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The iPad Contender: A Nook on Cyanogen

Posted on | April 30, 2011 | No Comments

Everyone wants a piece of the iPad.

It’s the tops, the king of the hill, the tablet everyone wants to try and trump (realistically, if they’re lucky, to equal). But even though tablet after book after pad have come out, no one has been able to beat it. Why? You have to make something prettier, cheaper, or smaller. Preferably all three, but only one tablet has come close.

Prettier
The iOS, for all its flaws and restrictions is excellent. Even the most die-hard Linux guru will say it’s the best looking portable OS out there. Android’s Gingerbread operating system might give one more versatility when it comes to downloadable applications, and come closer to being a true mobile operating system than the iPad’s, but if you want something quick to setup and easy to use, Apple is the way to go. Their history with interfaces speaks for itself, and we’ll probably see more improvements as time goes one (USB port, c’mon USB port…). The good thing about Android being a more versatile and open operating systems means Apple will have to loosen up on some of their restrictions. While it may never appeal to the public at large the way iOS does, the developer ilk who prefer Google’s OS will flock to the more tech-friendly interface and perhaps force Jobs and co. to effect techie-friendly alterations.

Cheaper
Most tablets gunning for the iPad need to behave the same way Microsoft did in the late 1980’s: they didn’t try to go head-to-head with Apple and build a better graphical user interface, they just had to build a pretty good GUI OS, license it to IBM, and let it be distributed to cloned hardware all over the world.
That strategy has been inverted in current arena of competition: the OS is free from Google, but the company who wants to compete with Apple needs to supply the hardware, and that’s where the price point will be set.
For instance, the Motorola Xoom was seen as the new “iPad Killer”. There was much talk (if little prototype hands-on usage) of it being cheaper and using the latest Android OS when released.
When it came out, all of that was true. But it also cost $800 when it first came out, $300 more than a comparable iPad, which meant if you wanted to get something *almost* as good as an iPad, you would have to pay more money, not less.
The more reasonably priced Asus Eee Pad Transformer has been selling like hotcakes and is quickly being sold-out at most major outlets like Best Buy and Amazon.com. Packing the Honeycomb OS and selling at $399 it has a shot as undercutting Apple, but for some reason it was first released in Taiwan and the UK, forcing American consumers to wait weeks before getting ahold of one.

And as for the RIM playbook, weighing in at the exact same price as the iPad ($499), the reviews have been scathing.

Smaller
This has been the most promising area for competition with the iPad. While Jobs has touted the “7-inch sweet spot”, the rapidly becoming infamous tablet size that lies between the 10-inch tablet and the 3.5-inch smartphone, as “too small“, Jobs is famous for his showmanship and contradictory nature on statements. In fact if he disavows a certain technology passionately, he might be doing it for a reason.
Some tablets have attempted to nestle into that design point, which leaves them bigger than the iPhone screen yet smaller and more portable than the iPad. But they have been either talked big but didn’t penetrate the market or suffer from coming to the party way too late. Strictly speaking, no 7-inch tablet has been released that can compete with the iPad.

Unless it’s been hacked.

Enter the Nook. Barnes and Noble’s answer to the Kindle, it sports a 7-inch backlit touchscreen, color display, and expandable storage. It is to the Kindle what the Kindle is to an Etch-a-Sketch. However, with it’s default OS, the Nook isn’t much more than what it was intended to be, an upgunned eBook reader. But if you use the Cyanogen mod to replace it’s operating system, the device becomes something far more robust. The expanded functionality (including an improved browser and interface) makes it an excellent example of the Honeycomb Android OS, equivalent in quality to any Android tablet. But especially with the $250 dollar price tag and smaller size, it fits into that slim slice of price/performance that can compete with the iPad on the Smaller and Cheaper fronts.

Time will tell if that 7-inch just-barely-hand-held size will be what’s necessary to compete with the iPad and the other Androids out there, but because of its sheer uniqueness the Nook will be noticed amongst the galaxy of tablets.

UPDATE: As I was writing this Barnes and Noble has announced an upgrade to the Nook, giving it access to more apps from the Barnes and Noble app store. Not too big a deal considering it isn’t the Android app store and therefore has a limited collection, but it means they’re looking towards the future.

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