Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet Are eReaders With Benefits, Not Tablets

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This holiday season, the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire looks like the hottest tablet on the market, with Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet nipping at its heels. There's only one problem: These devices are eReaders with benefits, and shouldn't be considered tablets at all.

The Nook Tablet offers the best interactive eReading experience on the market, with a selection of more than 2.5 million books and amazing features such as Read and Record, which lets parents record themselves reading each page of a book so their kids can experience it even when they're not around. The Kindle Fire isn't as good of an eReader, but it combines more than 1 million books with access to the company's extensive video and music stores.

Both devices have a powerful processor, a vibrant 7-inch screens, and long battery life.  But having powerful hardware doesn't make a device a tablet. Flexibility does, the flexibility to customize your experience for content creation and communications, not just media consumption.  

Because Amazon and Barnes & Noble are focusing on promoting their respective devices' ecosystem, the Nook and Kindle also have a slew of limitations that prevent them from providing the full tablet computing experience. 

  • App Selection: Neither tablet supports Google's Android Market, opting instead to provide their own, smaller selections of custom-approved apps. Amazon claims to have thousands of apps for the Kindle, but strangely doesn't even make all the apps in its own Android app store available for its tablet. Barnes & Noble has only 1,000 apps with a few really glaring omissions—Raging Thunder is the only hardcore game. Yes, you can easily side-load apps on the Kindle Fire, and there's an unsupported hack for doing it on the Nook, but most users don't want to resort to that. 
  • Task Switching: Though both tablets have enough processing power to run several apps at the same time and an Android OS that supports true multitasking, their custom UIs make it way too difficult to switch between programs.

    On newer versions of Android, there's a Recent Apps button at the bottom of every screen that lets you see thumbnails of all running programs and choose between them without leaving the app you're in. On older versions of Android, you can switch between the most recent six apps—open or closed—by long-pressing the home button. In BlackBerry's good-looking—but rarely used—PlayBook OS, you can swipe up from any page to see a list of window-like cards for every open app. 

    To switch tasks on the Kindle Fire, you have to hit the software-based home button, which isn't always visible (the keyboard covers over it, for example), go back to the home screen, and then flip through the dizzying carousel interface until you see the icon for the app you left. The Nook is a bit better because it has a physical home button and its home screen has lots of shortcuts instead of the carousel, but you still have to go home to get anywhere.

  • Little Room for Customization: A true tablet is like Burger King; it lets you have it your way. With regular Android, you can rearrange your shortcuts on your various home screens, change your wallpaper, and add a slew of widgets. You can also install third-party app launchers such as ADW, an app that allows you to choose from any of 150 custom themes.  The Kindle Fire offers none of these conveniences. In its defense, the Nook does allow you to change its wallpaper and to add shortcuts to its three home screens. However, you can't drag these shortcuts around, can't add widgets, and can't install a launcher.
  • No Alternate Keyboards/Keyboard Docks: Most serious tablet users have a virtual keyboard they prefer to the stock Android keyboard. All real Android tablets support the install of third-party keyboards, and many even come with alternate keyboard options such as Swype. There's no way to switch keyboards on either the Fire or the Nook, and neither one offers a keyboard dock for serious data entry.
  • Lame E-mail Clients: Neither eReading tablet comes with Google's Gmail app, and their built-in e-mail apps offer the minimum functionality you'd expect. Neither the Fire or Nook Tablet supports Exchange natively, though you can  download TouchDown, which adds Exchange features.
  • No Third-Party Browsers Allowed: There's a reason why neither Amazon nor Barnes & Noble offers Firefox, Opera, Dolphin, or any of the host of superior third-party browsers available in the Android Market. They want you to focus on store-bought content, not on surfing the web. The Fire's Silk Browser was supposed to revolutionize mobile browsing by using the power of the cloud, but on our tests, it was slow and crashed frequently. The Nook's stripped-down browser is reasonably quick, but doesn't offer tabs or any special features. At least the Fire offers tabs.

    Amazon offers no less than three different browsers in its general-purpose Android market, but it doesn't make these available for the Fire. How come?

  • No Cameras: If you're one of those people who says, "I don't plan to take photos with my tablet so I don't need a camera on it," I'm right there with you—up until the part where you say, "I don't need a camera," because cameras aren't just for photography anymore. You need a back-facing camera to use augmented-reality apps such as Google Goggles to get information about objects,  to scan QR codes or barcodes on products, to translate foreign text with Google Translate, and to scan receipts for work. Neither of these tablets offers a front-facing camera to make video calls, a concession likely made to get to such low prices.
  • Few Chat/VoIP Options: You can't get Gtalk going on either the Nook or the Kindle, and we couldn't even find a working chat app for Nook. Forget about any kind of voice chat on the Kindle Fire, because it has no microphone. The Nook Tablet actually has a microphone, but at least for now you can't get any VoIP apps in its app store. No Fring, ooVoo, Qik, or Skype here.
  •  Limited Storage: Barnes & Noble's Nook has plenty of storage for things you buy from the Nook Store—about 12GB free for that. However, if you want to bring your own media files, you have a paltry 1GB free, though you can add a microSD card. When all is said and done, the Kindle Fire only has about 5GB and no microSD slot for expansion. Try fitting your extensive music collection, your giant powerpoints for work, or your HD home movies in that space! There's a reason why the Fire relies so heavily on the cloud, but that only helps when you're within Wi-Fi range.

There's nothing wrong with accepting these trade-offs if your only goal is reading books and magazines, watching movies, listening to music, checking your favorite sites, and maybe a little casual gaming. But the minute you turn to content creation, you need a different class of device, one that justifiably costs more. The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are good values, but they're not true tablets.

Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
Add a comment
  • Vel Says:

    So unfair Kindle Fire is not available in UK and no date for release. :-(

  • jb82 Says:

    Get the lenovo A1 or wait for a black friday deal on a proper tablet like the acer a100.

  • jsh1120 Says:

    Well, now that we have an authoritative definition of what a "tablet" is, we can all go about our business. Imagine for a moment, however, that the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet preceded the iPad in the marketplace. Would the thrust of this article be that the iPad isn't really a "tablet." Rather, it's a touch-enabled notebook?

    The point is that definitions of devices in this area are fluid, a condition common in immature product segments. I, for one, don't really care whether a Fire or Nook Tab is called a "tablet," an enhanced e-Reader, or a media device. Neither has all the features of an iPad or many of the Android "tablets" currently on the market. But each manages to provide about 80% of the functionality of other "tablets" at about 40% of the price.

  • Joe Says:

    I find it interesting that for weeks that Laptop has fawned all over the "Fire" like it was the second coming. Your expectations for the Fire exceeded capabilities even before it was delivered. Now we find out it's an average Ereader. I have a Nook Color with a Nook2Android micro-sd card. It does all I need and then some. When I need to do serious work I want a full size keyboard and screen. That's why I keep a laptop to do work.

    Your argument that Amazon and B&N have limited app stores for their tablets is true, but how many people buy and download apps they never use. I would rather have one's that I really need and work well on the machine. Yes, there are some I am waiting to become available for the Nook Color, but their lack of availability doesn't stop me from enjoying my Nook.

    The only advantage the Fire may have over the Nook Tablet is access to cloud storage through Amazon. But like many other reviewers I like my music, books, movies downloaded so when I do not have access to wi-fi I can still enjoy my purchases. So for me give me the expandable storage over the cloud any day.

    In reality for most people either of these two machines or the Nook Color are all they really need. And at $250 or below they are affordable.

  • Jonathan Cordova Says:

    Incendiary title, but after reading the article, I agree more than I disagree. They're both very different animals from the iPad or Galaxy Tab 10.1

    The problem is, "tablet" in the modern sense just means "iPad," or "like the iPad," for many consumers, I think. Already, the Nook and Kindle Fire here are too small to really compare, so if you want, you can make the same criticism of the Galaxy Tab 7.0 or the Lenovo Ideapad A1--which has the full Android Market. And what about the Archos, Viewsonic, and Nextbook "tablets" that run last year's version of Android and have barely any app support at all?

    No, I think when we're not talking about iPad size, "tablet" should just mean "color touch screen." It's that way for Windows convertible laptops.

    Criticizing the software limitations is interesting, and I think too many articles have been too intoxicated by the price. ($200? Yes, it will have good build quality, but Archos and Nextbook have hit that price point for ages. Not that I would ever buy one.) But I find it a little too much to say "not really a tablet." Maybe "not really a tablet computer," or "just a toy, not for productivity."

    But the same was said about the iPad. And the overwhelming consumer interest and response gave way to app development that invented productive uses for the iPad. I really think consumers have to love a product first for it to be successful.

  • JT Says:

    I think Barnes and Noble really missed an opportunity here. If they had created a true Android eReader, with all the functions of Android and all the apps of the Android market, they would have killed the Amazon Fire.

  • larry Says:

    You are right about the fire keyboard but you can sideload a browser. I have the xoom and the fire is more like an ipad being locked down by amazon instead of apple but at least we can sideload. Sorry but I can almost do the same on my fire as I do the xoom. I miss multitasking (which the original ipad didn't have at launch) , Widgets (which no ipad has) and change of keyboard (which no ipad can do now) . I also have an ipad. So do you consider the ipad a tablet? I would bet you do despite its lack of freedom.

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