When I told people I was reviewing the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, the first thing they asked me was: “Is it better than the Amazon Kindle Fire?” The second thing they asked was, “Should I buy it instead of the Apple iPad?”
To both questions, here’s the short answer: It depends.
Barnes & Noble’s $249 Nook Tablet is both a slick rebranding of an existing product, the Nook Color, and an excellent version 2.0 of that very same device. Spending time with the Nook after having reviewed Amazon’s Kindle Fire is an edifying experience.
The Kindle Fire’s quirks, of which there are many, are hallmarks of a 1.0 device. After having tested the Nook Tablet, I’m more certain of this than ever. Barnes & Noble, which released the Nook Color in late 2010, has had almost a year to refine the platform (Android 2.1 to Android 2.3). Barnes and Noble’s tablet hardware, though not perfect, is more stable and much better aligned with its software subsystem.
Like the Kindle Fire, The Nook Tablet is a device that works right out of the box. It’s tied to your Barnes & Noble account so you can buy books and magazines immediately. If you’ve ever seen the Nook Color, the Nook Tablet looks the same. (It’s 49 grams lighter.)
The similarities are more than hard-shell deep. The devices share the same screen resolution: 1024×600 (same as the Kindle Fire) on seven-inch screens, the same book content (2.5 million titles), and Wi-Fi, but not 3G service (just like Amazon’s Kindle Fire).
I prefer the Nook Tablet’s design over the Kindle Fire – it’s a bit lighter, and I like the left-hand corner cut-out, which my thumb used to steady the device. It just looks friendlier.
The Nook Tablet is more powerful than its predecessor. It has 1 GB versus 512 MB on the Nook Color, and a 1GHz CPU versus 800 MHz on the Color. The Tablet also adds a microphone (which lets you record yourself, page-by-page, reading children’s books—sounds exciting, but the implementation is not great) and the ability to stream movie content.
How do those stats compare to the Amazon Kindle Fire? The Nook Tablet is a little stronger. They both have 1 GHz, dual-core CPUs, but the Fire only has 512 MB of RAM. In my tests, this gave the Nook a bit more pop, and smoother screen interaction.
A Better Look
While both the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet run the exact same Android OS (2.3), I now prefer the Nook Tablet’s implementation. The whole interface is cleaner and brighter. Amazon went with a lot of dark colors and an austere look. The Nook’s interface is refined, yet friendly.
As on the Amazon Kindle Fire, there is a “Daily shelf” on the Nook Tablet’s home screen, but it really doesn’t look like a shelf. It shows your most recent purchases. You can drag and drop anything from that shelf to a “permanent” spot on your main screen—a very nice touch.
To see your recently accessed files, you use the “More” drop down in the upper-right hand corner of the interface. It’s not a great name. “My Activity” would make more sense. The menu is well organized, showing Periodicals, Books, Files and TV Shows, though I wish it wasn’t black.
Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet has a few more buttons than the Kindle Fire, but they’re well-placed on the outer, rounded edge. All enhance the device. There are physical volume buttons, a power button and a “n” Nook button on the face of the device, just below the screen. It’s your home button and is just as useful as the one on the Apple iPad.
On the Nook Tablet, “n” brings you back to the main screen and pulls up a master menu that includes “Home” your Library, shop, universal search, Apps, the Web browser and Settings. While not totally avoding the tiny type that pervades Amazon’s device (the controls and notifications when you’re in an app could be measured in a few pixels), the Nook Tablet’s menus are often more readable.
The Nook Tablet is, like the Fire, a content consumption device. It’s for reading books, perusing colorful magazines, watching movies, listening to music, and playing with apps. For the most part, the Nook compares favorably, if not better, than the Kindle Fire in these areas.
Book reading is a pleasure on the Nook Tablet (take it into one of Barnes and Noble’s stores and you can read any book for free for one hour) and if I sign into my Barnes and Noble account on any device and let each device sync up, I never lose my place. Magazines look fantastic on both devices, though the Nook Tablet may have a slight edge. The device has a special “VividView” touch screen which puts the actual image much closer to the glass covering.
As a result, the magazine images I viewed on the Nook Tablet has just a bit more pop than similar (or even the same ones) I viewed on the Kindle Fire. The difference is small, so I wouldn’t go making your buying decision based on this one metric. As for the magazine reading experience, it’s good on both devices, as long as the publisher does the extra work to make all of the type readable. Rolling Stone, for example, lets you read in magazine or reader layout (I had to use the former to effectively read articles).
The Nook Tablet, though, is not quite as complete a content consumption device as the Kindle Fire. Yes, I get Hulu and Netflix on the Nook device. The Netflix interface was built for the Nook Tablet and it looks pretty good — no Netflix interface is great. What I don’t have on the Nook Tablet is access to Amazon’s library of premium rental movies. The Nook Tablet doesn’t currently have an option for first-run movies. Too bad, because I bet they’d look great on this screen.
Similarly,the music experience lags behind what I found on the Kindle Fire. With Amazon, I can stream the music from my personal cloud or buy whole albums directly through the device and start playing them immediately (both the Fire and Nook Tablet, by the way, do an excellent job of letting you play music while doing something else, like reading). There is a music player in the Nook Tablet, but it’s really for side loaded music.
Initially, all it had in there were tracks I recorded for the children’s book feature. With no music store, I’m left to choose from the nice, pre-loaded Pandora app that makes it easy to log on and start streaming music or I can use the clunky and often confusing Rhapsody app to select individual albums or songs. You can download an play songs offline, but the experience is not nearly as seamless as it is on the Kindle Fire (or iPad, for that matter).
Amazon relies heavily on the cloud for all extra storage and for access to your digital content. This is both a strategy and a necessity. The Fire has 8 GB of internal storage. The Nook Tablet, which has 16 GB inside, has a Micro-SD slot (which can support up to 32 GB). I added my card and was able to peruse it on the device. You can’t do that with the Kindle Fire or the Apple iPad—which has no accessible file system for end users. You can put MP3 files on the card and play them, but the Nook Tablet does not recognize all file types. I could not, for instance, play back my AVI and MOV video files.
The App experience on the Nook Tablet is generally good. There are, as on the Kindle Fire, hundreds of apps designed for the device. No, there is no official Twitter app, so I had to use Seesmic—it’s just OK. As with the Kindle Fire, e-mail is an app and not resident on the home screen. This must be an Android 2.3 quirk. However, I much prefer the Nook Tablet’s bright and more readable e-mail interface. The Nook Tablet’s fonts are slightly larger and the background is white with blue accents. Setting up my Gmail was simple in both platforms.
Both new tablets have Web browsers, but The Kindle Fire’s is special. It’s called Silk and should get faster with each passing day (so far it’s fast, but not noticeably more so than before). As for the Nook Tablet, it has solid and fast web browser that renders pages smoothly. Where the Kindle Fire wins is its thumbnails and tabs for navigating between websites. The Nook Tablet browser lacks both, and when you scroll down on a web page, you’re left with no navigation at all. At least with the Kindle Fire, the tab bar remains frozen at the top of your screen.
Should You Buy?
Overall, I like the Nook Tablet a lot. Yes, it’s $50 more than the Kindle Fire. This is the price you pay for the extra memory, storage and microphone. It may also be so Barnes & Noble doesn’t lose money on every device. I’m disappointed that Barnes & Noble didn’t understand the magic price point of $199. But if you can look past that lost fifty bucks and do not care too much about first-run movies and your music, this is a very good tablet.
If Barnes and Noble can add and improve these last two features, I’d peg it as the winner over the Kindle Fire — and an even more formidable contender for the larger, app-rich Apple iPad.