Our test images looked sharp and lovely on the Nook Tablet, which also played our 1080p .MP4 test movie smoothly and with fine detail.
Unfortunately, the Nook Tablet's My Media gallery viewer app is a mess. It dumps all of your images into a single undifferentiated top-level view, regardless of any folders you may have organized them into on your media card. Thumbnails appear as fuzzy, poorly rendered squares. The app has a basic slideshow mode, but you can't see image or movie file names, and you can't opt to email an image to someone—all basic functions in competing Android 3.2 tablets and in Apple's iPad 2. Barnes & Noble says that its video player can also handle 3GP and 3G2 MKV video, but I didn't try those formats. The company also says that it plans to improve My Media in a future update; but at this point, the app is a hassle.
The Kindle Fire's Gallery app makes images painful to view. It automatically resizes images transferred to the device, lowering resolution and dropping detail in the process--and making it impossible to zoom in on the image if you want to show something. The Fire resized one of my test images to 486 by 324 from its original 3888 by 2592 pixels. The problem lies entirely with Amazon's Gallery app software, since that same photo renders well on the Kindle Fire in a free image viewer that I downloaded, exhibiting better color and saturation, and reasonably sharp detail. The same picture displayed in the Fire's native image gallery was much worse.
Unlike the Nook Tablet's app, the Kindle Fire's Gallery app supports folders, shows rectangular thumbnails as well as square ones, and displays image information. It can play videos just as the Gallery app does on the Nook Tablet and on Android tablets in general. My 1080p .MP4 test video ran in the same video player that the Fire used for playing videos acquired from Amazon, complete with that player's nifty 10-second rewind button. Amazon says that its video player supports just two file formats: .MP4 and Google's VP8.
My test video retained most of its sharpness and detail, though it did stutter in a couple of spots (the same video looked better and had no stutters on the Nook Tablet). In contrast, the Amazon-acquired videos that I tried in the same player looked fuzzy and often showed pixelation and artifacts.
The Nook Tablet is adequate for viewing pictures and videos, but I consider the Fire completely unusable for viewing images.
Much of a tablet's appeal rests in the apps you can run on it--not just just how many are available, but how good they are and how attractive they look on the device.
Since you're limited to the apps available in the small app stores run by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, neither tablet is a good choice if you want the hottest Android apps right away. You have no way of knowing whether cool apps will be available for either of these devices.
And since both tablets appear to lack capabilities such as multitasking and (in the Nook Tablet's case) standard menu overlays, some cool present and future apps may not run on either device.
Amazon and Barnes & Noble are trying to enlarge their app stores' holdings, but neither will come close to the number of apps that Google Market offers for Android 2.3 or that Apple offers for iOS. At launch, Amazon said that it had more than 8500 apps for the Kindle Fire, and it continues to add apps daily. Barnes & Noble says that it is increasing its collection and that it expects to have about 1000 apps by year's end.
As for how well apps work on the devices, the Nook Tablet shines in this area. Many of the apps I downloaded seemed well adapted to run on the tablet's 7-inch screen instead of looking like blown-up versions of standard Android phone apps. Barnes & Noble says that it works with its developers to optimize apps for the Nook Tablet, removing references to features that the tablet lacks, such as a camera or a GPS connection. The company also says that, in curating what apps go into its store, it tries to filter out bad-looking apps; the downside of this policy is that you end up with dramatically fewer choices than are available elsewhere.
To judge from the apps I downloaded, Amazon seems to take less care to ensure that the apps for its tablet work well and look good on a 7-inch screen. I say this despite learning from a company spokesperson that "we test each app to make sure it works great on Fire." Though I found fun games like Airport Mania: First Flight (not available for the Nook Tablet) at Amazon's app store, the graphics looked fuzzy, as though they'd been blown up to fit the 7-inch display. With apps available for both Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet—such as Pandora and Quickoffice Pro--the Nook Tablet versions typically had better layouts and graphics. Even the Nook Tablet's Hulu Plus and Netflix apps looked better than the Kindle Fire's.
Kindle Fire lets you sideload Android apps, but there's no guarantee that they'll work, let alone display well. Apps that I sideloaded but that needed the tablet's accelerometer, for example, wouldn't work. Sideloading is awkward, too: You have to uncheck an option in the settings to allow non-Amazon programs to install; then you have to access the Android .APK via a file manager app.
I've seen reports that Nook Tablet has a workaround for downloading Android .APKs via its Web browser, but forums report mixed success with this technique in the wild. We haven't gotten it to work yet on our Nook, but we'll keep trying.
This story, "Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet: Which should you buy?" was originally published by PCWorld.