An iPad Lover Plays With Fire, Part 2
In comparing an iPad 2 to a Kindle Fire, one has to consider more than just the hardware and software differences. Both tablets are also highly integrated with two competing content ecosystems: iTunes and Amazon. Both offer gobs of content, but they're slightly different in how they have customers access and view it all.
11/29/11 5:00 AM PT
As a happy iPad owner, I've been messing around with a Kindle Fire, and for the most part, I like what I'm experiencing. The Kindle Fire is a solid tablet with a generally pleasing interface. While it doesn't compare to an iPad in a real direct way -- apples to apples, oranges to oranges -- it's a tablet, and more importantly, it has the potential to capture the hearts and minds of at least some Apple-loving users.
While it doesn't do all of what an iPad 2 can do, it does do at least half of it -- media consumption -- pretty darn well. When you factor in the US$199 cost of entry, you get more than half the value of an iPad 2, sure enough.
Comparing the Gardens
Both the Fire and the iPad 2 were created to serve their ecosystems, the more-or-less walled gardens of content curated by Amazon and Apple, respectively. Amazon wants Kindle Fire owners to buy music and rent videos from Amazon, and Apple wants iPad owners to buy and rent from Apple. Easy enough. Both offer Netflix streaming apps, by the way.
When you compare the gardens, you have to compare the prices. And if you really care mostly about content -- books, movies, music and TV shows -- the price is the starting point.
By starting at $199 vs. the iPad 2's $499, you'll end up with a positive spend balance of $300 if you buy the Amazon Kindle Fire. You can buy and rent a lot of movies for $300, so take that into consideration.
But to really make the Kindle Fire interesting, you need to be an Amazon Prime member, which costs $79 a year. For that $79, you get free two-day shipping for many of Amazon's products, even those that have nothing to do with electronics. In addition, you get free instant streaming of movies and TV shows via the Prime instant video service. Plus, you get to "borrow" a free e-book each month from the Kindle Owner's Lending Library.
So it's $279 compared to $499 (or $629 if you want 3G cellular data service and GPS). You don't need to be a Prime member to use a Kindle Fire, but it helps. And if you're already a Prime member, all this is just frosting.
Let's take a closer look at what you get, limiting ourselves only to Amazon's and Apple's own ecosystems. Prime members get to stream more than 10,000 instant videos. Mostly these are older TV shows and B- or C-class movies, with a handful of excellent movies and TV shows. Want to go back and watch "Lost," "24," or "Arrested Development?" You can do it via Prime. To do the same thing on an iPad 2 requires you to buy each season for $35 in standard definition or buy it for $45 for the HD versions. (You used to be able to rent episodes for $0.99, but Apple discontinued the option.)
If you want to watch just five seasons of a show each year, it will easily cost you more than $150. On the flip side, I can watch every season of "24" this year and not pay more than $279 for the Kindle Fire.
Netflix as a Wild Card
If you are a Netflix customer and use the Netflix app on either device, you can stream videos for $7.99 a month/$96 per year. That's more than Prime costs, with fewer benefits, but still, the option exists. So theoretically, the only major difference in content options for movies and TV shows for an iPad owner is the decision to pay extra to get streaming access to Netflix content.
Since I'm still pissed at Netflix for bungling its price increase with its out-of-touch antics, I'm no longer a customer, which makes my Kindle Fire with Prime more compelling.
How It All Works
The differences between the Fire and iPad aren't nearly as large you might think. While you can sync your iPad with a Mac or PC via iTunes and access your library of content on your Mac or PC, you can essentially do the same with the Kindle Fire -- except there is no iTunes and it's all managed through Amazon's cloud service and cloud player options. Most content you can simply stream if you have a decent WiFi Internet connection, but if you buy or rent a movie or show, you can choose to download it to your Kindle Fire so you can watch it offline (i.e. on a plane, bus or train).
I was expecting all of this to be more of a pain in the butt than it really is. Let's put it this way: While I might hesitate to recommend a Kindle Fire to my grandmother, my mother could easily handle it.
Apple's method of consumption is based more on the concept of download first, then watch, even if it's a rental. In my experience, this tends to take longer, but once the file resides on my iPad 2, the watching experience is excellent -- instant launching, no buffering, instant resuming from where I left off. With the Fire, there's a bit of initial lag time in getting to the content while it starts downloading -- for me, on a better-than-average DSL connection, it's always less than a minute. And I haven't noticed a lag or hiccup yet, either.
Of course, with Apple and iCloud, you get many of the benefits of streaming (and storage) of content via Apple's cloud services. Consequently, if you want to shell out for a whole television series in HD, you don't have to overfill your Mac's hard drive with large video files if you don't want to. As for the device itself, the Fire is limited to 8 GB of internal storage, while the iPad 2 scales from 16 to 64 GB.
The Living Room
The great thing about the iPad 2's iTunes ecosystem is how well it integrates with an Apple TV set-top box. For $99 for the Apple TV, I can use AirPlay to stream content from my iPad 2 (or iPhone 4) to my Apple TV and out through my HDTV. Or I can stream or download directly from the Internet.
But the Fire has an answer to that. While you can't stream from your Fire to a set-top box, there are 300 or so HDTVs and other set-top box units that let you consume Amazon Prime videos in your living room. So that's mostly possible too, just not with Apple's characteristic elegance and overall ease of use.
For e-books and magazines, there's an easy flip-flop: The iPad is better at magazines because it has a larger screen, while the Fire is better for e-books because it's smaller and therefore much easier to hold in one hand in multiple lounging positions. As for Kindle-based books, the iOS ecosystem has a Kindle app, so iPad owners aren't shut out of Amazon's world. Plus, they have the option of buying direct from Apple, too.
The Final TakeawayThe Kindle Fire is surprisingly good at media consumption, and in my opinion, it holds its own when pitted against my iPad 2. The quality of music and video is generally comparable in overall experience, though nitpickers can find pros and cons via the screen size and resolution, if not with homes that have less-than-ideal WiFi. If you love your Apple iTunes ecosystem, along with home movies, then there's no real compelling reason to switch to a Kindle Fire. If you don't already own an iOS device or use iTunes extensively, the Kindle Fire is an excellent tablet. If you already are an Amazon Prime customer -- or want to be -- the Fire should be on your shortlist.
Of course, in this day, I expect my go-to tablet to be much more than a media consumption device. I want it to surf the Web, run apps, keep me organized, and go to work. In part three of this series, I'll explore working with the Fire.