With the new iPad just released, there’s never been a better time to buy a tablet device. But what’s the best tablet for your whole family? We’ve been an iPad family for a couple years now, but we’ve also enjoyed testing out a Nook Color and Kindle Fire recently, getting both tablets over Christmas. For now I will ignore the other Android-based tablets on the market, since these three are the most popular. What follows are my thoughts and some of the highlights of each device. At the end you will find a comprehensive table I’ve created for comparison (grab your reading glasses since the print is small).
Overall, I found that the Kindle Fire and Nook Color tablets were equal as e-readers, but once my family moved away from traditional reading materials into more interactive content, the Kindle Fire had the clear advantage. But only over the Nook. If you put the Kindle Fire next to the iPad, the massive iOS AppStore makes the Kindle’s content seems puny. Especially considering the iPad runs both Nook & Kindle apps, providing it with everything the other two have, content-wise, plus all of Apple’s unique content.
However, when I reflected on what the iPad app selection was like in the first six months after launch, the Kindle market looks right on schedule to be the next big app market, possibly more relevant than the Android Market itself. Quality controls mean the selection is small but satisfying for apps on the Kindle. There are also some real advantages to a smaller, lighter tablet. My little boy even preferred the Kindle Fire at times, so long as he could still play his favorite game (Where’s my water?). We also found some familiar education apps, like Pirate Scribblebeard’s Treasure, now available on the Amazon market. The smaller size & durability of the Kindle Fire & Nook Color (as well as cost) make them a good choice for kids.
But what’s the best choice for educational apps?
From my evaluation of all three markets, though, there is still only one choice for a tablet to supplement academics through educational apps, whether for classroom, homeschooling or other educational use. The Nook & Kindle (and all of Android in general) are still far behind the iOS market for quality, quantity and variety of educational apps, not to mention all the free content and resources online for app discovery. For dedicated reading uses, the other two tablets would be a good value for school libraries, however.
Interestingly, there are nearly as many book apps that have crossed-over from iOS to Nook as to Kindle (while still under 20% for both platforms, that’s considerably higher than the mere 8% for the Android Market). For the purpose of reading book apps, like the ones reviewed at Digital-Storytime, all three tablets did a nice job visually. The sound quality is better with the iPad’s stereo for narrated titles, but all were enjoyable. The smaller size of the Nook & Kindle make shared reading more difficult, however.
And what about the poor Nook? It’s a nice device, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not as good at things that go beyond reading (and it’s no better than the Kindle for most of the things it does well). I liked the Nook’s body (it’s the only one of the three that doesn’t really need a case) and love the idea behind the Nook friends lending program, but other than that, the device didn’t impress. After many months of testing the Nook Color, I’m now going to relent and let my husband ‘root‘ it so we can access the full Android Market.
Size does matter but so does accuracy in the comparison …
In addition to the usual critiques, a couple things really stood out to me as I compared these three tablets. First of all, I was struck by the size differences. The Nook & Kindle are just over 1/2 the size of the iPad, making the difference between the Kindle and iPad not much different than the difference between the iPod Touch and a Kindle. Yet images on the web often show this difference as negligible, or worse. Many pro-Kindle articles in particular show the iPad altered to look smaller. It reminded me of what happens to Greenland on maps.
Suggesting that the Kindle Fire might be an ‘iPad killer’ would be like suggesting that the next over-sized Android phone is going to be a ‘Kindle killer’. Size does matter, but no one is best. We need them all for different reasons and uses. If I were commuting on public transit, I don’t think I would want to lug around an iPad just to read on my way to work. And watching movies on the smaller tablets is nice enough, but nothing like the iPad. And none of these color e-readers is palatable in direct light, like e-ink readers. Maybe in the future most households will have several tablets of different sizes?
Sometimes less expensive now is more expensive later …
The other thing that I found myself questioning was the true cost of the different devices. Is the Nook really ‘cheaper’ if it does less than the Kindle (or does the same, but less well)? And is the iPad really more expensive in the long run if much of the content is less expensive? Of the apps I found available on more than one platform, the prices were consistently higher for Kindle and even higher for Nook. In many cases an app was free for iPad, $0.99 for Kindle but $1.99 for Nook. Those charges can add up over the life of a device. The amount of free or nearly free content on the iPad is no small factor if you calculate lifetime cost of ownership.
Another consideration that will impact the cost of content is whether a family is already using iOS or Android devices, like smartphones or the iPod Touch. Familiarity with one or the other platform can make it easier to add a new device into the mix. It should also be noted that while iOS apps can be shared between devices (like the iPhone, iPod Touch & iPad), Android devices can only share apps if they are connected to the same marketplace. Nook and Kindle are built on Android’s platform, but do not share content.
Ultimately, the kind of content you plan to consume on the device should be the driving factor in a tablet decision. Do you want to use it for games, video, surfing the web, productivity apps, educational software, reading magazine/newspaper subscriptions, general reading or something else? The problem is … a lot of people have no idea what they are going to consume on their new tablet; they are just excited to get it and explore.
So to make it easier, consider instead how much you plan to use the device. If you use your tablet a lot (for anything), you are going to want content on it, maybe even lots of content. And the cost of that content can add up very quickly. So if you purchase either of the less expensive tablets simply to ‘save money’, you may end up spending more on content in the long run (or not using the device much). There are good reasons to buy a Nook Color or Kindle Fire, but price alone is rarely enough. In fact, if you are giving a Nook or Kindle as a gift to a child, consider giving a gift card with it so they don’t feel like they’ve gotten a toy without batteries.
But what about the iPad 2 versus the New iPad?
If you choose the iPad, then you will want to decide between the new iPad and newly discounted iPad 2. The question really boils down to whether or not the retina display (especially nice for games and highly animated apps), higher resolution camera, capacity for 4G and slightly faster processing is worth $100 to you. If not, the iPad 2 is a fine choice. If you already have an iPad 2, I wouldn’t rush out and buy the new one unless you were already in the market for another tablet. I also wouldn’t ‘trade up’ to the new iPad unless you want to make home movies, have an avid gamer in the house or want to get connectivity that will let you make your iPad into a wifi hotspot (for a monthly charge). Our family of three now has three iPads, one of each model. Our son will get the iPad 1. And while I could justify keeping the new iPad for myself, I am actually quite happy with the iPad 2, preferring to let my husband, who enjoys games with highly produced visuals, to primarily use it. The new iPad was, however, the first one we opted to add connectivity to, now that they offer 4G, something we’ll enjoy as a family when traveling.
While Apple is clearly still dominent in the tablet market, not every situation calls for such a large/heavy/expensive/fragile device, especially for more mobile uses. But for households choosing just one tablet to invest in, the iPad may offer the most value. When purchasing additional devices over time, however, households may find the smaller tablets are a nice addition to the family. Libraries may find the smaller devices work better for their formerly print content, but schools, on the other hand, will likely be focused on iOS devices for some time, in part because Apple seems to have once again focused on them first, creating an environment that fosters quality educational apps.
Here is the table I created, with all the details so you can compare for yourself: