Today we’re looking at two items HEAD TO HEAD:
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9" and the Nook HD+
Two similar products always conjure images of coke vs. Pepsi. Two seemingly identical products that have subtle differences that equal loyal followings on either side of the fence. The Kindle vs. Nook debate is one that many people solve with the flip of a coin and leave it at that. That's not your style though. You're an informed consumer and you want to know, “what's the real difference here?”
Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (16gb with ads)
It's the best Kindle Fire so far, but is it the best overall tablet for you? If you do decide that Kindle trumps Nook, you're immediately presented with a dilemma, which version to purchase? Some will appreciate the selection, others will go slightly insane trying to decide just what they need. There are 8 possible configurations of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and that doesn't even take into consideration the original Kindle Fire or Fire HD models. Whichever HD 8.9 you select, you'll get the same external appearance and same Kindle software experience. The choices you'll make concern memory size, special offers, and whether or not you'd like 4G LTE built in. The 8.9” IPS screen has a resolution of 1920×1200 and ppi of 254 which gives you video up to 1080p. PPI is pixels per inch and on the 8.9” screen that translates to enough pixels that make the human eye see the full rich picture instead of tiny dots of color that result in a grainy look. The Fire HD 8.9 also boasts a built in polarizing filter that is applied directly to the LCD panel to allow easier viewing from more extreme angles. In practice the effect is noticeable, you won't have an issue sharing the screen with a friend while watching a movie.
As far as performance, the whole thing is built on top of Google's Android operating system and uses a 1.5 GHz dual core OMAP processor from Texas Instruments, the Nook HD+ uses the exact same processor so no difference there. If you buy the WiFi only model you'll choose between 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. The 4G LTE version bumps that up to either 32GB or 64GB. Expect to pay for the privilege of more internal storage though. Adding insult to injured wallets, Amazon said no to expandable memory. The Nook HD+ does offer a microSD slot to allow you the option of improving on internal storage with your existing flash memory. To soften the blow, every configuration of the device does include unlimited cloud storage for all Amazon purchased content. If you plan to live within their system, that's a great benefit but does it make up for the lack of expandable storage?
Sound is decent, but it looks much better on paper than it sounds in person. “Custom Dolby audio and dual stereo speakers” are Amazon's boast but the speakers are a bit limp to be frank. If you were in a small closed quiet room this might be enough to get you by, but most will come away disappointed. The device is such a great content delivery system. Movies, music, etc. intuitively at your fingertips but the company really should have invested a bit more energy here. Sound is half of the movie experience and ALL of the music experience, no excuse for not hitting this aspect out of the park. Luckily, a built in bluetooth radio and headphone jack help make the omission easier to accept. There is a toggle for a “Dolby Digital Plus” sound enhancement that is, for some strange reason, hidden deep in the sound settings menu. If you bother to include something like this throw a toggle within every music application's interface, ESPECIALLY when you've taken the step of skinning the entire OS. The effect really is minor when switched on, slightly full sound and a bit more bass and then only at higher volumes really. This is marketing and not much more unfortunately. Sound is not the tablet's strong point, perhaps in the next version.
A unique feature that shows well is the built in dual-band, dual antenna WI-fi. Most every wireless product you've used up to this point has been on the 2.4 GHz band. Routers are beginning to release with dual band capabilities which introduce access to a second 5 GHz band. Picture each band as a different lane on a highway. To this point every car is in the far right lane congested and crawling along (2.4GHz) next to that is a completely empty fast lane (5GHz) just for the select few who can access it with devices like the Kindle Fire HD 8.9”. Combined with the Kindle specific “Amazon Silk cloud accelerated browser” you will see faster load times than devices on the same network without these features. It's a small difference, but with web browsing you're dealing in seconds so a little means a lot.
Other than those main features a good deal of small bits and pieces make the experience very unique and extremely well done. The tablet comes pre-registered to your amazon account when purchased from amazon. Any previously purchased digital content is waiting for you when you open the device. While each of these tablets decided to skin Android, Amazon succeeded where the Nook experience ends up a bit clunky most of the time. Amazon's skin focuses your mind to the content and it makes the experience of having your hand held a bit pleasurable. A built in microHDMI port makes it very simple to watch content on any TV with an open HDMI port. The Nook has a proprietary charge port and needs a specific adapter for about $30 for the ability to mirror content on a big screen. If you're a parent, Kindle FreeTime allows you to set screen limits and provides kid friendly apps, movies, and books for a monthly fee. Taking photos with a tablet still feels goofy to me personally, but the option is nice to have and the built in front facing “HD” camera comes in handy for Skype calls. Things like Whispersync, X-ray, and Amazon Prime really illustrate how Amazon is trying to create their own experience. It's different than other tablets like the iPad or any number of Android offerings. Some won't like being guided along, Android is about freedom after all, but if you actually take the time to embrace the system you'll find that you don't want for much of anything.
You'll see a difference in price between these two tablets but it's important to remember that isn't by accident. Neither company wants to lose money, a lower price point means things are omitted. If you can easily live without them that's great, some luxuries are nice though. Really consider what you are getting for your money with either tablet.
Nook HD+ (32gb)
In a trend that's been hard to see take shape, the Nook HD+ and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 are tablets built on top of android that don't include a lot of Android's best features as designed. Many 3rd party tablets shun stock android and try to tweak and cover up what already works inside the mobile operating system. At the end of the day, the truth is that the closer these tablets get to stock android, the better the experience normally is. Thanks to a recent update, the Nook HD+ is much closer to Android than at it's inception.
When you look at the Nook HD+ product page on Barnes and Noble's site, you'll see it's “HERO” features listed proudly. Since the recent update, you'll see that most of those features listed as premium additions are just stock Android bits and pieces that have been uncovered or allowed to function. NEW! Now with Google Play, NEW! Over 700,000 Android Apps, NEW! YouTube, Google Maps & Gmail, NEW! Chrome for Super-Fast Web Browsing. All of those features are a part of android and they were previously covered or skinned with Nook versions that Barnes and Noble hoped would catch on... and they did not. It isn't a fault of Barnes and Noble really, they are a Bookstore playing catchup. Google is a software company that laid the foundation for them to release their product in the first place. Rather than celebrate that and try to impress with their own fully designed apps for Nook content, companies like Barnes and Noble try to reinvent the wheel without the track record to have the odds fall in their favor. It isn't always just ego though, a company needs to provide a unique experience to show the value of buying their particular product. If someone wanted a stock android tablet they could buy one of Google's Nexus tablets. That said, if your version isn't better or at least comparable don't push it out just because.
So now the updated Nook has the potential to be great with many stock android features unlocked but a problem still remains... the remnants of their skin seem to make the tablet clunky and crash prone. The Nook has the exact same processor as the Kindle Fire but unfortunately the Nook HD+ feels like it's generations behind the Kindle Fire HD during most usage scenarios. Installing apps was hit and miss as was running apps. Nook specific apps aren't as nice as the stock apps either. One of the best examples is the CNN app. Download both the regular version from Google Play and the Nook specific versions and you'll see two separate icons on your tablet. The Nook version's icon is larger brighter, more defined, and has a small nook logo in the top right corner. The Google Play version has a small dark sad looking icon when placed next to the Nook version. If the app's icons are any indication, the Nook version is the winner here. Click on both apps and you'll get a surprise. The Nook version is just a scaled up smartphone version of the CNN app. No graphics and horrible use of the screen real estate, click on the sad dark tiny Google Play store CNN app and you'll see a beautiful fully featured CNN tablet app with full color HD pictures and different sized stories, a sidebar of categories and more. It's a bit of a dirty move and I didn't appreciate it. It's not just a coincidence either. I downloaded a couple more apps in both versions. Angry birds Star Wars and News 360. The Google Play icon was always smaller and darker and for Angry birds star wars the Google Play icon is almost distorted next to the crisp highly defined Nook version icon. On the home screen, the recent app carousel is a highly animated 3D effect. It had a tendency to lag often. the carousel populates itself with icons of the most recently used or downloaded apps, movies, and books. While it's nice to look at when it works, the trade off doesn't seem worth it. A number of choices give you the feeling that the Nook software team engineered things to be just good enough and then walked away. It's fine in a vacuum, but next to the competition you have to do more than just good enough.
An example of just good enough, All downloads are treated the same in your library app. The app itself is clunky, takes minutes to load between screens, and has troubles with orientations. Individual movie or show pages only show in portrait... THESE ARE VIDEOS? When you click stream you're going to switch to landscape. How does that make any sense? (it doesn't) Movies and TV are listed together under the same heading (lazy) and when you download an entire season of a TV show, The list fills itself up with icons for each individual episode rather than a full season icon you can click on and explore in depth. I'm sad to say that it goes on from there even further. Let's say that I wanted to embrace the system as is and I'm really happy that each individual episode is listed. Maybe I really loved season 2 episode 7 and wanted to know more about an actor in that episode so I click on it's individual episode icon. Not only does the episode not play, I don't even get a placeholder info page for that specific episode. I'm taken to the top of the generic page for that entire season (portrait view only), I can scroll down and see two sentence synopsis' for each episode and then click to stream or download that episode to the device. Finally, though I have downloaded the entire season, the page still gives me the option to purchase the season? If I click purchase and then click confirm it will finally say, you've already purchased this product but otherwise it gives no indication.
The Nook HD+ does many things that the Kindle doesn't, the mistakes it makes are so odd and seemingly done on purpose though and that makes it hard to look past them. On the plus side, the Nook HD+ is VERY affordable and it offers expandable microSD card storage while the Kindle does not. It's screen is technically just a touch better than the Kindle Fire HD's though it is much more fingerprint prone. The Nook's screen is just a bit larger and has a bit higher resolution. It's also a couple ounces lighter despite being thicker and it's ad free out of the box. For all that good, the missteps add up. One of the hardest decisions to accept is the choice to release the tablet with a proprietary 30 pin charging port. Arguments can be made as to why a company would do this (fast charging/sync) but the actual answer is clear. It allows you to sell specific accessories and be different like Apple. Apple can do things like that to their customers unfortunately because they are Apple. People will moan and whine, but then they will buy adapters or entirely new speaker docks and chargers and move on because they are addicted to Apple. I'm sorry to break the news to anyone at Barnes and Noble if you're reading this, but you are not Apple. If you were ever going to be Apple, this isn't the way to go about it. If you made the port microUSB (which is basically an Android standard) I could use this tablet with all of my current accessories, and that's exactly what I'm doing right now with my Kindle Fire HD. Even though the Kindle Fire HD lacks some features, the fact that they included some standard connectors like microUSB and microHDMI makes me feel like they are on my side. As much as I always want to root for the underdog, I just don't feel like Barnes and Noble is on my side when I use the Nook HD+ in it's current iteration.
One last thing... I just used my Nook HD+ to go to the Google Play store to search for a newly released app from a company called Barnesandnoble.com LLC. It's called NOOK- Read Books & Magazines... are you starting to see what's going on? That's right! Barnes and Noble just announced a newly designed NOOK app. It looks a lot more modern, organized, and cleaner than the built in Nook HD+ library. So as I said, I went to the Google play store on my Nook to download the app and I'm given this message:
"Your device isn't compatible with this version"
I'm just at a loss here.
Nook and Barne's and Noble's new CEO was quoted saying this:
"The device isn't the problem... The problem is the decisions that were made by management quite frankly"
That allows for some hope that past problems are just that; in the past. On even more positive note he went on to say this:
"We think our people can produce better devices than anyone else"
Those are very strong words and I would love them to be more than bravado. We won't know for sure until the next version is unveiled. I hope to write a gushing review of the next generation Nook sometime soon.
HEAD TO HEAD COMPARISONS
Watching a Movie: Both can start a movie with three screen touches. Both also can automatically add a shortcut to the home screen for movies, books, apps, etc. The kindle does a much better job at this though. Very large, vibrant HD icons show up for each recent process, the nook has a carousel type showing at the top of the “desktop” screen. The animation of the carousel seems to make the device struggle though and the icons are a bit cluttered and hard to push correctly at times. When both store recently viewed movies still in progress, the Kindle allows you to resume play with one press while the Nook needs two presses. Small but important for a smooth experience.
Reading a book: Both can open a book with two screen touches. Again, both automatically add a shortcut to the home screen. The Kindle shows a small ribbon in the top corner with a percentage completed of that book while the Nook shows nothing more than the cover. Both allow many options for page appearance including page color, text size, font, etc. The Nook has a nicer graphical menu to make these changes, but it lags tremendously while trying to make changes. The Nook also offers more page colors, though the some of the extras aren't really usable in my opinion (brown?) They both offer 6 different fonts to choose from and the Nook along has a feature called “publisher defaults” which I assume shows the book the way the author intended. Neither of them show any texture, though the Kindle does illustrate a “spine” with a shadow to give the feel of a book. Next to the Nook you really can feel a difference. The lack of separation between pages feels odd on the Nook while reading. The kindle offers a few extras that the Nook does not. Text to speech uses a woman's computerized voice to read the English text aloud if you choose. It's kind of the poor man's audiobook, the robotic tone and oddly pronounced words will get to you over time though. Also, a feature called "popular highlights" which I couldn't seem to find in my books seemed intriguing:
Q: What are Popular Highlights?
The Amazon Kindle and the Kindle Apps each provide a very simple mechanism for adding highlights. Every month, Kindle customers highlight millions of book passages that are meaningful to them. We combine the highlights of all Kindle customers and identify the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people. We show only passages where the highlights of at least three distinct customers overlap, and we do not show which customers made those highlights.
Both devices offer similar experiences while reading, the Kindle offers just a little bit more again and the fact that they illustrated the spine pushed me over the edge here. Again, though they are little things, they make the difference.
Buying a game or app: This is a category where the Nook might have a clear edge. They've recently upgraded the Nook to allow access to the full Google Play store. This is an issue with many skinned android devices, odd disjointed 3rd party app stores that only allow some apps to be used. The Kindle uses Amazon's Android Appstore which has ten times fewer apps then the official Google Play store but does offer a free premium app for download everyday. They aren't always the greatest, but they will show in demand games and super premium apps now and again. The appstores are much different on the two devices. Google Play is much more willing to let you find free apps to serve your need, Amazon's appstore pushes paid content almost exclusively and they've made it relatively difficult to find the free versions of apps. They have implemented a beta feature called “Test Drive” which allows you to try out an app while you are literally timed with a countdown in the corner
We'll look at the popular app, Pocket informant to see the differences pretty clearly. On the Google play store I have three available options; a paid version for 9.99, a 14 day trial version, and a limited trial version that allows ten instances each of notes, contacts, etc. Over to the Amazon appstore and I have only two options; 9.99 paid version (for an older version of the same app) or Test Drive which allows 10 minutes of use only. Amazon is really hoping that you aren't smart enough or patient enough to realize there is a better way. It's a bit of a trick and it isn't in the spirit of Android.
Playing a game: The nook would eventually even out, but it was consistently buggy while installing and launching apps and games. I'd see multiple crashes next to no crashes on the Kindle. I tested out games with a lot of movement like cross court tennis and subway surfers. I also threw a graphic intense game like blood and glory in the mix. Installation always took longer on the nook. With blood and glory for example, I was playing the game for about 5 minutes on the kindle before the game was ready to play on the nook. I also had difficulty downloading the game on the nook initially. After waiting nearly ten minutes for the game to install I received an error message saying “invalid install file” After that, I initiate the process again and the app installed but again it took much longer than the Kindle on the same WI-fi. connection. The Nook would also occasionally not register screen presses in apps and games.
Everything Else: The Nook is a bit thicker and it only has one speaker. The slightly thicker frame feels more substantial and less breakable in my hands though. Though it only has one speaker, it creates a much better sound with that one than the Kindle can manage with stereo speakers. The Nook has an “N” shaped physical home button while the Kindle has no physical home button. The clean face looks nice, but I prefer a quick easy way to access the home and quick wake up the tablet. Settings are much more clean and customizable on the Kindle. I can add a battery percentage to the Kindle's notification bar while I cannot on the Nook. The Kindle uses a more traditional pull down notification bar while the Nook separates the pull down bar into three separate sections. Far right for quick settings, middle for notifications, and left for profile selecting. The three bars are unfortunately clunky and odd. They require presses rather than slides and even then it's hit and miss. The notification windows also don't auto close when selecting between the three. If I press quick settings and then profiles they are both displayed overlapping. It just feels a bit lazy and doesn't look very nice. At this point things seem to slant towards the Kindle but there is one thing that the Nook has that the Kindle doesn't which makes almost everything I've said obsolete. Expandable storage!!! The Nook allows a microSD card while the Kindle does not? They've decided to mimic one of Apple's most evil decisions and one of the real differences between Android and iOS devices. Kindle has gone against one of the fundamental ideals of Android and for that it loses a million points.
Conclusion: The future of the Nook tablet brand is uncertain. Barnes and Noble announced that they were no longer going to manufacture tablets but were instead considering allowing someone else to manufacture them using the Nook name. That was a couple months ago. Since then, the company's CEO resigned and a newly appointed CEO says they will continue to develop Nook in house and a new Nook device will be released in time for the upcoming holiday season. Only time will tell what this will actually mean. I really want to see something worth bragging about, but Barnes and Noble has to want it more than I do as a consumer. To salvage the name, Nook needs a strong followup. If they decide to skin, it needs to be a very lightweight launcher that allows stock Android to prop it up. Kindle is getting stronger and Amazon should continue that trend when a new Kindle Fire is announced soon. Many personal choices will decide which is right for you. First and foremost if you have a large, already purchased content library from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble you'll probably go with that tablet regardless. If you just want to spend less money, the Nook is your winner. Nook wins on sound, Stock Android potential, and expandable memory. Kindle wins on ease of use, faster web browsing and app downloading, universal connectors, and aesthetics. The bottom line is you're an individual and you need to figure out what fits your need. Read the above through and pick your poison, happy tablet hunting!
Thank you again to Amazon and Barnes & Noble for supplying their products for review.
*custom wood tablet stand for Kindle Fire HD 8.9” provided by Block & Sons Co.
*Nook HD+ bent plywood stand provided by Ciseal
ENJOY YOUR GADGETS!