Everyone loves a bargain. And right now, Barnes & Noble (BKS) has one of the best ones going.
It’s the Nook HD+, the nine-inch color tablet the struggling bookseller introduced late last year to compete with Apple (AAPL)’s iPad and, especially, Amazon (AMZN)’s 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD.
At its launch, the Nook was hampered by a lack of content beyond B&N’s own e-book offerings and by the absence of key apps. But the company has addressed some of those shortcomings while augmenting the device’s attractive price with special deals that make it worth a look.
The HD+ comes in two versions: one with 16 gigabytes of storage for $269, the other with 32 gigabytes for $299. Those are the same prices Amazon touts for the Kindle Fire HD, but with a couple of important differences.
To get that price on the Kindle, you have to be willing to accept ads; it’s $15 extra for commercial-free versions.
The Nook also includes a wall charger and cable -- Amazon gives you just the cable -- and includes a slot for a microSD card to expand its storage capacity up to 96 gigabytes. The Kindle isn’t expandable; Amazon expects you to store a lot of content online using its Cloud services.
But what really makes the Nook attractive is a $50 credit toward content purchases made within 30 days, lowering its effective price to $219. That’s only a few bucks more than the no-ads version of the seven-inch Kindle Fire HD, which has a 40 percent smaller screen.
The credit is available only on Nooks purchased at one of Barnes & Noble’s 670 or so stores, or online at Nook.com; it doesn’t cover devices purchased through retail partners like Wal-Mart (WMT) and Staples (SPLS). Barnes & Noble says the offer is good indefinitely, though it did suspend it for a week recently when it gave away a free monochrome e-reader with each purchase.
While the Nook is nowhere near as potent as the iPad or Microsoft (MSFT)’s Surface, it also costs far less. The least expensive iPad, the base-model iPad mini, is $329, while the cheapest Surface, the RT, is $500.
The Nook neither looks nor feels cheap. It weighs about 18 ounces, about two ounces lighter than the Kindle Fire HD, and its battery should get you through a day of normal use.
The screen is a beauty. It has a resolution of 1920 by 1280 pixels and can display video in full high-definition. Not only is it better than the Kindle, its 256 pixels-per-inch density nearly matches that of the iPad’s vaunted Retina display.
Its biggest missing feature, relative to its Amazon competition, is a camera. So even though Microsoft is an investor in the Nook business, forget about using its Skype service.
The Nook, like the Kindle, runs a version of Google (GOOG)’s Android operating system, although -- again like the Kindle -- it’s so heavily modified that you might never know it. One result is that it doesn’t have access to the 700,000 or so apps in the Google Play store; instead, you’re limited to apps that have been tailored specifically for Barnes & Noble.
That’s been a weakness of the Nook from the beginning, and it still is, but a little less so. There are native Nook apps for Facebook (FB), Twitter, Netflix and Spotify, plus a Web browser.
It has also expanded its sparse video catalog through recent deals with Lions Gate (LGF), MGM (MGMB) and Viacom (VIAB)’s Paramount, among others. MGM’s “Skyfall” came preloaded on my test device, and James Bond was pretty impressive on that nice screen.
Still, the Nook ecosystem pales next to Amazon, which has smartly made the Kindle a seamless entry point to its enormous collections of movies, music, television shows and books. And the Kindle has vastly more apps too -- so many more that Barnes & Noble won’t even release a count of Nook apps.
It also has more configurations, including an extra-cost option to connect to AT&T (T)’s fast 4G LTE network; the Nook works only over a Wi-Fi connection.
All things being equal, the Kindle is the superior device. But all things aren’t equal as long as you can get a Nook HD+ for, effectively, $219 -- making it worth consideration if you’re shopping for a good tablet that won’t break the bank.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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