Reading an e-book on my Nook Color while Tiger keeps me warm.

Nook Color vs. Kindle Fire

The last couple months I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my Nook Color e-reader tablet computer, and can easily list off reasons why I prefer it over physical books: 1) I don’t need to use two hands to keep a book open; 2) obtaining new books from the library or bookstore is only a download away, saving time and dollars over driving; 3) the Nook keeps my place in the book, even after I’ve fallen asleep mid-page; 4) I can read in the dark without keeping a significant other awake; 5) I can check e-mail or news while reading a book without having to go over to another device; 6) it can search for text; and 7) it gives me ready access to many books without having to haul a huge backpack around. To me, a Nook is to a book like a computer is to a living room full of filing cabinets, typewriters, and abacuses.

But this post isn’t about all that. No, during this holiday season where many folks are considering purchasing tablet computers and e-readers, I wanted to point out a few things that the plethora of “Should I buy a Nook or Kindle” articles gloss over or miss entirely.

Note that most of those articles talk about the new Nook Tablet instead of the now one-year old Nook Color, but primary differences between those two devices are the Nook Color has a slower processor and less memory and is at least $50 less expensive. Otherwise, the advantages of the Nook Color over the Kindle Fire apply to the Nook Tablet too.

The reasons I prefer the Nook Color over the Kindle Fire are as follows:

  • It was first. The Nook Color was first shipped in November 2010, a whole year before the Kindle Fire ever came to fruition. It was marketed more as an e-reader, but was truly a “tablet for book lovers”—and during its run as the best-selling Android-based tablet, served as the blueprint for the Kindle Fire. While Amazon gets credit for creating one of the first e-ink e-readers, Barnes & Noble was the pioneer in the genre that the Nook Color and Kindle Fire competes in, and I generally prefer to reward the originators versus the copiers.
  • Cost and availability. The Nook Color and Kindle Fire both cost $199 brand new right now, but because the Nook Color has been around for a year, you have many more options than just buying a new tablet from a Barnes & Noble store. In fact, you can easily purchase a refurbished Nook Color for $129 and used ones for even less. I purchased mine for $125 off ebay in October 2011, including shipping and no taxes. You won’t be able to buy a Kindle Fire for that low of a price until late 2012 or so.
  • Design. The Nook Color was fashioned by celebrated Swiss designer Yves Behar of San Francisco, and is arguably the most distinctive device in a sea of look-alike glass-and-bezel tablet computers. From its “carabiner hook” that was inspired by a folded-over page corner and actually houses a mini-SD card port, to its soft-touch back side with its trademark upside-down horseshoe, to the dark grey surround that feels like teflon tape, the Nook Color is a looker.
  • Contrast to the Kindle Fire, which looks just like a generic Research-in-Motion Blackberry Playbook because its manufacturer is the same as RIM’s. Not only is the Fire design aesthetically less distinctive, but it has usability shortcomings that can’t be fixed with a firmware update: an on/off switch that is too easy to press due to its location, but no physical volume control buttons.

  • Recognized formats. The Nook Color can read books in the open ePub standard, and also books from Google Books. The Kindle can only read books in Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format. For a while, my library only had books in ePub standard. Now most libraries are also stocking e-books in Kindle format too, so this is less of an issue, although I much prefer supporting open standards.
  • Read in Store. Barnes & Noble, and hence expert gadget reviews, hardly tout this feature because B&N prefers you to buy their books instead of reading them for free. But for me, it was the #1 advantage. With a Nook device, you can read tens of thousands of e-books in any Barnes & Noble store for no charge, up to one hour a day. That one hour applies to each book—there is no limit as to how many books you can read in a store per day. So you could read five ebooks in five hours in a Barnes & Noble store for free! And actually, I have read books in Barnes & Noble store for much longer than one hour by simply not switching apps. (The one hour limit only seems to be detected upon app switching.) B&N essentially has become something of a library for me because of this.

    Amazon has no equivalent feature, especially since it has no brick-and-mortar stores. It has started offering “borrow one e-book for free a month” for Amazon Prime Subscribers who pay $79/year, but the selection of books that qualify for this is somewhat limited.

Other advantages of a Nook Color: a slightly better display (they are both supposedly excellent), is expandable with its mini-SD card port (the Kindle Fire has no such feature), and is easily rootable (Amazon is supposedly taking away root access for the Kindle Fire with their upcoming December firmware update). You can even boot a Nook Color to Android off a mini-SD card, hence retaining the original B&N operating system. Which is important in the case of the Nook Color, because rooting it not only voids the warranty, but takes away the Read in Store feature!

In light of all the above, why would anyone want to get a Kindle Fire? Well, he might already own books in Kindle format. And the Kindle Fire has Amazon’s media ecosystem—e.g., for music and movies—is tightly integrated into the device. The latter isn’t a big deal to me because sideloading MP3s onto my Nook Color is cake, plus it has Pandora. The Nook Color could always play You Tube videos very well, and as of Barnes & Noble’s December 12, 2011 1.4 firmware update, it can stream Netflix movies. Not to mention, I’d much rather watch movies using my TV and home surround-sound system than a 7″ tablet.

The Kindle Fire, with its Silk browsing technology, is theoretically faster at surfing the Internet. But it comes with serious security concerns and users haven’t been all that impressed with its speed versus other tablets. The Nook Color, on the other hand, seems to surf the web about as fast as my other computers, so to me it’s at least “good enough.”

The Kindle Fire also has more apps. But the Nook Color already has at least a thousand, of which I’m only using a dozen or so. So far I haven’t heard of a particular app that would sway me to want a Kindle Fire over a Nook Color.

What the Nook Color is not good at

As with any other tablet or device relying on a touch screen, the Nook Color is not very good for tasks that require a lot of input. E.g., typing more than a couple words or accurately selecting with a fat finger links in web sites not optimized for mobile devices. For those things—and anything requiring content creation—I much prefer any of my other computers, including my netbook, that have a keyboard and use a mouse pointer. Tablets only excel at some forms of media consumption, particularly e-reading.

Upon unveiling the first iPad, Steve Jobs suggested that the iPad was far superior than underpowered netbooks. If I could only own one or the other, however, I’d pick my Linux-powered Dell netbook any day. But prices of tablets—such as the Nook Color—have come down so much that most people can afford to have one in addition to a netbook, laptop, and desktop computer. Think of a tablet as an auxiliary reading device instead of a computer replacement and you’ll be happy with it.

Great Deals

Refurbished Nook Colors for about $100 $75 $50!

Reading an e-book on my Nook Color while Tiger keeps me warm.
Reading an e-book on my Nook Color while Tiger keeps me warm.