The Best eBook Tablets Aren't What You Think

The Best eBook Tablets Aren't What You Think

Ask your average person what the best ebook tablets on the market are and they will tell you Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet, and the Apple iPad. I'll tell you to look elsewhere. Barnes and Noble and Amazon may have created the $200-$250 ebook tablet niche, but others are rushing in to capitalize on it and they're much, much better options. Here's why.  

First, let's look at this category. When I say ebook tablets, I'm talking about devices with a backlit color screen that can also be used to watch video, listen to music, and run apps. This does not include your standard black-and-white e-ink device, which, if you are only looking to read books, is the type of device you really should be investing in as it is cheaper and easier on the eyes.  

Perhaps the most well-known of these three devices is the iPad. It is THE premier tablet computer and if you've got the money to spare, I'd say go for it. However at $400 for last year's iPad 2 or $500 at the cheapest for the "new" iPad, it's not exactly accessible to the masses.  

The Amazon Kindle Fire is next in line. At $200 it is a very attractive piece of hardware and brings to the tablet easy access to all of Amazon's content offerings as well as a decent app store. It runs a modified version of “Gingerbread”, the codename for version 2.3 of Google's Android operating system. However, unlike a traditional Android tablet, it does not offer access to the Google Play Store, which hosts a much richer collection of apps than Amazon does, nor does it offer access to any of Google’s other services, such as Maps or Docs. Because it is an Amazon device, it confines most users to content purchased from Amazon. There are ways around this, but most people either won’t bother or won’t be able to figure them out. And last but not least on my list of Fire gripes is the fact that it has a fixed amount of storage; you cannot insert a microSD card to add more storage for music, video, and documents. 

The Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet falls into the same walled garden category as the Fire, except its garden isn’t nearly as attractive. It too runs a modified version of Android and restricts its users to content purchased through their store.  However, aside from books, its app store and media offerings are barebones; to my way of thinking, they might as well not exist at all. On the plus side, it does allow users to expand on its storage. Ultimately, however, the Nook Tablet, like the Kindle Fire, is a fine piece of hardware, but it is hampered by some horribly restrictive software. 

Fortunately other tablet computer manufacturers have noticed all the money these two companies have been making off the $200-$250 tablet niche and are here to offer something better. The first on the scene is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0. It is a 7-inch tablet like the Nook and the Fire, but unlike them it runs an unmodified installation of Android 4.0, codenamed “Ice Cream Sandwich” or ICS for short. Why is that good? 

  • It drops the walls from the device, meaning you can buy apps directly from the Google Play Store (to reiterate, a much more robust store than Amazon’s or B&N’s) and the Amazon App Store!
  • It can be equipped with free apps to buy and read books from both Amazon and B&N, not to mention from Google, Sony, or anywhere else except for Apple.
  • Unlike the Kindle, it can be made to read free library ebooks from both OverDrive and EBSCOhost.
  • You have a greater degree of customization over the homescreen (such as wallpaper and app location).
  • ICS is the most up-to-date Android OS available and certainly the easiest to use and most feature-rich.

Basically, the device is yours to do with what you like and is not slaved to any one retail outfit. It also offers front and back cameras, bluetooth, GPS and expandable storage. At $250, this tablet is a much better buy than the Fire or the Nook. 

It might sound like I'm looking for some kickback from Samsung, but they're about to be outclassed at the same price point. Coming soon are some even better 7-inch tablets, including the Asus Memo 370T featuring a nVidia Tegra 3 processor which will completely out-power the Fire, the Nook, and the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0. This is especially good news for tablet gamers as the Tegra 3 is built with resource-intensive games in mind!  Google is also rumored to be collaborating with Asus on the Nexus 7 tablet, though some are wondering if maybe these two tablets will turn out to be one and the same. If you can hold on to your wallet for a few more months, you'll end up with an even better device at the same price, a common lament of the early adopter.

In any event, I have confidence we’ll be seeing this category of tablet grow considerably over the next year.  Here are the specs you should look for:

  • A 7-inch screen
  • A 1 GHz or more, dual- or quad-core CPU
  • At least 1 GB of RAM
  • 4 or more GB of storage
  • Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”
  • Possibly front- and rear-facing cameras
  • A price between $200 and $250, give or take

UPDATE 6/27/2012:  Google and Asus have taken the wraps off their new $199 tablet and it looks like a winner: