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Weekend Roundup: Microsoft & Google in product face-off, EE's 4G finally sampled, Barnes & Noble Nook HD shakes up market

Microsoft v Google: smartphone and tablet wars

It’s always intriguing watching the major consumer tech firms jostle for the limelight and fight to keep the media’s eyes on their products. Apple’s iPhone 5 launch, and to a degree its iPad mini launch, came during quieter spells in the market allowing the company to dominate headlines during the days and weeks surrounding each release. Far more entertaining are periods like the last 10 days, when Microsoft and Google have both unveiled a slew of products – some of which directly face off with one another.

By virtue of being a wider-scale project of greater importance for its company, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 launch was always likely to be the more eye-catching event, but Mother Nature was also on the software giant’s side as Google’s New York Nexus show was called off in the wake of the devastating Sandy storm, allowing WP8 to steal yet more attention for the firm after last week’s Windows 8 and Surface hype.

Demonstrated on stage in San Francisco, the interface of Microsoft’s software is certainly attractive and the Office compatibility will always set Windows Phone apart from rival platforms, but will the relative dearth of apps hold the OS back? In a week when Google boasted its Play store now had 700,000 apps to match Apple’s collection, the 120,000 offered on Windows Phone 8 does look a little meagre, as noted in our review. Whether anyone really needs close to a million apps to choose from is highly debatable, but when people look for easy stats to play the operating systems off against each other, the weaker WP8 stockpile may see users persuaded to go elsewhere for their smartphone platform.

Far more significant than app stores, however, are the handsets that will be running the new OS and ITProPortal’s James Laird has conveniently summarised the key players in this pack. Leading the charge is the Nokia Lumia 920 which is now set to begin shipping. The brightly coloured flagship phone has already been praised for its high-end camera and wireless charging capability, but Nokia has certainly lost a great deal of its allure over recent years, and you fear even a well-specced, strong performer may not be enough to revive the Finns’ fortunes.

For Google’s part, we may not have had the pomp and ceremony of a launch event to mark the arrival of its new products, but the Nexus 4 smartphone, Nexus 10 tablet and 3G Nexus 7 still had heads turning. The Nexus 4, manufactured by LG, will compete with the big boys of the market, packing a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, a large 4.7in screen with a 1,280 x 768 resolution, plus wireless charging and NFC. Of course, judgements will have to be reserved until the phone emerges in the flesh, but at prices of just £239 (8GB) and £279 (16GB), this has the potential to be a game-changer.

The Nexus 10 tablet has been co-produced with a formidable partner in Samsung, and also looks impressive on paper. The 10.1in device boasts a 2,560 x 1,600 resolution screen - a greater pixel density than the iPad’s retina display - and will run the brand new Android Jelly Bean 4.2 OS. £389 seems reasonable for a 32GB model too. Completing the Nexus set was a 3G version of the 7in Nexus 7, which could well give the popular tablet a second wind in the market.

Over the coming weeks the talking will stop and it will be time for the products to start performing. Microsoft may have more hitting the market just now, but its releases are also under more pressure to succeed, so it will be interesting to see how this mini-battle in the consumer market pans out.

4G fires up

The aforementioned Nokia Lumia 920 will be one of the select few devices ready to run on EE’s new 4G network, which was finally switched on this week. Riyad Emeran has been keeping abreast of all things EE over the past few days, from the opening of its new rebranded stores to a trial of the high speed network itself, as the T-Mobile and Orange owner begins its charge for UK telecoms hegemony.

The dull grey aesthetics of the EE stores didn’t set Riyad’s pulse racing, but the 4G speeds enjoyed in the office via a Huawei E589 Mobile Wi-Fi device certainly impressed him.

But the key may lie in those EE tariffs. While the benefits of 4G are pretty obvious, are they worth £36 per month on just 500MB of data? The faster speeds will surely have most of us consuming more than that, and an upgrade to the 3GB monthly plan brings the cost to a hefty £46 a month. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for O2, Vodafone, et al to join the 4G arena next year to make those contracts a little more competitive.

Enter the Barnes & Noble Nook HD

One of the most recent additions to ITProPortal’s review catalogue is Barnes & Noble's Nook HD tablet. The 7in device joins the Kindle Fire HD in offering the full tablet experience but with a distinct lean to the eBook reading functionality.

If Amazon thought it was going to have things all its own way with the Kindle Fire range, it was mistaken. The Nook has a fantastic build and sports a display that leaves the iPad mini in the shade. This makes the reading experience almost unrivalled, with blacks blacker, whites whiter, and the whole text crisper than offerings on rival tablets.

Beyond the reading experience though, the Nook HD looks likely to struggle against the Nexus 7 and iPad mini in terms of offering that all-important 'entertainment experience'. And with this in mind, will you be willing to pay £159 (8GB) or £189 (16GB) when the Nexus 7 is on the shelves at a similar price point? The Nook is certainly a worthy addition to the market, bit it may be too expensive for those seeking an eBook reader, and not complete enough for those seeking a versatile, entertainment tablet.