Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet: What you need to know

Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet computer ships to customers on Tuesday, Nov. 15, for $199, while the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet goes on sale in stores for $249 later in the same week.

Both are Wi-Fi-only, offer 7-in. touchscreens and provide low-cost alternatives to the bigger iPad 2, which starts at $499 with a 9.7-in. touchscreen.

Can the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet really be a threat to the iPad? 

That's the big question analysts are weighing.  The iPad clearly dominates and should hold its own for a very long time. It first went on the market in early 2010, and both the iPad and iPad 2 command the tablet market by now, with over 60% of the global market, according to IDC and others. Total sales exceed 35 million.

Still, how might sales for the new devices go?

Forrester Research recently said Amazon could sell up to 5 million Kindle Fire tablets by year's end, while Barnes & Noble could sell up to 2 million for the same period.  But Apple could sell up to 20 million in the fourth quarter, now half-over, after selling a record 11.1 million iPads in the third quarter. 

But I read that some surveys show the cheaper tablets will be more popular with buyers, right?   

Yes. Retrevo just published an online survey of 1,000 Americans of all ages and backgrounds showing 44% of potential buyers preferred the Kindle Fire to 12% favoring the iPad. The other 44% said they didn't know enough about the Amazon tablet.  Retrevo said buyers clearly were interested in a cheaper, smaller tablet than the iPad.

Why such a huge disparity in the expected sales with the Retrevo survey results?  

You are asking all the right questions! Remember, both of the new devices don't have nearly the global reach of the iPad so far, and that Retrevo focused on Americans only in its polling. Still, some experts have noted that selling more than 1 million of anything in less than a quarter is fabulous, much less Kindle Fire's predicted 3 million to 5 million by 2012.

Are Amazon and Barnes & Noble benefiting by the timing of their releases?

Yes again! Retrevo said that with the iPad 2 out since March, and with no iPad 3 expected until the second quarter of 2012 or later, both newcomers are taking advantage of strong holiday demand for something new in a tablet.

But isn't this really just about lower prices? 

There's no question that consumer marketing experts believe that $200 or less is a target price that makes it easy to open your wallet to buy a gift, especially during a recession. Even the Retrevo study found some current iPad owners might spend for a cheaper, smaller second tablet.

Wait, aren't there a gob of higher-priced Android tablets already on the market?    

Sure, and Samsung has a full line of them. Samsung recently launched the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus for $400 on Wi-Fi, available at major retailers, but T-Mobile USA also said it will offer the device over its 4G wireless network, plus Wi-Fi, for $450 after rebate and a two-year agreement that requires an extra data plan starting at $20 a month.

But do I just want Wi-Fi-only in a tablet or Wi-Fi and 3G/4G cellular together?

If you expect to travel in a car or plane with no Wi-Fi very much while using your tablet, you will need a cellular (3G/4G) plan. This is why iPads and many current Android tablets have both forms of wireless in some of their models.  Workers, including sales persons or executives, may want the flexibility of always-on wireless, without having to find a Wi-Fi hotspot.

So why are the new Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire selling as Wi-Fi-only?

Experts believe both Amazon and Barnes & Noble want their customers spending money on their e-books, video and audio content and not on a 3G/4G data plan for a carrier. IDC's research shows tablet owners mostly use their devices in Wi-Fi zones and that most consumers don't want to pay for another data plan on top of a service plan for a cell phone or broadband service to the home.

Clearly Amazon and Barnes & Noble believe Wi-Fi is widely-enough available to support their Wi-Fi-only model. However, the Nook Tablet has double the internal storage (and an expansion slot) compared to the Kindle Fire to guard against times when Wi-Fi isn't handy. Barnes & Noble's logic is that having added storage means making fewer wireless trips to the cloud.

But don't I still have to pay for Wi-Fi?

Probably, unless you have scouted out enough coffee shops that offer Wi-Fi for free to get all your work and video viewing done that way. Some coffee shops such as Starbucks offer a subscription to in-store Wi-Fi.  College campuses and public libraries are now sporting free Wi-Fi often, and home Internet users have added Wi-Fi modems to their cable or phone service for years.  If you can use your new Wi-Fi-only tablet over the office Wi-Fi, you're good to go.  

Since writing about the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet in recent weeks, I've been surprised by the high number of readers who have asked what kind of Wi-Fi service charge they might pay to use the device.  The emails are like this actual one:

 "Thanks for your article on the Kindle Fire, which I'm thinking about getting. What I cannot discover is what the monthly service charge would be. I'm told that tablets have a fee like a phone or computer. Do you know anything about this?"

I answered that email by noting that there is a monthly service fee for broadband service to a home, which in my area is $30 a month.  I've attached a Wi-Fi router to my cable line, allowing access from Wi-Fi-ready devices.

Seriously. Who in the world doesn't know about Wi-Fi?

These letters asking basic questions about Wi-Fi are perhaps the biggest realization of all, for me, with the Kindle Fire launch.  For IT managers and CIO's, as well as help desk personnel, it pays to never assume anybody understands anything about technology. If you go to an Apple store for support, their well-trained personnel seriously get that notion, that people really need basic tech insights and not a bunch of acronyms.  

Are these new low-cost tablets really changing anything fundamental? 

Arguably, yes.  Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are priced low enough that they are attracting interest from average people, like my email writers, who might have a home PC, but possibly don't have a smartphone or tablet.  They aren't the early adopters that tend to lust after the newest Apple or Android device.

The lower prices of the two new tablets are democratizing tablet technology, and might be so successful that Apple will drop the prices of the iPad and iPad 2 dramatically when it launches iPad 3.  Some analysts have suggested that will happen, as it has with other Apple products, so it's not as if that's saying anything new.

So what great wisdom can I learn about these new tablets?

Just about every blogger and Web site have posted Nook Tablet vs. Kindle Fire spec comparisons, with many throwing in iPad 2.  Here's mine from when the Nook Tablet launched.  In a nutshell, the Nook Tablet has about double the memory and storage of the Kindle Fire for $50 more. There are other more subtle differences.

But for tablet neophytes, the most important advice anybody could give is to find out the return and repair policy for your new tablet.  Apple is famous for reliable service, but many retailers such as Best Buy offer service plans, at a cost.  Barnes & Noble and Amazon seem to have comparable return and repair policies to the rest of the tablet vendors, although Barnes & Noble is boasting that in-store units will give customers the advantage of holding and using a device before buying, with free repair service in-store after a purchase.  

Both of the new tablets need to be rock-solid from a hardware and software perspective to stand a chance against iPad and existing Android tablets. If they aren't, the lower price won't mean much.

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