While the iPad and a slew of less-obvious competitors duke it out for the premium end of the tablet pool, Amazon has made a big splash with its $199 Kindle Fire, a smaller and significantly cheaper option – and Barnes & Noble has its own like-priced competitor, the Nook Tablet.
Both clearly take after their E Ink reader counterparts in terms of portability and basic dimensions, but significantly diverge when it comes to what's on the screen.
Sure, you can read books – millions of them, actually – but these bright, colorful displays also hold the key to scads of apps, games, movies, and magazines, as well as web browsing.
They're true tablets, only much easier to hold with one hand.
We recently compared the merits of the backlit Nook e-reader to the Kindle Touch and came away recommending Barnes & Noble's option, but the companies' respective tablets offer up an entirely different debate.
Both have their merits, but when it comes to spending your $199, which truly warrants the investment?
In terms of build and design, the Kindle Fire immediately grabs your attention. It's sleek and compact, with a seven-inch multitouch display surrounded by a crisp black border.
The lightly rubberized back makes the compact tablet easy to hold in one hand, and the device as a whole feels durably built.
Comparatively, the rounded gray plastic exterior of the Nook Tablet feels a bit cheap, and the break between the front border and the back of the device makes it seem less durable, as well.
However, the softer-feeling plastic and even more rubberized backing makes it arguably less taxing to hold for long reading sessions.
Like the Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble's tablet offers a seven-inch screen at the same resolution (1024x600) and is rated identically for clarity (169 pixels per inch), though its overall form is notably larger – it's 0.6 inches taller and 0.3 inches wider than Amazon's effort.
Both weigh about the same, with the Kindle Fire listed at 14.6 ounces and the Nook Tablet at just a half-ounce lighter.
The Nook Tablet does have one notable physical advantage over the Kindle Fire, though, and that's the inclusion of physical home and volume buttons.
Both devices include power buttons, but otherwise, touch controls are used on the Kindle Fire to return to the home screen or adjust the volume on the fly – which keeps the device slim and sleek, but can prove awkward in use.
Meanwhile, the Nook Tablet has a lowercase "n" button below the display that lets you go back a screen in an app and eventually return to the home screen, while volume buttons are found on the upper right side of the device.
It's a small usability feature that benefits the Nook, though it comes at the expense of larger and less attractive design.
The Nook Tablet also wins out in battery life, as it's rated for 11.5 hours of reading and 9 hours of video on a single charge, while the Kindle Fire comes up short at 8 hours of reading and 7.5 hours of video.
Additionally, while both tablets ship with 8GB of internal storage at the $199 level, a $249 Nook is available with 16GB of space, and both versions of the Nook Tablet can be expanded with up to 32GB of microSD card storage.
Weighing the options here largely means choosing between form or added function, as the Nook Tablet delivers uninspiring design compared to the Kindle Fire, but delivers physical buttons, better battery life, and expandable storage.
For our money, though, the slimmer and more durable build of the Kindle Fire wins out.
While the hardware debate will come down to preference for many prospective buyers, the decision on interface is much, much simpler: The Kindle Fire is an absolute breeze to use, while the Nook Tablet proves cumbersome.
The Lock Screen
Both devices utilize a swipe-to-unlock method, with the screen initially activated on the Kindle Fire by pressing the power button, or on the Nook Tablet by pressing either the power or front home button.
The Kindle Fire impresses by randomly picking from a handful of included photos, like a mess of stylized vinyl records or an up-close shot of typewriter keys, to greet you at the lock screen. Meanwhile, the Nook Tablet simply has a drab logo with the date and time displayed.
It's a minor thing, sure, but it shows an extra bit of style and care that fit with the overall aesthetic of the Kindle Fire.
Both tablets run a heavily customized version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), and Amazon has clearly put a lot of effort into making it a comfortable fit for such a compact device.
Taking the form of a digital bookcase, complete with a faux-wood backdrop, your latest books, apps, docs, movies, and more are displayed visually in the middle of the screen, and easily browsed via swipe.
Favorites can be marked on the smaller shelves below, plus you'll have finer-grained access to the various types of media from the words (like "Newsstand" and "Video") listed below the search box up top. Tapping a word brings you to that specific page, which also holds the key to Amazon's various storefronts for apps, books, and more.
The Kindle Fire interface is also viewable in landscape orientation.
The Nook Tablet, on the other hand, utilizes a series of portrait-only home screens upon which you can drag and drop favorite icons for apps, books, and more, though you're not limited by a grid – apps and books can overlap or be bunched together. It's more like a computer desktop in this regard.
A stream of your latest downloads appears near the bottom – similar to the Kindle Fire, but in a less-stylized manner. Persistent links to your books, apps, and more are found just below.
Amazon's tablet seems clearly designed to keep you comfortably moving from screen to screen, with all of your apps and downloads available at an easy tap, plus smartly-designed storefronts that make browsing and buying a joy.
It's really quite simple to get around, and everything looks great as you're flipping around.
On the other hand, the Nook Tablet seems stuck between a traditional Android UI layout and a Kindle-esque streamlined approach, and the results prove clunky and inconsistent.
Finding your way into the app marketplace is awkward in practice, with pop-up menus introducing both owned and suggested downloads, and the actual store delivers very broad categories with no quick way to see the most popular apps. Some occasional jagged text annoys, as well.
Performance is similar on both devices – the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet get around quickly enough, but not without occasional hitches.
Neither features top-of-the-line innards, after all, considering the price points. But when it comes to using the devices in a day-to-day setting and actually making the most of what each has to offer, the Kindle Fire is easily the winner.
On the topic of what you'll actually put on each device, there's no contest: the Nook Tablet pales in comparison to the Kindle Fire. It's night and day in nearly every respect, with Amazon's media empire putting the Nook's offerings to shame.
True, the Nook Tablet offers access to millions of books and magazines, and the prices prove generally similar across platforms.
But Amazon serves up all of that and access to the Lending Library via its Amazon Prime subscription service, which lets users read a book each month free from a selection of 145,000-plus titles.
When it comes to apps, Amazon's selection still comes up short compared to Apple's App Store and the general Android Marketplace, though many top games and apps are available from the attractive storefront.
Nook Tablet, on the other hand, has the requisite Angry Birds entries and Netflix, among others, but beyond a handful of headliners, the selection proves oddly barren. Hit games found on the Kindle Fire and elsewhere are often replaced by cheap knock-offs, with little available variety.
And while the Nook Tablet will run your own media just fine and offers apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus, Barnes & Noble doesn't have a media service – so you can't directly download or stream movies or TV shows. Conversely, Amazon offers a mass of hit films and shows for rental or purchase, not to mention thousands of free movies and TV episodes for streaming via Amazon Prime (for subscribers).
It hardly seems fair to compare the two in this regard. The Nook Tablet still feels like a reader that can run some apps and your own media, while the Kindle Fire was clearly designed as an all-encompassing media device, ready to serve you movies, music, apps, books, and more without hesitation.
Kindle Fire vs Nook Tablet: Verdict
No doubt, the Nook Tablet has some distinct features in the $199 tablet race, namely the physical buttons and ability to expand the storage via a microSD card. Plus, a version with double the internal storage is sold for $50 more.
For those who want to load up a device with ample videos and more from their own media collection, the Nook Tablet surely offers more room to play with.
However, beyond those points the comparison proves largely one-sided in favor of the Kindle Fire. It's a much more compact and attractive option, with a refined user interface that makes media consumption, app usage, and web browsing alike a total breeze.
And when it comes to available media and downloads, the Kindle Fire is far and away the best choice, as the Apps marketplace offers a much wider selection of current games and entertainment options, while movies and TV shows are largely absent on the Nook Tablet – aside from apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus, which are also on the Kindle Fire.
Amazon's media ecosystem is second only to Apple's, and it's a towering giant compared to Barnes & Noble's weak approach.
If you're seeking a $199 tablet that can tap into an ample universe of media, from the latest games to both new and classic movies, television series, and books, the Kindle Fire offers the best overall experience.