Success breeds competition, a lesson Apple (AAPL) knows well from its iPhones and iPads. Now Amazon.com (AMZN) is learning it from two new devices that take dead aim at its Kindle tablet-and-e-reader business.
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 is a low-cost, color-tablet alternative to the Kindle Fire. Taking on the traditional monochrome Kindle is Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. Each has features that surpass Amazon’s current offerings.
Of all the tablets launched in the iPad’s wake, the Kindle Fire has fared the best, thanks to its low $199 price and easy access to Amazon’s vast collection of books, movies and music. But with chunky hardware and sluggish software, the Fire itself is no great shakes.
At $249, the Galaxy Tab 2 is $50 more expensive. But you get your money’s worth in features missing from the Fire, including front and rear-facing cameras and a remote-control zapper for your home-entertainment gear. There’s also a more elegant design and more-up-to-date software.
The Galaxy, like the Kindle, operates only over a Wi-Fi Internet connection. Both are based on Google’s Android operating system. But while the Kindle runs a heavily modified version that requires you to get apps only from Amazon, the Samsung uses the latest tablet-friendly flavor, known as “Ice Cream Sandwich,” that allows apps from multiple sources.
Like the Kindle, the Galaxy features a seven-inch backlit color screen with 1024-by-600 resolution and a minimalist eight gigabytes of onboard storage -- less than five gigabytes of which are actually available to the user for storing content and apps.
But the screen is housed in a unit that is thinner and, at 12.13 ounces, lighter than the Amazon tablet. And the Galaxy features a slot for a MicroSD card to expand its capacity.
That isn’t important if you mostly use your tablet for reading e-books, which don’t take up much space, or for streaming media over the Wi-Fi connection. It’s crucial if you have a lot of movies and music you want to be able to carry with you and access even when you’re offline.
While the Galaxy comes pre-loaded with e-reader software from Kobo, I immediately installed the free Kindle Android app, which gave me access to all the e-books I’d previously purchased from Amazon, as well as the ability to buy new ones from the best-of-breed Kindle Store.
Still, the app lacks some additional features you find only on a Kindle device, such as the Lending Library that allows users of Amazon’s $79-a-year Prime service to electronically borrow books at no extra cost.
It’s in perks like that, and the overall seamlessness of the Kindle, that the Galaxy Tab finds it hardest to compete. Yes, you have more choices -- Samsung’s own Media Hub store, Netflix (NFLX), Google Books and the like -- but they require separate apps and separate log-ins. Compared with Amazon’s built-in software and one-time log-in, the Samsung experience is fragmented.
One general advantage of color tablets is that they provide their own light, making them easy to read in less-illuminated conditions. Unless, of course, you’re reading in bed next to someone who’s trying to sleep.
Until now, there’s been little recourse, since the monochrome Kindle and its competitors, which use a technology called E Ink, have required an external source like a lamp or clip-on reading light. That’s where the $139 Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight comes in.
At first glance, the new Nook is indistinguishable from Barnes & Noble (BKS)’s $99 monochrome reader, which I found to be a close second to Amazon’s comparable Kindle Touch the last time I looked at the field.
The big difference is that the new Nook has its own built- in row of light-emitting diodes hidden along the upper edge of the screen. You can turn the light on and off and also adjust the brightness.
The light imparts a bluish glow to the screen that makes text quite readable in low-light situations. While the light on my test unit wasn’t uniform -- I noted a slightly dark area near the top of the screen, affecting the first couple lines of text -- I still found it easy on the eyes, and a lot more convenient than other solutions.
Aside from the $40 premium over the standard Nook, Barnes & Noble says using the light doubles the Nook’s power consumption. But battery life is already so great with E Ink (8069) devices that having to charge the Nook once a month instead of every two months doesn’t seem an undue imposition.
At less than seven ounces, the new model weighs even less than the already featherweight unlit version, and B&N has also added a new anti-reflective screen protector.
Amazon’s devices have so much momentum it’s unlikely that the Galaxy Tab or Nook will dethrone them, and no doubt future Kindles will quickly adopt the more compelling new features. Still, the Galaxy Tab 2 and Nook with GlowLight provide worthwhile alternatives.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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