How to decide: should you buy a big Kindle Fire HD or an iPad?

This is totally NOT the simple choice you might think it would be. There are a lot of reasons why you might choose either device. If you really want to make an informed decision, read this guide.

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Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Amazon has launched its latest round of Kindle Fires, the HD series. Of particular interest is that the old e-ink Kindle DX appears gone, and there's a new big boy in town: the Kindle Fire HD 8.9".

First: lousy name. The double prime indicated by the single set of double quotes makes it tough to write about. Weird punctuation screws up content management systems, and it's just not as catchy as, say, Kindle Fire Full-Page. But, fine. Product managers will be product managers and there's not much we can do about that.

The big question I've been getting these last few days is whether to hold out until November for the big Kindle Fire, or just get an iPad.

Here's the short form answer: it's not quite as simple a decision as you might think.

This is only about the big one

First, let me say that this guide is only about the larger of the Kindles, the 8.9 inch version. Amazon also refreshed its original 7 inch Kindle Fire, and I'll probably look at that new one as compared to the Nexus 7.

I compared the original Fire to the Nexus 7 in How to decide: should you buy the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire? , but the new 7 inch Fire is a more powerful beast than its predecessor.

For now, though, we're going to focus on the 8.9" version, which I'll simply call the big Kindle Fire.

The price

Before I even go into the functional differences of the big Kindle Fire and the iPad, it's important to acknowledge the very, very big difference between the two devices: price.

The big Kindle Fire is a lot less expensive than the iPad.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos gave everyone an insight into his company's strategy, vs, say, that of Apple. Bezos said, "We want to make money when people USE our devices, not when people BUY our devices."

So here's the dealio:

  • The Kindle Fire HD 8.9" with WiFi (but not 4G) is $299.
  • By contrast, the third generation iPad with WiFi (but not 4G) starts at $499 (although Apple also still sells the older second generation iPad for $399).
  • The Kindle Fire HD 8.9" with WiFi and 4G is $499.
  • The third generation iPad with WiFi and 4G is starts at $629.

Clearly, there's a big price difference. You can get the big Kindle Fire for two hundred bucks less than the modern iPad. Even the last generation iPad is still a hundred dollars more.

Interestingly, when you make the jump to 4G, the Apple products cost $130 more, while the big Kindle products take a whopping $200 jump for the addition of a 4G chipset.

Now, this isn't Apples-to-apples. In order for us to properly keep track of things, I'm going to compare entry-level version to entry-level version, so keep that in mind.

Winner: Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - No matter how you add up the cash and the various product versions, the big Kindle Fire is always cheaper than the iPads.

The price, part 2: ads

Amazon came up with an interesting scheme a few years ago. In return for about a $20 price savings, Amazon could plaster ads on the Kindle's main screen.

These were called "Special Offer" Kindles and were relatively well behaved. The ads never showed up while you were actually reading your Kindle books, and sometimes even contained pretty good deals.

Now, however, all the new Kindle Fires (big and small) are, by default, "Special Offer" Kindles in that they have ads right in the interface.

A lot of people raised a stink in the five minutes since they were announced, so CNET now reports that you can turn off that "feature" for a mere $15 opt-out fee.

Winner: iPad - Even though it's only $15 and the price still doesn't make the Kindles much more expensive, it's just a cheesy way to go to keep the advertised price down under $300.

The price, part 3: 4G edition

There's one other price component to all this. Amazon has historically provided free 3G wireless-anywhere service for its e-ink Kindles. The original Kindle Fire was WiFi only, so it didn't have any 3G service.

The new, big Kindle Fire has the available option of 4G, but it costs an extra $200 to get it. But once you do, Amazon offers a much lower price on 4G service. The question is: is there a catch?

First, Amazon says it will provide "250MB a month for 12 months with a one-time payment of $49.99 - no monthly payments." That's on AT&T.

By contrast, AT&T's 250MB/month plan for the iPad is $14.99. For a year, that would cost $179.88. Seems like a heck of a deal, doesn't it?

Now, normally, Amazon doesn't use open-ended tactics with its pricing, but this one is a little sneaky. The wording of the deal is "for 12 months". Notice that they don't say it's a one-time payment of $50 for each 12 months. I haven't yet been able to ascertain whether the price goes up to $14.99/mo after the first year.

Interestingly, if you want 4G, you'll have to update to the 32GB version, so you're making a jump of $200, but you are also getting more RAM than the base big Kindle Fire unit.

Winner (barely): Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - You do save a net on your first year, but you're spending more on the base unit (but also getting more capacity). You might not be saving on subsequent years.

Physical device

At 9.4 inches tall, the new Kindle Fire is only a tiny bit shorter than the iPad's 9.5 inches. However, since the Kindle Fire is a 16x9 aspect ratio device (like your HDTV) and the iPad is still (weirdly enough) an old-school 4x3 aspect ratio device, the big Kindle Fire is almost a full inch narrower than the iPad, at 6.4 inches, to the iPad's 7.31 inches.

In terms of thickness, the big Kindle Fire falls between the second generation iPad's 0.34 inches and the current iPad's 0.37 inches.

If you think the iPad is heavy, the big Kindle Fire is close. The iPads range from 1.325 pounds for the second generation WiFi only model up to 1.44 and 1.46 pounds for the third gen WiFi-only and 4G models, respectively. The big Kindle Fire weighs 1.25 pounds, just under 2 ouces less than the lighter iPad.

Winner: Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - The big Kindle Fire wins -- at least if you're planning on playing movies -- because the movies will use the entire screen of the big Kindle Fire, and not leave bars along the top and bottom. It's also narrower, which might make it fit better in some larger pockets. Plus, it's slightly lighter than any of the iPads.

Next up: screen, memory, and processor performance

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This project: How to decide: tech buying guides for DIYers and small business

Screen

While we're on the topic of screens, let's compare the two devices. Apple's big thing for the current generation of iPad has been the Retina display, Apple's super-duper hi-res screen.

I've got an iPad 3 and its screen is certainly attractive, but I didn't want to make love to it like so many others who reviewed the iPad in the press. It's nice, but that's about it.

We haven't seen the screen on the big Kindle Fire, so we can't give it a complete comparison. That said, the resolution of the big Kindle Fire is 1920x1200 with 1080p video playback and 254 pixels per inch.

By comparison, the latest iPad has a resolution of 2048x1536 with 264 pixels per inch, giving the iPad a slight edge in resolution. Now, if you're thinking about the $100 cheaper iPad 2, that's got only 1024x768 resolution with 132 pixels per inch.

Oh, Amazon says the big Kindle Fire has less glare. We haven't had a chance to test the claim.

Winner: iPad 3 - The big Kindle Fire almost ties to the iPad 3, but only almost. The iPad 3 has better resolution and is a known quantity. We know the display is excellent. The real loser here is the iPad 2, with a vastly inferior (by the numbers, anyway) display.

Memory

The memory offerings in the big Kindle Fire are also a little confusing. The WiFi-only Kindle Fire comes in 16GB and 32GB models, while the 4G Kindle Fire comes in 32GB and 64GB models.

To compare these things, then, let's look at the memory size, and then the cheapest price of the various models:

  • 16GB - The base WiFi big Kindle Fire is $299. The base WiFi iPad is $499 and the 4G iPad is $629. The old iPad 2 is $399.
  • 32GB - The WiFi big Kindle Fire is $399, the 4G unit is $499. You're talking $599 for the iPad without 4G, and $729 for the iPad with 4G.
  • 64GB - You can only get 64GB on the 4G big Kindle Fire, and that's $599. Minus 4G, the iPad 3 is $699 and with 4G, you're slamming down a whopping $829.

Winner: Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - This is a no-contest win. Price performance goes to the big Kindle Fire in a big way.

WiFi

Who among us ever expected to be comparing WiFi implementations on a tablet? By now, WiFi is very much mainstream, so WiFi is WiFi is WiFi, right?

Well, if you believe Amazon, not so much. Amazon claims it offers dual-band streaming, so -- if your router supports it -- communication is much faster, streaming is more robust, and there are fewer dropped connections.

Dual-band WiFi is a real technology and most not-bottom-of-the-barrel routers sold in the last year or so support it. If it works and if it works well (no one's tested it thoroughly yet on the Fire), performance should be smoother on the big Kindle Fire.

Winner (provisionally): Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - Until this gets tested in the lab, it's just a spec on a marketing document.

Processor performance

Apple has always said -- and in this, I agree -- that subjective performance is always more important than specifications. Without putting hands on the big Kindle Fire, we can't run a series of benchmarks.

However, we can look at how the iPad 3 performed against the Tegra 3 processor that's in many current Android tablets, and then compare that against the claims for the SGX544 graphics engine that's in the big Kindle Fire.

According to my Internet Press Guild colleague, Avram Piltch, the Tegra 3 -- in some ways, outperformed the A5X in the third generation iPad.

That was not expected. Next, my fellow ZDNet columnist, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, says that the big Kindle Fire's processor is supposed to perform about 50% faster than the Tegra 3.

If you read those tea leaves carefully (and you're not too concerned about the lack of real-world tests), and you add in the fact that the Kindle has fewer pixels to push to the screen, you might conclude that the big Kindle Fire will be faster than the iPad.

Winner: Undecided - I'm going to call this undecided, because so much depends on actual performance. One thing is pretty sure, though: the older iPad 2 performs more slowly. We can't really pick a winner here, but it seems that the loser would be the iPad 2.

Sound

The big Kindle Fire is supposed to come with spiffy, integrated stereo speakers and some slick new Dolby technology.

Since all the iPads have pretty anemic sound, it probably won't be hard for the big Kindle Fire to beat them, even though we haven't yet listened for ourselves.

Winner (provisionally): Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - The proof will be when we can watch a major motion picture or play some serious tunes and listen to the beats.

Ports

Although the iPad has a USB port exclusively intended for connecting to iTunes, you can't connect it to your computer and load files on it from the file system. Many of my fellow tech pundits don't think that's a problem. I consider it one of the iPad's greatest failings (or, at the very least, annoyances).

Winner (by a frickin' mile!): Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - Like most Android tablets, on the other hand, the big Kindle Fire has a USB port, you can connect it to your computer, and you can drag and drop files in a straightforward manner without having to deal with an annoying media interface. Hooray!

Next: Battery life, camera, sound, and how to decide

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: How to decide: tech buying guides for DIYers and small business

Battery life

We have no idea. None. Amazon hasn't said anything.

Winner: iPad 3 - The iPad 3 is known to have quite good battery life. Without something amazing from the big Kindle Fire, we have to give this to the iPad.

Camera

The iPad has a front-facing and rear-facing camera. In the iPad 2, the camera sucked. In the iPad 3, the front-facing camera sucks, but the rear-facing camera isn't bad.

Winner: iPad 3 - We haven't tested the big Kindle Fire's front-facing camera, but since there's no rear-facing camera, the iPad 3 wins. The iPad 2 does not. It's not really a camera. More like a hole in a box you can shine light into.

Software ecosystem

Wow, here's a place for the fanbois to start boiling over. But I'm going to go for it. Both the Android ecosystem and the iOS ecosystem are huge. Enormous. Big. Kinda massive.

There is no doubt there will be an absolute metric truck-ton of apps written for the big Kindle Fire, but there will still probably be more for the iPad.

Winner: tied - I'm giving these a tie for two reasons. First, iOS wins for more apps and it will probably always have more apps. Second, the Kindle Fire wins because you can run what developers want to write, not just what Apple will approve (although there's a limited approval process for the Amazon app store and an even less limited on for the Google Play market). So, since each wins in a different way, a tie.

Security

Normally, I'd give any security win that compares iOS to Android to iOS. Android has all sorts of problems.

But Kindle Fires have been much less problematic than their native Android cousins. That's both because fewer Fire owners have been inclined to "root" their devices, and because Amazon does have some better security in its app store.

Winner: tie - I'm going to call this a tie. While the underlying Android OS could be pretty easily corrupted, the Kindles have been pretty solid. The architecture isn't much different from a native-Android tablet, but since so much is tied to the Amazon ecosystem and Amazon watches that with great care, you're probably pretty safe with any one of the Kindles (unless you purposely do something stupid).

Media Ecosystem

Amazon has the entire Amazon shopping experience. Apple has the iTunes store. Amazon has Prime where you can get free movies. Apple has nothing of the sort. Amazon integrates its entire shopping experience into the Kindle devices. Apple kind of does, but it's always annoying. Amazon has the free Kindle Lending Library. Apple doesn't. However, as one of our readers mentioned in the comment below, the Amazon ecosystem is quite limited outside the U.S.

On the other hand, Apple does have AirPlay which allows you to blast your iPad display (except, bizarrely, for HBO Go) onto your TV set if you have an Apple TV. You can also integrate your iTunes account with your Apple TV, giving you a convenient set-top viewing experience. Amazon has nothing like this.

Winner (ecosystem): Kindle Fire HD 8.9" - Amazon has a completely vertically integrated ecosystem, Apple does not. This is a win for Americans, not so much for people outside the U.S.

Winner (viewing options): iPad - Apple has some great set-top box options that use their existing ecosystem and your purchases. Amazon has nothing like this.

Which should you get?

If you just add up number of wins for each product, the big Kindle got seven wins to only four for the iPad. So, if you were going purely by the numbers, the big Kindle Fire would be the somewhat surprising winner.

But you should never buy something by the numbers. Instead, you should decide based on how you want to use the device. In that regard, it comes down to two key issues: price and media.

First, if you're particularly price sensitive, the big Kindle is a better deal (by a hundred bucks or more) than the iPad. But, since the Kindle Fire is designed around getting you to spend more with Amazon, any savings may well be eaten up if you can't control your spending.

Let's say you've got great One-Click self-control. In that case, the big Kindle Fire has considerably more bang for the buck, and is probably a better deal.

Still, Apple products have always sold well against better deals and more bang for the buck, and this is no exception. The Apple ecosystem is vast, with all sorts of aftermarket products, mounts, cases, stands, apps, gimicks, and geegaws.

On the other hand, the Amazon ecosystem comes with free movies, free books to borrow, and, well, Amazon.

Here's what I'm going to recommend to friends who ask:

  • If you're a heavy Amazon user, want to save some bucks, and aren't particularly tied to Apple and Apple products, get the big Kindle Fire.
  • If you're a loyal Apple user, want lots and lots of apps or lots and lots of add-on gadgets, or do a lot of heavy traveling where you need to rely on the tablet as a partner, get the iPad 3.
  • If you're trying to save money and are trying to decide between the big Kindle Fire and the iPad 2, get the big Kindle Fire.
  • If you're a big reader, have a ton of Kindle books, want a larger reading device, and want to borrow and read free books, get the big Kindle Fire.
  • If you already have an iPad 3, don't bother getting the big Kindle Fire.
  • If you already have an iPad 2, and are thinking of upgrading, get the iPad 3 if you want to take your Apple ecosystem with you, or get the Kindle Fire if you want more power at a cheaper price.

So there you go. This one is not nearly as clear-cut as almost all of Amazon's previous Kindle offerings. It'll be interesting to see how the market responds.

My wife and I own a first generation iPad and an iPad 3. We also have a first-generation Kindle Fire (my wife's). I recently sold my first-generation Kindle Fire and upgraded to the Nexus 7, in large part because of the reasons I discussed in  my last how-to-decide column .

We're not going to buy a big Kindle Fire. If we decide to upgrade the old first-generation iPad, we'll get another iPad 3 (or an iPad 4, when that comes out). We're going to sit out this round of Kindle Fire releases. On the other hand, I'm thinking seriously about getting a Windows 8 Surface tablet when that comes out next year.

Remember, though, that's us. How you decide has to be entirely about your lifestyle and your needs.

More Kindle HD coverage on ZDNet:

UPDATES: Commenter @tpettyrox double-checked my 4G math. Corrected. @danbi points out US-only. Mentioned. Thanks to both

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