There seems little doubt that the Kindle Fire will prove one of the holiday season's biggest hits. At $200, the budget tablet will no doubt prove too good a deal to pass up for many consumers not ready to make the price commitment to the industry-leading iPad or a top-tier Android tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Of course, the Fire wasn't the only budget Android tablet to launch this week -- heck, it wasn't even the only budget Android tablet launched by an e-reader producer. Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet also, conveniently, hit stores earlier this week. The company took what it got right with the Nook Color, souped it up a bit internally and wound up with a solid competitor to the Fire.

So, which of these products should budget-friendly gadget shoppers pick up this holiday season? We take a look at their hits and misses after the break.


Form factor



Barnes & Noble certainly didn't go out of its way to distinguish the Nook Tablet from its predecessor, the Nook Color. The company really took an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to industrial design -- after all, the Color was a good seller, so why reinvent the wheel here? And, for better or worse, the Nook is certainly one of the most distinctive designs in a world of iPad lookalikes, with its long body, hard plastic casing and the loop jutting out from the bottom left-hand corner. Standing out from the pack was clearly not a concern for Amazon, on the other hand. The little rectangular tablet looks a lot like the BlackBerry PlayBook.

Both tablets are a good size for one-handed reading, though the Nook edges out the Kindle here a bit, with its slightly lighter weight (14.1 ounces to the Fire's 14.6). The Nook's subtly convex back and plastic bezel make a bit easier to hold. Ultimately, however, this round comes down to aesthetic preference, and the Nook is certainly sure to be the more polarizing of the two options.


The whole physical button versus touch conversation also comes down to a matter of person preference, of course. In that department, the Nook has more to offer -- volume buttons, power, and the lowercase "n" home button, to the Kindle's single power button.

Performance

[Kindle, left; Nook, right]

Both devices rock 1GHz dual-core processors, but the Nook has an edge here, with its 1GB of RAM to the Fire's 512MB -- and certainly the difference is noticeable, even when booting up something as simple as a game like Angry Birds. Things are even more pronounced during video playback. We took Shutter Island for a spin via Netflix streaming on both devices, and it was really like night and day. Motion is far less choppy on the Barnes & Noble device. The HD playback on the Nook also picked up subtle imagery like patterns on ties, which were largely lost on the Fire.

Browser performance is pretty much a toss up. The Kindle tended to load text more quickly, but the Nook had a better time with images. Scrolling and pinch-to-zoom is fairly comparable in the browsers, as well. Interestingly, Nook scored a low 4,135 on SunSpider 9.1, vs. the Fire's more impressive 2,440, a fact that might owe something to the Silk browser that Amazon's been talking up, which does the heavily lifting on the company's own servers.

Display


As with a number of elements, Barnes & Noble left the display in tact from the Nook Color. Placed side by side, the Nook appears brighter, if only slightly. Most users likely won't notice a huge difference between the two. Barnes & Noble has been talking up the Tablet's viewing display -- we also didn't notice a huge difference on that front, though the Nook did manage to handle glares better than the Fire.

Software

Both tablets are running Gingerbread, albeit highly customized versions. Amazon really went out of its way to make its UI virtually unidentifiable as Android. Fittingly, given the tablet's nature as a a content distribution device, a bookshelf is at the center of the experience, offering up books, magazines, comics, apps, webpages -- pretty much all of the content you'd like to get at on the device.

The Nook's UI is more immediately identifiable as Android, defaulting to a homescreen onto which you can drag and drop apps. There are, however, some key differences, including a scrollable bar of recently opened apps and texts, a static menu at the bottom of the homepage with links to multimedia content and a book icon that will always bring you back to whatever you were last reading. Clicking Library will bring you into a bookshelf format similar to the one offered on the Fire -- albeit one that's slightly less visually appealing. The Fire meanwhile, also offers up an apps view, similar to the Android layout, albeit still contained in the bookshelf.

Amazon certainly has Barnes & Noble beat in terms of proprietary entertainment services.

Amazon certainly has Barnes & Noble beat in terms of proprietary entertainment services. Both companies have solid bookstores, but Amazon is also levering its Cloud Drive for music streaming and free movies and TV shows via Prime. That said, both devices offer access to top tier multimedia apps, like Netflix, Hulu and Pandora -- and yes, since both are Android-based, there's plenty of opportunity for workarounds.

Reading

Of course, you've got all of the drawbacks of LCD devices when it comes to reading here -- the backlighting can be hard on the eyes after a while, and neither are particularly great when reading in sunlight, which is to say that, yes, e-ink devices do have their advantages. Reading prose is fairly similar on both readers: you swipe or touch in a margin to advance, while tapping a page toward the center will bring up a menu where you can adjust things like text size -- though the Nook does offer up a few more options here like adjusting the brightness and sharing passages via social means. Holding down on a word on both devices brings up options to highlight, add notes or check out the definition.

Both product handle children's books fairly similarly, and in this case, simpler is certainly better. Here the Nook does have a bit of a leg up, with its terrific Read and Record feature, which lets parents record narrations to books using the device's built-in mic.


Neither device has quite mastered comics via its proprietary app. Both have their advantages and drawbacks. The Fire has a great panel by panel feature, similar to the one found in Comixology's app (which, incidentally, is coming to both devices), while the Nook does a better job zooming and previewing via a small gallery mode. The fight here really comes down to whether you side with Marvel (Nook) or DC (Kindle).

Etc.


Ultimately, this is a pretty tight race between the two devices.

When it comes to storage, the Nook's got the Fire beat at 16GB to 8GB. Things are a little tricky here as well, however, since the Nook is currently only offering up 1GB of its built-in storage to non-B&N-purchased content. That said, the Nook has a microSD slot, so there's plenty more where that came from. Also, the company promised that it is working on content deals with third parties that will utilize the 12GB devoted to B&N content on the reader.

Price, of course, is a biggie -- the Kindle is $50 cheaper than the Nook. That number makes a significant difference when the base price of the Fire is just $199. Of course, those who want to lop $50 from the Nook Tablet's $249 price can still pick up last year's Nook Color.

Ultimately, this is a pretty tight race between the two devices. Spec-wise, the Nook Tablet has the Kindle Fire beat, but between Amazon's pricing and suite of service, the Kindle comes out ahead on this one, if only just barely.

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