Hardware specs aren’t everything when it comes to tablet performance. If they were, the Kindle Fire never would have gotten off the ground. Still, the Nexus 7 from Google is far enough ahead in that respect that if you are buying a $199 tablet right this second the choice is clear. People invested in Amazon’s ecosystem, or interested in choosing what is quickly becoming the leading provider of digital media, will still grab the Kindle Fire. Everybody else would want the Nexus 7. It is just better at being a general purpose tablet.
This doesn’t mean that Google has won, though. They are in the lead for the moment, but we have months before sales spike again and in the meantime Amazon will be releasing their new hardware. Even if it doesn’t stand out as completely superior to Google’s device, the next Kindle Fire will draw a crowd for any number of reasons. Nothing else in the Android market has managed to compete on the same level so far and it isn’t just because Amazon dropped prices.
There was a time when I would have predicted that Google of all companies would be quick to adapt to the competition. The delays surrounding the Nexus 7’s release tend to indicate that this is not the case. The company had trouble getting the power they needed to make this an ideal showcase for Android 4.1 while also keeping the price down at $199. With Amazon clearly being willing to subsidize their hardware to bring in media customers, that price will almost certainly not be rising. The Kindle Fire’s hardware will be improved nonetheless, though.
Right now, as I said, it is a clear choice. If you truly want a tablet right now and can’t afford to wait, the Nexus 7 is the best thing on the market and you will not be disappointed. Nobody else is going to release such an affordable yet functional general purpose Android tablet right now. By the end of the year things will be more chaotic. Customers will be facing holiday choices involving not only Kindle Fire vs Nexus 7 or Android vs iOS, but Everybody vs Windows 8.
All of the hardware looks like it is going to be impressive and tablet sales numbers are expected to be higher than ever. Google will have had their tablet in peoples’ hands for longer than any of the major players besides Apple by that point. It allows a lot of time for interest to have cooled in the meantime. They are rumored to be trying to offset that by scheduling a later release of the Nexus 10, but the same rumors mention setbacks due to manufacturing difficulties so that may be off the table for a while.
Realistically, I think it is fair to say that Amazon will continue to be a major player (possibly THE major player) in Android tablets for the indefinite future. The only thing they really have to worry about is the downfall of Android if Windows 8 tablets take off. Google’s devices are going to be better at running stock Android builds, but Amazon has never tried to pass the Kindle Fire off as the most powerful device on the market. As long as they can keep the comparisons from going too far in favor of the competition, the integrated media services will carry the sales.
While it has been known for a while now that Amazon’s first effort at tablet design, the Kindle Fire, was probably the most popular non-Apple tablet on the market, we have only just learned to what extent that is true. Recent information coming out of comScore indicates that the Kindle Fire has managed to acquire 54% of the Android tablet market in the months it has been available. Nobody else even comes close.
The last time we talked about this topic, the Kindle Fire had just started pulling ahead of the Samsung Galaxy Tab as the most popular of the iPad alternatives. Things are now apparently a bit less close. comScore reports that the Kindle Fire now has just under four times the market share enjoyed by the Galaxy Tab.
This report looks exclusively at the period from December 2011 through February 2012. In that time the Kindle’s popularity nearly doubled while not a single other Android tablet gained at all. The Galaxy Tab family lost nearly ten percent, falling from 23.8% to 15.4% of the market.
Amazon clearly struck the right note with their surprisingly low pricing of the Kindle Fire. At $199, it immediately enjoyed an advantage over the competition. While there are other options now at the same price, nobody has managed to leverage that advantage quite as well as Amazon did. Some of that is likely due to exposure and brand recognition. The Kindle Fire was the first truly useful $199 tablet and by far the most heavily advertised.
Mostly we can blame the competition’s failures on the inability to compete with Amazon’s media integration. Google has been doing great things with Google Play recently, including huge efforts to clean up the App selection and greater emphasis on video and music selections, but it is far from the experience the Fire offers even on a completely unaltered installation of Android.
The big question now is whether anybody else can hope to compete. The tablet market is increasingly centered around the iPad and the Kindle Fire. Admittedly this is already a change since six months ago it was entirely centered around the iPad. That said, the low price that Android tablet customers are coming to expect means that the potential for profit among hardware manufacturers without their own content hubs is shrinking at an alarming rate. Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab 2 is impressive, but it seems unlikely that the desire for a more versatile tablet will overcome the Amazon advantages across a large audience.
The Kindle Fire is clearly doing something right to have pulled this far ahead. While Amazon is rumored to be either subsidizing the price slightly or at most selling the hardware at cost, they are not the only option available. Even among the Kindle’s traditional competition, nobody seems to realistically consider the Kobo Vox or Nook Tablet to be equally attractive products at this point. There is more to that than just Amazon’s ability to throw money at problems until they come out on top.
Let’s face it, Amazon’s implementation of Android has to be a sore point for Google. The most popular Android tablet ever, the Kindle Fire, is completely cut off from everything Google has developed to try to integrate and monetize the OS. Is it any surprise that they would want to come out with something in the same size and price range that would blow the Kindle tablet option out of the water? Unfortunately for them, this first attempt at entering the tablet market is going somewhat less smoothly than Amazon’s.
Sources originally reported that a 7” Google tablet costing as little as $150 would be available sometime this May. Running Android 4.0 and powered by NVidea’s Tegra 3 quad-core processor, it was clearly an attempt to show off what a “pure” Android tablet was capable of in this price range. Sadly, we now have news indicating that the design being collaborated on by Google and Asus is running $249 per unit. The inability to keep costs down has brought along a delay until June and may force the elimination of some of the advantages the device was supposed to offer.
Prices on tablets are falling across the board. The iPad remains prohibitively expensive for many, but with an option like the $199 Kindle Fire there is still hope. Amazon did an impressive job of putting out dirt cheap hardware with the hope of making money on the resulting media sales and sales tracking indicates that they have been successful. Anybody hoping to compete with Amazon in the 7” tablet market will have to at least match the price they are offering and even then bring something impressive to the table.
While the obvious way to bring down costs would be to step down from the expensive Tegra 3 processer, Google is apparently trying to avoid that. This makes sense if they are trying to bring something out that really demonstrates the potential of the Android iteration (5.0 Jelly Bean) due out this June. They have to be forward-thinking and prepare to compete against anticipated Windows 8 tablets as well as the Kindle Fire, so cutting corners on performance would not work well.
Does Google have a chance of beating out Amazon? I would say no. The strength of the Kindle Fire isn’t in its power or in its benchmark ratings. Google Play is a step in the right direction, but aside from the App selection (which remains insufficiently moderated at the moment despite recent improvements and any other advantages it may offer) it can’t compare to what Amazon’s store integration brings to the table.
We can hope that this delay turns out to be more of a shift in focus than a fumbling attempt to get back on track with the original plan. An Android 5.0 tablet meant to compete against Windows 8 tablets by offering a superior price and experience would make sense and do a lot to secure the future of the OS if implemented well. An overpriced Kindle Fire competitor aimed at a noticeably different segment of the tablet customer pool than the Kindle would just be disappointing.
Until we see Windows 8 hitting shelves, the only real contenders in the tablet market are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android OS. As much as the BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 does some great things, most of its newfound strength comes from being able to import Android content. Given the importance of Google’s place as the developer of Android, which while lagging behind iOS is still making rapid gains, it has struck many people as troubling that Amazon would take their software and cut them out of the loop entirely with the release of the Kindle Fire. Despite the fact that it’s not really against any rules, the breaking of that the most popular Android tablet ever from the Android Marketplace and other Google services comes up frequently in Kindle Fire reviews. Now we have reason to believe that Google has taken notice and may be willing to respond.
According to recent reports, Google will be releasing their own 7” $200 Kindle Fire competitor as early as early as 2nd Quarter this year. Information is still mostly speculation with regard to the specifics of this new tablet, but supposedly it will run Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”, have a 7” 1280 x 800 display, and be introduced in an initial production run of 1.5 – 2 million units. For a new launch early in the year, that indicates fairly strong confidence in their product.
For once this may actually be a sufficiently strong product to beat out the competition. Google is in a position to control the entire ecosystem surrounding their device, much like Amazon with the Kindle Fire, but can draw on a much more significant pool of content when providing apps and such. This may be what it takes to approach the iPad in a meaningful way right off the bat. While the most obvious conflict being sought when releasing a 7” tablet will be the Google vs Kindle Fire matchup, Apple’s anticipated iPad 3 will be joining the fray as well with a smaller design that intrigues many potential customers.
All of Google’s more recent actions with regard to Android, from the tablet optimization to the automated policing of the Android Marketplace to remove malware and other malicious programs, come together to make this a far more appealing prospect than it could have been a year ago. The Kindle Fire has proven more than anything previously that there is room for more than one big name in the marketplace by overtaking even the most established competing Android devices in a matter of months and setting the new standard for tablet pricing.
At worst this rumored tablet would be something that other Android device developers could model their design on with confidence, knowing that Google is already designing with such a configuration in mind. At best, maybe even the Kindle Fire and iPad have something to look out for in the months to come. Until we see concrete details it’s hard to guess which competitor will be targeted directly, but it’s even harder to imagine that Google would settle for anything less than one of the big names in tablets.
Every few weeks seem to hear something about a new eReader or Tablet PC that is destined to be a “Kindle Killer”. So far, no luck on that. When it comes to the iRiver Story HD, I don’t think anybody is likely to think of making that claim in the first place. That doesn’t in any way mean that it is a device without its virtues, worth taking a look at as a sign of future potential if perhaps little else.
Aesthetically, the Story HD looks like a cheap Kindle knockoff. In practice, it still rather feels that way. The Story HD has a cream front with a rather bland brown backing on it, but other than that, as pictured, the similarities are hard to ignore. Sadly, this does not translate to a superior reading experience.
The feel of the device is a bit cheap, even without taking the dated color scheme into account. The layout of the buttons is a bit strange, with there being no page turn buttons alongside the display like we are used to seeing in an eReader. Even the directional control lacks a central button to select what you are pointing at. Instead, you are expected to switch to the ‘Enter’ button. On top of this, the QWERTY keyboard as a whole simply feels cheap and unusable. Not huge inconveniences taken by themselves, but the accumulation gets a little bit much.
The major saving grace, although not an unqualified success in itself, is the display. It is a significantly higher resolution than the competition(768×1024), and is the first such E INK eReader display to make its way to the US. Text is more detailed and you can fit more on the screen at once, should you be so inclined. It just genuinely looks good, for the most part. Unfortunately, that is not quite enough to make the reading experience a good once. You are given no font choice, no margin or line spacing choice, and the contrast seems poor. The font choice isn’t too big a deal, to me at least, but the default margin that you’re stuck with is basically non-existent and smaller fonts don’t stand out enough compared to the competition. Maybe this is attributable to the light color of the frame, which others like the Kindle have been moving away from, but I didn’t have a white Kindle on hand to compare with.
An important thing to remember when looking at the Story HD is that this is not, properly speaking, a Google product and should not be viewed as such. You can get an idea what an implementation of the Google Bookstore is like on an eReader from using it, but this is just the first Google compatible eReader. If you get a chance to check it out, it is important to try to separate the problems with the hardware from the potential in the open platform. While I can’t say that I would recommend picking up the iRiver Story HD over something like a Nook or Kindle, the fact that Google has found its way to physical eReading devices rather than simply offering apps has the potential to finally make it a major contender.