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New tablets undercut iPad but come with trade-offs

David Sarno
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — The iPad, the heavyweight champ of the tablet world, has summarily knocked out every challenger it has faced since it debuted last year.

The defeated include tablets with names including Xoom, PlayBook, TouchPad, G-Slate and Streak, none of which has grabbed more than a tiny sliver of the $10-billion tablet market over which the iPad reigns.

But now a pair of new lighter-weight contenders are aiming to hit Apple Inc. where it hurts: the price tag.

Amazon.com Inc.’s $199 Kindle Fire and the $249 Nook Tablet from Barnes&Noble Inc. retail for less than half the cost of the lowest-priced iPad and are undercutting the prices of nearly every brand-name tablet on the market. If the companies are successful, analysts say, they may be able to put the devices in the hands of millions who have felt that $500 was too much to spend on a tablet.

“These two companies are going to start proving that there’s a media tablet market, not just an iPad market,” said Tom Mainelli, a mobile device analyst at research firm IDC. “Now that some of these devices cost $200, it really throws it open to the mainstream.”

But the lower cost of these devices comes with a series of trade-offs. The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet have smaller screens — only 7 inches compared with the iPad’s more spacious 10 inches — and their speed and handling are more like an economy sedan than the high-performance sports-car feel of the iPad. Their batteries don’t last as long as the iPad’s, they have no option for cellular connections, and the catalog of applications they support is substantially smaller than Apple’s.

It bears remembering, in fact, that the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are descended from slower electronic readers — simple devices that do little more than display the text of books that users download from an online store. In that sense, the tablets improve on earlier e-readers, adding access to the Internet and social networks and the ability to listen to music, watch online videos from Netflix and Hulu and send email.

“For users looking to simply read books, watch movies, listen to music and play the occasional game, the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are perfect candidates that will not create a big dent in their pockets,” said Walter Galan, an analyst at San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based iFixit. “But for those looking for a full-fledged tablet, the iPad is probably a better choice in the long run.”

If you’re considering a tablet, then, it’s a simple cost-benefit analysis: Do you need all the fancy features and screen real estate of the more expensive iPad, or can you get by with a smaller, slightly slower tablet with a palette of more basic functions, and pocket the difference?

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