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Summary:

Amazon’s first foray into the tablet market, the Kindle Fire, is widely perceived as the first real competitor to the iPad. Here’s an outline of how the two compare, and which is better suited to which kind of gift recipient this holiday season.

ipad_fire

Amazon’s first foray into the tablet market, the Kindle Fire, is widely perceived as the first real competitor to the iPad. Whether that’s true or not will be discussed later, but for shoppers looking to gift a tablet for the holidays, it can be hard to decide which is the better gift. That’s why we’re going to compare the two on four points: hardware, software, ecosystem, and price.

Hardware

The hardware on the Kindle Fire is simple. It’s a half-inch thick slab of black plastic with a rubber back. The feel of the Fire is actually pretty nice considering the materials, and the rubber back makes it easy to grip. It’s not nearly as pretty as the iPad, of course, but its cheaper looks comes with advantages; if I were to drop the Fire, I wouldn’t be as concerned about damaging it.

There are several odd choices Amazon made in the design. First, in portrait orientation the bezel on the bottom of the Fire is actually thicker than on the top, making it asymmetrical. Second, there aren’t any hardware volume controls; you have to use a software slider. Third, the power button and audio jack are on the bottom, making it easier to accidentally turn off and making listening to headphones harder.

One of the big draws of the Fire over the iPad is its seven-inch screen. I can easily wrap my entire hand around the Fire, which I can’t do with the iPad. The smaller form factor also has the advantage of portability; you could easily fit the Fire in a purse or small bag, unlike the iPad. The downside, of course, is that the iPad offers a bigger screen for watching movies or playing games.

The iPad has two cameras, one on the back, and another on the front for FaceTime. The Fire has none. This omission makes sense, both to cut costs, and because most people probably already have a smartphone with a better camera than what Amazon could’ve put in the Fire anyway. But it also means that the Fire can’t do video chat like the iPad.

There’s only 8 GB of space included on the Fire, half of what the cheapest iPad has, and the Fire has no SD card slot to expand that storage. Amazon obviously expects most users to access their media from Amazon’s cloud. It’s a problem for folks with lots of locally-stored media and less purchased through Amazon.

Software

More than anything, the software is what sets the Fire and the iPad apart. The Fire’s home screen is a dark faux-wood bookshelf; a search box is fixed on the top, and a list of media categories is spread out underneath it. Below that, recently used items appear on a “carousel” and take up most of the bookshelf, with the rest reserved for a scrollable “favorites” area, where you can pin apps, books, magazines, websites, videos, and even music. The interface is all about getting to your media quickly; rather than tapping on an app and then drilling down to the media you want, à la iPad, you can just click on the media itself. It’s an interesting concept, and it works well.

Amazon made several odd design choices with the software, as with the hardware. One of the first things I noticed is that the text in the top bar isn’t centered. Another is the distracting, persistent black bar which brings up the navigation buttons when video is being played in the Netflix app. In addition, the Fire’s software is buggy. Not show-stoppingly so, but enough to annoy. These kind of things show an inattention to detail and polish that iOS doesn’t suffer from.

The main navigation buttons on the Fire.

While the Fire runs a heavily modified build of Android 2.3, you can still feel Android when you’re using it, in the jerky scrolling, in the ever-present software Back, Home and Menu buttons, and in the slightly modified notification drawer. The Fire isn’t for people who can’t stand Android.

The browser on the Fire, called Silk, has a feature that’s supposed to accelerate page loading: Popular pages are monitored by Amazon and cached on their servers, so when you browse to one of those sites, it loads faster. The problem is that the service doesn’t seem to work well; Vimeo user Sencha did a video comparison of the Fire’s browser with acceleration turned on and off, and the results showed that Silk doesn’t make much of a difference. For now, the iPad’s browser is just as fast as the Fire’s, but Amazon will likely improve Silk in the future.

The Fire's text-slection tool in action.

Reading on the Fire is a no-frills affair; Amazon simply tweaked the Android Kindle app and put it on the Fire. The page turn animation is a boring slide, which isn’t as nice as iBooks’ realistic animation. Even the iOS Kindle app has an option for realistic animations, so I don’t understand why Amazon excluded them on the Fire.

Ecosystem

The Fire is heavily integrated with Amazon’s content ecosystem, as is the iPad with Apple’s. It’s worth pointing out that Amazon develops apps for iOS, most notably Kindle and Amazon Mobile. Apple isn’t likely ever going to do the same for the Fire.

Books

Amazon’s selection of books is as excellent as ever, and while Apple has greatly improved the selection in the iBookstore, it still can’t approach the Amazon store. The prices of Amazon’s e-books also tend to be cheaper. Amazon Prime customers get an extra perk: one free book every week. If your taste in books is broad, that’s a pretty good deal.

Video/Music

Amazon’s video offerings are pretty competitive with iTunes. Movies can be rented in standard definition for 48 hours at around $4, or bought at around $15, depending on if it can be bought. TV shows are $2 a pop. The video quality is about what you’d expect from a stream: watchable, but not great. Since iTunes only allows media to be downloaded, the quality is better, but with the caveat that you have to wait for the download to finish. Prime customers can get some of Amazon’s video content for free, with popular inclusions such as Lost, Firefly, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Music can either be streamed using Amazon’s free Cloud Player service, bought directly on the Fire, or transferred via USB. The price of music in Amazon’s store is also competitive with iTunes. The Cloud Player service allows you to upload up to 5 GB of music for free, which automatically shows up on the Fire. The songs buffer quickly, and the audio quality is the same as the uploaded file, which are both nice.

Apps

The app ecosystem is the biggest pain point with the Fire. It doesn’t have anything near the quality and selection of the iOS App Store. Most of the apps were designed to run on Android phones, so they get resized to fill the Fire’s bigger screen. Even worse, the Facebook and Twitter apps aren’t apps at all, but just links to the mobile websites.

Developers have been slow to submit their apps to Amazon’s Appstore, so Amazon’s making a bet on the Fire bringing more of them into the fold. But right now, there’s no guarantee that it’ll get better. One bright spot is that the Appstore offers one free app every week, even to non-Prime customers, but that’s little consolation.

Price

My dad summed this up nicely: “If the iPad were $200, I’d have an iPad. But it’s not.” Price is arguably the biggest feature of the Fire; it’s $300 less than the cheapest iPad, so someone could buy two-and-a-half Fires for the price of one iPad, something consumers should keep in mind if they want multiple tablets this year. Even so, with the iPad the adage “you get what you pay for” holds true; the iPad has more polish, better design, and more power than the Fire.

Conclusion

The Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad competitor. It’s a multimedia Kindle that’s tightly integrated with Amazon’s services. While integration with Apple’s services is certainly a big part of the iPad, it’s not its main purpose, which is to run apps. You can see this distinction in how the two tablets and their software are designed. The iPad has a bigger screen so that apps have more room to shine, and iOS at its fundamental level is a grid-based app launcher. The Fire is smaller, so it’s easier to enjoy media like books, and the software is designed for launching media. In short, the iPad is for apps; the Fire is for media, and media mostly sourced from a particular ecosystem.

There’s more, of course. To sum it up, the Fire appeals to people who:

  • Buy most of their content from Amazon.
  • Don’t need to create media.
  • Want a more portable tablet.
  • Can’t afford to spend a lot of money.
  • Don’t mind limited storage.

And the iPad appeals to people who:

  • Buy most of their content from Apple.
  • Want to create media as well as consume it.
  • Don’t mind the iPad’s larger size.
  • Can afford to spend a little more.
  • Need a lot of storage.

Which features of each tablet mean more to you? That’s how you decide.

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