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Weekend Tech Scan: November’s 7-Inch Tablet ‘Smackdown’

The Kindle family. Credit:

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.

The industry is split on whether this will be a threat to Apple. Many analysts — such as this report in the Washington Post — see the Kindle Fire as Amazon’s strongest weapon against Apple’s tablet dominance. But there are others who think it’s simply a different genre of tablet (as outlined in this posting from the Express Tribune). Gizmodo also has strong opinions on the Kindle Fire vs. the iPad 2. 

I tend to side with the camp that thinks the Kindle Fire is in a different field than the iPad (here’s my recent take on the subject). The tale of the sales tape, however, will tell the final story.   

If you want it all in a small tablet, you may want to look at the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, delivering November 13 to stores for purchase and selling for $399. 

Yes, it’s twice the price of the Kindle Fire, but you’re also getting everything that the Kindle Fire lacks: cameras front and back, microphone, microSD card slot, Bluetooth, access to the Android Market, plus access to Netflix, Nook, and all the rest. The tablet comes with only 16 gigabytes of internal memory, but unless you’re a true app “slut” or feel compelled to carry every movie ever made on your tablet (some exaggeration here), 16 gigabits plus an expansion slot for another 32 mb microSD card should be sufficient.

This is an update of the original unmemorable Samsung 7-inch Tab tablet, but this version looks like a more serious contender — at least from its specifications (here’s an early look at it from PC Magazine).  

Samsung has been experimenting with the popularity of various screen sizes: everything from the Galaxy Note — a smartphone with a 5.3-inch screen — to tablets at 7, 7.7, 8.9 and 10.1 inches. Not all of these are available in the U.S., but the company isn’t holding back in offering the marketplace various sizes to see what sticks.

The Nook Tablet, allegedly the new Barnes and Noble device (if the leaks are accurate), is roughly the same size and slightly lighter than the current Nook Color. It will feature a fast dual-core processor and offer access to popular media sites that would vie with Amazon’s selection. According to leaks, the Nook Tablet will have Netflix and Hulu Plus; the Amazon Kindle Fire, its probable chief competition, has Amazon Prime for subscription-based streaming and Amazon Instant Video for individual rentals.

This is a bit of a comeback for Barnes and Noble, which was previously fighting bankruptcy. The introduction of its Nook Color in 2010, followed by the touchscreen-enabled E Ink Nook Simple Touch last May, were market sensations. The pair reduced Amazon’s Kindle non-touchscreen e-reader to a number 2 slot during the second quarter of this year, according to iStock Analyst. The same article noted that Barnes and Noble was still not out of the woods financially — its brick and mortar retail sales are still falling — but its sale of e-books and e-devices grew 37 percent in Q2 in comparison with the same quarter a year ago.

So on what playing field will Barnes and Noble compete? It doesn’t appear to be on price: The rumored price is $249 versus the Kindle Fire’s $199. Is it more open to other vendors than the Kindle Fire? Is it an attempt to get marketplace traction against what is believed will be a sales tsunami for the Kindle Fire? 

We’ll know more on Monday morning. Let the games begin.

Two other tablet notes for you:

  • Motorola, the first company to market an Android tablet, the original 10.1-inch Xoom, has just released 2 new Xooms in the U.K.: one 10.1 inch tablet and the other an 8.2-inch “Media Edition.” There’s no word if or when either will be distributed in the U.S.
  • HP recently suffered a corporate meltdown, first with its cancellation of the WebOS TouchPad, and then after announcing its sell-off of its PC computer business. Now it is changing course once again. This week the company introduced a new tablet, the Slate OS, with a Windows 7 operating system. The $699 tablet is one of the first products revealed since HP decided to keep its PC division after all. Here’s PC World’s report on the announcement.
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