If you can’t beat Apple’s iPad, change the rules of the game. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are taking a bath on sales of the $199 Kindle Fire and the $249 Nook Tablet, respectively, and making up for it with profits on sales of electronic merchandise (e-books, videos, music, and apps). The strategy has succeeded in moving a lot of hardware, with each company on track to sell millions of units (although the ratio of Kindle Fire to Nook Tablet sales is greatly in Amazon’s favor so far). Both tablets feature nearly identical 7-inch, 1024x600 LCDs and rely on Wi-Fi for connectivity. Which should tempt you away from the high-end tablets? Only a bloody-knuckled deathmatch will tell.
Like the Nook, the Kindle Fire experience relies on your burning desire for consuming magazines, books, videos, and more through its compact form factor.
At 14.1 ounces, the wider, longer, thinner Nook Tablet weighs a half-ounce less than the Fire.
Round 1: Design
If a plain black slab with a screen is your cup of tea, then drink in the Kindle Fire. Its headphone output and power button (its lone hardware control) are uncomfortably close to its Micro USB port (used for charging and file transfers) across the bottom of the tablet.
No doubt the prettier option, the Nook Tablet sports a raised silver-gray bezel and coated backplate that, in concert with the hollowed-out corner for the microSD slot, give the Nook a visual flare and render it the grippier tablet. The Nook’s hardware volume controls and menu button also score it points. The Kindle Fire offers two speakers to the Nook’s one; but the difference is negligible, and only the Nook offers a built-in microphone.
Winner: Nook Tablet
Round 2: User Interface
Both tablets break a sweat obliterating the UI confines of the Android 2.3 OS they’re built on. The Kindle Fire’s bookshelf-themed homepage displays your favorite and most recently visited web pages, apps, documents, and more, with menu tabs labeled Books, Music, Video, Apps, Web, and so on. It’s a departure from the stock Android UI, but it’s more user friendly than the Nook Tablet’s storefront-feeling UI, which also insists on using “shelves” to display your various media, apps, and files.
The Nook Tablet, on the other hand, preserves more Android functionality, including customizable home screens that help you bypass its convoluted Library shelves. The Nook Tablet’s browser displays more web-page content per screen; and we like its hard menu button, which calls up a shortcut menu for apps, URLs, settings, and more.
Winner: Nook Tablet
Round 3: Storage
You might think that the Nook Tablet’s 16GB of onboard memory combined with its microSD slot means game over for the 8GB, nonexpandable Kindle Fire. But the Nook Tablet reserves most of its onboard memory for content purchased from Barnes & Noble, leaving you just 1GB for everything else. The playing field levels further when you take into account Amazon’s free cloud storage for all Amazon media purchases, plus the 5GB of free cloud storage the company provides for storing your files.
The Nook Tablet can accommodate a microSD card with up to 32GB of capacity, but no card of any capacity is included in the purchase price. What’s more, you must use a computer to transfer files from a memory card to its internal memory. Such lameness defies description, leaving this round a push.
Round 4: Performance
While both contestants enter the ring armed with 1GHz dual-core CPUs, the Nook Tablet packs 1GB RAM while the Fire has just 512MB. The Nook Tablet’s additional memory resulted in smoother screen refreshes while reading, web browsing, playing games, streaming video, and so on. Netflix video streams looked much better on the Nook Tablet, and it delivered slightly longer battery life: We streamed Netflix videos on it for more than six hours. B&N’s device delivered better touchscreen responsiveness, too; there were far too many times when we had to repeatedly tap the Fire’s screen before it would register.
Amazon’s much-hyped Silk browser put a hurt on the Nook Tablet’s browser in terms of the SunSpider and BrowserMark benchmarks, consistently outperforming the Nook by 25 to 40 percent. In real-world use, however, the Nook Tablet loaded websites as fast or faster than the Fire.
Winner: Nook Tablet
Round 5: Content Ecosystem
Barnes & Noble claims to stock “thousands” of apps in the Nook store. After browsing the entire site, we’d say “hundreds” is more like it. A vast number of popular Android apps are MIA here, and many apps that are free in other marketplaces must be purchased for the Nook Tablet. Unlike the Fire, the Nook Tablet will not sideload apps, either; it refuses to even recognize .apk files. Amazon’s app store, by comparison, is a Shangri-La of software choices. While it could be argued that the Kindle and Nook e-reader systems are roughly equal in both features and inventory, Amazon’s music and video marketplace is far more robust, and Amazon has the aforementioned cloud storage plus superior tools for synching your purchases to multiple devices. And for $79 per year, Amazon Prime serves up thousands of free movies and TV shows, Kindle book borrowing, and free two-day shipping for Amazon orders.
And the Winner Is…
The Nook Tablet was ahead on points going into the final round, but the Kindle Fire unleashed a flurry of value-added blows in the form of Amazon’s cloud storage, massive music and video library (available for sale or rent), and decent app store that knocked the Nook into sweet oblivion. Superior hardware empowers the Nook Tablet to beat the Kindle Fire in some areas (particularly video streaming), but Barnes & Noble’s device is just too limited to be a full-featured tablet. Our opinion might change once we can jailbreak it and install a custom ROM, but the Kindle Fire is the better tablet right out of the box.