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

Summary: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

Topics: Amazon, Apple, Apps, SMBs

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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