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Weekend Tech Scan: November's 7-Inch Tablet 'Smackdown'

Amazon, Samsung, and, presumably, Barnes and Noble go mano a mano this month with tablet releases.

The Kindle family.

The Kindle family. Amazon.com

Welcome to the 2011 7-inch Android tablet smackdown.

It’s the battle of the much-maligned 7-inchers, pitting Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Samsung against each other in function-to-function combat. Then there are the internecine fights: Amazon against Apple, Barnes and Noble against Amazon — and maybe a November surprise from Samsung against all comers.

It’s certainly making November an exciting time for people looking for small, lightweight, wireless, portable tablets. 

Two of the entries, from Amazon and Samsung, have the benefit of having their devices well-previewed before their official launches.

Barnes and Noble sent out invitations this week for “a very special announcement" on Monday [November 7]. It's quite likely, however, that widely printed leaks have already revealed the substance of the event: a 7-inch tablet resembling the current Nook Color, but much more powerful, with Netflix, Hulu Plus, and other tablet-like features. If the leaks are correct — or even if Barnes and Noble has something completely different to showcase — it strengthens the company's position as a strong player in the ongoing evolution of the smaller-form tablet.

(All screen sizes referred to herein are screen sizes measured diagonally, not the actual device size. All devices are WiFi only.)

Apple, the tablet market leader, has reportedly been dithering over a mini-iPad, based on its own operating system. This in spite of the late Steve Jobs' infamous trashing of anything smaller than a 10-inch tablet as “dead on arrival.” A new survey from Bernstein Research, quoted in Tested, essentially agrees with Jobs. 

But many, including me — and apparently the three companies introducing 7-inch form-factor tablets this month — think the size is perfect for portable use. I have an iPad, and enjoy using it at home as my leisure machine. On the other hand, my Nook Color ebook reader, augmented with a $35 N2A SD card that converts it easily into a full-fledged Android tablet, has made me a believer in smaller tablets for use on the go.

Here’s what we know about the 3 introductions.

The most awaited device is Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire, due on November 15, and available for order from Amazon and Best Buy, among others. A powerful lightweight tablet, it will offer wireless access to Amazon’s vast array of books, music, magazine subscription management, Android apps, movies, and TV shows. The device comes with a fast new Internet browser. The size is the same as the company’s older Kindle, which was black and white E Ink, non-touchscreen, with a keyboard. The new Kindle has a color touchscreen. And it's $300 less than the least expensive retail iPad.

It is not a full-function Android tablet, however. Its main goal is to sell you Amazon digital goods, so it lacks an onboard camera, an expansion slot for an SD card, an audio mic, and, we believe, any access to the Android Marketplace for its apps collection. Whether it has Bluetooth is unknown. Still, many popular Android apps will be available on the tablet through Amazon’s App Store, and Amazon will offer equivalent apps for several others.

Amazon is also banking on its Amazon Prime subscription service, at $79 annually, being a draw for the tablet. Prime, which started as an inducement offering free 2-day shipping on Amazon products, has morphed into Netflix’ strongest competitor in subscription-based video streaming. 

And this week, the Kindle Owners Lending Library was announced for Prime subscribers, enabling them to borrow an e-book a month with no due dates, including some New York Times best sellers. This feature will only be available to Kindle owners (alas, Kindle app users on Apple and Android devices) and the success of the program is still untested. The Wall Street Journal reports that some publishers are balking at the program.

This is a tablet for pure entertainment, not productivity or geeky stuff. So long as you’re not troubled by the limited access to other digital content sellers, it may be for you. Predictions of sales going through the roof with Apple-like success figures are rampant.


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