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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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

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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