Dec 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Tablets: Double Review - Kindle Fire HDX and iPad Air

Another holiday season is rapidly coming to a close. That means a bunch of you probably opened nice shiny new electronics in the past week or so. Likewise, another group is most likely playing the waiting game - deciding what to spend all that Christmas money on.

Allow me to help - with my thoughts on two such items that you may have crossed paths with: The Kindle Fire HDX 7” and the iPad Air.

Now, most gadget reviews focus on specs which are, quite honestly, useless for most people.  For starters what does it matter how many gigahertz something runs at, if you have no freaking clue what a gigahertz is? Secondly, all of the spec-porn in the world is pretty meaningless as long as something works correctly and is priced fairly.  So my goal is to stick with that criteria and hopefully give you some useful advice you don’t need a Rosetta stone to understand.

So onward to the tablets...

Tablet-type devices typically come in 4 flavors: Phone-sized, phablet, small tablet, and full-sized.  We’ll skip those first two. A phone is more of a personal choice anyway I find.  As for phablets (phone/tablet), like the Samsung Galaxy Note, well fuck them - because I really can't stand the word phablet. Seriously, who comes up with this shit?

Small tablets are typically devices in the 7 - 8 inch screen size range. They’re not quite pocket-sized, but they do approximate paperback size. They fit quite nicely into a handbag or backpack and are often comfortable to hold for long periods of time with one hand.  The Kindle Fire HDX 7” not only falls into this category, but as far as I’m concerned it owns it.

I consider small tablets to be mostly consumption devices.  Their small screen size is ideal for reading books, surfing the web, social media, games, and even the occasional movie - in short, leisure activities.  Personally, I find them to be too small to do any real work on, though, outside of maybe email.  That’s okay because Amazon’s device fits that bill perfectly.   It’s the very definition of a consumption device and it’s tied to one of the biggest content repositories out there (duh!).  With but a few taps of the screen you can access movies, games, and quite literally millions of books (hint hint).

That’s not all it is, though. All of the content in the world is going to suck if it’s on a device that sputters along at a maddeningly slow pace. Fortunately, Amazon really knocked it out of the park with this - their 3rd generation of Kindle Fire devices.  The HDX is a solid device with a ton of power and great battery life. You’ll be hard pressed to bring this tablet to its knees.  Best yet, it can all be had for an incredible price.  Seriously, nothing even comes close to touching this at $229 (and Amazon has been running several sales, so you might find it for even less).

It’s easy to use, but alas not quite as easy to use as an iPad.  Fortunately, though, Amazon has this potential weakness covered.  They included what’s known as the Mayday Button onto the HDX.  This is a virtual button that instantly connects you to Amazon’s customer service.  This is a move that’s nothing short of brilliant on their part.  I have dealt with Amazon reps many times over the years and have found them to be nothing short of phenomenal.  Most other companies, be they manufacturers or retailers, are simply not in the same league.  For Amazon to include direct access to their support staff is a major plus in the Kindle Fire’s already sizable arsenal.  What it means is that as long as you have a connection, you never have to worry about being lost in your device. Help is always one tap of the screen away.

There’s only one downside to the HDX 7”.  If you’re not already an Amazon Prime member or otherwise heavily invested in their ecosystem, the HDX might be of less use to you.  The two really are joined at the hip.  However, if you are a Prime member (like me), the two together make for an awesome buy.  It’s hard to go wrong with such a powerful device at such an appealing price.

The Good:
- Great battery life
- Excellent price
- Awesome screen
- Powerful internals mean that very little will slow you down
- Help is available whenever you need it
- A huge content ecosystem of movies, books, games, etc

The Less than good:
- Less intuitive than an iPad for the technology challenged
- Not nearly as useful if you’re not a heavy Amazon user
- All the buttons are located on the back, which can be a little clunky until you learn where they are

iPad Mini:  A good device, but crippled by price or power depending on your choice.  The most recent mini, the one with the retina display, is over a hundred and fifty bucks more than the HDX.  It has a slightly larger screen and a lot more apps, which is nice, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s $150 nicer. Your other option is the older mini, but what you gain in price you lose in power. The original uses what is essentially outdated technology and it’s starting to show.

Google Nexus 7: Another awesome device and likewise at a great price.  You get access to all of Google Play, but I personally find the overall size of their content ecosystem to be inferior.  Still, if you’re not an Amazon fan and don’t want to be glued to them, the Nexus 7 is a good alternate choice.

So called full-sized tablets are usually larger than 8” in screen diameter. Here’s where I change my tune a bit, because I find at this size you can gain the added advantage of a device which is large enough to be comfortably productive on.  A tablet of this size can be used quite well for a full-suite of office applications, making them good choices for both personal and professional use. This is where the second device of this review, the iPad Air, shines.  At $499 for the basic model it’s not a small investment, but I personally feel you get a goodly amount for your dollar.

The iPad air offers a large screen in a small package. It’s thin and light, yet boasts both a powerful processor and all-day battery life. It also has access to Apple’s huge content ecosystem, which quite possibly trumps even Amazon’s.  Even if it doesn’t, the Apple App Store contains apps for everything you’d ever want to use at Amazon: shopping, Kindle books, Prime movies, etc.  In short you can get the best of both worlds on the iPad. As an added bonus, Apple also made some of their core productively apps free this year including: iLife and iWork. You get a full professional office suite, a movie maker, and a great music composition program all included in the price of the tablet.

The iPad Air runs IOS, which personally I feel is the easiest tablet operating system out there for a new user to learn.  Seriously, I’ve seen people give iPads to their toddlers and grandparents and have both surfing the web or playing games within minutes.  IOS also includes Facetime, which is probably the easiest to use video caller out there. It’s a great way to stay in touch with those relatives you stuffed back onto a plane right after the presents were unwrapped.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though. Apple, alas, can be their own worst enemy.  While their customer service is often fast and courteous, they are sticklers for the rules.  While I've found that Amazon will often bend over backwards to make sure their customers are satisfied, Apple will do so only as long as you fall within their guidelines.   Do otherwise, and you’re looking at a potentially costly repair. This is not to say it’s unfair, but it’s still inferior to the experiences I think you'll find with Amazon support.

That being said, I still love the iPad air.  When I’m not parked in front of my desktop, it’s my go-to device for just about anything - including writing my next book.

The Good:
- Possibly the best screen available on a tablet
- Feels a lot smaller than it is
- Great battery life
- Powerful internals
- A huge ecosystem of apps, including Amazon’s
- Pairs nicely if you also have an iPhone
- Can be a legitimate laptop replacement for some

The Less Than Good:
- Pricey
- The warranty is written in stone. Thou shalt not break it and expect to be forgiven.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9”:  All the same plusses as the Kindle HDX 7”, including the great price, but with a bigger screen.  Regardless, I don’t favor it at this size because, same as with the 7”, Amazon seems to embrace the HDX as primarily a consumption device. In that regards it’s somewhat more limited than the iPad.  Sometimes I actually want to get some work done, and if that’s the case then the HDX is probably not my first choice.

Samsung Galaxy Tablet 10”: Samsung is a popular player in the tablet space, but I’ll be honest I have yet to see a large tablet from them I like. They lack Apple’s or Amazon’s content ecosystem, I find their build quality to be a bit questionable, and frankly I despise Samsung’s customer support.  Just my opinion, but I find their attitude to be “just buy a new device.”  Their aftermarket support isn’t at the top of my favorites list.

Microsoft Surface: Maybe in a couple of years these could be great devices, but not yet.  While I love their typing covers, the tablets themselves are a bit chunky for my tastes.  THey also doesn’t have the app ecosystem of the others yet.  This year’s Surface tablets fixed a lot of the issues with the original generation, but it still seems you’re paying a premium just for the Microsoft name.  If the Surface was $100 cheaper or included their awesome covers (currently a separate purchase) I might think different, but for now I don’t have any reason to recommend one over an iPad air.

There you have it, two devices that you really can't go wrong with.

So what are your thoughts?  I’d love to hear them as well as answer any questions I can.


Unknown said...

Having owned a Nexus 7 2013 for 6 months now, and having just won a Kindle fire HDX 7" in a contest for android developers from the nice people at Dolby - I thought I would weigh in on the differences between the 2.

Kindle best things - Amazing sound, great book reader, easy interface for non geeky people.

Nexus best things - Access to all of both Google Play and Amazon apps, books and movies (If you install the proper software)So you have access to a better video player (MX Player) a greater variety of book readers, massively more varied games, Chrome browser, Gmail and much more.

Kindle worst things - Extremely limited app market, no Chrome browser, Gmail or any other google stuff - so much is not available, not because it wont run on the kindle - but because Amazon wants you to be limited to their stuff.

Nexus worst things - No frills interface that is a geeky build it yourself hodgepodge. Great if you are a geek though.

I have discovered that Dropbox - something I hate to think of living without will install fine on the HDX if you can get it there (not available in amazon app store for kindle but can be downloaded on the dropbox website) - MX Player also works fine if you import the apk (put it in dropbox after you install it), and most other android apps will probably run fine if you can get the apk files. You do have to turn on "Install from unknown sources" in settings. Adding these and a few other unavailable apps made the fire much more appealing to me.

Rick G said...

Thanks, Doug! I'd agree on all fronts. Bottom line is I think the Nexus is probably a better for those who are a bit more tech savvy. I will say I like the HDX hardware more.

Nick said...

Nice post, good anlysis. I agree with you on all accounts. I am however stuck between the Kindle and Nexus. Being a Prime memeber and wiht no Kindle Video on Demand app for the Nexus, it's a difficult choice. Though I'd likely continue to use my iPad for Amazon, so.....

Nick said...

Another interesting device is the Lenovo Yoga 8". A bit bigger but it has two interesting aspects. A built in stand, an SD slot, and a 15 hour battery

Unknown said...

Had some gift cards and used a coupon code to snag the 7" kindle he for cheap. I didn't see the use in upgrading to the hdx. It is a great little tablet for my entertainment needs.

lamekuma said...

I own a Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HDX and iPad Mini Air.

I'm currently using the iPad the most due to the fact that when I'm currently traveling for work, I find that I can actually ditch my laptop and just opt for the iPad. Email, browser, apps to watch movies/tv and games to entertain me ...has what I need mostly.

The Nexus is actually quite similar in that regard but since I also own an iPhone, the ecosystem of apps/device sharing between my iPhone and iPad is pretty seamless.

That said, I probably will be giving away my Kindle since I find that when traveling ... if I was to be stuck with only my Kindle, I would probably want to have my laptop with me. I find it a bit more restricted/limited with its function. Plus, you can watch Amazon Prime videos and novels on the iPad as well.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hi,thank you so much for your post.I have the Kindle HDX 7" and while I love it as my first tablet and connection with Amazon,I'm finding I want a larger screen for playing with social media stuff.I have an iPhone 5 but it is too small for playing with.Thanks for the comparison because the iPad Air 2 is being released next week and it was nice to see the side-by-side comparison. I'm off to get the iPad.I'm also glad to see that you have both and I won't feel guilty for being a device hog,plus my good friend just got an Air!Have a nice day.
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