If you’ll use it as an additional family device
If you’re on a tight budget and need little more than a Web browser, Amazon’s new $199 Kindle Fire or Barnes & Noble’s older, but newly-discounted $199 Nook Color each combine versions of Google’s Android operating system with WiFi connectivity, e-book and web-browsing software, and seven-inch color touchscreens. The Fire connects to Amazon’s music and video stores, while the Nook Color does no such thing. B&N’s new, $249 Nook Tablet is another option, but at $50 more than the Fire it’s in a tough spot in the market.
If you’re on a tight budget and need little more than a Web browser, Barnes & Noble’s $249 Nook Color is a compelling and cheaper alternative. But Amazon’s new $199 Kindle Fire is even less expensive and a good deal faster. Both combine versions of Google’s Android operating system with e-book and Web-browsing software, plus a seven-inch screen. The Fire connects to Amazon’s music and video stores, while the Nook Color connects to Barnes & Noble. On the other hand, you may be more likely to run into bugs on the brand-new Fire than on the established Nook Color (although its age also means it’s due to be upgraded).
… as a tool for travel
Here, also, Apple’s iPad 2 has an edge. Although you can choose from a growing variety of tablets running Google’s Android operating system — and in particular, the tablet flavor of Android called Honeycomb — the selection of Android apps built for larger screens remains limited. The Kindle Fire and Nook Color connect, respectively, to Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s separate app stores, further limiting their selection.
Business travelers looking to lighten their carry-on luggage can, however, choose from a good selection of smaller, cheaper Android tablets. Though the late Steve Jobs declared touch screens smaller than ten inches unwieldy, competitors have shipped numerous models with displays around seven inches. Also, unless your smart phone can share its Internet connection via tethering, you’ll need a tablet with its own 3G wireless connection for times when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Whatever model you buy, budget for an external keyboard. Your wrists will thank you.
… as your only computer
Traditionally, the iPad disqualified itself from this role by requiring a Mac or PC for its setup, backups, and operating-system updates. But Apple’s iOS 5 fills in those blanks and, after a shaky start, seems to be working much better than Apple’s earlier ventures into “cloud” backup and syncing services.
Android tablets, meanwhile, are losing their earlier advantage of being able to play Flash after Adobe’s surprise announcement in November that it would stop developing the mobile Flash Player. Android vendors haven’t done themselves any favors by shipping flawed devices like Acer’s problematic Iconia Tab A Series A100 or Vizio’s more stable but otherwise unremarkable Tablet, and it’s unclear when existing Android tablets will get an upgrade to the Ice Cream Sandwich edition of Android that’s supposed to support tablets and phones equally well.
If you already rely on Google’s e-mail and calendar services, an Android tablet can still be the simpler choice. Otherwise, the iPad now wins this category too.
… as a portable entertainment center
The iPad 2 runs away with this. While there are Android versions of such apps as Netflix and Hulu Plus, they run only on specific devices and versions of Android. It’s also easier to synchronize your movies and music from a computer to a tablet using Apple’s iTunes with an iPad. And in the case of movies purchased or rented from the iTunes Store, you have no tablet option besides the iPad. If you plan to download movies regularly or store a massive music library on the tablet, you’d do well to upgrade to the 32 GB or 64 GB version of the iPad.
The Kindle Fire looks to be a close second — or a first if you already do all your music or video downloading from Amazon.
…as a way to read more and read wherever
Forget the iPad/Android debate. Amazon’s Kindle is the cheapest and simplest e-book reader — starting at just $79 if you don’t mind seeing Amazon’s “special offers” ads. And since the Seattle retailer ships Kindle reader apps for most computing platforms, if you do switch to some other company’s gadget, the odds are your purchases will still be readable.