The Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet are the two big players in a new category of device that has emerged in the wake of the iPad: the handheld multimedia viewer. Unlike the iPad, these devices really don't mimic and transform the functions of the personal computer, which is made for both input and output; rather, they are descendants of the television, radio and the book itself: they're all output: you can't, or wouldn't want to, create anything with these devices, except a dent in your wallet (not so much from the tablets themselves, which cost $200 for the Kindle Fire and $250 for the Nook Tablet, but from all the content you'll end up buying to make use of them).

And these two devices are all about content. The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are basically comparable in terms of horsepower (not much) and size (the Nook Tablet is a little bigger, but a bit lighter, and more compellingly designed, with it's intriguing corner cutout), but the real difference is content--there's more of it available on the Kindle, and it's easier to buy and use, so I say the short answer on which to buy if you want one of these is save yourself $50 and go with the Kindle.

But, the Nook Tablet does have its strong selling points. From the moment you open the box, you can tell that the Nook Tablet was designed by a company that’s spent its whole life building inviting retail spaces: the Nook’s user interface is much more colorful and fun to look at than the Kindle’s dim bookshelf. The Nook has a big, luminous “N” radiating from the middle of its violet home screen (to which you can pin favorite apps, books and magazines for easy access) and an endlessly scrolling carousel not unlike the Kindle’s, but at the bottom of the screen. All the navigation is much more pleasing to look at than the Kindle’s--it’s kind of a peppy virtual environment, versus the Kindle’s gray digital warehouse. The screen also seems to have a bit less glare than the Kindle’s.

The home button--an actual button, a raised letter “N” just under the screen that takes you back to the main menu--is a useful touch, as is the volume rocker on the side of the device. Like the Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet has a small list of main menu options accessed through the home button--Home, Library, Shop, Search, Apps, Web and Settings.

The reading experience is nice, but pretty similar to the Kindle’s. The Nook’s got a magazine store similar to the Kindle’s and a serviceable Web browser and e-mail app. With B&N, you also get in-store support if your device has a problem, as well as B&N’s smart in-store content preview features.

There’s a music player, but nowhere to buy music, which you have to sideload yourself from a PC. There’s 16 gigs of storage, but only 1 gig can be used for non-B&N content. You can watch Netflix and Hulu on the device, but there’s no native movie service as on the Kindle, which also offers seamless integration with Amazon’s cloud storage, so you don’t need the extra storage. As with Amazon, B&N provides a curated app store, but Amazon’s been at it longer, so there are fewer apps for the Nook.

Other frustrating features include a proprietary charging/ sync cable: it’s a mini-USB, but it’s slightly longer, so you can’t connect the device to any cable you happen to have around the house. If you lose the one that came in the box, you’re out of luck. And while using the design of the Nook Color certainly brands the new deice as a Nook, it also confuses the two devices--unless you get up real close to see the slightly lighter gray of the case, you can’t tell which one is which. They’re so close in price--the Nook Color is $200--and B&N is promising a software update that will give the Color movies, comics and other “tablet” features; it seems like B&N itself is a little confused about how the Nook Tablet fits into its product family. We’ll have to see how that shakes out over time.

The Nook Tablet is a little prettier and more open than its arch-rival, the Kindle Fire, but it’s got less access to content, so, on the most practical front, I think the Kindle Fire has the Nook Tablet beat. But they’re pretty much equivalent devices and the choice for many consumers may come down to whether they feel manipulated by the Kindle Fire’s absolute focus on selling digital and hard goods from Amazon (see my earlier review of the Fire) or charmed by Barnes & Noble’s friendlier user interface in the Tablet and its in-store sales force.