Apple's iPad had last year's holiday season to itself. Until recently, competitors were never able to gain any ground, with their high prices and lower quality. HP discontinued its tablet earlier this year because of poor sales.
But that has now all changed for the 2011 holiday season. Enter the Amazon Kindle Fire, which combines Amazon's popular e-book reader with a full feature tablet computer, and is expected to become the first serious competitor to the iPad 2.
And Barnes & Noble has released a tablet similar to the Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet.
The Kindle Fire advertises high speed web surfing, Netflix movies and full e-book capabilities, all for $199: that's $300 less than the base iPad. It's lower price point makes it a real contender for families on a tight budget or someone buying a tablet for a 10- or 12-year-old child.
The Nook is $50 more, at $250.
The obvious differences
The Kindle Fire has two obvious differences, that you can see immediately. The Kindle has no camera, so you cannot shoot video or use it for Skype or any form or web chat.
In addition, it is just a 7-inch tablet, as opposed to the 10-inch size of the iPad, so it is noticeably smaller.
But how does it compare to the iPad from a user perspective? What about speed and ease of use? How is it at handling web video?
IT expert sizes them up
We brought an iPad and Kindle Fire to Certified IT Manager Dan Snelson, an expert on Apple, Microsoft,and Google Android devices.
Dan's first impression: The Kindle's homepage looks very different.
"I thought I was in a bookstore. But that's the metaphor they use," he said.
Everything sits on simulated wood shelves, Amazon's nod to its bookstore roots. While the Kindle uses Android technology, you can't tell that from the user interface.
But inside you have a full color tablet PC, with web browsing, apps, and even Netflix movies.
But Dan confirmed what reviewers in the New York Times and Forbes Magazine have pointed out: It's not as fast or smooth.
"It feels like a $200 tablet. It's not going to be as fast as an iPad," he said.
For instance, the Kindle's e-books slide from page to page, even though book reading is Kindle's strongest point. On Apple's iPad, it looks like you are turning a real page.
Dan explained, "This page turning feature on the iPad feels kind of cool. This is just Apple's way of doing things."
What the reviewers say
The New York Times review says the Kindle Fire is "not as versatile as the iPad," missing a calendar and other features, especially those that business people would want. It also said pages load slower, and that the touch screen is not as sensitive as an iPad's.
In the Wall Street Journal's review , tech guru Walter Mossberg calls the Kindle "good, but not great."
Dan the IT guy agrees.
"Overall it's good, it's responsive, it has a nice web browser but it doesn't have the fit and finish and polish of an Apple product."
Kindle Fire's low price point makes it great for someone on a budget, or as a gift for a child. It's tough to justify giving a 10-year-old a $500 tablet, even if you can afford it.
Meantime Consumer Reports Magazine has just reviewed the Nook Tablet. It says it is similar to the Kindle Fire, but does not have as much storage space, since it doesn't have "cloud" access.
But the Nook has an advantage if you are giving it to an older relative: you can get help at any local Barnes & Noble store.
But the bottom line -- national reviewers and our IT expert both say potential buyers need to realize the Kindle Fire and Nook are not an iPad, so you are not surprised.
Watch the video in the player above to see how they match up, so you don't waste your money.
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