Print books may not be dead, but it's not for want of the biggest booksellers trying to kill them. This week, Amazon released the Kindle Fire, with Barnes & Noble following with the Nook Tablet -- while one week ago the lesser-known Kobo Vox went on sale.
The devices are all designed for the same task: To separate you from the printed page, and have you read books and magazines -- and watch video and listen to music -- on tablets instead. Not to mention to provide consumers with a less-expensive alternative to full-featured tablets such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab.
To help you choose between them, I've assembled the following specs table, along with a few thoughts about each.
Amazon's Kindle Fire
Analysts predict big sales for the Kindle Fire despite mixed reviews. It runs a highly customized version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) designed for media consumption -- you won't find Gmail, Google Maps, the Android Market or other familiar Android apps on it. Rather, you get a well-designed reading and entertainment device that ships with the Kindle reader and with several streaming media services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and Pandora.
But mostly, this device is aimed at getting you to buy content from Amazon -- books, music, video and apps -- via various built-in Amazon services. Toward that end, it comes with a free, one-month subscription to Amazon Prime, which includes streaming access to movies and TV shows, the ability to borrow a book once a month, and for those who still relish actual physical objects, free shipping as well. After that month, Amazon Prime costs $79 per year.
In fact, when you purchase a Kindle Fire, you're not really buying a device so much as gaining access to the Amazon content ecosystem.
Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet
Everyone and their brothers (and sisters) seem to have called the Kindle Fire the heavyweight champion, but don't be surprised if the Nook Tablet sells surprisingly well. It's got superior specs to the Kindle Fire, including more built-in storage -- 16GB versus 8GB for the Kindle Fire, although only 1GB is reserved for non-B&N content. And there's a socket for an SD card, adding up to 32GB more. This is a big deal for Wi-Fi-based e-readers, because people have lots of media they will want to read or watch when they're out of reach of Wi-Fi. That comes at a price, though, because the Nook costs $50 more than the Kindle Fire.
Either way, don't discount the touch-before-you-buy factor -- the Nook Tablet has a place of honor at Barnes & Noble stores. (Although the Kindle Fire will be available at Target and Staples stores.) The technically astute looking for a well-made Android tablet with plenty of storage may head straight for the Nook Tablet as well, because its older brother, the Nook Color, can be hacked to run straight Android. It's not clear yet whether the same will be true for the Nook Tablet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did.
Like the Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet also comes with built-in access to Netflix, Hulu Plus and Pandora. And, of course, there are plenty of books you can buy from Barnes & Noble as well.
As for the Kobo Vox, it's hard to know how much market share it will be able to grab. Kobo doesn't have the presence or marketing prowess of Amazon or Barnes & Noble, doesn't ship with the streaming media services that you get on the other devices, and there's no benefit to buying a book on the Vox compared to the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet.
In addition, Amazon and Barnes & Noble can afford to provide better hardware specs at the same price as Kobo because, in the long run, they'll make more money on book and other media purchases rather than on selling the hardware.
The Kobo Vox itself is a competitive device, and it offers a social networking aspect that may be attractive to a number of consumers. All that being said, Kobo has a real fight on its hands.