The importance of first impressions: Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet

Given that my last two blog posts have been personal thoughts about Jesus, this latest post may seem a bit off-topic. But being a video editor, I also think a lot about the tech world, and everyone these days is talking about the arrival of two new tablets: the Kindle Fire by Amazon, and the Nook Tablet by Barnes & Noble.

Many reviews have been written about these, but I’ve only focused on the Kindle Fire (and Touch) reviews because I am was a bigger fan of Amazon’s ecosystem. If I buy used books online it’s always through Amazon, and I’ve gotten a few free books by following @dailyfreeebooks, a Twitter account that posts links to “free ebooks for Kindle”. Instapaper, an app I use to read online articles, also works well with the Kindle products, so I figured I would stick with Amazon despite the popularity of B&N’s devices.

Then on Black Friday I went to Best Buy and played around with the Kindle Fire. The first thing that struck me is that there is nothing noteworthy about the device. No special design, nothing to make it stick out among the slew of other Android tablets—other than it says “Kindle” on the back. It’s as unremarkable as a cardboard box. Seriously. The interface is kind of interesting because the carousel idea is new as opposed to icons on separate pages like in iOS or standard Android, but other than that, nothing about the hardware stands out.

Perhaps that’s the point. It’s what’s inside the cardboard box that matters. All the reviews I’ve read have pointed out that the device itself is secondary to Amazon’s main goal: give people a portal to the Amazon store. You’re not supposed to notice the device, but instead look past it at the content you’re buying from Amazon.

This approach is, at first glance, a good idea. The rest of the Android tablets are all advertised based on specs: duo-core, lots of RAM and megahertz, cameras, outputs, and of course Flash. But their problem is there’s almost nothing to put on the devices. Apple fixed that problem by introducing the App Store, Amazon’s solution is the store they’ve been building for fifteen years, and B&N is, after all, a book store.

The problem is, device design is still very important.

I didn’t realize that until tonight. I was never planning on getting a Kindle Fire, even more so after using it at Best Buy, but I was still planning on buying a Kindle e-reader. The ecosystem had me. But then tonight I went to Barnes & Noble and used the Nook Tablet for the first time.

My first thought was, I really like this device. I liked looking at it and I liked using it. It felt good in my hand, the screen was sharp and responsive, and the layout was intuitive and easy to use. It was built well and felt solid. And it was unique. You see the outline of the Nook Tablet and you know instantly what it is. It doesn’t look like anything else. As simple as it is, that little empty loop on the bottom left is really important. The physical home button at the bottom is also very nice to have.

It’s the little things that I’ve never liked about the Android OS. Scrolling usually stutters a bit and buttons such as the keyboard keys respond just a tiny bit slow. That’s where iOS has always been lightyears ahead of every other touch OS; it responds flawlessly. And while the Nook Tablet may not be on the iOS’s level, it responds really well. I noticed it particularly when using the keyboard on the web browser and when adjusting the settings while reading a book. I didn’t feel any lag at all.

So okay, now I have a device that feels great to use. Is the ecosystem close to Amazon’s? First, when I stop and think about it, I’m actually not that tied in to Amazon. I haven’t bought any ebooks yet, so what’s really keeping me tied in? Plus, buying from Barnes & Noble helps support the brick-and-mortar stores that I love.

Second, there are three things I need access to if I’m going to get an e-reader or tablet: Instapaper for online articles, Google Reader for blogs, and (if a tablet) Simplenote for writing. I don’t know yet if the Nook Tablet has those things (due to its limited app store, which is a subset of the Android Market, I don’t think it does), but at the very least it has a good web browser and I could access them as web apps. The Nook also has the Evernote app, which in a pinch I could switch to from Simplenote if needed.

Third, B&N’s ecosystem is actually quite large. It has over 2.5 million books as opposed to Amazon’s one million. The display model I tried also had a couple newspapers loaded that worked well, and like the Kindle you can also borrow books from the public library.

Tonight was a good reminder of how important good design is for a device. Even if the device is only meant to be an access point to online content, the experience of using it has to be enjoyable, otherwise you’ll grudgingly pick it up every time. Case in point: Ben Brooks said in his review of the Kindle Fire:

At the end of the day I would have loved to have taken more time with the Fire before reviewing it, but I honestly didn’t want to have to use the device anymore.

Even though I only used it for a few minutes, I’m pretty sure I would enjoy using the Nook Tablet every day. I still like the idea of getting an e-reader with an e-ink screen, but Barnes & Noble is winning me over.

UPDATE: In terms of music, movies, and tv shows, Amazon is far ahead of B&N, which is that ecosystem we were talking about. For me, though, at this time that’s not a main selling point for me. I’m most interested in literary content, and B&N has a lot of that.

UPDATE 2: I’ve had a few people ask why I didn’t include the iPad in this post. If we’re talking about design, the iPad most definitely wins, and with its great ecosystem it’s no wonder that it’s outselling every other competitor. For starters, I didn’t include it because this wasn’t a post about the Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet vs. iPad. My thoughts were about the comparison between the Fire and Nook Tablet only. Secondly, with its $500 price tag, my opinion is that the iPad is in a separate price category than the other two devices. My thoughts in this post were thus directed at the $200-price category. You might say that I should then look at 7″ tablets from Toshiba, Dell, Samsung, etc. But remember, this is a post about the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet. I didn’t include the others because I haven’t used any of them.

UPDATE 3: Since writing this post, Apple has released the iPad Mini. Its price is close to $100 more than the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet, but in terms of hardware and software design it blows them out of the water. To top it off, you can get the Kindle and Nook apps. The iPad Mini is now my recommendation.

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