Nook Tablet: Great hardware begging for an ecosystem

November 16, 2011, 1:19 AM UTC

FORTUNE — Barnes & Noble is not in an enviable position. Its new Nook Tablet is launching in the shadow of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, a device many reviewers — myself included — think is likely to take second place behind Apple’s dominant iPad. (In fact, I spent just a day with it as Barnes & Noble moved up the date press could write about the device at the last moment.)

Timing aside, the Nook Tablet is also less likely to generate buzz because it is essentially a hardware update to last year’s Nook Color, rather than an all-new device. That’s not a bad thing, considering it sports Yves Behar’s winning design. All the details that make a Nook a Nook are here: the same soft-touch, grippy plastic, a vibrant 7-inch display and an identical tchotchke hook on the bottom left side. The only real aesthetic difference? A slightly lighter case color. Compared to the Nook Tablet, the all-black Kindle Fire is somewhat of a wall flower.

Changes inside are more substantial. The Nook Tablet is about 10% lighter and has a touted battery life of 11.5 hours with WiFi off, a claim we weren’t able to test during our limited time with the device. It also sports a dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and 16GB of built-in storage. Those tweaks make for a serious speed boost compared to the Nook Color. With the exception of launching Netflix (NFLX) for the first time, most media opened up in a few seconds. After an app has been launched once, opening it up again is much quicker, sometimes nearly instantaneous.

Barnes & Noble’s (BKS) tablet runs on an updated version of Nook software (version 1.4 for those keeping track), which in itself is built atop a version of Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system. (Amazon has chosen a similar scheme for its tablet.) A lot of the same features remain: users can still bookmark their favorite titles and apps on the home screen, scroll through their media on a nearly endless virtual bookshelf or look at recently-browsed items with a “More” tab. But now, there are yet more shortcuts for items like apps, music, magazines and music. Overall, the interface is slick but can become a little crowded with so many shortcuts.

The Nook Tablet is being touted as a fully-capable media tablet. Barnes & Noble says it has thousands of apps available for the device. (Netflix worked flawlessly for me.) But that’s not to say it enjoys as healthy an ecosystem as its rival from Amazon (AMZN). The Fire has access to the same apps but also plugs into Amazon’s film, TV and music offerings as well as its Prime membership service. Amazon brings a lot of extras to the table that Barnes & Noble simply can’t.

The price is another issue. At $249, the Nook Tablet is a bargain compared to Apple’s (AAPL) iPad — but it’s $50 more than the Fire. It’s not a big difference, but it may be enough to sway some consumers. Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch has been keen to point out that $50 nabs you twice the RAM and storage. That money also seems to buy you better looking hardware and a slightly more polished user interface. The question is, will it be enough?

Forrester Research estimates Barnes & Noble will sell anywhere between 1.5 million and 2 million of the Nook Tablet during the 2011 holidays. I hope that comes to pass. It’s a tablet that has a lot going for it, including great design and fast performance. Nook fans won’t regret the upgrade. Customers just buying a tablet for the first time, though, may have trouble justifying the extra cost.