It's strange to think that there was a time, back in the dark ages of the late 2000s, when personal electronics consumers' choices were really primitive. If you wanted to send e-mails, surf the Web or watch videos from anywhere, you needed a laptop computer or a smartphone. On the other hand, if downloading and reading e-books was your thing, you'd have to purchase a handheld e-reader, like the Sony Reader, introduced in 2006, or the Amazon Kindle, introduced in 2007 [source: McCarthy, Svensson]. If you were a Renaissance person who yearned to do all of those things at once, well, you had to shell out the bucks to buy at least two different devices.
But these days, blessedly, all those distinctions are blurring. In 2009, Amazon introduced a Kindle reader for the iPhone. And then, in 2010, Apple introduced the iPad, a revolutionary tablet computer that came with the same easy-to-use operating system as the popular iPhone. The iPad enabled users to surf the Web, watch videos, listen to music and run a dizzying array of apps that could do almost anything a bigger PC could do. Not only that, the iPad's high-resolution touchscreen, as big as an old-fashioned paperback, was bright and sharp enough to make reading books and magazines on it a pleasure [source: Pogue]. Suddenly, with an iPad -- or a tablet from competing manufacturers, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, featuring Google's Android operating system -- you only needed one device. It appeared those clunky e-readers with their dim monochrome screens and keypads were doomed.
But that doom didn't last long. In 2011, online publishing and book-selling giant Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, an e-reader with a touchscreen capable of vivid colors and high resolution, the computing power to perform many of a tablet PC's functions, and a similarly long battery life [source: Amazon.com]. At $199, the device was significantly more affordable than the iPad, which starts at $499, and its ilk. Amazon rival Barnes & Noble quickly followed with its own similarly versatile, comparatively priced e-reader, the Nook Tablet [source: Barnes & Noble].
But now, even though you may only need one device, the question remains: Which should you buy -- a tablet or an e-reader? Though the distinctions have blurred, and you can pretty much access the same content on both, some key differences remain. How should you make the best choice for your particular needs? Let's take a look at each of the devices' core features.
The Tablet Versus the E-reader
These day, tablets and e-readers are looking more and more alike. In fact, to a novice, it may be difficult to tell them apart (aside from the big difference in price tags). But they have some important differences, some of which may affect which device turns out to be best for you:
- Screen size: The Kindle Fire and other e-readers usually have 7-inch (17.78-centimeter) screens, about the size of an old-fashioned mass-market paperback. Tablets, in contrast, come in a range of sizes, but many of the most popular ones, such as the iPad, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, the Toshiba Thrive and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, have 10-inch (25.4-centimeter) screens. That's roughly the size of some print magazines [source: BestBuy].
- Software: The iPad has the same operating system as Apple's iPhone, iOS, while other 10-inch tablets usually run Google's Android Honeycomb OS, which is a tablet-specific variation of the Android OS developed initially for phones. Both Apple and Google have extensive online stores containing many thousands of apps, and allow you a lot of choices, such as an alternative browser to the one pre-installed on your phone. The Kindle Fire, in contrast, runs a special proprietary version of Android owned by Amazon, with fewer features and fewer available apps [source: Isaac].
- Storage: The Kindle Fire has 8 gigabytes of storage space, which Amazon claims is enough to fit a library of 6,000 books [source: Amazon.com]. But that number is a little suspect, since it assumes an average size of 786 kilobytes for an eBook; the bestselling authorized biography of Steve Jobs, with its fancy graphics and photos, takes up 4,491 kilobytes. Nevertheless, 8 GB is plenty of space, if you're primarily a reader. If you're interested in downloading songs or movies, you might fill that space up pretty quickly, however. On the other hand, most 10-inch (25.4-centimeter) tablets generally come with 16 GB of storage space, enough to fit nearly 20,000 books on the device, and the iPad can have up to 64 GB (those 64 gigs will set you back either $699 or $899, depending on whether you get 3G connectivity also) [source: BestBuy, Apple.com]. The Nook ships with 8 GB of storage, but you have the option of expanding to up to 32 GB by buying an additional memory card [source: Barnes & Noble].
- Connectivity: Both the Kindle Fire and the Nook access the Internet via a WiFi connection [source: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble]. The iPad and other tablets have WiFi chips, too, but you often also have the option of paying more to get a mobile Internet connection as well [source: BestBuy, Apple.com]. Count on spending at least an additional $20 to $25 a month for that connection [source: Chartier].
Now that you know a little bit about these devices' features, let's dig into how you can make the best decision for your needs.
Which is better for you -- a tablet or an e-reader?
There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. If you mostly want to read books, and cost is your main consideration, a $199 e-reader beats a $499 tablet. At the other end of the spectrum, if you're not worried about price, and what you really love is downloading music and apps and watching videos, a tablet clearly is a better choice. But if you're somewhere in the middle, here are some other factors to consider:
- How it feels when you hold it. If you like holding a book in one hand while you're standing on the commuter train, e-readers are better, because they're at least a few ounces lighter than tablets [source: Shanklin]. For example, a Kindle Fire weighs in at just 14.6 ounces (4.1 hectograms), while the iPad is a more substantial 1.33 pounds (6 hectograms) [sources: Amazon.com, Apple.com]. By comparison, a mass-market paperback of Stephen King's 1999 bestseller "Bag of Bones" weighs in at about 12.2 ounces (3.4 hectograms), and David McCullough's recent nonfiction book "The Greater Journey" weighs 2.3 pounds (10.4 hectograms) [source: Amazon.com].
- How the screen looks to you. Some reviewers have complained that the Kindle Fire has too much screen glare, but the iPad isn't immune from such complaints, either [source: Tsukayama, Carmody]. The iPad has slightly higher resolution, at 1024 by 768 pixels, than its Amazon competitor, at 1024 by 600 pixels, but the difference isn't that noticeable [source: Shanklin]. It really comes down to personal preference. Nothing beats actually trying out the device in the store, or, in the case of the Kindle Fire, borrowing one from a friend who's already taken the plunge.
- How many different things you want to use it for. E-readers are fairly limited in terms of bells and whistles -- they're really meant for consuming books. With a tablet like the iPad, you get a microphone and a camera for recording video and shooting pictures, and plenty of ports for plugging in after-market gadgets [source: Apple.com]. Also, a tablet's greater storage space means that you can install apps to your heart's content. Remember, too, that there are a lot more apps available for tablets than for e-readers. For example, Amazon offers about 10,000 apps, which is less than a tenth of the 140,000 available for the iPad [source: Topolsky, Apple.com].
- Where you'll be using it. As Bloomberg Businessweek technology writer Kevin C. Tofel notes, if you're not traveling as much these days and do most of your reading and video watching at home, you can make do with the WiFi capabilities of an e-reader like the Kindle Fire [source: Tofel]. But if you're interested in watching streaming videos from Netflix on train rides or under a tree in the park, you'll want a tablet with 3G connection (or 4G, as it becomes available).
- Carmody, David. "iPad 2 as e-reader: Glare still an issue." CNET Reviews. March 13, 2011. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-18438_7-20042535-82.html
- Chartier, David. "AT&T, Verizon iPad 2 data plans compared." MacWorld. March 4, 2011. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.macworld.com/article/158361/2011/03/compare_ipad_data_plans.html
- "Computing Resource Center." BestBuy.com. (Nov. 14, 2011) http://www.bestbuy.com/site/searchpage.jsp?_dyncharset=ISO-8859-1&_dynSessConf=-512499677466796988&id=pcat17071&type=page&ks=960&st=tablet+pc&sc=Global&cp=1&sp=-bestsellingsort+skuid&qp=q7461626c6574207063~~cabcat0500000%23%23d%23%2375s~~cpcmcat209000050006%23%234%23%23t9~~ncpcmcat209000050008%23%230%23%232d&list=y&usc=All+Categories&nrp=15&iht=n
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- Shanklin, Will. "iPad 2 vs. Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet: specs showdown." Geek.com. Nov. 14, 2011. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.geek.com/articles/mobile/ipad-2-vs-kindle-fire-vs-nook-tablet-specs-showdown-20111114/
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- Tsukayama, Hayley. "Today in Tech: Kindle Fire reviews, Black Friday deals, iTunes Match released." Washingtonpost.com. Nov. 15, 2011. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/faster-forward/post/today-in-tech-kindle-fire-reviews-black-friday-deals-itunes-match-released/2011/11/14/gIQAGro7LN_blog.html
- Ulanoff, Lance. "Amazon Kindle Fire: First Impressions." Mashable.com. Sept. 28, 2011. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://mashable.com/2011/09/28/amazon-kindle-fire-first-impressions/