by Bruce Lidl
Currently, the barrier to entry for the world of digital comics is not particularly high, as anybody with either a smartphone or a connected computer can buy and view comics from a variety of online retailers. However, to really get the best experience of digital comics, many would recommend consuming them primarily on a tablet device of some kind, with Apple’s iPad as the iconic exemplar. A big, bright screen with a very high resolution, combined with a powerful processor and a very mature operating system, reading comics on the iPad has been touted as a prime use case of the device almost since its debut in spring 2010. And comiXology’s Comics app has played a central and massively successful role in feeding those tens of millions of iPads with graphic content, presented cleanly and slickly.
Of course, not everyone is in a position to afford an iPad (full size models currently start at $499 going up to $799, while the smaller iPad Mini is priced at $329-529) or resist tying themselves to the Apple ecosystem of devices and content. Alternatives to iPads in the tablet world have been slow to take off, but the enormous penetration of Android phones has now propelled other tablets, with Google’s Nexus 7, the Samsung Tab line, the Nook line from Barnes & Noble and maybe most popularly, the Amazon Kindle Fire tablets. Significantly less expensive, far less locked down software-wise than the iPad, and with a larger diversity in size and format, the “second” wave of Android tablets has finally created a widespread user base for digital comics on tablets that are not from Apple.
Yet, while clearly (and deliberately) less expensive, the price tags for the popular Android tablets have generally stayed above $200 dollars, especially on those from name brands or with good screens. Until now, that is, as market pressures and internal disruptions among the tablet makers has brought a significant and inescapable downward price trend among the Android entries. Most notably, the Barnes&Noble line of Nook tablets, the 7 inch “HD” and the 9 inch “HD+,” both have seen their prices drop precipitously in just the last couple of weeks. Amid speculation that B&N are abandoning their foray into hardware*, the HD has gone from $199 to $129 and the HD+ has dropped all the way from $269 to $149. These devices are, in the words of one tech expert, “ridiculously” cheap, particularly for tablets with quite excellent screens, and with high resolution and good color.
(*Speculation that B&N confirmed yesterday, they are in fact ending the Nook line of tablets)
For someone looking to read comics on a tablet, but to do it on the cheap side, the Nook HD models are ideal, as I discovered for myself after taking advantage of the new pricing just before Father’s Day. I went for the HD+, and have found it to be a great digital comic book reader, and a pretty decent tablet overall. Slightly smaller, but definitely lighter than a full size iPad (515g vs. 650g), the Nook HD+ displays comics from comiXology, Dark Horse, iVerse, etc. outstandingly well, with great crispness and bold colors.
The screen size is noticeably larger than the 7 inch displays of the Nexus 7 or the original Kindle Fire, making a full comic page quite readable without having to zoom and pan as is often necessary on smaller screens.. The Dual Core Texas-Instruments OMAP 4470 @ 1.5GHz CPU has enough oomph to handle comics of course, but is generally beefy enough for HD video and tablet gaming, and the B&N customized 4.0.3 Android (Ice Cream Sandwich) user interface is only mildly annoying. Crucially, B&N has enabled the full Google Play store (quite unlike the Amazon Kindles) so pretty much any Android app is available for installing, and customizing the UI away from what Barnes & Noble designed is very easy (just install the ADW launcher instead, for instance). And even if Barnes & Noble abandons support for the HD+, the easy ability to load custom ROMS, like CyanogenMod means with some tinkering, a user can keep their tablet up to date in the future. The Nooks also come with a microSD slot, a feature becoming rarer these days, so storage can be expanded beyond the internal options of 8GB, 16GB or 32GB
There is no question the Nooks got a bit lost in the tablet shuffle, competing against Amazon and Samsung—not to mention Apple, of course. The original plan, for Barnes & Noble to recoup money invested in the Nook line through content sales may also have proved overly optimistic. But for anyone looking to get a tablet right now, especially for comics fans, Barnes & Noble’s loss can be your gain, with quite possibly the lowest prices yet on a great comics tablet.