Want an Apple iPad but can't afford the minimum $499 entry fee? Look to Barnes & Noble's Nook Color, which was upgraded recently to offer many tablet features at $249.
The Nook Color, which until May had been marketed primarily as an electronic book reader with extra features, now is being marketed as a tablet specifically made for book lovers.
With the software upgrade introduced just over a month ago, the Nook Color now offers decent Web browsing, email, games, music and video playback. Oh, and it's an e-reader, too.
When looked at as a tablet rather than an e-reader, it turns out the Nook Color is the iPad's biggest competitor, capturing half the non-iPad tablet market with some 3 million units shipped, compared with iPad's 20 million for the last year.
By comparison, the overpriced Motorola Xoom, which captured a lot of press a few months ago as the first serious competitor to the iPad, is a flop: only something more than 100,000 units are estimated to have shipped since its introduction.
The Nook Color is no iPad 2. It has a 7-inch display, to the iPad's 10-inch. Its processor is far less powerful, it has less onboard memory and no cameras, no GPS, no 3G data connectivity and less battery life. The recently opened B&N app store offers fewer than 200 apps, compared with some 5,500 apps for the iPad.
But as a wi-fi tablet running Google's Android 2.2 Froyo operating system, the Nook Color doesn't suck. It surpasses the iPad in some areas. It can run Flash applets that give the Web so much of its interactivity, for instance, including streaming Web video; Apple has chosen not to support Flash.
It has a slot capable of holding a 32-gigabyte SD Card, greatly supplementing its 8-gig internal memory. The iPad doesn't have one. As for its display, the smaller 7-inch form is seen by some as a portability advantage and the color screen is higher resolution than the iPad.
It can run “Angry Birds,” the most popular mobile game around.
Although Netflix isn't yet available to stream movies, with the large installed base I would be surprised not to see a version for Nook Color soon. In fact, tech enthusiasts—who for months have “rooted” the Nook Color and used it as a tablet before B&N offered its upgrade–say the Netflix Android app runs easily on the Nook.
Oh, and it's an e-reader, too. While the iPad was seen at its introduction as offering strong competition to Amazon's Kindle e-reader, it turns out the various versions of the Nook have provided the real competition.
Amazon still dominates the e-book market, with 60 percent to 65 percent of e-books sold, according to publishers at the recent BookExpo America annual conventon in New York. Apple is at about 10 percent of the market, while Barnes & Noble surprised publishers by grabbing 25 percent with the Nook.
The biggest buyers of the Nook Color have been women, who prefer its color display to the black-and-white e-ink display of the Kindle and other e-readers for browsing women's magazines, according to a recent New York Times article. Some of the strongest-selling titles for the Nook Color are digital versions of woman-focused magazines like Cosmopolitan and Women's Health.
And, women like the handbag-friendly smaller size of the Nook Color, making it easy to carry along.
The strong showing by the Nook Color could even help save B&N's ailing print bookstores. Not long after introducing the tablet upgrade, Liberty Media offered to buy 70 percent of B&N at $17 a share. Insiders said Liberty's interest was almost entirely in the potential of B&N's Nooks.
Amazon reportedly has taken notice, and has contracted with a manufacturer to build its own color Android tablets to be introduced for the holiday season this year.
So, should Apple be worried about this iPad competition? Or should Amazon be worried about this Kindle competition?
Who knows, but in the meantime Barnes & Noble is enjoying having the Nook Color stuck squarely in the middle.