voices. I have to say, while this is an initiative I applaud, the Nook Tablet's 7-inch screen is pretty small for children's content. Kids' books are giant for a reason, and the iPad's 10-inch screen is the bare minimum size for enjoying kid content. 

B&N also sells many "enhanced" e-books: cookbooks with over an hour of video, new releases with audio introductions, all-time bestsellers with never-before-seen photos and other documentation.

On top of that, the company is very busy making deals with magazine and comic publishers in order to claim the largest collections of both. 

When it comes to text, whether it's plain old type or something that's literally trying to jump off the page, B&N is doing great.

Amazon's biggest counterattack on the reading front comes in the form of the Kindle Owner's Lending Library, a service that lets you borrow a book per month for free, including some bestsellers. (B&N would be quick to reply that it, too, offers freebies — via email and in person, if you show up at its stores and hop on the Wi-Fi.)

Music & video
Things start to get weird when we get into the other forms of media. Since Barnes & Noble can't sell you movies or music directly, it relies heavily on partnerships. One chief partnership is Netflix, which comes out looking amazing on the Nook Tablet. B&N spends some time talking about the "HD entertainment" available for the Tablet — to be clear, the screen's resolution isn't physically "high definition" so I was a bit skeptical. But then I saw what the hullabaloo was about: Compared to the Kindle Fire, the playback of many Netflix shows on the Nook Tablet is waaaay better, because it's coming from an HD source. 

So even though the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet have essentially the same screens, the content getting streamed from Netflix (and, apparently, Hulu) is better quality. (This higher quality can also be seen on the iPad's Netflix app, by the way.)

If you're not using Netflix or Hulu, it's currently a challenge to watch movies on the Nook Tablet. B&N will be partnering with video rent-or-buy options in the future, but it doesn't have anything like that at launch. If you are savvy enough to buy a DVD and rip it on your computer, you can copy it to the Tablet's internal drive via USB, then find it by fishing through the not-so-great Gallery menu. 

For music, it's more straightforward. You just copy your own files over, and they show up in the music player. If you don't have any music of your own, you can sign up for a free service like Pandora or Grooveshark, or get a subscription with Napster, Rhapsody or Mog.

What Amazon does, by contrast, is give you a chance to upload tons of your own music to the cloud, and then stream it as you wish on your tablet. Maybe you'd find that extraneous, but that, plus a thriving MP3 store, represent a big music advantage.

Apps & games
Although the Nook app store has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a packet of add-ons for the Nook Color, it will be hard for B&N to keep up with Amazon now that Amazon has its own device. The future will likely mean an awful lot of apps built to run on the Kindle Fire, and while that means they'll be well suited to run on the Nook Tablet as well, Amazon may try to buy off the best stuff as "exclusive." 

While that plays out, Barnes & Noble has a bigger issue, and that is that it's hard to search for apps on the Nook Tablet. Book titles keep popping up, and there's no apparent way to filter just the apps.

On the gaming front, the Kindle is already pulling ahead. Both have Rovio, maker of Angry Birds, but Amazon has Electronic Arts, PopCap, Gameloft and others lined up, too. Even though the Nook Tablet hardware is allegedly better for playing heavy-duty titles, there were none to try out, only casual games, the old bird-in-slingshot stuff that any phone can handle these days. (UPDATE: Barnes & Noble does have games from EA and Gameloft, but what I said remains true: B&N doesn't yet have graphics-intensive games from those publishers, like "Dead Space" and "Asphalt," which are available for the Kindle Fire.)

Web browsing and email
Don't make too big a deal about browsing and email on either of these devices. The 7-inch screen makes much of the the Web hard to look at, despite the completely adequate browsers found in both devices. And for email, both use off-the-shelf apps that are functional but light on frills. 

How it boils down
It's something of a tragedy, I feel. I spent much of my Kindle Fire review talking about how it threatens the iPad, and now, though the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet are fairly evenly matched, and in some ways I like the Nook Tablet better, I have spent much of its review telling you why it will also take a hit thanks to Amazon.

But since these are first and foremost e-book devices, the best choice is still the one that aligns with your preferred shopping experience. If you spend a lot of time in Barnes & Noble, the Nook is right for you. If you are an Amazon Prime customer, then Kindle Fire is a no-brainer. 

And if you are undecided on these matters, write down your five favorite contemporary authors, and see how much of their material turns up in either store. You need to land wherever you find the most content that suits your own personal taste, otherwise the rest of the drama matters for naught.

More on the Nook and Kindle war:

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