Tablet war 2011: Nook vs. Kindle vs. iPad

Barnes & Noble’s new Nook Tablet may cost $50 more than Amazon’s Kindle Fire, but B&N has no trouble explaining why that extra $50 is worth it. The brick-and-mortar bookseller will engage in mighty battle with Amazon and iPad-maker Apple this holiday season, with no other competitor even coming close. When you’re shopping for your dream tablet, it’s important to keep in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each platform.

Barnes & Noble
Though this retailer was on the ropes a few years back, it is projecting Nook devices to be a $1.8-billion business this year. The company beat its online rival Amazon to launching both a 7-inch color tablet and a touchscreen e-ink reader, and now they’re challenging Amazon again with major upgrades of both, and similar pricing.

Selling points: The Nook Tablet may cost $50 more than the Kindle Fire, but B&N says that additional RAM and in-device storage are worth it. Offering in-store support at locations all over the nation, and a potentially more aggressive library of books, magazines, comics and kid titles, mean that it’s going to hold its own in the lit department. And leveraging partnerships with Netflix, Hulu and other streaming media providers means that people who subscribe to those services will be drawn to this device.

On top of that, the $99 Nook Simple Touch reader is priced to challenge the ad-supported $99 Kindle Touch reader — but comes unencumbered by ads.

Weak spots: B&N doesn’t have its own multimedia offerings, so people may look to other devices for similar Netflix and Hulu experiences. The Nook Cloud service doesn’t do what Apple and Amazon cloud services do, such as back up personal files, or store your personal music collection.

And while the Nook Tablet’s $50 step up in price sure seems justified, there’s a chance it will turn off deal-hungry shoppers. They could select the existing Nook Color, which now costs $199, but that’s just confusing, and is apt to under-deliver on some experiences, even when its major update arrives in December.

We’re pretty gung-ho about the Kindle Fire tablet, since the $199 price point and Amazon’s ecosystem of books, movies and music are a compelling pitch. And let’s not forget that Amazon is the dominant player in the e-book world, and the focal point of impulse buying during the holiday season.

Selling points: Not only does Amazon have a pretty devoted audience already, it is working hard to lock them in tight. Amazon Prime, for $80 per year, not only gives people “free” two-day shipping, but streaming TV and movies, a la Netflix. The company just announced that the membership would also include a lending library of recently released books, available “free.” In other words, just buying the device and signing up for Prime is enough to guarantee you plenty of activities, and that’s before you add in all of the free apps you can get at the Amazon Appstore for Android.

And without more on-board memory, I’m wondering how I’d use it to watch movies when I’m on an airplane — I sure as heck won’t be paying for Wi-Fi so I can stream a trickle of video off of a satellite to a jet flying at 500 mph somewhere 32,000 feet above America.

Weak spots: Barnes & Noble derided the Kindle Fire for being underpowered, and the e-ink tablets for being cheap only because they show ads when you’re not reading. Both of these could factor into people making holiday buying decisions, along with the fact that Amazon has no in-person support program, while both B&N and Apple do.

Almost anything you can do on a Kindle Fire or a Nook Tablet, you can do on an iPad, with a screen that’s twice the square inches. Even if the iPad isn’t a direct competitor, it’s safe to say it will lure many bigger spenders away from the reader-focused tablets.

Selling points: Besides the Apple halo of design, quality and service, and the evolving iTunes/iCloud ecosystem, the iPad really is a more grown-up product. It’s got cameras that developers are using in many ways beyond just video conferencing. It has apps that do real work, from word processing to video editing. And it has Netflix and Hulu Plus for video, not to mention B&N Nook and Amazon Kindle e-reader apps. They don’t do everything, but they serve the majority of needs. And they’re likely not going away.

Weak spots: Both B&N and Amazon are aware of Apple’s threat, so having a Nook or Kindle app for iPad doesn’t guarantee full service. Many of the Nook magazine and kids’ book features are not available anywhere but on the Nook Tablet and Nook Color, and Amazon’s Prime lending library is exclusive to Kindles, both the Fire and all of the e-ink versions. Apple has its own iBooks service, but the very existence of other options from major booksellers renders it all but moot.

Some people prefer the lighter weight and smaller 7-inch screens on the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire, in part because they’re better for reading books and watching movies by yourself.

And let’s face it, the iPad is $500 — baseline. Until it’s $399, or even $299, it’s not going to reach the greatest number of people who want it, even if its merits are abundantly clear.