Tablet Wars Heat Up

The iPad has been the most popular tablet computer for so long I wondered if it would end up as ubiquitous as the iPod, which has been the portable music player to own for more than a decade. But two new tablets have arrived, aimed directly at the iPad’s biggest weaknesses, and they may finally provide some real competition this holiday buying season.

The Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet arrived within days of each other, with similar Android OS’s and identical processors and screen sizes. The Nook has twice the storage space, a microSD card reader and a microphone, but the Kindle is $50 cheaper and arguably has a stronger support system behind it with features like streaming video through Amazon Prime (plus, “Fire” is catchier than “Nook”). Both are smaller and slower than the iPad, but they’re still fast enough to browse the Web, check e-mail, watch videos and play games (yes, Angry Birds runs on both). More importantly, for the price of one iPad, you can buy a Kindle and a Nook, and have money left over—which may cause consumers to not mind that they’re a little slower and smaller (besides, some people prefer smaller devices).

Another problem with the iPad is how Apple has thoroughly blocked third-party apps (yes, you can jailbreak it, but that’s annoying, and it voids your warranty). With the Kindle, by contrast, there’s a system setting for “allow third-party apps” that you simply set to “yes,” and you can then “side-load” anything you want. As an experiment, I loaded the Nook app, and a free video player called Mobo, which easily played every video format I threw at it with no conversion. (Try that on an iPad.) I’ve heard it’s nearly as easy to side-load third-party apps on the Nook (including the Kindle app, which eliminates a lot of the supposed difference between the two devices).

The iPad is still bigger and faster, and will undoubtedly remain the luxury tablet of choice for a while. But the new Kindle and Nook now provide budget alternatives, and are proof that the tablet wars are finally starting to heat up.