Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Should you ask Santa for a tablet or an e-reader?

Illustration by Kris Kinkade,, USA TODAY; photos by Gettyimages.com, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Apple

From left, the Barnes & Noble Nook, Amazon's Kindle Fire and Apple's iPad 2.

By Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY

Folks haven't made this much fuss about tablets since biblical times
Barnes & Noble's Nooks and other rival e-readers are providing spirited competition. 

PHOTOS: Choosing a tablet

While two out of three future tablet buyers plan to purchase an iPad, there is now for the first time a real contender for the No. 2 spot, according to a survey by ChangeWave Research in Bethesda, Md. Some 22% say they'll buy a Kindle Fire. That's a "devastating blow to a range of second-tier tablet manufacturers, including Motorola, RIM, Dell, HTC, (Hewlett-Packard) and Toshiba," ChangeWave says.
In a recent PriceGrabber survey, 79% of consumers indicated they would rather receive a tablet than a laptop computer. And 72% of shoppers said they believed tablets would replace e-readers as gifts.
Which is it for you? Dedicated reader or tablet? Or both? What are the key considerations? If your passions spread beyond books — which can be read on either type of device — to music, games, Web browsing and watching movies, a full-fledged tablet along the lines of the iPad 2 or one of its rivals makes sense, if your budget can handle it.
Still, a strong case can be made for single-purpose readers.

The case for e-readers
For starters, the E Ink devices represented by the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader and other devices keep improving. Page turns are faster. Text is crisp. Reading electronically no longer strikes people as unnatural. The displays are easy on the eyes and don't drain the battery as do the LCD screens on tablets. Barnes & Noble claims you can read an hour a day for two months on its fast-turn Nook Simple Touch device. By contrast, battery life on the iPad and other tablets is measured in hours and minutes.
E-reader hardware is light and pocket-size. You can buy and download e-books in a minute or less if you have Wi-Fi or (as is the case with a single Kindle model) cellular connectivity. Nowadays, you can borrow e-books from the library and, in the case of the Nook, lend books to a friend — albeit under tight restrictions.

Boy, have prices fallen since the Kindle made its debut four years ago at what now seems like an exorbitant $399. Today, you can buy a Kindle that displays "Special Offers" for just $79 or pay $109 for a version without the "offers" screensaver and home screen ads. The model weighs less than 6 ounces, relies on physical controls and connects to the Kindle Store, where you can download e-books in a minute or less via Wi-Fi. Meantime, Amazon added touch-screen controls on the aptly named Wi-Fi-only $99 (with ads) or $139 (without ads) Kindle Touch. You have to pay $149 ($189 without ads) for a touch model that adds no-fee 3G cellular for those times when connecting to Wi-Fi is out of the question. Amazon also sells models with a keyboard for $139.
For its part, the Barnes & Noble Simple Touch Nook Reader fetches $99, around the same price as an entry-level Kobo reader. Among the Kobo features is the ability to earn awards tied to reading milestones.
Sony makes a big deal out of the fact that its $150 Sony Reader Wi-Fi device is ad-free.

Sizing up the screen. 
As mentioned, E Ink devices do a tremendous job of replicating real paper. But with conventional 6-inch Kindles, Nooks and Sony Readers, you're swapping a color experience for shades of gray. That won't cut it if you want to admire illustrated children's books, picture books or shiny magazines.
E Ink displays on Kindles, Nooks and Sonys aren't back-lit, meaning you can't read in the dark.
But there are large upsides to E Ink: superior battery life, no glare and no eye strain.

Stepping up to a tablet
Last year, Barnes & Noble introduced Nook Color, kind of a hybrid between a conventional e-reader and a tablet with apps. With the recent launch of Nook Tablet, Barnes & Noble stepped up its game with a tablet that streams movies and TV shows (via apps such as Netflix and Hulu Plus). It goes head-to-head with Kindle Fire. As with Fire, Nook Tablet has a 7-inch screen, bigger than a regular Nook or Kindle but smaller than the iPad's nearly 10-inch screen. The result is you can stuff a 7-inch tablet in your jacket pocket, something you can't do with an iPad.
Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire are both tablets built on Google's Android operating system. But you'd be hard-pressed to tell that, because their interfaces are very different from what's usually seen on an Android slate. Nor can you grab apps on Fire or Nook Tablet via the Android Market store. Barnes & Noble and Amazon have dedicated app stores, each with fewer choices.
Most appealing is the price. At $249 for Nook Tablet and $199 for Fire, both tablets dramatically undercut the iPad 2 ($499 on up) and most other tablets that came before them. As always, there are trade-offs: Barnes & Noble and Amazon have far fewer apps than Apple. Neither device has a camera, which would be useful for video chat.
Weighing Nook Tablet vs. Kindle Fire is a bit like Coke vs. Pepsi: Which bookseller do you find tastier? Still, there are tangible differences. Fire beats Nook Tablet on price, and offers handy built-in stores for music and movies, which Barnes & Noble lacks. But the Nook Tablet comes out on top with on-board storage that is also expandable. And a neat Nook Tablet feature is that you can record your voice reading a kids book.

Coming at the iPad. 

The first iPad and subsequent iPad 2 achieved market dominance for several reasons: excellent battery life, the most apps, and slick, easy-to-use iOS software.
Still, for all its popularity, the iPad has deficiencies. It doesn't run on 4G cellular networks, the fastest; there is no USB or HDMI port; and there are no memory expansion options. None of those are deal-breakers, but such holes do give rivals an opening.
Among the strongest competitors are Galaxy Tabs from Samsung that can tap 4G networks. These well-received Android models come in 7-, 8.9- and 10.1-inch screen versions. And the Galaxy Tab so closely resembles the iPad that Apple has sued Samsung, claiming the Galaxy tablets and some Samsung smartphones violate its intellectual property.
Generally speaking, companies chasing the iPad attempt to hook buyers with a fresh angle. Lenovo, the Chinese company behind ThinkPad laptops, pushed a $499 (and up) ThinkPad tablet that would appeal to a business-friendly consumer. ThinkPad Tablet is one of the few modern slates to take advantage of a pressure-sensitive digitizer pen, a $30 accessory that you can use to draw, doodle or capture notes in the boardroom. (The 7-inch HTC Flyer also has a digital pen.) Another cool accessory is a $100 keyboard folio that lets you prop up the tablet to use with a physical qwerty keyboard, a traditional strength of ThinkPad notebooks.
Toshiba also tries to compete by supplying features common to laptops. Its Android tablet, the $380 (and up) Thrive, has a full-size USB port you can use to connect flash drives with pictures, videos, music and documents. There's a full-size SD slot to accommodate memory cards that serve the same purpose. An HDMI port with an optional cable lets you connect Thrive to a high-definition TV monitor for viewing on the big screen. But a bulky design may be one reason that Thrive isn't exactly thriving.
Sony is coming at Apple with unusual designs. The "wedge" design on the Sony Tablet S ($500 and up) tablet is meant to evoke a folded-back magazine. Meanwhile, a new Android tablet from Sony, the Tablet P promised soon, has dual 5.5-inch displays. Why two screens? You might show a picture on one screen, and a map with the location where it was shot on another. The market will decide if the extra display is truly useful or merely a gimmick.
Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook is a handsome 7-inch tablet, and it's been discounted to as low as $200 in some places. But PlayBook has generally flopped because it lacks native e-mail, cellular connectivity or the number of apps of rivals, and a key software update that may address certain shortcomings is delayed until February.
The 10.1-inch Motorola Xoom Android tablet, as low as $359 on sale, was generally well-received when it arrived early last year, but, like many Android tablets, hasn't sold well.
Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard pulled the plug on the slick WebOS operating system behind its TouchPad tablet. But you can still find TouchPads for sale at attractive sub-$300 prices.
Some rivals compete on price. A recent search on Amazon.com showed that you can buy a Coby Kyros 7-inch Android tablet for as little as $112, and a PanDigital tablet for $87.
These surely aren't iPads, but most customer reviews at the site are positive.

On the horizon. 
Apple has bested Google when it comes to tablet acceptance. Whether Android can make significant inroads is an open question. Google is rolling out a new version of Android dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich that will unify software on its smartphones and tablets. It also remains to be seen what Google does with Motorola Mobility in tablets, when and if its proposed acquisition of that company goes through.
And don't rule out Microsoft.
In very early versions, the Windows 8 operating system that runs on tablets looks very slick.
But that's getting ahead of the curve.
Buyers this holiday season have a variety of pleasing options at various prices, whether they're springing for a budget e-reader or a pricey, full-scale multimedia tablet.

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