In depth: Using the Kindle Fire vs. the Kobo Vox vs. the Nook Tablet

After testing the 3 top color e-readers, Preston Gralla explains which he likes best -- and why.

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Usability and interface

All three of the tablets use Android version 2.3 (Gingerbread) as the underlying operating system, but apart from the Kobo Vox, you wouldn't know that to look at them. They feature their own specific interfaces, for better and for worse, as we'll see in this section.

Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire offers the simplest, most consistent interface of the three tablets, and because of that, it is the easiest to navigate, especially when you're reading a book, viewing media or running an app.

The Home screen looks like a bookshelf, with all content on the top shelf, and customizable favorites on the shelf below it. Across the top of the screen are categories of content and information: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps and Web. Tap any and the content on the bookshelf reflects that specific category -- your apps, your books, and so on. The outlier is the Web, which when tapped launches a Web browser.

Unlike the Nook Tablet, the Kindle Fire reorients its main interface when you turn it horizontally or vertically, which is useful if your current navigation looks better in one orientation or the other.

The best thing about the Kindle Fire's navigation is that common navigation icons appear at the bottom of the screen no matter where you are, for going back to what you were previously doing, getting to the Home screen, and changing settings. There is some inconsistency, though, because in some apps the Settings button doesn't work.

The Kindle Fire's main drawback is that it doesn't offer as many options on the main screen as does the Nook Tablet for navigation and for immediately jumping back to a book you were reading. Still, the overall consistency of its interface makes it extremely easy to use.

Kobo Vox

The Kobo Vox is the most Android-like of the three e-readers, featuring multiple customizable panes with five unmovable icons across the bottom providing navigation to a variety of locations and apps, and changeable rows of icons above that. The top part of the screen has a notification area, just as Android smartphones and tablets do. The Settings page, which you can get to from the main screen and which lets you customize how your tablet works, looks identical to the stock Android settings area. All this makes Vox's main interface instantly recognizable and usable to owners of Android devices.

But that doesn't mean that it's the best interface for an e-reader. Rather than feeling like an integrated device targeted at reading books and viewing and listening to media, it feels like a garden-variety tablet with a number of useful reading apps on it. Still, it's certainly easy enough to find and use those reading apps. Just don't expect as smooth or as immersive an experience as you'd get with the Nook Tablet or Kindle Fire.

Nook Tablet

The Nook Tablet puts reading and multimedia content center stage, although it is marred to a certain extent by inconsistent navigation when you're inside some apps.

The Home screen is command central. At the top of the screen is a useful Keep Reading button that shows you the book you've most recently been reading; when tapped, this brings you to the page you were most recently reading. Further down, an area called the Daily Shelf shows books, magazines, newspapers and apps that you've most recently used; tap any to read or use it. Just below that is a row of more general navigation icons to different types of content -- books, newsstand, movies, music and apps. Press the Nook button beneath the display and you bring up another level of navigation that lets you get back to the Home screen, go to the library, shop, search and so on.

If you're the kind of person who likes to customize your hardware, you'll be pleased to learn that there's plenty to fiddle with. You can change the wallpaper, move favorite books to any of the Nook Tablet's three home panes, and customize a variety of options on your bookshelves.

The Nook button is the glue that holds common navigation together, but it doesn't work in all apps, which is problematic. The interface is also marred somewhat by the lack of a Back button -- it simply doesn't exist as universal navigation. You have to rely on looking for a Back button inside different apps, which can be confusing, because they tend to be in different locations.

All in all, if you're primarily planning to read books or view media, the interface is a solid one, because it puts content, particularly reading, always within easy reach. But the Nook would be better if it had a Back button and more consistent navigation.

The winner

The Kindle Fire noses out the Nook Tablet here, by dint of its more consistent interface and navigation. If the Nook button worked inside all apps consistently, I would prefer the Nook Tablet because its interface is more customizable, with more navigation options. For now, though, it's the Kindle Fire by a nose. As for the Vox, because it's little more than stock Android, it can't compete with the other two.

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