by Bruce Lidl
With Thanksgiving (and the various themed shopping days that follow) now past us, the highpoint (or lowpoint depending on your viewpoint) of the annual shopping season has arrived in full force, and according to various trend observers, tablets are once again one of, if not the, thing to give or receive this year. Unlike in previous years however, when “tablet” actually just meant “iPad,” in 2012 we are finally seeing a bit of diversity in the “portable device that is bigger than a smartphone but doesn’t have a keyboard” category, beyond just the offerings from Cupertino. And considering what a great fit for comics tablets are proving to be, no matter the specific shape or size, not to mention the ever expanding offerings of digital comics, it is worth a glance to see how the landscape is shaping up for tablets and comics this year.
Amazon released the original Kindle Fire roughly a year ago, and while it has certainly not overtaken the tablet crown from the iPad, it did demonstrate that other companies could compete in the arena, particularly if their device had tight integration into broad content eco-systems (something that all the pre-Fire Android tablets sorely lacked). Smaller, less powerful, but decidedly cheaper, the Kindle Fire expanded the Kindle brand beyond mere black and white eReaders and helped to legitimize the 7 inch form factor, despite Steve Jobs’ previous dismissals of that format. Attempting to build on the first Kindle Fire’s success, Amazon has diversified its lineup of tablets this year, offering not just the original Kindle Fire ($159), but expanding with the Kindle Fire HD (same size and shape as original but better a 1280×800 screen, more powerful, etc for $199) and the Kindle Fire HD “8.9 (larger, better 1920×1200 screen, more powerful, etc. for $299).
Barnes & Noble technically beat Amazon to the punch with their Nook Color, a 7 inch Android skinned tablet very similar to the original Kindle Fire, but without the marketing power of Amazon, the Nook Color languished a bit compared to its Kindle competitor. Nonetheless, B&N (with some financial assistance from Microsoft) is pushing ahead with tablets, and now has an improved Nook HD (better screen, more powerful, etc. for $199) and a larger 9 inch Nook HD+ ($269). A third entry in the eReader-based Android-skinned tablet competition is the Canada-based Kobo, with a very Kindle Fire-like Kobo Vox ($179) and a newer Kobo Arc (better screen, more powerful, etc. $249).
The offerings from Amazon, B&N and Kobo share some fundamentals, notably they are essentially modified Android tablets, with strong integration with their respective online retailers. All of them do, however, allow the installation of Android apps so with some basic technical know-how they can each provide access to each other’s stores, or other independent markets. An owner of a Nook HD could conceivably purchase content from B&N, Amazon or any of the comics publishers affiliated with Comixology, iVerse or their own stores (like Dark Horse). Hence, preferences between these pretty similar devices will likely depend more on comfort with a particular retailer than any noticeable specification or app differences at a particular price point.
Of course, the hitherto dominant figure in the tablet world remains the iPad, and Apple continues to iterate the device now in its fourth generation. The big news is, however, the introduction of the iPad mini, the first major deviation from the original iPad format, shrinking the screen down from 9.7 inches to 7.85, creating a tablet that is smaller, lighter and more ergonomic, if sacrificing some power and display resolution. By all indications the iPad mini is proving to be very popular, and has even convinced some Apple observers that the mini is the logical development of the iPad, and the smaller format will become the “default” size ultimately. On the other hand, the mini goes backwards from a resolution standpoint (1024 x 768) and is not a “retina” display, or even “high definition” by normal understanding. While the mini obviously benefits from the maturity and depth of the overall iOS experience and App Store, from a specific comic perspective, the advantage the standard iPads have had in displaying graphic storytelling is somewhat blunted in this case. For $199 the Amazon Kindle HD has a 7 inch display with a resolution of 1280×800, and while resolution is not the only factor when it comes to screen quality, it does create an interesting comparison to the $349 iPad mini. The fourth generation non-mini iPad retains the larger screen size and high resolution display (2,048 × 1,536) of its predecessor, but did receive a computing power boost and starts at $499.
From a sheer visual quality standpoint, it is hard to beat reading comics on the larger, sharper iPad, but as we have already seen, Android competitors are not sitting still when it comes to resolution, and comics should look fantastic on any of the HD capable models from Amazon or B&N. The most buzzed about Android tablet this year, however, remains the Nexus 7, the first tablet in Google’s Nexus line of quasi-flagship devices that receive special software attention from Google. A relatively powerful device for its 7 inch screen size, with HD resolution, no retailer app restrictions and a guarantee of always receiving the latest version of the Android operating system, the Nexus 7 will appeal most to price sensitive power users at $199. There is also a larger Nexus 10 available, but with a size, screen and price ($399) that borders on iPad territory it is not as compelling an option, although digital comics will certainly look great on it.
Surprisingly, at least to me, what may be the best current “over-all” tablet choice with a comics emphasis is the Barnes&Noble Nook HD+. It has a large-ish size screen that displays digital comics excellently, has a pretty good price to performance ratio ($269 for the 16GB model), can be rooted for maximum flexibility and compatibility, and even has the ability to expand storage with microSD cards (up to 32GB added). Still small and light enough to be read in bed comfortably, the Nook HD+ offers many of the benefits of the larger iPad, but at almost half the price.