I have been playing with both the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet for the last month trying to work through why I have to force myself to use them. In weeks of carrying them around, I still find that their chief attribute is weight. In my everyday digital media routines I am most likely to use them as a relatively light ebook reader when lying in bed. In other words, for all their other functionality, their core use for me remains with each device’s roots in the Nook and Kindle eReader platforms.
Which is also to say I am thoroughly spoiled by the iPad. The larger screen, superior performance, and more fluid interface of the Apple device, to which I have become accustomed for 18 months, makes the new 7-inch tablet category always feel like a downgrade.
For the millions of newcomers who embraced the Fire and Nook Tablet this holiday, however, I imagine the experience is different. In the end, both gadgets put in consumers’ hands more media, of more kinds, with greater fidelity and portability than they likely have experienced before. While not quite “magical” in the way some encounter the iPad, both of these devices seem to strike most users (judging from the online consumer reviews) at the upper end of “good enough.”
That said, these are being marketed as “media consumption devices.” So here's how I experienced consuming large quantities of different media on them for a short while.
The wide/long display form factor of the 7-inchers seems to impact my media engagement at every turn, and this surprised me. As a book reader in portrait mode and a Netflix movie viewer in landscape mode, the form factor works very well. In each case the media maximizes the limited screen real estate so that at medium-arm distance I am absorbed. In other respects, however, the aspect ratio doesn’t work as well as the iPad’s.
Even the best digital magazine translations to the two smaller tablets break the illusion of magazine reading. For instance, The New Yorker for the Nook Tablet uses the same Adobe publishing system that powers Conde Nast’s digital titles on the iPad. We get a drop-down table of contents, a visual index of all pages, the thumbnail scrubber, and very strong use of video, audio and hot links throughout. Conde Nast has done this as well in its slate of interactive magazines on the Fire. But the longer format is distinctly un-magazine-like. The layouts often feel squeezed. Conde Nast has done a great job of adapting the content to make it fully readable on the smaller display, but the form factor requires more scrolling than swiping. It feels more Web-like.
The form factor works against both tablets as Web browsers. In portrait mode, the narrowness of the screen often forces too much content at too small a scale into the frame to be legible. In landscape mode, the media itself is expanded and more legible -- but there is much less of it on screen in the narrow widescreen format.
It doesn’t help that neither browser on these devices is very well designed. Simple things like accessing bookmarks are harder than they need to be. Both browsers use an irritating thumbnail page to access bookmarks. In practice, I still find the Nook Tablet’s browser snappier than Amazon’s. But both suffer from sluggish pinch and zoom operations.
The best outcome for me on these devices comes when a site recognizes the Nook or Fire as a mobile Android device and feeds me the smartphone version of itself. This of course breaks the sense of using a full-scale Web browser, but the layouts usually match the scale better than do the full Web sites.
There has been precious little attempt among app makers to adapt Android apps to the larger format. One wishes that both manufacturers had partnered more aggressively with media before launch to ensure that someone somewhere was designing for this screen and setting a higher bar for everyone. From Weather Channel to AP Mobile, BuzzFeed to CNet, using apps other than games on these platforms feels pretty much like using a large smartphone.
Among the content providers I have been trying, USA Today appears to be the one thinking hardest and earliest about how to manage the longer, narrower screen. The newspaper brand’s Fire app splits the difference between iPad and smartphone wisely by filling the top half of the display with an engaging image and using the full expanse of the display below for a scroll of stories and thumbnails.
Despite my litany of gripes about the new tablets, which clearly are informed by my iPad habit, I still think these can be engaging platforms if content providers think harder about the limitations and possibilities of the longer, smaller display format. There is real opportunity here to stand out.
For example, Amazon and Barnes & Noble had a small war over comic books and graphic novels on their respective platforms. Amazon nailed down 100 DC graphic novels and B&N countered with a deal with Marvel. The problem is that neither platform delivers a very good graphic novel experience when this should have been a no-brainer. The Fire has a comic reader than nominally pops up each frame of a comic page for easier viewing, but the technique is not immersive enough. The Nook Tablet only lets you use its balky zoom maneuver to manually expand the page.
Comics should be a killer app for these devices. But the native comics readers for Fire and Nook are inadequate. Instead, the
third-party app that shines on the iPad, Comixology, has a solid version for the Fire that shows both Amazon and B&N how it should be done. The individual frames fill the screen to a scale that is legible and even engaging.
For the short term, at least I continue to experience the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet as e-readers with benefits rather than truly engaging tablets. The video playback on both do make them credible alternative screens for on-demand video. The Nook has better video fidelity in playback, but with the Fire, Amazon has finally turned its on-demand video catalog into a user-friendly catalog.
But it seems to me there is an enormous opportunity for media companies and their marketing partners to make a mark here by designing for the format and helping both devices feel like something more immersive than an oversized smartphone. The gulf between what these device now are and what they could be is waiting to be filled. There is no reason why they should remain just good enough.