Amazon announced on Thursday its new Kindle Fire HD line to replace 2011's Kindle Fire. While Apple is expected to announce a 7.x-inch iPad mini this fall, we see the heavy hitters in the tablet market today as being Apple's new iPad (iPad 3), Google's Nexus 7, and the two new devices from Amazon.
The following spec shootout between those devices is not intended to "prove" which device is definitely better, because all four have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Our spec comparison is intended to help consumers decide which device best needs their needs and wants.
Better, But Good Enough?
We like to start these things off with our conclusions right up front: Amazon's new 7-inch device is a distant also-ran to Google's Nexus 7 in the 7-inch market. For the same $199, you get a better processor, a better app ecosystem, and a better OS in a smaller, tighter package. The one advantage of Amazon's 7-inch device is better claimed battery life.
On the other hand, Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 8.9" is far more compelling. It still lacks many of the hardware specs of Apple's new iPad, but it offers nearly the same screen quality as Apple's genre-defining Retina Display. It's definitely nowhere near an "iPad-killer," but starting at $299, Amazon's larger offering will definitely give more people pause before shelling out the bucks for an iPad.
Note that the Kindle Fire 7" won't ship until September 14th, while the Kindle Fire 8.9" won't ship until November 20th. The following comparison is based entirely on what Amazon has told us, not on hands-on observations. We have, however, handled the Google Nexus 7 and have extensive time with Apple's new iPad.
Below the fold, we have some specific analysis on these devices and their specific specs.
(Product images are intended to be close to scale, but they may be off by a pixel or two)
The display on the original Kindle Fire was a joke. In fact, the whole device was a joke, which is why sales dropped off a cliff after Christmas 2011. Both Kindle Fire HD models change that, though, and we expect the display on the 8.9-inch version to look particularly good. For many users, it could look almost as good as the new iPad, at least for the things it does.
The new iPad is still the overall resolution king, and even though Amazon is claiming that its device has richer colors and brighter images, we frankly doubt it will be better than Apple's tablet. Testing that, however, will require some hands-on time with the device.
It's important to remember that Amazon's Kindle Fire HD is running a forked version of Android that Amazon has skinned to be a direct conduit to Amazon.
For many users that will be just fine, but we believe that Google's Nexus 7 offers a better Android experience. The Kindle Fire HD doesn't directly support any Google services, and Google services are one of the great things about the Android platform. It is possible that sideloading non-Amazon Appstore Android apps will be possible, but that's immaterial for the non-geeky consumers likely to be attracted to Amazon's offering.
The Google Nexus 7, however, runs Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, which we believe significantly narrows the gap between Android and iOS in terms of features and usability, and in some regards, like notifications, Jelly Bean beats iOS.
For that reason, we think the Google Nexus 7 is the better choice than either Kindle Fire HD model for those people looking for a full tablet experience, and that's in addition to the sensors and other features the Nexus 7 supports.
That said, we still believe iOS is superior to Android. Apple's ecosystem is stronger, and Apple's app dominance in tablets is beyond question. If you're going to pick your tablet based solely on the operating system, get the new iPad. If you are keen on Android, get the Nexus 7. If all you want is a way to watch videos, play a couple of games, read some books, and shop on Amazon, the Kindle Fire HD (either model) will do you just fine.
[Correction: This section originally criticized the Kindle Fire HD for not having a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, or compass, but in reality it has a gyroscope and an accelerometer. The table above and this section have been corrected to focus solely on apps. - Bryan]
The app ecosystem is a big part of the tablet experience. As noted above, Apple still has a wide lead on dedicated tablet apps, but it's possible that the Nexus 7 could result in Google finally being able to narrow that gap.
Amazon's Appstore home page lists a total of 849 apps, a paltry amount, but as of this writing it specifies that 641 of them are compatible with the Kindle Fire (it's safe to assume that almost all of them will work on the new Kindle Fire HD or will be updated once the Kindle Fire HD is released).
641 apps is not an ecosystem.
Playing devil's advocate, those 641 apps include some of the heavy hitters and big names such as Netflix, Fruit Ninja, and the ever-present Angry Birds. Do you really need any more than that? The reality is that many people don't need more than that, and for many of those people, the Kindle Fire HD's limited app selection will never be noticed.
Other than that, Google Play and Amazon Appstore both offer a similar experience. Amazon has done a fairly good job of developing its online app store, while Google has done a very good job of doing the same thing with Google Play. Neither matches Apple's App Store in usability and integration.
Accordingly, if you're shopping based purely on the app ecosystem, you'll want Apple's iPad. If you prefer Android, go for Google's Nexus 7. If you don't care about the apps or having access to a lot of games and just want to shop on Amazon, the Kindle Fire HD (either model) will do you fine.
We haven't yet seen the new Kindle Fire HD models, but we saw the original, and as noted above, it was a joke. Cheap and useless come to mind. Our expectation of the new devices is that they will represent an improvement over their predecessor but Apple's iPad, Google's device, and the Kindle Fire HD devices, Amazon's are likely to be at the bottom of the heap in terms of build quality.
We would love to be surprised on this front, but it's not what we're expecting.
The Nexus 7 seems well built, but it still pales in comparison to the new iPad. On the other hand, it's not problematic by any means. The Google Nexus 7 feels pretty good in your hand.
If quality is your top priority, go with the iPad, then the Nexus 7, and then the Kindle Fire HD.
Amazon Prime is a great service. For $79 per year, you get streaming videos, some book services, and cheap or free shipping on just about everything you can buy from Amazon. Count this as a solid advantage for Amazon, and if you're already a Prime member, you'll likely appreciate being able to stream all those movies and TV shows.
All three of these companies are also significant players in cloud services and cloud storage. Google gets the nod in terms of flexibility for its cloud storage, and of course the company's Web-based services are fantastic.
Apple's iCloud is best for those Apple-related data, software, and content services like Address Book syncing and the ability to have documents synced between your devices. Apple has also done a great job of making all of your iTunes and App Store purchases available to all of your devices, including the ability to have books, apps, music, and video purchases directly pushed out to all appropriate devices.
From a cloud perspective, all three companies are doing a pretty good job in this, the beginning of the cloud era, but we prefer Apple's tighter integration of its cloud services. Apple's whole widget model excels at this sort of thing.
In the end, we think that each of these three platforms will appeal to different market segments. Apple's iPad offers by far the better tablet experience, but it's big. For some, that big will be better than the smaller competing devices. Others, however, want something that's smaller.
If you really want a 7-inch tablet, get the Google Nexus 7. It's just plain better than the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7".
On the other hand, if you just want to shop and watch your Amazon Prime videos, the Kindle Fire HD might be perfect for you. Of the two, we'd recommend the 8.9" device. Its display is far better and we think it will be more useful than its smaller sibling.
Indeed, reading books on the device might even be better than the new iPad. With its 254 PPI, text should render crisp and clear like it does on the iPad, while the narrower form factor and lighter weight will make it easier to hold than Apple's iPad.
When Google released the Nexus 7 in June, we called it a home run that made the tablet market a two-horse race. Amazon has kicked open the door again with these new devices, and if they manage to sell them this holiday season, many of them might even continue to be used after they are opened.
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