Nov 172011

Slotted as hybrid devices somewhere between full tablet computers like the iPad 2 and pure e-Ink based e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook Simple Touch, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have unveiled “e-reading friendly” tablets just in time for the 2011 holiday season. So let’s take a look at Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s $249 Nook Tablet.

Both devices use 7″ LCD touchscreens, not the easier-on-the-eyes e-Ink screens of the Kindle. As such, they are designed for full color and video, including watching movies, playing games, surfing the Internet, and reading magazines.

In fact, these mini-tablets seem ideally suited for consuming content: movies, web pages, magazines, music, games and apps, children’s books with audio, and plain text e-books. To that end, Amazon has made it easy to consume lots of content: e-books from the Kindle e-book store, movies from Amazon’s video on demand service, music from Amazon MP3, and apps from Amazon’s Android app store. In fact, Amazon users who purchase Amazon Prime get access to a selection of thousands of free streaming movies and TV shows, as well as a selection of free apps, and a library of free e-book titles as well — and this is in addition to the free 2-day shipping on purchases of Amazon’s physical goods that the $79 Prime subscription already buys users (30 days of Prime is free with the purchase of a Kindle Fire). Amazon also leverages its cloud computing power to offer the Silk Browser (which speeds up Internet surfing by rendering webpages on Amazon’s supercomputers before sending it to your tablet), unlimited cloud storage for Amazon digital media purchases, and WhisperSync, which allows you to resume reading (or watching) when you switch from your Kindle Fire to your Kindle Touch, iPhone, or computer. (For my standalone post on the Kindle Fire, click here.)

B&N is also moving away from the “reader’s tablet” marketing of the original Nook Color and seems to have designed the Nook Tablet (which is really the “Nook Color 2”) as less of an e-reader and more of a tablet computer (the new name is a dead giveaway). To that end, they’ve beefed up the specs with a more powerful processor, and added apps (like Hulu Plus) more prominently to the device. Similarly to the Kindle Fire, it is designed as a content-consuming mini-tablet, able to stream movies, check email, surf the Internet, and display specially-produced multimedia children’s books (where narrators read the stories aloud and kids can interact with items on the screen). At $249 ($50 more than the Kindle Fire), it offers twice the RAM and double the internal memory of the Kindle Fire, and still costs only half as much as Apple’s iPad 2. (For my standalone post on the Nook Tablet, click here.)

The Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, and Apple iPad 2.

The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are really more similar than different. They both share a 7″ IPS LCD touchscreen of 1,024 x 600 pixels, and both connect wirelessly through Wi-Fi. They are both similar in size and weight, with the Nook Tablet being slightly larger (0.6 inches taller) but lighter (by 0.5 ounces). They both sport identical 1 GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4 processors. They are both based on customized versions of the Android operating system, and come with software that allows for email, web browsing, movie playback, listening to audio, running Android apps, playing games, and reading magazines and e-books. They are both significantly smaller and lighter than the iPad 2, and are less than half the price, although they give up a few of the iPad 2’s features (like webcams, GPS, and Bluetooth).

As for differences, a couple jump out as critical. First, the Kindle Fire sells for just $199, compared to $249 for the Nook Tablet (and $499 for the cheapest iPad 2). Second, your preferred content provider — Amazon or Barnes & Noble — will heavily influence your choice here. If you’re already a Kindle user with a library of Kindle e-books (or movies or MP3s from Amazon) or an Amazon Prime member, it will be hard to argue against the Kindle Fire. Similarly, if you have a vast library of B&N e-books and prefer the in-store support at B&N stores, the Nook Tablet is the more likely choice for you.

The Nook Tablet also sports twice the RAM (1 GB compared to 512 MB in the Kindle Fire), which should lead to slightly better (but not nearly twice as fast) performance. The Nook has double the memory (16 GB compared to 8 GB), but B&N only lets you use 1 GB of the 16 to store your own stuff; they force you to leave the rest free to buy content from them. Considering that Amazon lets you use all 8 GB how you want and stores all Amazon purchases in the cloud, this would be a loss for the Nook if not for the built-in MicroSD card slot, which can add up to 32 GB more memory (so factor an additional $15-40 for a MicroSD card into your pricing). The Nook also has a built-in microphone, which allows you to record your own voice on certain children’s audiobooks. The Nook’s screen also boasts a “VividView” lamination and bonding process that is supposed to reduce glare and improve readability.

The Kindle, on the other hand, offers the superior software, including the Silk Browser, cloud storage, and WhisperSync. It also has an advantage with a larger Amazon Android App Store, compared to B&N’s App Store, which has a more limited selection of games and apps. The Amazon Video on Demand library, free e-book library, and free content that comes with a Prime membership is another plus.

In the end, both tablets seem to offer a promising content consumption experience, with impressive hardware specs and easy-to-use software. The Nook gets the slight nod on the hardware side, while the Kindle Fire seems to have slightly better software and content. In the end, I think the similarities outweigh the differences, and your affiliation to either Amazon or B&N will likely determine your choice. Barring that, the $199 Kindle Fire likely wins by virtue of being $50 less expensive, which will allow you to start filling up your new tablet with movies and e-books.

Nov 172011

The $199 Kindle Fire, with a 7" color LCD touchscreen

As expected, Amazon entered the tablet fray with a 7″ offering it’s calling the Kindle Fire. At just $199, it promises to be the first serious challenger to the iPad’s dominance in the tablet market.

With a 7″ color LCD touchscreen instead of the iPad 2’s 9.7″ screen, the Kindle Fire is smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the iPad, but is designed even more for content consumption rather than the iPad’s limited content creation capabilities. It boasts Wi-Fi connectivity, and is designed for watching movies, playing music, surfing the Internet, using apps, playing games, and reading magazines, comics, and e-books. It lacks cameras, GPS, bluetooth, and some other advanced features of full-fledged tablet computers, but at less than half the price of Apple’s cheapest tablet (which runs a hefty $499), that’s a trade-off many people will be willing to make.

Amazon also has the advantage of connecting their new Kindle Fire to their burgeoning content marketplace: Amazon Video on Demand, the Amazon MP3 Store, the Amazon Android App Store, and, of course, Amazon’s class-leading Kindle E-Book Store. In fact, a $79 subscription to Amazon Prime (which nets users free 2-day shipping on Amazon purchases) comes with a library of free streaming movies and TV shows, free apps and games, and even a free library of Kindle e-books.

Amazon is also leveraging the power of its impressive cloud computing ability in improving a critical function of the Kindle Fire: the Internet web-browsing experience. Called the Silk Browser, it allows the Kindle Fire to off-load the rendering of webpages (including processor-intensive tasks like parsing Javascript functions) to enormously powerful Amazon computers. Those computers then render the webpage and shoot the finished product to your tablet for a faster browsing experience. It’s a neat feature that no one else currently matches.

Similarly, Amazon offers to store any content you purchase from them (movies, music, apps, newspapers, magazines, e-books) in their Cloud storage for free — so you can always download your content and don’t have to worry about running out of space on the device itself. Amazon’s WhisperSync service also saves your place in e-books and movies, so you can pick up reading or watching where you left off if you switch to your Kindle or computer.

Now for some specs on the $199 Kindle Fire:

  • 7″ IPS LCD touchscreen display, 1,024 x 600 resolution
  • 7.5″ x 4.7″ x 0.45″
  • 14.6 ounces
  • 1 GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4 processor
  • 512 MB RAM
  • 8 GB flash memory
  • Battery life: 8 hours reading, 7.5 hours video playback (Wi-Fi off)

Still, the most impressive spec is probably the sub-$200 price, which gets you a portable mini-tablet connected to the Amazon content ecosystem. For current Amazon customers (especially Amazon Prime subscribers), it’s an almost irresistible gadget for the price. And for anyone looking for a 7″ tablet, it’s a great bargain — handily undercutting the competition.

My only gripe about the Kindle Fire is the same gripe I have with all LCD-based tablet computers being marketed as e-readers: most people find LCD screens tiring on the eyes, and would prefer the reading experience on an e-Ink screen (which is easier on the eyes, visible in bright sunlight, and allows for much longer battery life). But as a movie-streaming, game-playing, Internet-surfing device, the Kindle Fire looks like a hot gift this holiday season.