How to decide: should you buy a new iPad or a Kindle Fire?

Summary:With all the buzz these days about tablets, it turns out some folks are still trying to understand which device to buy. This article will help you decide.

With all the buzz these days about tablets, it turns out some folks are still trying to understand which device to buy.

Last weekend, I did a radio interview for the Into Tomorrow program, which is syndicated to a whopping 183 stations across the country. I expected the usual tablet questions, but the one I didn't expect is the one I'm going to answer here: should you buy a new iPad or a Kindle Fire? Not everyone out there is steeped in the latest tech news, and to most civilians, a tablet is a tablet is a tablet. And that's why this article.

Before I delve into the details, I want to make an important point. When I did my last "how to decide" piece, it became evident that some people thought this was a contest. It's not. Both devices are fine devices, and it's not a question of which one would I personally will buy (I have both, but it's my job). It's a question of what fits your needs and your needs alone.

See also: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

So, what I'm going to do is explore a bunch of criteria and help you understand which class of device wins based on that criteria. It'll be up to you to total up the results and decide which items are more important to you.

With that in mind, let the games begin!

Price

The Kindle Fire is Amazon's color, Android-based Kindle tablet. At $199, it's far less expensive than the iPad, which ranges from $399 for the iPad 2, to $499-$829 for the new iPad 3 (the third generation device). You can also get Kindle devices for as little as $79.

But the key is going to be what you do with the device. The machines are substantially different and serve different purposes. That said, if you're very much budget constrained, the Kindle Fire is a nice little machine for $199.

Stupid naming conventions

Note: the new iPad is not technically called an "iPad 3" but just "new iPad". That said, to keep us from all going insane trying to figure out which is which, most of us in the press have taken to calling it the iPad 3, regardless of Apple's numberless naming. Sigh.

Apple isn't alone here. Until Amazon decided to brand-extend the Kindle, they named their first generation, second generation, and third generation Kindles just "KIndle". C'mon guys, give us a break here!

Size

The Kindle Fire is a 7-inch device, while the iPad is nearly 10-inches in size. The iPad is also considerably heavier. Again, it depends on what you want to do with the device.

I have my Kindle Fire on my night table, and it's my bedroom reader (and, sometimes, I cheat and look something up on the Web with it). The iPad would be uncomfortably large to read in bed. On the other hand, the iPad is great for larger documents and reading PDFs, so if you want to see something in detail, you'll want the iPad. With the new Retina display, the iPad is clearly the better looking of the two devices.

Ecosystem

Each device is tightly tied into an ecosystem of products and services. The iPad is tightly integrated into Apple's App store, and the iTunes ecosystem. The Kindle Fire is tightly tied into the Amazon ecosystem.

I'll be honest: I prefer the Amazon ecosystem far more than Apple's, but that's me. Both my wife and I have Amazon Prime accounts, we buy most of our goods from Amazon, we read Kindle books almost exclusively, and we watch the large library of free Amazon Prime videos.

If you're a heavy Amazon user, the Kindle Fire is something of a no-brainer. Of course, you can also read all your Kindle books on the iPad or even your iPhone. Smart boys, those Amazon chaps.

By contrast, I've never liked iTunes and I find the Apple App store cumbersome. But there's no getting over the fact that Apple does have a tremendous presence in the App store game...

Apps

Let's be clear. Nothing... and I mean nothing touches the assortment of apps available for iPads and iPhones. It's almost insane. Apple claims over 500,000 iPhone and iPad apps. By contrast, the Amazon AppStore has 31,000 apps -- a large selection, but tiny compared to Apple.

If you want apps, the clear winner is Apple. In addition, the apps available for the iPad are often far more capable and powerful than those you'll find for the Kindle Fire.

If apps are your game, the winner is, without a doubt, the iPad.

Next: Laptop replacement and more »

« Previous: Price, size, apps

Laptop replacement (or office productivity)

The Kindle Fire does not come with Bluetooth. That means it's almost impossible to add a keyboard to the Kindle Fire. Some folks have rooted (hacked) the Fire, and then added a keyboard via a convoluted connection, but that's a fringe approach.

Fundamentally, the Kindle Fire isn't suitable as a productivity machine or a laptop replacement. By contrast, many people are using the iPad as their mobile productivity device with reasonable success.

If you want to write or otherwise replace your laptop, the winner is the iPad.

Mobile connectivity

The Kindle Fire is a WiFi-only device. That means you need to be connected to a router to browse the Web and download books and apps. Many iPads are also WiFi-only devices, but the new 3rd generation iPad also can be purchased with 4G high-speed wireless connectivity (and the cheaper iPad 2 with 3G).

Interestingly, although the Fire doesn't have any 3G wireless capability, all the older Kindles do -- but only for downloading books you bought from Amazon.

If you want to browse the Web while at your local Starbucks or in the airport, the winner is the iPad.

Flash

This one is simple. The Kindle Fire supports Flash (meaning a lot of Web sites that don't work on the iPad work on the Kindle Fire). If you want to browse a Flash Web site (and this includes a ton of educational sites), the winner is clearly the Kindle Fire.

Native USB drive mode

There’s much better access to the Kindle Fire as a storage device than Apple provides with the iPad. For example, you can take a USB cable, plug it into the Kindle Fire and then to your PC, and drag-and-drop documents for later reading.

There are some hacks for this for the iPad, but native USB drive mode is supported, out of the box, for the Kindle Fire. There is a detail here, though. While the Kindle Fire supports this without fiddling, the device doesn't actually come with a cable that will connect to your computer. Of course, you know where to go if you want to order one, don't you?

Camera

Update: As I wrote this, I was convinced I was leaving something important out. Reader bobiroc pointed out that the Kindle Fire doesn't have a camera, while the iPad has two. The iPad 3 has a rather good rear camera and a rather meh front camera, but in any case, if you want a tablet with a camera, the go-to choice is the iPad.

International users

Update: Being American through-and-through, I sometimes forget that services don't reach the rest of the world, or at least they're not the same as we have here. A number of our international readers have pointed out that the Kindle Fire doesn't work or isn't available internationally. So if you live somewhere other than America, you may be able to enjoy your free health care, but you can't enjoy the KIndle Fire.

Usage model

We touched on this earlier, but let's make it explicit. The Kindle Fire excels at consuming Amazon content. If you want to consume Amazon content, whether it's Kindle books or Amazon Prime videos, the Kindle Fire is the clear winner.

On the other hand, if you want to consume or create other content, the choice isn't as clear. You can watch Netflix videos on both, for example. But if you want to see high-quality 1080p video on a vivid display, you'll want to get the iPad 3.

Remember earlier I talked about how you use these devices? Let me give you an example and remember I have both machines. Both devices will let you read PDF files quite nicely. Since my wife and I bought a fixer-upper house last year, I've been doing a lot of system maintenance, and I often need to dig through the repair manuals while working.

I've found that the 7-inch form-factor of the Kindle Fire makes it much easier to hold the Kindle Fire in one hand, and fiddle with a switch, knob, menu-panel, or button in the other. It's much harder to do that with the iPad. So I've been gravitating to putting my repair manuals on the Fire.

On the other hand, I use the iPad in my studio's teleprompter. I don't use it to read text, but I VNC into a computer running Skype, and I can project the image of the person I'm talking to into the prompter, making sure I'm looking right at the person when doing video interviews. I use the iPad for that because (a) it fits, (b) the bigger screen is a help, (c) it's much faster than the Kindle Fire, and (d) there are a bunch of nice VNC programs on it.

So, as you can see, it's up to how you use the device to determine which is a better fit in terms of usage.

Support

Support is always relative, and depends on which company ticked you off last. That said, both Apple and Amazon provide surprisingly good support, at least compared to the norm in tech products. For support, it's a tie. The only major downside is that, unless you've ponied up for AppleCare, you're on your own for support after the free support period ends. As far as I know, Amazon support is ongoing.

Bragging rights

For some reason, people seem to like showing off their Apple products. I, personally, don't get it. But I'm not exactly a fashionista, either. If you're into keeping up with the Jones, you might want an iPad.

On the other hand, as our own Charlie Osborne discussed in a rather disturbing article, the iPad also may make you a target when you're out in public. The Kindle Fire is far less bling-y than the iPad, while the iPad says to everyone around you that you're using an expensive piece of gear.

See also: The shame of owning an iPad

What's best for you?

Have you decided? If you're on a budget and mostly want to read, the Kindle Fire is your choice. If you want a large, attractive screen and a ton of application options, then the iPad is the winner. If you want to attach a keyboard and go all road-warrior on your apps, then the iPad is also the choice.

Bottom line, of course, as I've said over and over again, is you need to choose based on what will fit your needs best.

See also:

Topics: iPad, Amazon, Hardware, Mobility

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

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.