There's a lot of heel-nipping in the tablet market these days.
Amazon.com Inc. just released the Kindle Fire, the most serious attempt yet to take on Apple Inc.'s mighty iPad 2. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble Inc. has shipped the Nook Tablet, which in turn takes aim at Amazon.
I've tried both new devices and my conclusion is that there's no clear winner. They're both compact, capable color-screen media-consumption devices for budget-minded users who don't need all the features and functions of a full-blown tablet.
There's a lot to like about the Fire. I like the way Amazon has integrated its content services -- books, magazines, videos, music. I like how it uses the Cloud, in this case, Amazon's remote servers, to store content and make it accessible when I want it, reducing the need for a lot of storage. (The Fire only holds 8 gigabytes -- same as the base model iPod touch.)
Most of all, I like the price: $199, less than half the cheapest iPad.
When I booted up the Fire, all my previous Amazon purchases appeared automatically and Amazon made it exceedingly easy for me to add more content. I bought a couple of books, some songs and a movie for a long airplane ride. All downloaded quickly and efficiently. There's also an Amazon site with some 8,500 Amazon- approved apps, far fewer than Apple has for the iPad, but still respectable.
Users of Amazon's $79-a-year Prime service get access to a library of thousands of TV shows and older movies, somewhat akin to Netflix Inc.'s streaming service. The Fire comes with a one- month trial subscription.
So I like almost everything about the Kindle Fire -- except, well, the device itself.
The Fire is plain, a chunky black rectangle with a 7-inch backlit color screen. It's shorter than the Nook Tablet, a bit thicker and heavier. In action, it feels sluggish. There can be a noticeable lag when you're turning pages in an e-book or using an app.
I also had trouble with the accelerometer, the sensor that changes the view from portrait to landscape when you turn the Fire. I sometimes found myself looking at an upside-down app for several moments until the Fire sorted things out. And my loaner fell short of Amazon's claimed eight hours of battery life.
Silk isn't smooth
Amazon claims that its Web browser, Silk, has been optimized for speed, but in side-by-side comparisons I couldn't discern any advantage over the iPad's Safari browser. A few times the device told me it was connected to a Wi-Fi network while Silk claimed it wasn't. There's no 3G data service for the Kindle Fire, nor are there Bluetooth, a physical volume control, or a camera of any kind.
The Fire runs Google Inc.'s Android mobile-phone operating system. So does the $249 Nook Tablet, whose earlier version, the Nook Color, remains on the market with a newly lowered $199 price tag.
The Nook Tablet, like the Fire, operates only over Wi-Fi and has no camera. In other ways, though, it is the reverse of the newest Kindle. Where the Fire is physically plain, the Nook is sleek and more visually appealing. The $50 price differential buys you not only twice the memory and twice the storage of the Fire, but also longer battery life and a slot for an SD expansion card.
Barnes & Noble's one-year head start in developing software really shows: scrolling is smoother, the screen reorients itself faster and the device just generally feels zippier.
Where B&N falls short is exactly where Amazon shines -- in the variety of content available and how well it's integrated into the overall user experience.
Books aren't the problem. The Nook's selection is impressive and it has some nice flourishes. On-the-go parents, for instance, will appreciate not only the kid-friendliness of the Nook Tablet but also a feature that lets them record a child's favorite story in their own voice.
For many other uses, though, the Nook Tablet relies on third-party apps in place of the one-stop shopping approach of Amazon and Apple. For movies and TV shows, there's Netflix and Hulu Plus; for music, Pandora; and so on. Each requires a separate membership with its own login and, in the case of Netflix and Hulu Plus, credit card information.
Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble has its own app store that pales next to the iPad's in terms of both numbers and quality.
Ultimately, the choice between these two devices comes down to Amazon's lower price and ecosystem versus Barnes & Noble's polish and network of brick-and-mortar stores to provide in- person support. In either case, paying half what an iPad costs will require you to decide which half of the iPad experience you're willing to do without.
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.