With the holiday season in full force, a lot of gift-givers are going to be considering one of the new color e-readers that have been introduced recently: Amazon's Kindle Fire, the Kobo Vox and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet.
Many people are still unsure whether these devices should be considered high-end e-readers or low-end tablets. The 7-in. tablets are designed to read books, of course, just like their smaller, simpler e-ink predecessors. They do a lot more as well, including letting you watch TV and movies, listen to music, browse the Web, check email and run apps.
However, they are smaller and not as fully featured as tablets such as the Apple iPad 2 or the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. But they are not as expensive either; while both the iPad 2 and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 start at about $499, the Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox each cost $199, while the Nook Tablet runs a bit higher at $249.
After taking an initial look at the three e-readers when they were released in November, I lived for several weeks with them and put them through their paces: reading and buying books, watching TV and movies, listening to music, checking email, running apps -- pretty much anything you'd do with an e-reader. As a result, I was able to come to some pretty definite conclusions.
So if an e-reader is in your holiday plans or beyond, check out my in-depth look at which is the best and why.
Hardware and performance
With an expanded list of media types to handle, the hardware that makes up these tablets is an important component of the user experience.
You won't buy the Kindle Fire for its hardware design or specs. It's an undistinguished black slab that looks much like the BlackBerry PlayBook. It has half the RAM (512MB) and half the storage (8GB) of the Nook Tablet, although it uses the same TI OMAP 4 dual-core 1GHz processor. There are no physical volume controls, and I found it quite distracting to have to constantly fiddle with software controls when watching a movie or video or when playing music.
Whether it's because of a lack of RAM, or something else in the design, I found the Kindle Fire to be sluggish at times, particularly when switching between apps and displaying icons. This certainly isn't a deal-breaker, but it takes away from the experience.
The Kindle Fire display is adequate, but I found that it shows more glare than the Nook Tablet, which was distracting. It simply didn't seem as crisp or clear.
The Kobo Vox is the most underpowered tablet of the bunch -- it features a single-core 800MHz processor. Like the Kindle Fire, it comes with 512MB RAM. That adds up to an even more sluggish performance than the Kindle Fire -- at times, the delays when displaying pages or switching apps was quite annoying. On the upside, it has a MicroSD slot that can accommodate cards with up to 32GB of storage.
Like the Kindle Fire, the Kobo Vox is an undistinguished black slab. It does, however, come with volume buttons. Like the Kindle Fire, its display is more reflective than the Nook Tablet's, which makes reading or watching videos somewhat difficult in certain lighting conditions.
Although it lacks a true physical Home button like the Nook Tablet has, below the screen you'll find familiar Android buttons, along with printed icons, for going Back, bringing up menus and returning home. This makes it the only tablet of the three that shows much of its Android heritage -- those buttons are typically available (along with a search button) on Android phones and tablets.
The Nook Tablet has the best hardware of the bunch, and as a result, offers the best performance as well. With 1GB of RAM, it's got twice the memory of other two, and that extra RAM makes a difference when it comes to performance -- it's simply faster.
It's also got twice the storage of the others: 16GB compared to 8GB for the Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox. There's a catch to that, however: Only 1GB of that 16GB is available for non-Barnes & Noble content. But like the Kobo Vox,the Nook Tablet has a Micro SD slot with a capacity of up to 32GB, and you can store anything you want on it. That means when you're not in range of Wi-Fi, you'll have plenty of room for books, movies and other files.
In my opinion, the Nook Tablet is better looking than the competition as well, with pleasing-looking gray bezel around the edges. The Nook comes two physical buttons: a volume button and a "Nook" button, used as a navigation button.
As for the display, screen quality, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder, but in using all three, I found the Nook Tablet's screen to have the clearest, crispest colors.
When it came to hardware performance, that extra memory packed into the Nook seems to pay off. I found it to be the smoothest-running, most responsive of all three tablets, with no delays when switching between apps or displaying graphics and icons.
The Nook Tablet features the highest-end hardware with the most RAM and storage space, better performance and the best screen, as well as a MicroSD slot for up to an additional 32GB of storage. It's also a more distinguished-looking design, compared to the plain black slabs of the Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox. The Vox is far behind both the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire, due to underpowered hardware and sluggish performance.
Usability and interface
All three of the tablets use Android version 2.3 (Gingerbread) as the underlying operating system, but apart from the Kobo Vox, you wouldn't know that to look at them. They feature their own specific interfaces, for better and for worse, as we'll see in this section.
The Kindle Fire offers the simplest, most consistent interface of the three tablets, and because of that, it is the easiest to navigate, especially when you're reading a book, viewing media or running an app.
The Home screen looks like a bookshelf, with all content on the top shelf, and customizable favorites on the shelf below it. Across the top of the screen are categories of content and information: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps and Web. Tap any and the content on the bookshelf reflects that specific category -- your apps, your books, and so on. The outlier is the Web, which when tapped launches a Web browser.
Unlike the Nook Tablet, the Kindle Fire reorients its main interface when you turn it horizontally or vertically, which is useful if your current navigation looks better in one orientation or the other.
The best thing about the Kindle Fire's navigation is that common navigation icons appear at the bottom of the screen no matter where you are, for going back to what you were previously doing, getting to the Home screen, and changing settings. There is some inconsistency, though, because in some apps the Settings button doesn't work.
The Kindle Fire's main drawback is that it doesn't offer as many options on the main screen as does the Nook Tablet for navigation and for immediately jumping back to a book you were reading. Still, the overall consistency of its interface makes it extremely easy to use.
The Kobo Vox is the most Android-like of the three e-readers, featuring multiple customizable panes with five unmovable icons across the bottom providing navigation to a variety of locations and apps, and changeable rows of icons above that. The top part of the screen has a notification area, just as Android smartphones and tablets do. The Settings page, which you can get to from the main screen and which lets you customize how your tablet works, looks identical to the stock Android settings area. All this makes Vox's main interface instantly recognizable and usable to owners of Android devices.
But that doesn't mean that it's the best interface for an e-reader. Rather than feeling like an integrated device targeted at reading books and viewing and listening to media, it feels like a garden-variety tablet with a number of useful reading apps on it. Still, it's certainly easy enough to find and use those reading apps. Just don't expect as smooth or as immersive an experience as you'd get with the Nook Tablet or Kindle Fire.
The Nook Tablet puts reading and multimedia content center stage, although it is marred to a certain extent by inconsistent navigation when you're inside some apps.
The Home screen is command central. At the top of the screen is a useful Keep Reading button that shows you the book you've most recently been reading; when tapped, this brings you to the page you were most recently reading. Further down, an area called the Daily Shelf shows books, magazines, newspapers and apps that you've most recently used; tap any to read or use it. Just below that is a row of more general navigation icons to different types of content -- books, newsstand, movies, music and apps. Press the Nook button beneath the display and you bring up another level of navigation that lets you get back to the Home screen, go to the library, shop, search and so on.
If you're the kind of person who likes to customize your hardware, you'll be pleased to learn that there's plenty to fiddle with. You can change the wallpaper, move favorite books to any of the Nook Tablet's three home panes, and customize a variety of options on your bookshelves.
The Nook button is the glue that holds common navigation together, but it doesn't work in all apps, which is problematic. The interface is also marred somewhat by the lack of a Back button -- it simply doesn't exist as universal navigation. You have to rely on looking for a Back button inside different apps, which can be confusing, because they tend to be in different locations.
All in all, if you're primarily planning to read books or view media, the interface is a solid one, because it puts content, particularly reading, always within easy reach. But the Nook would be better if it had a Back button and more consistent navigation.
The Kindle Fire noses out the Nook Tablet here, by dint of its more consistent interface and navigation. If the Nook button worked inside all apps consistently, I would prefer the Nook Tablet because its interface is more customizable, with more navigation options. For now, though, it's the Kindle Fire by a nose. As for the Vox, because it's little more than stock Android, it can't compete with the other two.
The whole point of an e-reader is to read. Here we take a look at how the three tablets stack up against one another.
The Kindle Fire comes with a solid set of reading tools that offers very good controls for changing font type and size, line spacing, margins and what Kindle calls color mode -- three selections that let you change whether you want dark characters against a light background or light characters against a dark background, and the contrast level. Even though you can choose among eight different font sizes, I found them generally too small. But apart from that, the Kindle Fire offers more controls over the display of your books than does the Nook Tablet or Kobo Vox.
As you would expect, you can also make notes and add bookmarks. However, there does not seem to be a way to share book recommendations directly from within books, a surprising oversight.
The Kindle Fire's children's books don't have animations as do those of the Nook Tablet, and there's no feature that allows parents to record their voices reading aloud to their children.
The Kobo Vox's reading capabilities are fairly basic and not particularly well done, which is surprising given that it's an e-reader, not an all-around tablet. For example, the Vox gives you more fine-grained control over type size than the other tablets by use of a slider, which should be a plus. But there's no preview or display to show you the type size you're choosing, which makes getting the right font size a hit-or-miss affair. And because the tablet is sluggish overall, I experienced delays when moving from page to page.
As for children's books, it does have a read-aloud feature, but the small monaural speaker built into the Vox is so underpowered that you can barely hear the voice reading. Even when you hold the speaker directly up to your ear, the sound is faint.
However, the social aspects of the reading experience are very well done. You can see comments that others have made about the book you're reading, and even the number of times that the book has been e-read. And you can also share thoughts about the book you're reading via a built-in link to Facebook.
Because its screen is the least reflective of all three tablets and shows less glare, reading e-books on the Nook Tablet is easier on the eyes and causes less strain than the Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox. Text and pictures are crisper as well.
I found the reading tools to be excellent; they include choosing fonts and font sizes; searching for text; changing the brightness; adding notes, highlights and bookmarks; and getting suggestions for similar books. There are also simple ways to share your thoughts about the book with others via the built-in Nook Friends app or else via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn links.
I also appreciated the reading icon that sits at the bottom and top of the screen most of the time. Simply tap the icon, and you'll jump to the last page of the last book you were reading.
The font size selection was, in general, better than that of the Kindle Fire. Both allow you to choose from eight different type sizes, but those on the Nook Tablet are larger, and will likely be more useful, especially to those who need reading glasses. If you've got a very young set of eyes that never suffer from eyestrain you may appreciate the smaller Kindle Fire fonts. Everyone else will likely be happier with the sizes on the Nook Tablet.
The Nook Tablet also features an excellent children's book e-reading feature which allows parents, grandparents or others to record themselves reading the book; the kids can later follow along with the reading. Some children's books also feature animations.
The Nook Tablet's e-reading capabilities are better than those of the Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox. Text is more readable, it's easier to share reading interests and reviews with others, and the children's book capabilities are superior to either of the competitors.
These new color e-readers aren't just for reading -- they're for watching videos and listening to music as well.
When it comes to multimedia, the Kindle Fire shines, and clearly outclasses the other two tablets.
To begin with, it's the only tablet with stereo speakers. Unfortunately, as with the other two tablets, those speakers are underpowered, and can be hard to hear at times when watching movies, although they were fine when listening to music. In addition, the Kindle Fire has no physical volume controls, so you'll spend more time than you want fiddling with software controls. But at least its speakers offer stereo sound.
As with the Nook Tablet, the Kindle Fire comes with Netflix and Hulu Plus. But unlike the Nook Tablet, that's the beginning of multimedia on the Kindle Fire, not the end. You can rent movies from Amazon beginning at $2.99 per movie and TV shows starting at $1.99 per show. And if you subscribe to Amazon Prime ($79 per year; one month free trial when you buy the Kindle Fire), you get unlimited streaming from a massive collection of videos. Neither of the other tablets offers anything like it.
As for music, you also get built-in access to the Amazon cloud music player, which lets you upload music to the Amazon cloud from your PC or Mac, and then listen to the music on your Kindle Fire or other mobile device. Again, neither other tablet has anything like it.
It's this simple: If you're interested in multimedia, don't buy a Kobo Vox. The single speaker is tinny and even more underpowered than the Nook Tablet's, and the Vox doesn't come with Netflix or Hulu Plus, much less have access to for-pay videos or a music player like the Kindle Fire.
When it comes to multimedia, the Nook Tablet falls short of the Kindle Fire, although it easily outclasses the Kobo Vox. One big plus is its screen, which is the best of the bunch and shows off videos to their best effect.
The speaker is monaural rather than stereo, so if you've listening to music, you'll want to plug in a headphone or an external set of speakers to its headphone jack. But the problems with the speaker go beyond mono sound -- it's underpowered. The single speaker is at the bottom, on the back, and I found at times that the sound was so weak that I could barely hear it when watching a movie. To properly enjoy some movies, I found that I had to use a headphone or speaker. Strangely (as with the Kindle Fire), I didn't experience the same problem when listening to music or read-aloud books.
The Nook Tablet ships with both Netflix and Hulu Plus, and apart from the sound problem when watching videos and movies, it's a pleasurable experience, with no delays or hiccups.
But aside from Netflix or Hulu Plus, you'll be hard-pressed to get more multimedia content. Unlike with the Kindle Fire, there's no other built-in way to rent movies, TV shows or video. And it also doesn't have a music playing service like the one Amazon offers.
The Kindle Fire is the clear winner here. It's the only tablet that lets you rent movies and TV shows, and the only one with a cloud-based music service -- and it's a very good one. The Nook Tablet gets points for a better screen. The Kobo Vox is a flat-out poor choice for multimedia.
Web and email
None of these three e-readers is designed to be an all-purpose tablet, but they do come with the basics for browsing the Web and reading and composing email.
The Kindle Fire's Silk browser is the only one of the bunch that uses tabs, which makes handling multiple sites easier than having them each in their own windows. For that reason alone, it's the best browser of the three.
When you visit a website with the Kindle Fire's browser (and with the Nook Tablet's browser) you'll see sites as they are built for full-sized computers, not for smartphones and mobile devices, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you get all the graphics, layout and multimedia elements; on the other, the text on the sites is generally too small to read until you zoom in. In fact, I found the text harder to read than the text on the Nook Tablet.
The Kindle Fire's email reader is adequate, but not outstanding (none of the tablets feature great email software). One nice touch is that it asks what kind of email account you're setting up, such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and so on (for POP3 or IMAP, you choose Other), which makes setup easier.
Unfortunately, it won't recognize Gmail labels, which makes using Gmail more difficult than need be. However, it has very good filtering options for viewing mail by sender, subject, date and time, and so on, something that the Nook Tablet email reader lacks. It also features a universal inbox, so that you can see all messages from all your mail accounts in a single location.
The Vox's Web browser appears to be essentially the same one as shipped with Android. Perhaps because of that, Web sites automatically display their mobile versions, rather than their normal ones. There's good and bad with that: Good because the text displays larger and is easier to read; bad because you don't get the full experience of graphics, layout and multimedia elements.
I found browsing with the Kobo Vox to be significantly slower than that of the Nook Tablet or Kindle Fire, and at times almost painfully sluggish.
The Kobo Vox's email reader is the worst of the three, and lacks very basic navigational tools, such as being able to jump to your inbox when you're reading a piece of mail. I also found that it took longer to check for email than did the Nook Tablet or Kindle Fire. In fact, it took so long at times that it was practically unusable.
The Nook Tablet's Web browser is fast and displays graphics and text crisply. But it falls short when it comes to handling multiple Web sites, because it doesn't use tabs. Instead, navigation is more like that of a smartphone, opening each new site in its own separate window, like the stock browser built into Android phones.
Don't expect to be blown away by the Nook Tablet's email program (or by those of the Kindle Fire or the Kobo Vox). But given that you'll only be using it occasionally, it's more than up to the task. One big plus of the Nook Tablet's email reader is that it lets you browse to all of your mail from all of your email accounts from the same interface, without having to exit and log into a separate account. And if you're a Gmail user, you'll be pleased to see that it correctly organizes all of your mail by the proper Gmail labels. If you reorient your tablet horizontally the mail client doesn't reorient itself, a surprising shortcoming.
If Web browsing is important to you, you'll want the Kindle Fire, because it's the only one of the group that features a tabbed browser. If you use Gmail, you'll prefer the Nook Tablet because it recognizes Gmail labels. Other than that, it's a tossup over which of the two tablet's email is superior. As for the Kobo Vox, Web browsing is at times so slow it's a painful experience. Its email client is no great shakes, either.
All three e-readers are Android tablets as well, so you'll want to take advantage of the operating system's ability to use a variety of apps.
The Kindle Fire comes with more pre-loaded apps than does the Nook Tablet, including Netflix and Hulu Plus, as well the movie app iMDb, the Weather Channel, the Audible ebook reader, and several others.
The Amazon App store features the usual variety of apps, ranging from games to entertainment, productivity, lifestyle, utilities, social networking, and more. Amazon says it had 850 apps in its store at launch, slightly smaller than the Nook Tablet's number, but not dramatically so.
Apps don't look or work as well on the Kindle Fire as they do on the Nook Tablet, though. They tend to distend themselves to fit the 7-in. screen, as is common with Android tablets. Pandora does this, for example. It may be that Amazon hasn't worked with app developers to get them to write apps specifically for its tablet. For example, when you first launch Pandora, you get a warning that it may use a great deal of data -- the exact same warning you get when launching it on a smartphone, even though such a warning is irrelevant to a W-iFi user rather than someone who may be charged for bandwidth on a smartphone.
However, as with the Kobo Vox, you'll be able to download and install any app you want onto the Kindle Fire, with a little bit of work (it's called sideloading). If you go to Settings --> Device and turn on "Allow Installation of Applications," you can download an app's .APK file from the Web, and install it using the Kindle Fire file manager.
The Vox ships with an unimpressive group of apps, with little beyond the basics such as a calculator, clock, music player and dictionary, along with Facebook, Twitter and a free Scrabble game. There's no Hulu Plus, no Pandora, no Netflix.
The Kobo Vox also has no app store. Supposedly, the company has an arrangement with the GetJar app store and apps can be downloaded from there. GetJar features only free apps and the selection was not impressive. I tried downloading several apps from there and they all failed.
As with the Kindle Fire, though, you can download .APK files from the Web, then install the apps. To do so, you first need to choose Applications from the Settings screen and then check the box next to "Unknown Sources."
Stuffed into the Nook Tablet are a solid complement of apps, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, several games (including chess, Sudoku and crossword), and apps for contacts, a social app called Nook Friends and the usual complement of media players.
The Apps store, like that of the Kindle Fire, is a closed one, and you'll only be able to download apps from the store, not outside of it. Barnes & Noble says it had 1,000 apps in its store at launch.
Apps worked and played well on the Nook Tablet, which isn't always the case with Android-based tablets. Even though many of the apps were originally written for the smaller screens of Android smartphones, they didn't appear to be distended and stretched when run on the Nook Tablet, as is often the case with other Android tablets. Pandora, for example, filled the screen perfectly, as if it were designed for a tablet, which I found not to be the case for other Android tablets such as the Xoom, or for the Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox, for that matter.
Apps on the Nook Tablet look better than they do on the Kindle Fire, and for now the Nook Tablet store has a slightly more sizable collection than does the Amazon App store. Based on that, the Nook Tablet gets the nod. But if you care about freedom to install any app you want, you'll want to go instead with the Kindle Fire.
If you're looking for the e-reader with the best hardware and performance, the most expandability, the best screen and e-reading experience, you'll want the Nook Tablet. At $249, it costs $50 more than the Kindle Fire or Vox, so you'll pay a small premium compared to the other two. But that extra will be worth the cost for those who want to be able to read and consume as much content as possible locally when they're out of range of a Wi-Fi network.
On the other hand, if multimedia is high on your list of must-haves in an e-reader, the Kindle Fire is for you. In addition to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, it lets you rent movies and TV shows from Amazon, and taps into Amazon's very good cloud-based music service. And if you're a fan of Amazon's entire buying ecosystem, you'll want a Kindle Fire as well, because you can be sure the tablet will hook into any new services it offers.
Finally, it's hard to know how the Kobo Vox can survive the competition against the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire. It's an underpowered tablet with an underwhelming interface, nothing to distinguish it, and a paucity of apps. If it was half the price of the Kindle Fire, it might survive by catering to bargain hunters. But given that it's the same price, it's hard to know who would choose it over either of the other tablets.