With so many tablets on the market this season, even a dedicated technophile is likely to fear an overdose.
There's the iPad, of course, and wannabes such as Samsung's Galaxy, an Android tablet designed to mimic the iPad's mix of size, power, and price. There are discounted tablets that use the Android, RIM, or Windows operating systems. There are even kiddie tablets such as the Vinci and InnoTab aimed at the "edutainment" sweet spot. (Will clicking now count as a developmental milestone?)
But two new entrants stand out as much for their combination of price and provenance as their features: Amazon's Kindle Fire, selling for $199, and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, for $249.
The buzz was palpable before the Fire and the Nook Tablet hit the market last month. In particular, analysts speculated that Amazon was creating the first real competition for the iPad, whose April 2010 launch basically created a new product niche.
The excitement faded with word of the new tablets' screen sizes: 7 inches diagonally vs. the iPad's 9.7-inch screen. But maybe it shouldn't have. A closer look at the Fire and Nook suggests that the two booksellers have cemented a new niche of their own, halfway between a smartphone and what iPad has already come to define as a "full-size" tablet.
What do the two tablets deliver? A few specifics:
Display. Building on their origins in e-book readers, the Fire and Nook each offer customizable touchscreen displays that are great for reading books, newspapers, or magazines as well as for watching movies or TV or browsing the Web.
Both allow users to easily vary font sizes and to switch away from the standard black text on white background to suit different lighting conditions and tastes.
Barnes & Noble touts the Nook's advantages for video, including a laminated screen "with no air gaps" that developer-relations director Claudia Romanini says minimizes glare while making it easier for more than one person to see the screen.
Amazon counters Nook's antiglare screen with the Fire's "antireflective treatment," which seems to show more smudges than the Nook when the screen is asleep. But awake - and despite a corporate-sniping war over whether Nook has a significant edge in video resolution for Netflix streaming - both screens offer impressively crisp and sharp displays.
Apps. The Nook and the Fire are built with Google's Android operating system, a competitor to Apple that suffers in part from its flexibility. Because each device-maker designs a separate "skin," apps that work perfectly on one device are sometimes problematic on another.
The Nook and Fire address the issue similarly, offering "curated" libraries of apps optimized for each device. "We look at all the different classes of apps, and we target the best-of-class for all these applications," Romanini says.
E-mail. Both the Nook and Fire connected effortlessly to my Gmail, Comcast, and Mac e-mail accounts - once I realized my office wireless network was blocking some of the electronic ports that e-mail relies on and relocated my testing to Starbucks.
Neither tablet's mail program supports Microsoft Exchange, used by many businesses. But you can download an app, TouchDown, that does - if you just can't resist.
Sweet spots. To me, the lure of a tablet over a laptop isn't just extra portability. It's the idea that the device isn't customized for work, even if you get e-mail, read Word documents, and view PowerPoint presentations on it to your heart's content.
So what are these devices' sweet spots?
With Barnes & Noble, the target audience begins, not surprisingly, with readers. Your Nook's library is designed around personal "shelves." If you read something that rocks, you can easily share it with friends. You can record narration - the Nook has a microphone the Fire lacks - to read to your children when you're away, or record their own voices.
Amazon's aim isn't much different. Fire users can also build on their previous e-book collections, and get optimized access to Amazon Prime's shopping and video-streaming services.
Above all, both show why tablets shine as multimedia devices, with features such as interactive magazines.
The bottom line? The Nook offers some advantages for your extra $50, including the mic, an extra 8 gigabytes of built-in memory, and a Micro-SD card slot. I also like its feel a bit better - its soft edges reflect a package with fewer price-feature tradeoffs.
But the Nook and the Fire share more similarities than differences - and both show there's really nothing magical about a certain screen size.
Quit thinking of them as undersized iPads, and think of them as smartphones on steroids - albeit without the phone connections. They won't supplant the iPad. But at less than half the price, they'll give Apple a run for its money for good reason.