Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nook Answers with New, Lighter 7- and 9-Inch Tablets and Added Features


The question raised in tech columns lately has been whether Barnes & Noble's Nook can keep pace with the technological refresh and innovation of the much larger Apple, Google, and Amazon--and Wednesday the company aims to answer "yes" with two new high-resolution, reader-focused media tablets. They are introducing the seven-inch Nook HD and the 9-inch Nook HD+, with proprietary high-quality screens, at competitive prices.

The smaller model starts at $199--directly comparable to the new Kindle tablet (Nook gives you an AC adapter and no ads as part of the price, but it's their 8GB model; their 16GB version, the same as Kindle, at $229 also comps well on price once you factor in the extras). The bigger tablet will sell for $269 (16GB) and $299 (32GB)--by their reckoning a $65 to $100 better value than the new larger Kindle HD wifi models. Some of that "value" comes from reduced features; the Nook tablets do not have cameras.
CEO William Lynch underscored "we're calling the Nook seven-inch the world's best media tablet" and the bigger model "is the best large-format reading tablet, too." Speaking to the original positioning of their color devices, he said "whether we explicitly call it the reader's tablet or not...that's what guide us. If you look at the reading experience, it's our heritage." He tells the NYT, "We think there’s a space in the market below the iPad for a larger-format tablet that's half the price.... What we're trying to do is fill the gap of delivering an exceptional media tablet that's much more affordable."

In a private demonstration, the biggest improvement to us was the weight. Where the older Nook tablets were dense and heavy in the hand, both new models are discernibly light--and lighter than other tablets. The seven-inch model is 11.1 ounces; by BN's reckoning "more than 20 percent lighter" than Kindle HD. And the larger nine-inch model is appreciably lighter (again more than 20%) than an iPad at 18.2 ounces (515 grams), and claims to be 9 percent lighter than the new larger Kindle tablet.

Nook has also developed their own screen technology this time around, with true HD that nearly matches the "retina display" on the big tablet and 720p on the seven-inch model. In side-by-side comparisons offered at the demo, the Nook appears brighter and crisper than its seven-inch tablet competitors. But Nook designers have specifically opted for a 3:2 aspect ratio, which they say lets them "show off content like magazines" rather than favoring films and videos. Nook continues to laminate their screens as well, intended to make them more viewable in bright light (in contrast to the iPad, which is unusable in bright outdoor light).
Pre-orders will "ship in late October" and the new devices will be "on shelves in November. Including their retail partners Nook says the line will be available in over 16,000 retail outlets in the US, including 5,200 Target and Wal-Marts that will not carry Kindles.

The full line of Nook devices will be offered in the UK as well, starting with Touch and GlowLight in October with the new tablets following in November. (The seven-inch tablets will sell for £159 and £189, and the nine-inch models will be £229 and £269.) Separately, Nook announced additional retail partnerships with Sainsburys and Waitrose, bringing them up to over 1,200 retail locations in the UK.

As part of the device launch, Nook is adding a series of new features as well:
Similar to Kindle's announced but not-yet-launched FreeTime feature, Nook is offering what they call "the first tablet designed for the whole family." The new devices support a series of profiles for multiple users of the device, including children, providing "simple tools to let parents parent however they want to" in terms of granting access to content, web browsing, and purchasing. Nook says their research indicated 50 percent of users were already sharing their device with someone else in the family--and 30 percent had items they didn't want the whole family to see (think 50 Shades...).

Enhanced Magazines, Catalogs, and "Scrapbooking"
Nook's tech team talked about "really wanting to show off content like magazines" and the new nine-inch tablet in particular does that. They have added fancy page-turning animations and a "big visual table of contents," in addition to focusing the screen aspect ratio on magazine reproduction. With over 100 digital magazines, ceo William Lynch reinforces that "we have been the leading seller of digital magazine subscriptions in the US for some time, because we focus on the experience." They are adding about 100 product catalogs as well, downloadable for free (adapted from companies' high-res PDF files).
A new "scrapbook" feature lets users "tear pages" out of magazines and catalogs to save in personal files. The feature does not apply to books yet, but they aspire to make it available there, too. BN executive Theresa Horner says "we will talk to publishers about scrapbooking for books" and "will push very aggressively for the same kind of experience" as for magazines.

Book Merchandising "Channels"
While many in the industry have lamented that does not offer as good a store browsing experience as competitors--and no one raves about the online browsing experience in general--Nook is launching "channels" of recommendations as their answer. The web version, still called Instant Collections on their site, is viewable now.
Under chief bookseller for Nook Jim Mustich, they are "trying to take our bookselling knowledge and our knowledge of readers and how they shop and ask for htings in store, and find a way to inject into the device shopping experience our bookknoweldge and our knowledge of readers so that discovery is an integral part of the shop."
Each Nook-based channel will offer about 40 focused recommendations that cut across new titles and backlist. Mustich looks forward to discussing channels with publishers "to get their feedback and input" and refining as they go. Nook executives cited "Hemingway & Sons" as a formative example, based on Lynch's search for a book to read after The Sun Also Rises--but that channel on today offers the Sparks Notes for The Stranger as its first recommendation, so clearly refinement is needed.
Another new feature offers Nook owners a clickable "Your Nook Today" content area that blends the practical (today's weather) with book excerpts, book reviews and more.
Finally, the Nook content team hopes that the new larger model in particular helps spur a meaningful conversion of illustrated and visual books to ebook format, as well as building the list of available illustrated children's ebooks (now with about 3,500 titles in their catalog).

More On Video
Following Tuesday's announcement of their coming video store--which puts Nook on more competitive ground with other media tablets in terms of a full content offering--they underscored that they are the first to support the new UltraViolet initiative that provide cloud-based viewing privileges on newly-released movies and TV shows from major studios.
With a small add-on device, the new Nooks can output true 1080 HD video to televisions. And they expect to have iOS and Android apps available at launch, so that BN purchasers can play their videos across multiple devices and platforms.
Existing Nook Color devices are essentially sold out, and the current Nook tablet models will expire be retired after the existing inventory is sold through. While the company is not announcing specific incentives at the moment, "typically there's a formula to clear out" older devices with special customer offers.

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