iPad or Kindle Fire: Which should you buy?

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Amazon’s (s amzn) first foray into the tablet market, the Kindle Fire, is widely perceived as the first real competitor to the iPad(s aapl). 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 (s nflx) 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.

119 Comments

Tathagata Dasmjumder

The thing is , Fire is still an gingerbread android tablet and that too with limited android functionality and can not replace a laptop.

I have used original galaxy tab before and the experience is not so great. but iPad is a true laptop replacement. There was one time when I did not have any laptop at all. I used galaxy tab only to download torrent and for elerything else , iPad did suffise.

I work as mechanical engineer in Oil & Gas Design. except for 3D modelling and some simulation software, for every piece of work iPad was sufficient. Now I have sold galaxy tab ( it got hung so often) and bought a macbook air ( which is also only used to download torrent, which I can watch on iPad via VLC or CineXplayer app) as I can access calculation simulation softwares by remote desktop from iPad. For me, even for cutting edge technical work, I do not need a laptop, if I have an iPad.

But with kindle fire, I think this will not be the case, It will be more of a media player than a laptop replacement. But for some people, that might be enough.

Another thing, my 2.5 yaer old son have learnt alphabets, numbers, colours and animals from iPad by himself, we did not have to teach him.

Tathagata Dasmjumder

btw, I taught my child how to use the iPad, and he learnt it himself ( of course with my and my wife’s help) and that too in a very interative and fun way. You are missing the point here, you still have to give same amount of time to your child, but with iPad, it becomes easier. But that’s my viewpoint, yours might be different.

I wonder, I don’t know about US, in europe, parents do not let their children touch iphone or ipad, because they say same like you, by that you are not giving time to your child,some of them even do not have TV in their house, so that children are not distracted. But what happens is, my kid learnt those things before the ones who are not allowed to play with technological things. May be it is some kind of european or american thinking which I can not comprehend with my Indian mentality.

John R. Kirk

iPad taught your child, not you. Great parenting-Joe

The iPad is a tool. Criticizing parents for using an iPad to teach their children is as stupid as criticizing parents for using crayons, construction paper and books to teach their children.

Janet

@@…get over yourself Joe….I’d love to let iPad teach to give me more fun parenting time!

paula

Joe – You said it all. An IPad or kindle is not the same as using crayons, etc. or using that excuse of teaching a child to use all of the latest gizmos keeps them out of bars – really? Or comparing an expensive car with a cheaper one. One of my grandchildren keeps the kindle in his hands night and day and he is 5 years old. His parents think he is so smart and so modern – keeping up with the Joneses. No matter what reasons/excuses people make for letting any electronics teach their kids – it’s still not the same as sitting down with them and writing things on paper, discussing things, and, yes, actually coloring pictures. Of course, it’s his parents fault that my grandson has the kindle constantly but, still, why does he actually have to have it? Nothing can replace reading/sharing an actual book or going to a movie instead of watching it on a gizmo.

John Weaver

Sorry but the ipad is not a true laptop replacement – not in any way shape or form. Let me get this straight, you bought a Macbook Air only to download torrents? A $1700+ overpriced laptop dedicated to downloading torrents? That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard! As far as your kid learning numbers, etc, that could be done on any device. Maybe you’re just to lazy to teach you kid anything because you’re too busy watching torrented movies. Some people just shouldn’t have children…

Tathagata Dasmjumder

btw, I download torrents for 90% kids movies and after office I spend time with my kid instead in a bar or friends and showed him how to use iPad, after that he learnt himself, my point was the easy interface which my son can interact with, which, unfortunately, you missed.

I brought macbook air for it’s portability and it is not 1700 bucks, but 999 (half, almost). It seems you have never used or looked at macbook air price or capabilities. Just go to the market and find me a windows laptop with similar specs and sleek design at that price, they will always be more costly.

I brought the air for some other purposes, but iPad does almost all the tasks I do with computers ( email, calculations, excel charts, graphs, fluid dynamics simulation, generating word documents, autocad drawings, etc.) , thus macbook air has no use except for some heavy graphics ( 3D engineering models ) downloading torrents. You missed that point

John Weaver

The standard Air (original) 13.3 which has been reduced from 1,700 to 1,300 (which is still way over priced). You didn’t specify which Air you are talking about, unless you bought the 11.6 inch model. $999 for that Apple netbook is still way over priced. Any $299+ laptop is as capable for downloading and watching torrented movies.

These are your exact works – ‘bought a macbook air (which is also ‘only’ used to download torrent, which I can watch on iPad via VLC or CineXplayer app)’. Maybe you meant something else…

Sorry for seeming a bit harsh, but part of the joy of watching a child grow up is teaching them the things you mentioned. When you replace human interaction with a machine, it’s a pretty sad day for the human race.

James Chodes

You sir are an Asshat. I’m a PC computer repair person. I can tell you that for 90% of what consumers use computers for in today’s environment that a iPad does the trick wonderfully. With the update of iOS 5 you don’t need a laptop at all for an iPad. Unless you NEED an optical drive, or plan to run programs that can’t be run on an iPad (I.e. video games and business software) you’ll phase out your PC use more and more the longer you have the iPad. I used to spend 3+ hours a day on my laptop (news, social networking, updating hardware knowledge, etc.) I sometimes realize now that I’ve gone a week without even opening the thing. You want to talk about dumb things? How about misinformed and misguided statements? How about a solidly uncalled for assumption that someone is being a poor parent? How ever I do agree SOME people SHOULDN’T have kids…

Tathagata Dasmjumder

show me one netbook of 299+ with similar specs and performance. all the so called ultrabooks coming out with similar specs are in general pricier than macbook air.

it is not about replacing human interaction with machine, but it is about augmenting it. You missed that point unfortunately.

Tathagata Dasmjumder

The poinjt is why njot to use iPad to teach your kid? what’s the harm in it? the learning becomes fun and easy and you actually get more time to spend with you kid.

AVRWC

Wait, you said that the iPad can replace a laptop but… you bought a laptop?

It doesn’t compute very well.

Tathagata Dasmjumder

I know where you are going.

Let me tell you, I bought the laptop for some specific tasks which requires more processing power, which I still require the macbook air for. But that is because someone did not write codes for those things for iPad. But that is special case scenario, but in general, even for productivity. iPad can be a laptop replacement, you only need to get used to newer interface for your work ( I mean comfy windows interface)

Don Berghoff

A fair review. People should stop comparing the iPad to Kindle Fire. For those who already have an iPhone 4s and therefor 90% of capabilities of the iPad, the Kindle Fire is a nice compliment for reading, emails, and web browsing. If you compare the original Kindle readers with the Kindle Fire, it is a great value at $199. I would not expect to buy a $25,000 VW and then try to compare its to a $75,000 MB with the expectation it will be a level playing field….same for iPad versus Kindle Fire.

Jacqueline El-Nil

Thanks for sharing. I have 8 children. We have 10 Macs and 3 iPads (for the little ones) in the house. I agree, the iPad is an excellent learning tool. Your child learning from it is the sign of the times. It has nothing to do with parenting ability.
Spend your money as you see fit. I drive a Corvette Z06. I couldn’t care less if a Toyoda cost less and does 80mph as well…it’s how you got there isn’t it?

LowPrice

The price of ipad doesn’t make sense anymore…but it’s the ferrari of tablets…and people buy ferraris

Martin Hill

Of course the iPad price makes sense. The iPad has far more hardware, software and ecosystem features than the Kindle Fire.

The article neglected to mention all of the other hardware features the Kindle Fire lacks:
– no 3 axis gyroscope so poor game play and no augmented reality apps
– no 3G so no ubiquitous Internet connectivity, so that 8GB of storage becomes an even greater liability when mobile
– no microphone so no VOIP or audio Skype
– no back camera so no bar code reading, document scanning, photo note creating, on site photo documentation etc
– no GPS so no turn-by-turn navigation or off-road maps on a gloriously large screen that is so much better than the looking thru a keyhole of dedicated GPS or smartphone navigation.
– no Bluetooth so no hands-free telephony or instant document sharing by apps such as OnSong etc
– a screen only 45% the size in area of the iPads so poor movie watching and no full screen magazine reading
– no 3rd party hardware peripheral and accessory ecosystem with millions of cases, iPod/iPhone/iPad dock connector equipped hardware from sound systems to car steering wheel integration, to oscilloscopes, to insulin pumps to you name it – some company has made it.

Sara West

As an academic, I could not use a Kindle Fire, and iPad makes much more sense to me. Not only are there gazillions of apps out there who are vital to my teaching, research, and productivity, I find the iPad much more flexible, and of course, it’s the only tablet out there that is a decent pdf file reader. I own a Kindle (not a Fire), and it doesn’t work half as well. On the other hand, the iPad is the right size for me. I work with pdf files a lot, I mark them a lot, and I cannot do my work on the Kindle.

Last, but not least, the article is wrong that iPad users buy their stuff mostly from Apple. Not so for me. I buy tons from Amazon, but the iPad is just more user-friendly, and certainly more so for what I want to do.

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