Thursday, September 06, 2012

The New New Things: Kindle Fire HD vs. iPad

Amazon unveiled their newest entry in the tablet wars today, with a new set of Kindle Fires. If you are not familiar with the Fire, Amazon launched this 7", $199 tablet a while ago, taking the Android OS and putting a more pleasing , media focused front end on it. The result? An inexpensive media player with some impressive cloud features that can still take advantage of the Android ecosystem. And it went after Apple where it hurts: the pocketbook. With Amazon's media ecosystem to rival Apple's, and a smaller tablet and a palatable price, looked to be a winner. And in some ways, it was: it became Amazon's top selling product. Win, win, win. Granted, not iPad numbers (or even close), but Amazon will happily take it.

Today, the Kindle Fire launches it's new version. And again, on the surface, looks to have the power to hit the iPad where it hurts, as well as aiming squarely and Google's own Nexus 7 tablet. First, there are now multiple Fires: in addition to a refreshed, cheaper ($159) version of the current one, the original 7" also gets an HD treatment, and is joined by two 8.9" versions. The focus is definitely on HD everything: better HD movie content (thank you, Epix and Paramount); HD resolution; Dolby HD Audio (perhaps a weak point of the iPad), HDMI out (a definite flaw in the iPad), and more. The prices also try to hit hard: $199 for the 7", $299 for the 8.9", and $499 for the 8.9" with built in wireless LTE (high speed cell); those are prices about 2/3 of the iPad. And they have upped the memory to reasonable levels, and added a front-facing HD camera for Skype. Plus more.

So, is it going to be a game changer? In a word, no. It has some very cool features:

  • X-Ray For Movies allows you to tap on the screen while watching a movie and instantly the relevant IMDB (an Amazon property) content about that scene is there: actors, quotes, plots, etc.
  • Whispersync for Voice: Own both a Kindle and Audible (another Amazon property) version of the same book? Start reading it on the Kindle, stop, and start listening to the Audible version from the exact place you left off, and vice versa. The question is: how many people own both versions?
  • The Dolby speakers: nice touch, but most tablets are a private affair, listened with headphones or by children who have no appreciation of Dolby's dulcet tones.
As an Amazon fanboy, I want this to be a huge competitor. I see some issues, though:
  • The video of the HD in action is very slick, but it exposes the size of the bezel. Take a look between the iPad (pictured here) and the Fire HD (above). The Fire is only a little thicker, but at this stage, that bezel should be retreating with every iteration. Remember the old laptops? Compare them to today's ultrabooks, and you wonder why you ever put up with half of your screen covered by plastic.
  • There was no mention of the battery life of the Fires. The iPad has made this a feature discussion: to not address it is an error.
  • The larger screen Fires are still not iPad sized. While I don't think the difference is that relevant, the perception will be that it's not quite up to taking on the iPad. The 7" screen is an interesting one, but often feels like a half phone/tablet, instead of optimized to the real estate. By the same token, in the images they show of the two Fire models side by side, the icons and layout on the larger Fire look like they just magnified the smaller Fire's screen: the icons and layout should have remained the same size, giving more breathing room. 
  • While the Amazon UI is an improvement over the standard Android OS, it's still no iPad. Google is making strides with their latest version, JellyBean, but the Fire doesn't run that. Oh, but the Google Nexus 7 tablet does... and it's the same price as the Fire. Hmm...
  • Not that I am, in any way, a fan of iTunes, but the Fire lacks a straightforward syncing and loading system for media content like that. It's actually a plague of iTunes' ubiquity that we suffer through the horror of it's jankiness, but yet we become conditioned to working with tablets that way. Instead, Amazon leans heavily on the cloud, which is great, but means this is not to be a device to really leave the house (i.e. take on business trips, etc.). Look at the strides the iPad has made in the enterprise: although I don't personally like it, I see entire planes filled with them for business travelers like me. why? Battery life, big memory, understandable way to load with content. With the Fire, too many unknowns there to make inroads against it.
Personally, I hope I am wrong. Next week, Apple could introduce the "iPad Mini" and take on the 7" competitors, and then we'll have a fair fight. I do think Amazon could have just added an SD card slot and you would have ended the iTunes crack, but that's probably cost prohibitive. In any case, a nice effort indeed!

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