When to buy an Android tablet and when to buy a Kindle Fire

Should you get an Android tablet like the Galaxy Tab or, well, an Android-based tablet like the Kindle Fire? Read this article to find out.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I've been using my Kindle Fire more and more over the last week, and my wife recently got hers as well. I'm getting familiar with a machine that's not half bad, but also not perfect.

See also: 7 reasons the Kindle Fire is better than the iPad

See also: 12 things that kinda suck about the Kindle Fire

Ever since I wrote those two articles, I've apparently become the go-to guy among my friends and neighbors for holiday tablet purchases. The "should I get an iPad or should I get a Kindle" question is easy, because they are such different devices.

The one that I'm asked even more, though, is whether to get an Android tablet like the Galaxy Tab or, well, an Android-based tablet like the Kindle Fire. The confusion is that since they're both based on Android, what's the right choice?

So, let's clarify things a bit. The Kindle Fire is to Android like Mac OS X is to UNIX. The underlying OS for the Kindle Fire is Android (which, okay, is based on Linux, which itself is based on UNIX, sigh). But unless you hack your Kindle, you'll never see a traditional Android user interface.

So, then, let's get that over-with. You can buy a $199 Kindle Fire, hack it, and run a generic Android distribution on it, and it then becomes something of an Android tablet. But you have to want to do the hacking, have the time, have the technical chops, and not mind if you break stuff. Basically, if you want to tinker fer cheap, then the Kindle Fire might be fun.

Really, though, the question of Android vs. Kindle becomes more of what you want to use your tablet for and how much you want to spend. While the Kindle Fire is pretty inexpensive, it has some serious functional limitations. It doesn't have Bluetooth, so an external keyboard is either unlikely or very hacky. It doesn't have a camera. It has relatively little storage and RAM. And, unless you hack it, it doesn't have access to the main Android app store.

A typical (if more expensive) Android tablet has all those things. So, if you want a tablet for general purpose use, if you want to take it on the road to write or edit video or photos, you'll want something with more power than the Kindle. Essentially, if you want to produce content or have a general-purpose tablet, you'll want an Android tablet, and not the Kindle.

If, on the other hand, you want a tablet to consume content, and especially if you're very comfortable with the Amazon ecosystem like my wife and me, then you may want the Kindle Fire. In other words, if you want a backlit Kindle you can read in the dark, that'll also do some other stuff, then buy the Kindle Fire.

We have an iPad. We don't use it as much as most families, because I do most of my couch-reading on a large-screen HDTV. I'm also writing this on that screen. But my wife uses the iPad on the treadmill (she says it's the perfect treadmill tablet), she uses it to watch knitting videos, and I use it to power my teleprompter during interviews so I can look straight at the person I'm interviewing, rather than at a monitor.

By contrast, I use the Kindle Fire in bed, to read and occasionally watch Netflix videos. I also, sometimes, use it to carry around and read appliance repair manuals PDFs in one hand, while holding a tool in the other, trying to get something or other working in our new house. The Kindle is light enough for easy one-handed use, which is great for reading repair manuals.

So, assuming you're happily in the Android ecosystem (vs, say, the iOS world), get a Kindle Fire if you want a cheap consumption device, and get a real Android tablet if you want to do real work with Android.

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