If the scene around the electronics counters at pretty much everywhere are any indication, a lot of people are interested in a tablet or an e-reader this Christmas. And, if my email and voice mail are an accurate gauge, there are still a lot of people who have no idea which one they want.
When I get these messages, I immediately wonder why people aren’t just doing a Google search to find which they like. Having recently done one to see what all of the confusion is about, I quickly picked up on why my message count is rising – it’s getting way too technical out there! And, for those who aren’t techies, the usual suspects are becoming more and more about spec comparison and less and less about why any given person would want any given device.
Therefore, this blog post will have a lot less “what” and a lot more “why”.
An e-Reader, a Mini Tablet , and a full tablet are not the same things. Nor are they scaled down versions of each other. They are specific devices that match specific needs and lifestyles. It’s important to know what each device is for before you buy, else you will most likely be very dissatisfied with your purchase. So, having said that, let’s get down to it!
Ground Rules and Assumptions
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what you’ve already got. Do you have a Nook or Kindle e-Reader? Do you have an iPhone or Android phone? Do you have a Mac or PC at home? Incredibly enough, given the amount of proprietary software out there on the devices we already have, your prior purchases will greatly affect your future ones. If you have a Kindle, and have bought a lot of books on it, it’s probably not worth your effort to get a Nook Tablet – the books won’t transfer. Likewise, if you’re invested in Mac/iPhone, it will be a lot of effort to switch to Android – especially if you have a bunch of family members with Mac devices. Take a good look at your current electronic status, and keep it in mind when looking at new products. For example, if you’re a heavy FaceTime user because your whole family is using it, don’t even bother with an Android device.
In addition, give some thought to what you want your new device to do for you. If you just want to stop cluttering your house with more paper, look at an e-Reader. If you’re looking to absorb media (internet, music, magazines, comic books, movies and books), but aren’t looking for a substitute for your laptop, give a lot of weight to a mini-tablet like the Nook Tablet or the Kindle Fire, not to mention the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Visio Tablet or even the Playbook. If you want a lightweight do “everything” device that takes the place of your laptop in 90% of circumstances, a full tablet such as the iPad or the Asus Transformer is what you’re looking for.
OK, with the “past purchase” lenses in your “this is what I want” goggles, let’s take a look at what’s out there:
e-Readers are simple devices that allow users to read electronic books. That’s it. Sure, there might be a couple more bells and whistles in a couple models, but the reality is the only thing they do well is provide a platform to read electronic books. They use e-Ink screens, which look and read exactly like paper – no back light, no sunlight glare, no eye strain.
These devices are ideal for people who read a lot of traditional books – not children’s books, comic books, newspapers or magazines. Books. While you can buy children’s books, comic books, newspapers and magazines through digital storefronts to download onto an e-Reader, you will not enjoy the experience. When you think about e-Readers, think BOOKS. It is a single purpose device.
There are a number of great e-Reading devices out there, including the Kobo Reader, the Sony Reader, The Ilium, and a few others. However, the reality is, there are only two readers worth considering: The Nook and the Kindle.
I’ve seen and used both, and I can tell you that on specs and device user interface alone, the Nook Simple Touch Reader is the superior device. It is exceptional, light, responsive, and has a beautiful reading surface. The Kindle is an extremely close second, also providing a magnificent reading experience and, in my opinion, a slightly simpler search and order system (though we’re really splitting hairs here). The Nook only comes in one make and model, the Kindle has several varieties at different price points.
So, if they are so close in specifications, why would I pick one over the other? Well, it comes down to who you are as a person and what your habits are. If you are good with technology and don’t particularly like going to the bookstore, you might want to give Kindle a try. If you like bookstores, feel you could use some tech support or usage tips now and then, and have a local Barnes & Noble, you should really go and check out the Nook.
In addition, if you have very limited access to wi-fi (which some, like my mother, do), you want to think a lot about 3G capability. For many, this is not an issue. But again, for some (super-frequent travelers, people in isolated areas, etc) the need for 3G is more important. What does 3G let you do? 3G is the wireless network our phones work on and it allows data to be transmitted without access to broadband. It’s not super fast, but for small files like eBooks, it’s more than sufficient. The only eReader with 3G capability is the Kindle Touch 3G. It is more expensive, but not that much more. And remember, eBooks come through the internet only, there are no physical disks or drives that have them. Without access to broadband, you can’t download a book. If you don’t have broadband and want an e-Reader, the only one that is worth your while is the Kindle Touch 3G. Unlike your cell phone, though, there is no recurring bill for 3G data services for a Kindle 3G, Amazon absorbs that cost. Once you buy it, you have 3G for life.
Mini-Tablets are cheap (around $200), full color, touchscreen devices, with a 7” diagonal screen, usually running some flavor of the Android Operating System. They are wi-fi only (no 3G!), have limited blue-tooth connectivity (if any), and are very light weight. In essence, Mini-Tablets are very much like a large screen smart phone without the phone.
The two big Mini-Tablets making the rounds right now are the Kindle Fire and the Nook Color Tablet. Again, like the e-Readers, these devices are very comparable. They are also very, very good at what they do, which is provide a convenient way to view/absorb electronic media.
What do I mean by electronic media? Books, Movies, Music, Photos, Childrens Books, magazines, comic books, newspapers, apps, documents, email and the Internet.
What do I mean by view/absorb? Exactly what you think I mean: you can see, but not (really) touch. These tablets, while technically powerful, do not have a very usable interface for editing. For example, you can read a Word Document, but writing or editing one is very cumbersome. Like I said above, a mini-tablet is not something you want to use as a laptop substitute, it’s just not made for that.
So, what is is made for? Movies! Surfing the Web! Reading books in the dark! Animated childrens books! Comic Books! Magazines! Streaming Netflix! Playing Angry Birds (or any of a thousand other games).
If you are a frequent traveler, and you travel with a laptop but you want easy, convenient access to books, movies, games, web, etc – think a lot about a mini-Tablet. If you find you want access to the web around the house, but a smart phone screen is to small for you and carrying your laptop around is a pain, think min-tablet. If you read a lot of magazines or comic books (print media that is more pictures than text), and want to stop cluttering your house, think min-tablet.
Now, which one do you choose? Again, given the specs and usage tests, I would go with the Nook Color Tablet. It is a magnificent piece of hardware, and Barnes & Noble has put a lot of work and thought into it. It is a very, very solid device that is made to deliver electronic media. Hardware wise, it has the same specs at the Apple iPad 2 (no kidding, it really does!), equating to a fast, smooth, effortless user experience. It will stream Netflix and Hulu, has thousands of games and apps, and their digital magazines are a lot better than Kindle’s right now. They did a great job and it has my highest recommendation. It even has a microphone that lets you record your voice in time with a book, a huge plus for those who want to be able to read to their children when they’re not there. There is one detraction about the Nook, though, that they haven’t fixed from the earlier Nook Color – their media gallery is a mess. It groups movies and pictures together in one big Gallery (no subfolders), so you just get an endless scrolling screen of thumbnails – some are pictures, some are movies. I really hate that. True, not a lot of people are side-loading movies into these devices, but I do and that is a detractor for me.
Kindle Fire is also a fantastic device, able to do everything the Nook can, has similar specs (though it has half the RAM and storage space) as well as having access to Amazon’s streaming services, which is nice. However, its screen is not as nice as the Nook’s, neither in terms of clarity or refresh rate – you will notice the difference when you stream movies, though probably not while doing anything else. The user interface is not currently as smooth as the Nook’s, either.
And, on a privacy front, the Kindle Fire uses a propriety web browser called SILK that does not work like other browsers you are used to. The front end interface is like what you’d expect, but the data is not rendered on the device, instead it is routed to Amazon’s servers and then routed to your device. This is done to reduce the computing load on the device, making up for the lack of RAM (half of what the Nook has). The reason this is a privacy issue, in my mind and the mind of many other technical persons, is that your web usage is now routed through someone who is not you. That means that every web page you look at, everything you buy through the internet (when using that device), and every form you fill out is routed through another server. This is unprecedented, and is the only device to do this. I feel this is a violation of my privacy, but I am old fashioned. In the world of Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc, perhaps it’s even being a bit paranoid. But, more and more digital privacy issues are coming to the fore these days and a lot of people don’t like what they’re seeing and hearing. I wouldn’t buy the Kindle Fire for this reason alone, but, again, I am old fashioned.
As always, between Nook and Kindle, you should consider the devices you already own. Books bought on one will not work on the other. It’s kind of like the Mafia, it all stays in the family. Items bought through Amazon Kindle will work on any Kindle device or app, likewise for Nook. If you own a Kindle and do not want to lose access to those books when you switch to a min-tablet, your only option is a Kindle Fire, and the same goes with Nook. This is the crux of DRM (Digital Rights Management) – those files will not work on devices by another manufacturer.
iPad or Android? The quintessential question of the tablet buyer. Before we get into that, let’s consider why you want a tablet in the first place.
Tablets are cool. They are. Steve Jobs wasn’t kidding when he described the first iPad as a “magical device.” There is an app for everything, and I consider tablets the top of the hand-held technology heap. They handle all digital media, web browsing, document editing, game playing, and pretty much everything else you can think of. There are apps that cover every aspect of our personal and professional lives, from household chores to professional sound mixing to CAT scan interpretation. They are exceedingly powerful, and exceedingly awesome.
But, aside from being cool, they are not necessarily for everyone.
Tablet buyers come in three flavors: those keeping up with the Joneses, those who want a super-ultra light laptop, and people with a distinct professional need. Which of these you are is up to you. But, keep in mind, if all you want is a more hand-held way to access the internet and electronic media, save yourself a few hundred bucks and get a Fire or Nook Tablet. If you really need to edit, not just read, stuff then maybe a tablet is more your style.
“What?” you ask, stunned. “All this awesome technology and you ask me about files?” Yes, I said file structure. Because that is the primary difference between Android and iOS. Android has a file structure almost exactly like your actual computer and iOS has no file structure whatsoever. Chances are, you won’t even think about this until you try to put an attachment on an email. You can’t do that on an iPad, it doesn’t work that way. If you want to send a picture to someone through email, you need to go to the Photo app, select the picture, and send it directly from the app. When using an Android tablet, as you’re writing your email you’ll just click “attach” and look up the item, exactly like you do on your computer.
Why is this a big deal? Because it outlines the real different between the two operating systems: an iPad is nothing like a computer and an Android tablet is exactly like a computer. In other words, to fully use your iPad, you need to learn an entirely new way to use a computer. To fully utilize an Android system, it’s “business as usual”.
Never mind the number of apps – that’s a BS statistic. Imagine if I said “China is better than America, because it has more people.” Ridiculous! Each device has hundreds of thousands of apps available – but you’re only going to use about 50. Don’t worry about app count – each device has all of the major things you will ever use or need. They key difference between the two is not apps – it’s whether you want to re-learn how to use a computer or not.
Here is a prime example: I bought an iPad for my wife to replace her failing laptop. I figured this was a no brainer – a majority of her computer usage is web, facebook, reading, and email. It seemed ideal – light, portable, powerful. And, you know, she gave it a go. She really did. But, I ultimately ended up buying her another laptop a few months later. Why? Because she couldn’t use the iPad to do what she wanted, the main issue being email attachments.
See, she gets a lot of email for the kids about school, and those emails require filling out documents and returning them. She couldn’t do it. The process was too alien. She got tired of asking me to help her do something that used to be routine. She became frustrated, and that frustration grew to lack of use. It did not work like her computer, and that was a deal breaker.
Everyone knows the iPad, and I’m not going to get into it from a technology aspect. It’s everywhere. It’s wonderful. It’s fun. It’s got a lot of great apps. It’s fully integrated into the Mac universe. If you have an iPhone, think iPad. If you have a Mac, think iPad. If you want a seemless, smooth, fully curated tablet experience, think iPad. But remember – the iPad is in no way like a computer. To be productive (email, word editing, blogging, etc), you will need to learn an entirely new way to use a computer. For some this is worth it, for others it’s not.
Whereas only Apple makes the iPad, a lot of companies make an Android tablet. Motorola, Asus, Acer, Samsung, Toshiba and HTC are only a few. There’s also Vizio (yeah, the TV guys), Pandigital, Archos, and more are coming out every day. It’s confusing, especially since not all of these tablets run the same version of Android. Theres 2.2, 2.3, 3.0 and now 4.0 – and all are still active! It’s crazy!
Google is trying to get this confusion under control with the release of its latest version of Android, 4.0 aka “Ice Cream Sandwich. This version is supposed to link the phone and the tablet OS’s together, much like iOS does for the iPhone, iTouch, and iPad.
All of this aside, you’re probably wondering which Android tablet is the best one to get. In my mind, the Asus Transformer Prime is, by far, the best Android tablet out there. The Acer A500 is good, so is the Toshiba. The rest… ehh, they’re OK, but I don’t think I would really recommend them.
What makes the Asus so great? Easy, the Keyboard Dock.
The Keyboard Dock turns your Asus Transformer tablet into a fully functional netbook with a touchscreen and a really long battery life (16+ hours!). Disconnect it, and it’s a tablet again. It is a road warrior’s dream. The Keyboard Dock has two USB ports, an SD card slot, and an extra battery. In addition, the actual tablet has a mini-SD card reader, an HDMI port, and front and rear facing cameras. Add in a productivity app like Quickoffice and you’re off to the races. I’ve been using mine for about 6 months now, and it is incredible. And the newest version, the Asus Transformer Prime, as a quad core CPU – that is HUGE! For non-techies, a quad core CPU is what the very high end laptops use, catapulting the Asus Transformer Prime out of the gadget realm and into “seriously real computer” land.
The Asus Transformer has the feel of a real computer when you’re using it that way, and, yet, one click of a button and it’s a tablet. When I’m on a place and want to do real work, I pull it out and type it away. Later, I disconnect the keyboard and use it as an e-reader/web portal/gaming platform. And with a 16 hour battery life, I’ve gone through an entire week long trip without having to charge it. Pretty amazing.
The Wrap Up
OK, this was a pretty lengthy blog post, and if you stuck through to the end, good on ya’! I hope it helped in your decision making process.
The key takeaway is that each of these classes of device have a unique usage. It’s important to connect what you want and how you work to the device. I know everyone has an iPad, but it might not be what YOU really want or need.
If you just want something convenient to check out all of this awesome digital media that’s available, consider a mini-tablet instead of a full tablet. If you’re looking to lighten your load and ditch the laptop for a while, check out a full tablet – but know yourself: are you the type who wants to relearn computing or do you want to just keep trucking?
And, above all with new devices, realize what “family” you’re already involved with and decide how much you effort you want to exert to make a change.