Help! Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, a reader needs advice on choosing between two of the most prominent and least expensive tablets just entering the market.

At less than $250 a pop, Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet are sure to be hot gifts this holiday season.

The new, low-cost tablets are ushering a new era in tablet computing by making these devices more affordable. In fact, they're so cheap in comparison to other devices on the market that a shopper could get two Kindle Fires or Nook Tablets for less than or the same price as one Apple iPad.

So which low-cost tablet is right for you or for those on your shopping list? In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice on choosing between Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet. I also clear up some confusion about which Kindle devices get access to Amazon's "free" 3G data service.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dose of advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

The Amazon Kindle Fire vs. the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet Amazon

Kindle Fire or Nook?

Dear Maggie,
I have a quick question for you. Which one should I buy? The Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet? The main thing I'd like is to buy brand new movies. Not movies from like a year ago, movies that JUST came out. What's your opinion on the two tablets? I'd appreciate the help!

Thanks,
Spencer

Dear Spencer,
With the holidays quickly approaching, I think your question is one that's on the mind of a lot of tablet shoppers. The Kindle Fire and the new Nook Tablet are reasonably priced devices that put tablets within reach for a lot of consumers.

With both devices shipping this week, there's no question they will compete head-to-head this holiday season. So which one is right for you?

Based on your question, which states you are most interested in watching new movies on your tablet, I'd recommend the Amazon Kindle Fire. The biggest reason is that the Kindle Fire has access to Amazon's streaming video library, which tends to offer newer movies in comparison to other streaming services, like Netflix.

Of course, there is a lag time in terms of the movies that are offered. I know you said you want movies right when they come out, but that's difficult with streaming services, since most movie studios still release many movies on DVD before they release them for streaming. That said, out of all the streaming video services, Amazon is likely to offer most movies sooner, because it allows people to rent or purchase individual movies.

By contrast, Netflix offers a subscription service, which means subscribers pay a flat fee to watch as many movies as they want per month. Since this doesn't allow movie studios to monetize more valuable titles, Netflix is often shut out of the hottest new movies for its streaming service.

Barnes & Noble doesn't have its own streaming service. Instead, it has partnered with Netflix and will offer a Netflix app on its Nook Tablet. The Nook Tablet probably won't offer an Amazon streaming app. So if it's more up-to-date movies that you are looking for, I'd say that the Kindle Fire is a better device for you since you're likely to get access to more of these films via the pay-per-view or streaming video rental service.

But what if getting the latest and greatest movies is not your top priority? Which tablet would I recommend?

My answer to that question is that it depends. If easy access to more content at very affordable prices is the most important thing to you, then I'd say that the Kindle Fire is hard to beat. But if you want a slightly more robust piece of hardware and you'd like more in-person support for your device, then the Nook Tablet is a good option.

In terms of the hardware, I won't go into too much discussion here. For the most part, you'll find that the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are very similar. They are each roughly the same size, both have dual-core processors, and both work on Wi-Fi only.

But there are some hardware differences you should consider. For instance, the Nook has twice the storage capacity at 16GB, while the Kindle Fire has only 8GB of storage. The Nook also offers a slot where you can add even more storage capacity. For some people the 8GB of storage available on the Kindle Fire is simply not enough. They want to be able to store a lot of their books, movies, apps and other content on their device for use when not in a Wi-Fi hotspot. So if digital storage is a deal-breaker for you, the Nook might be a better choice.

As a result, the Nook is slightly more expensive at $250 versus the Kindle Fire, which is priced at $200. If you want a more in-depth comparison of the hardware, check out a post by my CNET Reviews colleague Donald Bell , who does an excellent job of comparing the hardware specifications of the two devices. He has assembled a chart that compares specifications for the two tablets side-by-side.

But hardware is only one element that should be considered when buying a tablet. For me, the services and content that are enabled on these devices are more important than minor differences in specifications.

Amazon

When it comes to services and content, Amazon is pretty hard to beat at the moment. The company has spent a lot of time and effort building its own content stores filled with e-books, apps, music, games, and video. While the Kindle Fire was built specifically to be a vehicle for accessing this content, Amazon's services are also available on a variety of other devices from smartphones to game consoles, which allow you to access e-books on your iPhone as well as watch movies from the Amazon streaming service via a Roku device on your TV.

And you can access all this content on any compatible device through your single Amazon account.

The other big advantage to buying the Kindle Fire is that it gives you access to a bunch of free content with an Amazon Prime membership. Alright, so the content isn't exactly free since you must pay $79 a year for the membership. But you get a lot for that $79 fee, and Amazon keeps sweetening the deal by adding more and more content to the service.

So what is Amazon Prime? Initially, it started as a service that offered subscribers free two-day shipping for items from the Amazon store. Now, Amazon also allows Amazon Prime members to stream movies and TV shows at no additional cost. And it most recently added free downloads for hundreds of its e-books on its Kindle e-readers.

Some people balk at the recurring $79 a year fee for the Amazon Prime membership. But if you are a frequent Amazon shopper and you stream and download e-books that are available for free through the service, Amazon Prime more than pays for itself rather quickly. And it's actually cheaper than other services like Hulu Plus or Netflix. Over 12 months, the $79 fee breaks down to about $6.50 per month.

But keep in mind that Amazon Prime is only worth it if you plan to use these services. If you don't shop from Amazon very often, you are happy with your Netflix subscription, or you don't plan to use the Amazon Lending Library much, then the $79 fee is an added expense that doesn't offer you much benefit.

Barnes & Noble

Even though I am a big fan of Amazon Prime, I'd be remiss if I did not point out Barnes & Noble's advantages over Amazon. While it doesn't have the cloud-based music, video, and online storage services, Barnes & Noble has something that Amazon doesn't have: hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores. This is an important distinction for customers who would like more hands-on with the Nook devices and who think they'll need some personal one-on-one help with their devices.

Another thing that CNET's Donald Bell points out in his post comparing the Nook Tablet to the Kindle Fire is that because Barnes & Noble doesn't have as many in-house digital-media services as Amazon, it may end up with more partnerships with third-party providers, such as Netflix and Hulu.

You will be able to access Netflix and Hulu from the Kindle Fire too. But in the future, Amazon is much more likely to promote its own services over its competitors. After all, the Kindle Fire is a content consumption device. And Amazon wants customers consuming its content. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble will need to seek out more of these deals to keep pace with Amazon's own content offerings.

Keep in mind that it's still early days for either of these devices. Barnes & Noble and Amazon will likely be announcing more content deals in the future. So I think it's premature to announce a winner in the low-cost tablet wars.

That said, a recent IDC and Appcelerator survey of app developers found that 49 percent said that the Kindle Fire was their primary development target compared to only 24 percent who said that the Nook was their favored platform.

What this means for consumers is that it's going to be a very interesting market to watch. I wouldn't count Barnes & Noble out of the game yet. But if you're a big Amazon Prime fan, like I am, I think that Amazon is making the Kindle Fire look like the most compelling low-cost tablet on the market this holiday season.

Free 3G wireless service with the Amazon Kindle?

Dear Maggie,
Amazon offers free 3G wireless on one of its Kindles. I know Amazon is sometimes willing to take a loss to get our business, but free 3G cellular access? Can you browse the Web? Or is Amazon's experimental E-Ink browser so slow that you wouldn't want to do much Web browsing anyway? What's the catch?

Thanks,
Pat R.

Dear Pat R.,
Your question highlights something that I think many consumers are confused about. The Kindle Fire is a distinctly different product from the Kindle e-readers that Amazon offers. The Kindle Fire is a full-fledged tablet PC. It offers a full browser that allows users to surf the Web. It also allows people to stream videos and download loads of applications.

The 6-inch Kindle Touch is an E Ink e-reader with no buttons on the front, a multi-touch screen, and a speaker for audiobooks. The Wi-Fi only version costs $99. The Wi-Fi/3G version costs $149. Amazon.com

By contrast the Kindle and the Kindle Touch are e-readers. Their main purpose is to allow people to read books, magazines, newspapers, and documents in digital format. You can access some things from the Web from the e-readers. But mainly all you're able to do is download books and other reading materials. You can't stream movies or download other types of apps on these device.

In some ways, I think Amazon has confused customers a bit by calling its new tablet a Kindle.

Amazon does include 3G wireless data access on some of its Kindle e-readers, but these devices do not support the newly developed Amazon browser. In other words, the free 3G access is for Amazon e-readers and not for its tablet.

Currently, the only Kindles that can get 3G service at all are the Kindle Touch 3G ($149 with special offers) and the Kindle Keyboard 3G ($139). The 3G service, which is included in the price of device, allows you to download books and periodicals anywhere you can get the 3G cellular signal from AT&T. It also gives you free access with this device to AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots.

But 3G cellular data service is not available on the Amazon Kindle Fire. To use the browser to access the Internet or to download books, games and other apps, you have to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot. So the truth is that Amazon is not giving consumers unfettered access to a 3G cell network for free.

I hope this helps clear up the confusion for you.

Correction 7:16 a.m. PT: This article incorrectly stated which streaming video apps are available for the Kindle Fire. The device does support apps for Netflix and Hulu Plus.

 

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