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Amazon is the bigger company and the better marketer, but is its Fire any better than Barnes & Noble's Nook Color?

If you want a combination of tablet and eBook reader, what should you choose?

 
 
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New Amazon Fire and Kindle Preview

Fire and Kindles compared to Nook Color and iPad 2

Nook Color eBook reader

As innovative as the Amazon Kindle Fire may seem to be, it was actually preceded by a very similar Android tablet based eReader, the Barnes & Noble Nook Color.

Should you also be considering a Nook - or even an iPad - as a way to read your eBooks?

Part three of a three part introduction to the new Kindles and Fire.  See also 'The Evolution and Context of the Fire and New Kindles' and 'The Four Different Models Compared'.

Please also view our subsequent hands-on review of the Kindle Fire.

 

 

In many respects, there is little that is new or exciting about Amazon's new Kindle Fire eBook reader.  Externally it is almost identical to the Blackberry Playbook.

In terms of functionality, it offers nothing more than an Apple iPad - indeed, it is capable of a great deal less.

And B&N's Nook Color, released almost a year earlier, represented an almost identical combination of eBook reader and Android tablet.

So how do these units stack up?  Which would be your best choice?

The Kindle Fire Compared to the Nook Color and iPad 2

There are of course competitors to the Fire, including, to a greater or lesser extent, every other generic Android tablet out there, and also the RIM/Blackberry Playbook which looks close to identical, being apparently designed and built by the same Chinese company, but which uses a different operating system.

However, there are two clear competitors worthy of specific consideration - the Nook Color, sold by Barnes & Noble, and the Apple iPad.

We discuss these now.

Barnes & Noble's Nook Color

Barnes & Noble deserves kudos for being the first to release an 'enhanced' color eBook reader, the Nook Color, which was based on the Android operating system.  This unit was released in November 2010, but perhaps due either to Amazon's much greater prominence, or to some problems which made the original Nook a disappointing product, it has not achieved much prominence.

Being a year older than the new Fire also means the Nook Color is a bit clunkier, measuring 8.1" x 5.0" x 0.48", compared to the Fire's slightly smaller 7.5" x 4.7" x 0.45".  There's a corresponding difference in weight as well - the Nook Color is 15.8 ounces, the Fire is 14.6 ounces.  Claimed battery life is about the same, although the Fire has a much faster dual processor than the Nook Color.

The Nook Color has one advantage - it also accepts microSD memory cards which the Fire does not.  But with sufficient onboard storage for more books than one could read in a lifetime and a handful of movies too, and with Amazon's cloud storage for as much more as one could ever wish, maybe the need for large onboard storage is not so great?

On the other hand, if you're on a long flight, you'd probably welcome the ability to have a tiny matchbox with a couple of dozen microSD cards in it, containing between them potentially hundreds of movies, giving you unlimited choices of entertainment; something you couldn't have with the Fire whenever it is disconnected from a fast internet connection.

The Nook Color is currently $249, compared to $199 for the Fire, although we'd not be astonished to see B&N reducing its price to match the Fire.

On balance, the feature that is the 'tipping point' for us is simply that the Fire is an Amazon supported product, whereas the Nook Color is not.  Amazon's huge commitment to electronic media of all sorts is reflected in its growing library of streamable music and movies, something B&N does not have and probably never will have.

Our feeling is that Amazon is one of the two market leaders in terms of portable entertainment in its broadest form (reading books, listening to music, watching movies, playing games, web surfing, and whatever else can be thought up), with of course Apple being the other prominent player.

Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, is a bricks and mortar chain of bookstores struggling to add new media capabilities.

So we'd recommend you choose the Fire over the Nook.

Other Barnes & Noble eReaders

For the sake of completeness, it is fair to mention that not only does B&N offer the Nook Color as a direct competitor to Amazon's new Fire, but it has also released lesser Nook eReaders that compete more or less with Amazon's Kindle range of readers.

Currently the other main reader in its range is the Nook Simple, a touch screen based reader that sells for $139.  This could be considered analogous to the Kindle Touch.

If you're simply considering a Kindle Touch type reader rather than a Fire, is a regular Nook reader a worthy competitor?  In hardware terms, probably yes.

But in terms of buying into an open ended future, probably not.  And considering the future is an essential issue with eBook readers - please read on.

The Need for Future Support

One of the huge problems with eBooks and their readers is that the copyright protection built into most books ties them to only one type of reader.  A Sony eBook won't work on a Nook or Kindle, and neither will a Nook or Kindle eBook work on either of the other two reader types either.

So what happens if you build up a collection of books in one format, then in the future, decide you want to shift to another brand?  Can you somehow convert or copy the books to be readable on your new reading device?

Alas, in most cases, no!  All the titles you purchased become lost to you if you switch to a different brand of eReader.

The only possible exception is if you switch from a closed architecture eReader to an open architecture tablet device which allows the reading software from multiple suppliers to run on it.  An example of this is an Apple iPad, which can not only read its own Apple iTunes sourced/sold books, but also has available apps for Amazon/Kindle and B&N/Nook books, too.

This means you need to be very careful when planning your supplier of eBooks.  For most people, 'being very careful' is synonymous with 'choose Amazon'.

Apple iPad

Apple deservedly shares equal billing with Amazon for being an innovator and leader in the new portable entertainment market place.

Apple deserves praise of the highest order for releasing its revolutionary iPad in April 2010 (and for the minor upgrade, the iPad 2 in March 2011), and to our astonishment, the iPad remains the clear leader in terms of tablets, with no other credible competitor appearing to challenge the iPad's supremacy, either in terms of price or functionality.

In comparing the iPad (for simplicity we'll omit the designator '2' but in cases where there's a difference between the original iPad and the iPad 2, we'll be considering the newer unit) to the Fire, there are several different almost 'philosophical' issues to consider.

Screen size

The first of these revolves around screen size, and has as an almost inseparably linked issue, that of size in general and of weight.

The iPad has a 9.7" diagonal screen and an overall device size of 9.5" x 7.3" x 0.34".  The Fire has a 7" diagonal screen and an overall device size of 7.5" x 4.7" x 0.45" - the Fire is very much more compact.

In terms of weight, the iPad weighs 21.2 ounces, the Fire is a much lighter 14.6 ounces.

Although the Fire's screen is physically smaller, it has almost exactly the same number of pixels on it, which means it will show nearly as much information as the iPad, just in a slightly smaller display size.  Both have 1024 pixels in the long dimension; the iPad has 768 in the shorter dimension whereas the Fire has 600.

On the face of it, the bigger the screen, the better.  But remember these are intended to be conveniently portable devices, so you need to trade off 'bigger is better' with the need to be small and light.

An iPad can not fit in a pocket - if you are traveling somewhere with an iPad, you will need some sort of bag to carry it in.  A Fire will barely fit in an outside jacket pocket - you'd probably not want to have one in your custom tailored best suit, but in a more casual jacket with horizontal pockets, you could probably fit it in and not be so concerned about the jacket then pulling on one side.

This added portability is a key plus for some people in some situations, but of little value to other people in other situations.  Apple, to date, has been successfully betting on the bigger screen size as being more valuable than the greater portability.  Amazon are - initially at least (see below) - building on their experiences of the smaller and larger screened Kindles they have sold in the past, and seem to believe that a 7" screen may be the best compromise.

The other part of this is weight.  An iPad is heavy, and so much so to the point where it interferes with the convenience of using it, and requires you to selectively choose how you hold it (ie always resting it on something rather than holding it unsupported).  It is half as heavy again as the Fire.

 The weight saving offered by the Fire is another appreciable plus.

Battery life

The next thing to consider is battery life.  The biggest benefit of the eInk based Kindles is their extended battery life, due to requiring much less power than other similar devices with normal screens.  It is difficult to exactly measure the battery life of an eInk based reader, because it is a mix of both total time powered on and total number of pages turned, but as a rule of thumb, Amazon is claiming about 30 hours of reading on an eInk Kindle.

 Any sort of non-eInk screen device will have very much shorter battery life.  The Fire is rated for about 8 hours of book reading or 7.5 hours of watching video - a huge reduction over the Kindle units.

The iPad offers about 10 hours of watching video, and doesn't have a separate claim for reading hours, but we'd estimate that to be perhaps 11 hours.  Both numbers are significantly more than those of the Fire, and you have to decide how often the extra battery life of an iPad would be a material benefit to you.

If you're preparing for a long international flight, or even simply a coast to coast flight in the US with a stopover, it might seem conceivable that you could end up wishing to use your device for more than 7.5 hours.

But in our experience, even on, eg, a very long 12 hour flight, by the time we've allowed time for eating, sleeping, possibly talking with a travel partner, watching airline provided video, and whatever else, we usually find we're only relying on our own device half the time or less.

In other words, the longer battery life of the iPad is good, but maybe not entirely essential other than on very rare occasions.

Operating System

The Apple iPad uses Apple's iOS operating system, an operating system shared with its iPhone products (and iPod Touch too).  This system gives you instant access to a huge universe of programs, games, and all sorts of applications; and in many cases, if you've already purchased an app to run, eg, on your iPhone, you can also add it to your iPad at no extra cost.

The Amazon Fire is an Android based system.  The free Android operating system, coordinated by Google, is also available on a wide range of phones, tablets, and other devices.  But it seems that Amazon will not allow people who buy its Fire to access the open Android marketplace, restricting users from full access to the huge range of Android programs and other apps.  Amazon will instead limit users to apps featured in its own smaller Android marketplace.

On the other hand, it may be that there is very quickly a workaround released to allow Fire owners to access all apps free of any Amazon restrictions.

As noted earlier in this article series, this would have the interesting side effect of allowing a Fire owner to download the B&N Nook eBook reader and then buy and read B&N sourced eBooks on their Amazon sourced eReader.

Other Capabilities and Uses

The iPad is an extremely versatile tablet device that can be used for all manner of different applications.  Some of the models include an in-built GPS, compass, accelerometers and gyroscope, making it ideally suited for all types of motion-based gaming (as well as for navigating).

The iPad also has built in applications that tie-in to Apple's various content services available through iTunes, plus programs for things such as managing your email, pretty much no matter what type of email service you use, and web browsing (albeit notably without support for Flash).  It also has two cameras on it, extending its functionality into new realms such as video conferencing in addition to simply recording images and video clips.

Based on what we currently know of the Fire, it seems that it will have none of these extra hardware features.  It will have some similar core software services, and a funky enhanced type of web browser which Amazon claims will make better use of bandwidth and get pages to you more quickly.  It is unsure if Flash will be supported, but our guess is that it probably will be.

If you are considering a Fire or other device from the perspective of 'something to read books on, to watch movies on, to listen to music with, to send and receive email, to surf the internet, and not much else' - then you'll be sacrificing little or nothing by choosing a Fire over an iPad.

If you are thinking 'It would be nice to have some games for the kids, too' then you'll have access to many (but not as many as the iPad) games too, although they won't be quite as fully interactive as the best iPad games can be.

So for these two types of future uses, there is no real compromise or loss in choosing a Fire over an iPad.  But if you wanted the GPS, or the cameras, or just the absolute maximum in future capabilities, then clearly the iPad comes into its own.

Price

The iPad is far and away more expensive than a Fire.

The least expensive iPad is $499 (with no GPS and 16 GB of storage); whereas the Fire is $199.  Yes, you could buy a 'his and hers' pair of Fires and still have $100 left over for videos and books (which you could share on both devices) for the same money you would need to buy a single entry level iPad.

When considering cost as an issue, all of a sudden, one's choice gets thrown into clearer focus.  Yes, there are indeed some additional nice features on an iPad (as well as the disadvantage of extra size and weight), but if you don't have a quantifiable need for these extra features, why spend $300 and up to get an iPad instead of a Fire?

A Fire will do most things for most people, and will do them very well.  Best of all, it will do these things at a wonderfully affordable price point that makes it a compelling value proposition, eclipsing that offered by the iPad. 

What of the Future

No-one will be surprised to learn that Amazon has already hinted at plans to release additional and probably 'better' models of the Fire in the future.  What electronic device is not susceptible to regular updates and enhancements?

What is a bit more surprising, however, are reports that the new model Fire(s) may be released very soon - perhaps at the beginning of 2012, immediately after the conclusion of the 2011 Christmas buying season.

The reason for this short model life cycle is apparently due to the development of the first Fire model taking longer than expected.  It seems Amazon planned to release the Fire much earlier in 2011, and while we're now being treated to the release of information about the Fire on 28 September, the actual availability of the unit for shipping is not scheduled for another seven weeks; not until 15 November.

The Fire's release announcement is unusually far in advance of the unit's availability, and hints at Amazon's unhappiness with delays in production and its urgent desire to get the product out into the marketplace.

Although the first model Fire suffered from delays in production, it seems the second generation of Fire units have not similarly suffered, and so they will be released as per the original schedule.  What was to have been close on a one year cycle between versions is instead compressing down to little more than three months (or so it is expected at this stage).

Remember the true date to keep in mind is not when you are reading about the Fire, today, or even when (if) you order it, but is when you would actually receive it (15 November at the very earliest).  So - should you buy a device today that might be obsolete in 3 - 6 months after receiving it?

If you already have a Kindle or other tablet device (including an iPad) on which you can read eBooks, we'd be tempted to say 'try and wait for the next generation if you can'.  But if you don't yet have a Kindle or other tablet device, and are increasingly wishing to have one, then at the comparatively low price of $199, why not treat yourself to a Fire.

 You can for sure sell it on Craigslist or eBay subsequently if you then decide to get a newer model Fire when they are released early next year.

It seems likely that the new Fire model (or models) will feature a unit with a larger screen.  Beyond that, nothing much more is known about the second generation of Fire eReaders. 

Summary - What (If Anything) Should You Buy and When

The new Amazon Fire is indeed an exciting device that combines some (but not all) of the best eBook reading functionality with some (but not all) tablet capabilities too, all in a bargain basement priced product (compared to regular tablet prices).

The three new Kindles offer slight improvements in function and performance, and appreciable further price drops.

 Should you buy one of these new devices?  That depends.

  • If you already own an eBook reader and are happy with it, don't buy anything.

  • If you already own an eBook reader, but want to move to something more capable, consider the Fire.

  • If you don't own an eBook reader and want something primarily to read books, consider a Kindle.

  • If you don't own an eBook reader and want a multi-function table device that can read books, consider an iPad or a Fire.

  • If you already have a tablet and want to read books too, either buy a Kindle (for the long battery life) or simply add the free eBook reading software to your present tablet. 

Read more about the Kindle

If you already have another Kindle e-reading device

If you already have another Kindle device, upgrading to a Fire won't give you any appreciable improvement in the reading experience for regular, unformatted, text-only, fiction.

Indeed, you'll probably sacrifice some battery life as part of the change.

But if you see your reading moving more to non-fiction titles, which might have substantial color pictures, then you definitely need some sort of color reader.

You could argue whether an iPad or a Fire is the better platform to read such books on, of course.  The iPad Kindle software supports multi-media and video clips in books, whereas the Fire software does not (at least, not yet).

And if you see value in the added abilities of the Fire to access the internet and email, etc, then maybe that is a good reason to upgrade.

If you don't yet have a Kindle or iPad

If you're only now considering getting some sort of tablet, should you spent $200 on a Fire or $500+ on an iPad?

That really depends on the main purposes the device will be used for.  The iPad has a larger screen, but is not as portable.  It can do many more things than a Fire, and has a camera and GPS receiver built in to it, and has access to a much greater library of software.

But the Fire opens the door to the free content offering from the Amazon Prime program, and while the screen is smaller, it is also more portable.  And let's not forget the cost saving as well.

If the main purpose is to read books, then you don't really need the larger iPad screen, and the Fire would be the best choice (or perhaps simply buy a cheaper regular Kindle with black and white screen, for as little as $79).

If the main purpose is to watch video, then the iPad would be a better choice.

Summary

The new Amazon Kindle Fire does a great job as an eBook reader, plus does an okay job of offering many but not all the functions typically found and expected in a tablet style computer.

Its $200 price makes it a great choice for people who vaguely want some sort of tablet, but who don't have specific and specialized needs for the device they buy, and who might find it harder to justify the $500+ cost of an iPad.

On the other hand, for people who just want to read fiction books and nothing else, why not simply pay $79 and get the entry level monochrome Kindle reader instead?

eBook Readers

This is the final part of a three part series on Amazon's new Kindles and Fire.

Please also click to 'The Evolution and Context of the Fire and New Kindles' and 'The Four Different Models Compared'.

Please also visit our subsequent hands-on review of the Kindle Fire.

 

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Originally published 28 Sep 2011, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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