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iPad goes small; Nook goes sharp

Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple Inc., occasionally got it wrong; the proof is right here on my desk.

The original Apple iPad sports a screen nearly 10 inches wide. Some in the company suggested a smaller version — 7 inches or so. Jobs said no; but rivals have been saying yes, with considerable success.

Now comes the new 7.9-inch iPad mini, smaller, lighter, thinner, but just as useful as its big brother. It’s a lovely thing indeed, a first-rate alternative to full-sized tablets. But its rather stiff starting price of $329 will scare off many a Christmas shopper.

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For $199, Barnes & Noble Inc. offers an appealing fallback. Its new 7-inch Nook HD has a sharper video screen than the iPad, along with some very smart family-friendly software. It’s more of an e-book reader than a full-featured tablet, but with a solid Web browser and thousands of available software apps, it’s capable enough to satisfy many users.

The iPad mini is, well, an iPad, built to Apple’s usual standard of style and elegance. While the Nook and most other minitablets offer 7-inch screens, Apple opted for 7.9 inches. That extra near-inch allows the mini to retain the screen proportions of its big brother. As a result, this tablet will run the same apps written for the standard iPad, making life easier for software engineers and consumers alike.

Those apps will look a tiny bit less awesome, because of Apple’s decision to settle for a lower-resolution screen. It’s up to the standards of the first couple of iPads, but not nearly as sharp as the vaunted “Retina display” technology found in recent models. Still, I doubt most users will ever notice.

Happily, Apple did not skimp on the cameras. Front and rear, they produce quite respectable images.

There’s Wi-Fi wireless Internet, of course, and for a starting price of $459 you can get a version that can connect to 4G LTE cellular networks. As with the full-sized iPad, this costly option only makes sense for those who spend lots of time on the road.

With its light weight and handy proportions, the iPad mini makes a better traveling companion than the original. Indeed, I think Apple just made the full-sized iPad obsolete.

So why bother with a cheap imitation from Barnes & Noble? Because the Nook HD is nothing of the sort. Just look at the video screen, which renders text with much more clarity and sharpness than the iPad mini. The Nook, like other Barnes & Noble tablets, includes a slot for inserting additional memory; a worthwhile option, considering that the base model has a skimpy 8 gigabytes.

And the Nook’s software is stuffed with innovative touches. Profiles, for instance. Unless you live alone, your tablet will likely be used by multiple family members. Profiles lets each user set up their own account for downloading books, magazines, newspapers, and movies from the Barnes & Noble online store.

Turn on the device and an image appears on screen, representing each user’s profile — plug in a photo of yourself if you like. Drag the image to the center of the screen and there are your personal choices. You can even set up a children’s account that blocks purchases or limits video viewing.

Electronic magazines are handled especially well. You can easily scroll through thumbnails of every page. A special “article view” feature takes a page with multiple columns of small print, and converts it into a single scrollable column of large type, easy on the eyes. You can “cut out” pages by swiping two fingers across the screen and saving them in an electronic scrapbook.

Nook users can also download catalogs from major retailers such as Pottery Barn and L.L. Bean, and order merchandise with just a few taps. It’s a feeble effort to compete against the millions of items available through Amazon.com’s 7-inch storefront, the Kindle Fire HD tablet. Still, give them points for trying. Besides, the catalog software is quite appealing, with clever little swirly icons to guide your fingers.

The Nook HD is certainly no iPad. There are no cameras, it lacks a 4G option and its plastic case, though solid enough, seems a tad tacky by comparison. It’s not even the best $200 tablet; I vote for the Nexus 7 by Google Inc. But its brainy software certainly puts the Nook HD in the front ranks of minitablets, a market segment that’s gotten a lot bigger than Steve Jobs ever imagined.

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