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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Apps

All three e-readers are Android tablets as well, so you'll want to take advantage of the operating system's ability to use a variety of apps.

Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire comes with more pre-loaded apps than does the Nook Tablet, including Netflix and Hulu Plus, as well the movie app iMDb, the Weather Channel, the Audible ebook reader, and several others.

The Amazon App store features the usual variety of apps, ranging from games to entertainment, productivity, lifestyle, utilities, social networking, and more. Amazon says it had 850 apps in its store at launch, slightly smaller than the Nook Tablet's number, but not dramatically so.

Apps don't look or work as well on the Kindle Fire as they do on the Nook Tablet, though. They tend to distend themselves to fit the 7-in. screen, as is common with Android tablets. Pandora does this, for example. It may be that Amazon hasn't worked with app developers to get them to write apps specifically for its tablet. For example, when you first launch Pandora, you get a warning that it may use a great deal of data -- the exact same warning you get when launching it on a smartphone, even though such a warning is irrelevant to a W-iFi user rather than someone who may be charged for bandwidth on a smartphone.

However, as with the Kobo Vox, you'll be able to download and install any app you want onto the Kindle Fire, with a little bit of work (it's called sideloading). If you go to Settings --> Device and turn on "Allow Installation of Applications," you can download an app's .APK file from the Web, and install it using the Kindle Fire file manager.

Kobo Vox

The Vox ships with an unimpressive group of apps, with little beyond the basics such as a calculator, clock, music player and dictionary, along with Facebook, Twitter and a free Scrabble game. There's no Hulu Plus, no Pandora, no Netflix.

The Kobo Vox also has no app store. Supposedly, the company has an arrangement with the GetJar app store and apps can be downloaded from there. GetJar features only free apps and the selection was not impressive. I tried downloading several apps from there and they all failed.

As with the Kindle Fire, though, you can download .APK files from the Web, then install the apps. To do so, you first need to choose Applications from the Settings screen and then check the box next to "Unknown Sources."

Nook Tablet

Stuffed into the Nook Tablet are a solid complement of apps, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, several games (including chess, Sudoku and crossword), and apps for contacts, a social app called Nook Friends and the usual complement of media players.

The Apps store, like that of the Kindle Fire, is a closed one, and you'll only be able to download apps from the store, not outside of it. Barnes & Noble says it had 1,000 apps in its store at launch.

Apps worked and played well on the Nook Tablet, which isn't always the case with Android-based tablets. Even though many of the apps were originally written for the smaller screens of Android smartphones, they didn't appear to be distended and stretched when run on the Nook Tablet, as is often the case with other Android tablets. Pandora, for example, filled the screen perfectly, as if it were designed for a tablet, which I found not to be the case for other Android tablets such as the Xoom, or for the Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox, for that matter.

The winner

Apps on the Nook Tablet look better than they do on the Kindle Fire, and for now the Nook Tablet store has a slightly more sizable collection than does the Amazon App store. Based on that, the Nook Tablet gets the nod. But if you care about freedom to install any app you want, you'll want to go instead with the Kindle Fire.

Bottom line

If you're looking for the e-reader with the best hardware and performance, the most expandability, the best screen and e-reading experience, you'll want the Nook Tablet. At $249, it costs $50 more than the Kindle Fire or Vox, so you'll pay a small premium compared to the other two. But that extra will be worth the cost for those who want to be able to read and consume as much content as possible locally when they're out of range of a Wi-Fi network.

On the other hand, if multimedia is high on your list of must-haves in an e-reader, the Kindle Fire is for you. In addition to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, it lets you rent movies and TV shows from Amazon, and taps into Amazon's very good cloud-based music service. And if you're a fan of Amazon's entire buying ecosystem, you'll want a Kindle Fire as well, because you can be sure the tablet will hook into any new services it offers.

Finally, it's hard to know how the Kobo Vox can survive the competition against the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire. It's an underpowered tablet with an underwhelming interface, nothing to distinguish it, and a paucity of apps. If it was half the price of the Kindle Fire, it might survive by catering to bargain hunters. But given that it's the same price, it's hard to know who would choose it over either of the other tablets.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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