Retail link is key for Nook Tablet, Kindle Fire
Here's a tip for companies looking to challenge the dominance of Apple Inc.'s iPad tablet computer: First, become an online retailer.
This year's iPad wannabes flopped because there was no good reason to prefer them over the original. But the Kindle Fire tablet just released by Amazon.com and the new Nook Tablet from Barnes & Noble Inc. come from retail giants. That makes for tablets that are not only pretty good little devices, but which make it easier for loyal customers to purchase their favorite products.
The $199 Fire is a seven-inch tablet with a touchscreen, suitable for clutching in one hand, but at almost a full pound, far heavier than standard Kindles. That's because it abandons the monochrome E Ink screen technology, which uses very little electricity. This tablet uses a standard color LCD screen, and packs a bigger battery to provide the needed juice.
Amazon has outdone Apple's famous aversion to pushbuttons. The iPad 2 has four buttons; the Fire has just one, its on-off switch. Everything else is controlled through touchscreen commands.
With its comfy rubberized back and solid feel, the Fire reminds me of the ill-fated, but well-made, BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Unlike the PlayBook, and most other tablets, there are no built-in cameras in the Fire. Then again, it has a beefy dual-core processor, so everything happens fast.
But not as fast as Amazon claims. The company brags about its new Silk Web browsing technology, which is supposed to deliver pages much faster than rival systems. I did not see it. I grabbed an iPad connected to the same wireless network as the Fire, and ran speed tests at The Washington Post, CNN, and Huffington Post websites. The Kindle Fire took first place at the Huffington Post site, but barely. Meanwhile, the iPad was significantly faster at displaying CNN and The Washington Post. Maybe further testing will deliver different results, but for now, I'm unimpressed.
Still, the Fire is a pretty good tablet overall, especially if you are a regular at Amazon.com. It is basically a portable storefront for Amazon's millions of products - books, electronics, clothing, groceries, and nearly everything else. If you pay $79 a year to join the Amazon Prime shopping club, you get free movies and TV shows through the Fire, and you can electronically "borrow" books instead of purchasing them outright. Since there are 10 million Amazon Prime subscribers, I am betting the Fire will be a solid success, and probably the most popular non-iPad tablet.
By contrast, Barnes & Noble is basically just a bookstore, not a full-service retailer. And while its Nook Tablet makes it easy to buy bestsellers, you can get the exact same titles at Amazon. So the Nook Tablet needs to bring something more to the table to justify its $249 price, and it does.
It is an upgrade to last year's Nook Color, which can still be had for $199. However, the new Tablet has a faster dual-core processor and 16 gigabytes of built-in memory, twice as much as the Fire. However, most of this memory is reserved for content purchased from B&N and played on the device; you get only one gig for personal use. Luckily, the Nook Tablet has a Micro SD slot, where you can add up to 32 gigabytes of extra storage. Like the Kindle Fire, there is no camera in the Nook Tablet, and no access to 3G cellular service. It's Wi-Fi or nothing.
The big surprise here is the remarkable quality of the Nook Tablet's video screen. It's smaller than the iPad's, of course, but every bit as sharp. And it is far superior to the screen on the Fire. I launched Netflix on both tablets, and streamed an episode of "Mad Men," the prettiest show on TV. It wasn't even close; the Nook Tablet had sharper resolution and richer colors.
Still, you would probably be happy with either the Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet, each an inexpensive, solid device that makes it easy to buy e-books, music, movies, and more. At these prices, Amazon and B&N may be losing money on these gadgets; but it costs a lot to open new retail stores, and that's what they're doing, one tablet at a time.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.