posttrib
TOUGH 
Weather Updates

REVIEW: Breaking down the Nook Tablet vs. Kindle Fire

In this product image provided by Barnes   Noble youtube app is displayed Nook e-reader. Barnes   Noble

In this product image provided by Barnes & Noble, the youtube app is displayed on the Nook e-reader. Barnes & Noble is adding an applications store and an email program to its Nook e-reader, bringing the $249 device closer to working like a tablet computer in the vein of the iPad. (AP Photo/Barnes & Noble)

storyidforme: 22543177
tmspicid: 3530220
fileheaderid: 1956515
More Ihnatko tech punditry
Follow @ihnatko on Twitter
Follow @suntimes for tech news and oh so much more
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: December 14, 2011 7:35AM



Barnes & Noble’s initial response to Amazon’s initial Kindle was . . . well, rather weak. The only real advantage that the 2009 Nook e-reader had over the early Kindles was that profits from the sales of the hardware and the content went into Barnes & Noble’s pockets instead of Amazon’s. As you can readily appreciate, the benefits of this particular feature appeal to a rather narrow audience.

Their 2011 response to Amazon is rather more pointed and confident. “Nice new Kindle Fire you got there,” they seem to be saying. “We like your idea of an affordable 7-inch color Android tablet. In fact, we like it so much that we built a Nook like that. In 2010.”

But that device was sold as a book reader. This year, they’ve dropped the price of their Nook Color to $199 and introduced a new $249 Nook Tablet. Whereas the Nook Color cherry-picks all of the features of a tablet that happen to bolster its capabilities as a reader, the Nook Tablet is what it says it is. Like the Fire, the device clearly understands that you’re likely to use it primarily as a reader, and thus the goal is to put the fewest screen-taps possible between waking the device and reading something. It also has speed, and an app library.

Has Barnes & Noble also matched the goal of the Fire as well? Is the Nook Tablet a credible little mobile computer at a price that’s far less painful than that of the iPad.

Oh, yes, certainly. But Barnes & Noble isn’t competing against Apple . . . there’s competing against Amazon. And here, it gets interesting.

Getting Physical

Direct comparisons with the Fire are inevitable and appropriate. As a physical object, the Nook Tablet seems more carefully thought-out. The power switch is easy to find and hard to hit accidentally, the headphone jack is up top where it’s naturally out of the way, and you can adjust the volume on the Nook Tablet the same way you do on damned-near every other mobile device on the planet: via physical device buttons. No need to touch the screen and bring up a touch control.

Speaking of which: the Nook has a single mechanical Home button prominently available at the bottom of the screen. On the Fire, it’s virtual and it brings the same inconvenience as its touch volume controls. You do get used to it but you never conclude that it’s just as convenient as what you see on the Nook or the iPad.

So there’s the advantage of having a tactile, visible Home button. But the Nook squanders that advantage. The Home button doesn’t take you Home; it only brings up what might be termed the Nook’s “God” menu, from where you can switch to a list of installed apps, your library, the store, settings, or the actual desktop. You still need to tap something twice to bail out of whatever you’re reading and do something else . . . just as on the Fire.

But the Nook clearly wins the Hardware Design part of the competition. B&N have scored simply by not monkeying with the solid design of the original Nook Color. I continue to be a fan of the large open loop in the corner of the case, too. I, personally have no problem holding this thing steadily and securely as I read. But books are for everybody. I know a couple of folks who are grateful that they can just thread a lanyard through the Nook’s loop and protect their $249 glass-faced gadget from accidental drops.

The Nook’s physical design doesn’t score a flawless victory, though. It’s a little tricker to maintain a firm hold on the Nook, as compared with the Fire, due to its rounded edges and slightly less-grippy texture. It’s nothing that seventy-five cents’ worth of 3M anti-skid stair tape (available at any home center) can’t fix. That said, simple differences in case design make the Nook “feel” heavier in my hand than the Fire, even though the difference in actual weight is negligible: they both weigh about seven-eighths of a pound. The Nook is a little larger than the Fire, but only by half an inch or so; it’s not enough to make it more convenient to work with or less convenient to carry around.

I didn’t find one screen to be more readable than the other. They’re both 600x1024 displays at 169 pixels per inch, and neither was very happy in bright sunlight. For battery life, the edge goes to the Nook, whose battery consistently lasted about 90 minutes longer in my deep-soak tests (roughly 8.5 hours to the Kindle’s 7).

The Actual Experience

The two tablets have the same dual-core Texas Instruments CPU but boy, it’s immediately clear that either Barnes & Noble is doing something right with their implementation of Android or Amazon is doing something wrong. The Nook feels much zipper. Buttons seem more responsive throughout the whole experience -- including when you’re typing with the onscreen keyboard -- and when you’re reading a book, page turns are more fluid.

Further, while B&N has independently learned the same important lesson about How To Build A Good Android Tablet (“Hide the OS from the user just as desperately as a woman hides the good silverware when her junkie brother comes to visit”), they seem to have also taken an important lesson from iOS: visual feedback is the sleight-of-hand that makes a touch interface work. The Nook never threw me into the brief loop of confusion that the Fire occasionally did, where I needlessly tapped a button multiple times, unaware that the device actually registered the first press but chose not to highlight it for some damned-fool reason.

That said, however, the Nook Tablet is simply another data point defending the argument that Android is simply not a fluid, responsive OS. The Nook is a little more agile than the Kindle, but as a rule, I still felt that my taps and strokes were a step or two ahead of the tablet’s awareness of my fingers. Compare and contrast to the liquid response of iOS or Windows Phone 7.

It’s hard for me to conclude that the Nook is actually faster at performing tasks than the Fire; qualitative side-by-side tests of the built-in browser, for instance, were a push. But user interface is one of those few subjects in which perception is even more important than reality...and here, the Nook wins.

Built-In Apps

OK. On a simply touch level, the Nook is more fluid and responsive. What about the software it ships with?

Well, overall, I preferred the software that shipped with the Fire. It was more coherent and consistent; it continuously felt like I was using a single, integrated device. On the Nook, I sometimes feel like I’m getting my passport stamped as I move from one kind of experience to another.

The Nook Tablet continues the Nook Color’s “coffee table” desktop metaphor. When you wake the device, you’re primarily looking at an open screen where you can drag any content you own for handy access. A ribbon at the bottom shows you all of your purchased content; a menu at the top is a History menu for recently-viewed things.

It works just fine. I just think the Fire’s desktop works a little better. In the past few weeks, I’ve come to wish that my iPad’s central hub was a carousel of all recently-used or read items. But it’s not a decision-defining advantage.

The Nook’s built-in email client is quite a bit better than “better than nothing” but it’s still not quite Good. It is the very model of a 2007 mobile email client. That’s forgivable. Anyone with a serious need for mobile email is probably already relying on a more mature email client on their Android or iOS device.

But the browsers on both devices are roughly in the same class. Amazon’s boasts of the potential speed of cloud-accelerated Silk browser on the Kindle Fire continue to be more impressive than the browser’s actual performance. I can’t demonstrate that Silk is actually any faster than the Nook’s plain-Jane WebKit browser.

Both browsers run plenty fast, so long a you keep Adobe Flash away from it. In fact, both devices are damned-near identical in responsiveness; scrolling and zooming are just as hesitant on the Nook as on the Fire.

Moving to music and video, however, it’s a clear win for the Fire. The Nook’s music and video players are strictly bare bones. If you copy files to the device, you can navigate to the file or a thumbnail and then play it. It’s not what you’d really call a media player. The movie file you played this morning doesn’t even show up in the Nook’s “coffee table” as a recently-used item.

Whereas the Fire’s media players were clearly built to encourage you to treat the device like a big iPod Touch. Buy whatever you want from the Amazon MP3 Store. Buy or rent videos from Amazon Instant. Toss in any files you’ve got on your desktop. A fairly slick onboard player packages and organizes it. Overall, it gives the impression that Amazon wants the Fire to be more than “a book reader with bonuses.”

Further, the media players are all hooked up to the Amazon cloud. You don’t even necessarily have to download or copy anything to the Fire. Everything you’ve ever bought is available for instant streaming. It’s easy to upload all of your existing desktop music into Amazon’s Cloud Drive, where it all becomes streamable without any further steps.

I should also note that while the Nook has twice as much built-in storage as the Fire, only a single, lonely gigabyte of those 16 gigabytes is available to the user. The rest is reserved for Nook store purchases. It only becomes useful as a media player after popping in a microSD card for up to 32 gigs of additional storage.

The Fire gives you a little under seven gigs...enough for several movies, hundreds of photos, and a thousand songs.

So which is which

“Gosh, Andy . . . you can’t seem to talk about the Nook Tablet except in relation to the Amazon Fire! Rather pedantic, wouldn’t you agree?”

Yes, I know and I’m sorry. But that’s really the best way to talk about the Nook. These are two very similar devices. Do you want a user interface that feels like you’re having a single, simplified experience across all functions? Go with the Fire. Do you want a user interface that has no major problems, and which feels significantly more responsive, and has a few additional physical conveniences? It’s the Nook.

The true differences only emerge when you turn on the WiFi and see the world through the device’s lens. What’s out there for a Nook owner and what’s out there for a Fire owner?

As you might expect, just about any title available from Amazon’s Kindle Store is also available through Barnes & Noble’s Nook store. No help there.

Are you keen on magazines and newspapers?

Really? On a 7-inch tablet? Oh, wow. OK, I won’t judge you. I’ll merely note that B&N seems to have done a much better job evangelizing digital publications than Amazon has. The Fire’s initial magazine offerings are kind of terrible. You pay full cover price for what appears to be a static representation of the full printed magazine page. You’ll wear your fingers out scrolling and zooming around the pictures and columns. On the Nook, I found that most of the magazines I downloaded had been built like apps. All of the content was there, but it had all been attractively repurposed for a pocketable color tablet. Marvelous.

Also, the Nook comes a bonus: you can take it into any brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store, connect to the in-store WiFi, and read much of the Nook’s digital catalogue for free. B&N has also included features that enable a community to form around the experience of reading. The Kindle lets you share your notes and reactions with millions of strangers, but the Nook is stronger at sharing the experience with your circle of friends.

Is that enough for the Nook Tablet to counter the immense Amazon cloud ecosystem, though? Probably not.

Barnes & Noble can give you a huge digital bookstore, an app store that includes most of the obvious Android hits in it but which is still rather bare, and a solid social community. Amazon gives you the bookstore, an immense music store, a huge video store (with rentals, and the ability to watch your videos on a range of mobile and living room devices), a Netflix-like subscription video library, and the ability to stream any music file you care to throw onto their servers. And their Android App Store reaches out to all Android devices, not just the Fire; it’s a more attractive target for developers than the Nook.

It’s tough for me to find a reason to recommend the Nook Tablet over the Fire. The Nook costs fifty bucks more and doesn’t do as many things. The Fire has rougher edges in some places, absolutely . . . but those are outweighed by its many functional advantages. The Fire isn’t an iPad and it doesn’t try to be one . . . but it’s nicely-tuned to deliver most of the iPad’s obvious and useful features in an affordable, compact package.

Of course, the situation might change in 2012 as Barnes & Noble continues to expand the Nook ecosystem. But today? The best tablet without an Apple logo on it is the $199 Kindle Fire.

Let’s not forget the Nook Color, however. It’s now just $199, and an imminent software release will allow it to stream video from Netflix and Hulu. If you’ve thought this through and concluded that really, you’re just interested in a reading device that can handle more than a $99 black-and-white e-Ink reader, you could be very, very happy with the Nook Color.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.