By Stephan Lee
Updated November 07, 2011 at 06:11 PM EST
Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Landov

As many anticipated, Barnes & Noble announced its entry into the tablet race this morning, and it’s clear that the bookseller is positioning its new 7-inch NOOK Tablet ($249) as a “faster, smaller” alternative to Amazon’s similarly sized Kindle Fire ($199). In fact, B&N CEO William Lynch devoted a large portion of his presentation, given to a room full of journalists in the Union Square Barnes & Noble bookstore, to disparaging the Kindle Fire, which ships Nov. 15.

The extremely popular NOOK Color is already capable of e-mail and web browsing, but the WiFi-connected NOOK Tablet is offering “everything you want in a reading and entertainment tablet,” including movies and TV shows.

The NOOK Tablet, slated for release hot on the heels of the Fire on Nov. 18, promises that its screen is best for viewing HD video content from any angle; Lynch cited “air gaps” negatively affecting the viewability of the Kindle Fire. He also claimed the Fire’s homepage displays more or less copied those of the BlackBerry Playbook.

One of the biggest advantages that the NOOK has over the Kindle Fire, according to Lynch, is storage space on the device. At the Kindle Fire announcement, CEO Jeff Bezos spent considerable time singing the praises of the Amazon Cloud, which offers unlimited out-of-device content storage. However, Lynch calls the 8 GB of Kindle Fire’s on-device storage “deficient,” especially when users are away from Wi-Fi access. The NOOK Tablet is outfitted with 16 GB of built-in memory (in addition to cloud storage), with the option to add another 32 GB of memory with the microSD card.

While the extra on-device storage space may come in handy, there’s a question of what exactly you’d fill all that space with. The iPad and Kindle Fire come with pre-existing, brand name consumer download marketplaces — iTunes and Amazon Prime, respectively — already in place. The NOOK offers Netflix and Hulu Plus apps pre-downloaded, so as far as video viewing is concerned, the tablet is mostly touting its streaming capabilities, which is a limiting sell for any WiFi-connected device. The presentation featured quotes from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stating that the NOOK tablet was a great way to watch Netflix video (talk about a sinking ship).

The number one question in everyone’s mind was exactly how to get downloaded movies and TV shows onto the device, which Lynch didn’t address during the presentation. Sure enough, that question popped up immediately in the press Q&A session, and it was one Lynch waved away. Users will have to side-load downloaded video content from their other libraries — perhaps from iTunes and Amazon’s stores? Lynch spun this as a positive for the NOOK Tablet, calling the device “open” to content from other sources, whereas the Kindle Fire is basically a “vending machine” for Amazon’s services. That’s not an inaccurate description of the Fire, but some might argue that the Fire’s close tie to Prime services is actually one of its biggest strengths.

One potentially important advantage of the NOOK Tablet will be free in-store technical support — equivalent to Apple’s Genius Bar — as opposed to the remote (albeit in my experience, effective) support you get from Amazon.

The NOOK Color and NOOK Simple Touch will also be getting upgrades and price slashes (to $199 and $99). These devices have sold extremely well and plenty of consumers prefer them to other e-readers, including the Kindle. But it remains to be seen if Barnes & Noble can make a seamless expansion to TV and movies.

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