Edward Tessen Tanaka
Feb 29, 2012

iPad vs Kindle vs Nook: Preventing buyer's remorse

For months you have been watching your friends and co-workers -- sometimes with a little envy -- as they enjoyed using their iPads, Kindles or Nooks. You finally have some extra cash and want to join the legions of tablet and e-reader owners, but with so many different reports and opinions, which should you buy?

The goal of this analysis is not to list all the exciting features that come with these respective products -- you can find those on their websites and marketing literature -- but to prevent you from experiencing that awful feeling known as buyer’s remorse by letting you know exactly what you are receiving for your hard-earned dollars. So, to better understand which product will better suit your immediate lifestyle needs, let’s look take a quick look at the market.

Since the inception and release of the first iPad in 2010, the market has experienced a deluge of similar products, but none has had as significant an impact on the personal computing market as the iPad. As of today, the Apple store carries more than 500,000 unique applications that can perform more functions than most owners are even aware of and support many different lifestyles.   Candidly, the tablet market is littered with failures; many products die before they even have a chance to make a second version. The first tablet "death" that comes to mind is portable computing pioneer Palm via a one billion dollar euthanasia procedure from HP. This was a colossal failure which means there are a few hundred thousand people walking around using a tablet that has no technical support, no security updates and no new applications.  

Basically, they purchased an expensive, rechargeable paperweight

So, with that perspective in mind, let’s look at the financial solvency of the companies who produce the iPad, Kindle and Nook.

Apple is now the most valuable company in the world. The company has cash reserves in excess of $100 billion -- which, and we know this isn’t saying much, is more than the United States government. If you buy an iPad, despite its starting price point of $400 (refurbished on their website), we can safely assume you are not buying what will eventually become a paperweight.

Barnes & Noble. This company is in awful financial shape. They are bleeding red. Their financial position is only marginally better than Borders, a competitor who they ended up buying a year ago. 

To be fair, their Nook business is the only unit outperforming the market and also the only unit worth betting the survival of the company upon. They expect about $1.5 billion from the Nook and Nook Books this year. However, Circuit City, another brand in the click-and-brick space, was once in a similar position and unable to survive because the debt of the parent company destroyed the growth of the online division. Therefore, we’ll say you have about a 50-50 chance of your e-reader becoming a paperweight should you buy a Nook.

Amazon. This company is somewhat of an oddball to assess.  They do at least have positive cash reserves. Nothing in the league of Apple -- who does? -- but their management team has done a commendable job of keeping the company relevant and also maintaining cash flow during these times of slow economic growth. Plus, they understand far better than Barnes & Noble how to use technology and to some degree what users want from digital devices. For example, the Kindle has superior performance when compared to the Nook (which can load rather slowly). 

However, as with Apple we can safely assume you are not buying a paperweight. The Kindle also starts at $79 and moves up to approximately $250 for an enhanced version that includes a color screen. In contrast, the iPad runs from $400 to $800 depending on the wireless capabilities and storage capacity of the model (which, by the way, is often cited by users as another shortcoming of the Kindle).

Moving forward, let’s now discuss the primary and secondary capabilities (or lack thereof) of the iPad, Nook and Kindle. 

Without a doubt, should reading books be your only purpose, we highly recommend the Kindle. The price point can’t be beaten and the LCD display utilized by the iPad makes it difficult to read the screen in adverse lighting conditions. In addition, the glare caused by the LCD can be fatiguing on the eyes; human factors studies, in particular those that focus on perception psychology, have proven so. The Nook, while similar in appearance and price point to the Kindle, has what we in the field of design call latency issues. This means it’s slow. The page flip feature is so slow that you actually have to pause for several seconds when turning a page.  Unfortunately, latency can greatly impact the user experience and turn something that is relaxing into something tedious.

Amazon, based on the demands of the market, has been expanding the capabilities of their Kindle line to include a fully colorized version with an LCD screen called the Kindle Fire.  Because Amazon is a business that also sells intellectual property on behalf of many media and entertainment companies, they have a content universe that can be accessed with a flat fee that includes movies and music (and free shipping on any Amazon purchases!) for just $80 per year. That’s cheaper than Netflix.

On the downside, being an e-commerce company doesn’t mean you know how to design a tablet from the standpoint of performance. The Kindle, although better than the Nook, is still slow and limited when viewing larger pieces of content. 

Magazines for instance do not display well on the Kindle, but exceptionally well on the iPad.  Finally, The Kindle is designed for content consumption -- within limited parameters -- while the iPad is designed for content consumption without parameters.

Of course you pay double for the most basic iPad even compared to the most expensive Kindle.

This means that beyond the simplicity of reading a black and white book -- where the Kindle and Nook can outperform the iPad -- and not from the standpoint of technical merit, but user experience, there are numerous trade-offs, but the Kindle and Nook were never designed to operate applications.  

Because marketing and public relations are often based on feature sets, Kindle and Nook will continue to expand their capabilities, but all versions of their e-readers to date are slow when it comes to performance. Slow performance ultimately affects not only the user experience, but also our perceptions of the product. Apple, on the other hand, has continued to enhance its product through performance and let users decided how they wish to implement their enhancements based on their lifestyle. However, technical excellence comes with a cost, making the iPad -- not including the cost of content -- double the price of the nearest comparable model offered by Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

We recommend that you base your decision on buying a tablet or e-reader on how you will use the product rather than the features that are mentioned in marketing campaigns because no matter how many bells and whistles a product has, if you don’t use them all, they aren’t worth paying for. Ultimately, any electronic device that doesn’t meet your expectations around the experience it provides -- especially in something that can be as leisurely or as productive as reading, listening and watching -- can quickly become a paperweight regardless of the intent and how much money you save (or spend).