For most shoppers, there are really only two 7-inch tablets on the market right now: Amazon's Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet from Barnes & Noble. Announced within a month of each other in Fall 2011, the Kindle Fire ($200) and the Nook Tablet ($250) are both logical extensions of each company's popular e-Readers -- the Nook and the Kindle -- with similar portability, convenience and hold-ability but with the added multimedia functionality of more robust tablet computers like the iPad.
Given that the Kindle and Nook are rivals in the e-Reader space, it makes sense that their tablet cousins are also rivals. At just $50 apart, and launching almost simultaneously, the battle lines have once again been drawn between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, leaving many asking which they should buy: the Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet?
I've been using both the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet for several weeks now. Each has its definite strengths and weaknesses, defining themselves as two distinct options for two distinct shoppers. To oversimplify, the Kindle Fire wins on price, its app store and the ease with which you can download movies and music straight to your tablet; the Nook, while more expensive, is easier to use and has a better display, faster processor and much more space for your content.
Let's dig into this thing with a shovel. Here are some questions and answers that should help you figure out which of these differences actually matter to you, and whether you'll prefer the Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet.
How much movie-watching and music-listening are you planning to do?
One of the great advantages of the Kindle Fire over the Nook Tablet is that Amazon is a bookseller and a newsstand and has both music and full-length movies and television shows, while Barnes & Noble is just a bookseller and newsstand, without the library of movies or music.
The Kindle Fire has direct access to that online Amazon store of TV shows, movies and music that can be bought straight from and downloaded straight to the tablet; with the Nook Tablet, you have to connect your device to your computer via USB cord, download movies and music elsewhere, and then drag those files from your Downloads folder to your Nook folder to put them on your device.
This is not to say that it's impossible to watch and listen on the Nook Tablet. Both the Fire and the Nook have excellent third-party apps for movie and music streaming, with apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora and MOG Radio providing huge libraries of content for whenever you have a Wi-Fi connection. Neither the Fire nor the Nook offers 3G capability, so when you don't have a Wi-Fi connection, you'll need that content on your device if you want to watch a movie or listen to music, and there is no question that it is much easier to get movies, TV shows and music onto the Kindle Fire than it is on the Nook.
Which tablet has the better display?
Nook Tablet. A study by Display-Mate analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the screens on the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet and iPad 2 found that the Nook Tablet was much, much stronger in terms of anti-reflection and glare, and in displaying a wider range of colors than the Kindle Fire. (Both feature LCD displays, not the e-ink on the original Kindle and Nook that do so well in the sun). The Kindle Fire still has a bright, crisp display, but the Nook Tablet's is noticeably crisper; I also found that the Kindle Fire was more prone to the smudges of my dirty fingers than was the Nook Tablet.
In short: The Nook Tablet does better in the sun, looks slightly better and doesn't require wipe-downs as frequently as the Kindle. The Nook Tablet's screen certainly outshines (sorry) the Kindle Fire's.
Do you have a huge library of movies you want to keep handy?
The Kindle Fire has 8 GB of storage, with 6 GB available for your content; the Nook Tablet has 16 GB of storage, with 13 GB available for your content. Be forewarned, though: Of the 13 GB on the Nook Tablet, only 1 GB can be used on non-Barnes & Noble content. You'll have to buy an SD card if you want to add more than a single GB of movies or music, since B&N currently doesn't have a store for that stuff; budget in about $20 for a 16GB SD card if you're going with the Nook Tablet.
So, how much does 6GB of space really get you? Barnes & Noble puts its Nook Tablet's capacity at 10,000 books, but unless you are some kind of strange e-book hoarder, you probably aren't going to hit that cap with novellas and Sue Grafton. No, the real storage stuffers are songs, TV shows and movies.
Amazon says that its 6GB is "enough for 80 apps, plus 10 movies OR 800 songs OR 6,000 books" [emphasis mine]. If you have a large music library that you plan to store on your tablet, the Nook Tablet with SD card is a wiser choice. Amazon might argue that it has free cloud storage for all of your music, to which I would argue that this is only helpful when you have a Wi-Fi connection, and not when you are in an airplane or outside. A better argument for a 6 gig tablet might be that you can put your music on your smartphone, or on an MP3 player, and save the space on your tablet for movies and books.
Arguments aside, if you are concerned about space -- if you are constantly running up against the space limit on your smartphone, a media omnivore, a Blockbuster store unto yourself -- you would probably be better off with a Nook Tablet and its expandable storage.
Which tablet is easier to operate?
The short answer: The Kindle Fire has better software, and the Nook Tablet has better hardware.
The Kindle Fire has a more intuitive interface, one that everyone can "get" right out of the box. Your most recently visited apps, websites and media are on the homescreen, and there are tabs that run across the top, labeled "Movies," "Music," "Books," etc., that send you exactly where you need to go. For me, and for the researchers at Display-Mate, the Nook Tablet's interface is less intuitive, with a very long, unsorted carousel of icons that runs along the bottom of the homescreen. It's not a disaster, but it does not offer the incredibly easy navigation of the Kindle Fire, either.
The Nook Tablet, meanwhile, has several physical buttons on the device that Amazon's tablet notably lacks. The Nook has a Menu button, for example, positioned where the Home button on the iPad sits, that brings up your main menu whenever you press it; the Kindle Fire does not. The Nook Tablet has external volume buttons for easy volume control; the Kindle Fire's volume is always controlled on the screen. The Nook Tablet also has a microphone, which, to be fair, can't do much yet -- you can record yourself reading a children's book for your kids, and little else -- but that might make Wi-Fi calling on the Nook Tablet a possibility in the future.
In general, I think the Nook Tablet is easier to use, more intuitive. The hardware buttons -- especially the physical Menu button -- add more value than Amazon's brilliant interface, and the design of the Nook Tablet's interface really isn't as difficult to operate as Display-Mate makes it out to be. The Nook Tablet's homescreen will also be more familiar to those who have used Android or iOS before; you have the option to customize your homescreen by dragging and dropping your favorite icons onto your grid, into columns and rows of apps.
Do you like the look of the Nook?
It's an eye-catcher, to be sure. Though the displays on the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire are roughly the same size, they come in very different packages: The Kindle Fire is a thick black rectangle, almost identical to the BlackBerry Playbook, while the Nook Tablet is surrounded by a silver and gray plastic casing with a strange little hook on the bottom left corner. Like it? Hate it? Disgusted? Aroused?
In terms of portability and weight, neither the Kindle Fire nor the Nook Tablet distinguishes itself from the other. The Nook Tablet is 14.1 oz, while the Kindle Fire is 14.6 oz; the Nook Tablet is slightly taller, wider and deeper than the Kindle Fire (by millimeters) but the difference is negligible. Really, the big difference in looks comes down to design preference (see below for a thorough video comparison):
What else can I tell you?
- RAM. The Nook Tablet has a 1GB RAM, compared to 512MB RAM on the Kindle Fire. Our Aol sister site Engadget says that the difference in processing speed is noticeable, from the speed with which Angry Birds boots to the quality of video playback:
We took Shutter Island for a spin via Netflix streaming on both devices, and it was really like night and day. Motion is far less choppy on the Barnes & Noble device. The HD playback on the Nook also picked up subtle imagery like patterns on ties, which were largely lost on the Fire.
The difference wasn't as defined or evident in our test runs with each, for what it's worth.
- The App Store. Amazon's is much, much bigger than Barnes & Noble's, which is hand-selecting apps to run on its Nook Tablet. Casey Johnston at Ars Technica sums up the gap nicely:
Amazon has been building its Appstore more vigorously than Barnes and Noble, boasting over 10,000 apps. The Nook Tablet's product page says it can access "thousands" of apps, which, reading around the marketing speak, means decidedly less than 10,000. Both are to be commended for getting essentials like Netflix on board before launch, since that adds a lot of value, but we found several basic apps on the Nook Tablet to cost $3 when other app stores offer free versions.
On the app front, Amazon has Barnes & Noble beat on quantity and quality, across gaming apps, media apps, news apps, whatever -- the Kindle Fire just has a larger, better selection of apps than does the Nook Tablet.
- Price. The Kindle Fire costs $199, while the Nook Tablet costs $250. Because the Nook Tablet only gives you a single GB for your own media out of the 16GB it advertises, you'll also likely want to boost your memory with an SD card, which run about $20 for a 16GB card and about $35 for a 32GB card. Figure on spending between $70-$100 more on your Nook Tablet than your Kindle Fire -- do all of the Nook Tablet's hardware and functional advantages add up to that difference in price for you?
That's the question -- it all comes down to your price sensitivity. The Nook Tablet is a better machine, both on the inside and the outside, and despite its relative lack of apps and a troublesome lack of a video store, seems (to me) to offer more to the average user than does the Kindle Fire.
But then again: The Kindle Fire is $50 cheaper, and up to $100 cheaper if you factor in added storage on an SD card. And if you're buying a tablet for apps, for movie-watching and music-listening, then the Kindle Fire is your better, more hassle-free option.
Which one is right for you? Two fully-functional tablets at two very low prices likely means that no matter which you buy, you won't regret the purchase too much.