Up close: Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 vs. iPad Air & Retina iPad mini
January 28, 2014
When we reviewed the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9", we said that it blended the best of large and small tablets better than any other slate out there. So why not see how it sizes up next to the most popular large and small tablets around? Read on, as Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9" to Apple's iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display.
Before we jump in, know that this comparison is more about how the Fire HDX 8.9 sizes up next to Apple's two iPads than how the two iPads stack up against each other. If you're only looking for help deciding between the iPad Air and iPad mini, then we've got you covered there too with our hands-on comparison between those two.
So on one hand we have Apple's two iconic iPads. The 9.7-in iPad air has the same size of screen as every full-sized iPad since the original. And the 7.9-in Retina iPad mini takes the popular design of the original iPad mini and adds a high-resolution display (along with a little extra weight and thickness).
On the other hand there's Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 8.9". As its name suggests, it rocks an 8.9-in screen, which hits a pretty nice balance in between the full-sized and mini iPads. The HDX 8.9 gives you 79 percent as much screen real estate as the iPad Air, and 19 percent more than the iPad mini.
I think that 8.9-in screen size hits a really great sweet spot. If you've used the iPad Air and the iPad mini and wished you could find something in between, this might be the tablet for you. Modern-day Goldilocks rejoice: the Fire 8.9 could be your "just right" between the "too big" and "too small" iPad extremes.
In terms of display quality, they all have sharp, high-resolution screens. But the Fire HDX 8.9 is the sharpest, with one of the best mobile displays I've ever seen. We're looking at the HDX's 339 pixels per inch vs. 264 PPI for the iPad Air and 326 PPI for the iPad mini. I think the Fire also has the best color accuracy, with the iPad Air not far behind. Of the three, the Retina iPad mini has the narrowest range of colors; it's as if it's painting from a smaller palette than the other two are.
As far as build and construction go, the iPads have the higher-end aesthetic. They're both made of anodized aluminum, which should be familiar to anyone who's handled any recent Apple products. The Fire is made of a matte plastic. It doesn't feel cheap or flimsy, but, well, it is still plastic.
All three feel quite comfortable in hand. The iPad Air and Kindle Fire are both so light they feel almost like toys – and yes, we mean that in a good way. The Retina iPad is the lightest of the three, but it's also the densest. The Fire 8.9 is the least dense of the three. So when you look at each tablet's weight relative to its size, the Fire HDX 8.9 might actually feel the lightest in hand.
Battery life isn't remotely a concern with any of these tablets. In fact, of the big-name, high-end tablets you can buy today, I'd say these three are the cream of the crop. In our standard test (where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness at 75 percent) the iPad Air lasted eight hours and 40 minutes, the iPad mini lasted 10 hours and 50 minutes, and the HDX 8.9 lasted almost exactly 10 hours. With typical – or even fairly heavy – use, none of these tablets should give you any problem at all lasting a full day.
Performance also isn't an issue on any of these devices. With the older Kindle Fire models, the UI always felt a little laggy to me. But the HDX 8.9 runs Qualcomm's terrific Snapdragon 800 processor, making it one of the fastest ARM-based tablets around. Ditto for the two iPads, which have Apple's 64-bit A7 silicon packed inside. There isn't much more to say about performance, other than all three of these tablets are extremely zippy, fluid, and capable of playing the latest mobile games without hiccups.
Software might be the most important area to look at before making this decision. In terms of app selection, the iPads have a huge advantage. The iOS App Store's tablet app selection is still unparalleled, while the Amazon Appstore's selection isn't even on par with Google Play's. So if maximum app selection is your highest priority, then you'll definitely want to look at one of the iPads.
But that isn't to say Amazon's Fire OS can't easily serve as your tablet platform of choice. Most of the core apps are available for download. Standards like Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and so on, are all there in full force. You have a solid web browser, email app, and content stores built-in. It's missing a few key apps like Dropbox and all of Google's services, but if you can live without those (or sideload them) Amazon's skinned version of Android might be all you need.
The Kindle Fire's OS also has a few nice perks built-in. Of course you get excellent versions of all of Amazon's shops and services, with permanent shortcuts living right at the top of your home screen. Amazon's video-watching experience is particularly good on the Fire HDX. If you have a PS3 or a Miracast-enabled TV or HDMI accessory, you can sling your content to your TV from the Fire. It also has Amazon's X-Ray feature built-in, which gives you instant IMDB info for the actors on the screen at any given moment. The Fire HDX coupled with a compatible TV makes for a terrific second-screen experience, at least on par with an iPad paired with an Apple TV set-top-box.
The most unique part of the Kindle Fire's software, though, is its Mayday Button. It's on-device customer service: tap a button and an Amazon support rep jumps onto your screen, ready to answer your questions. It looks like a video chat, as you can see the technician, but he or she can only hear you. The specialist can also draw on your screen and even control your device if you grant permission. It takes an already easy-to-grasp OS and makes it practically foolproof.
You're probably already at least somewhat familiar with the iPads' iOS software. In addition to its bigger and better app selection, it also gives you Apple's services like iCloud, iWork, iTunes, Siri, and iMessage. And even though there's no love lost between Apple and Google, the iPad also has official apps for all those Google services that are nowhere to be found on the Fire.
One head-scratching annoyance with the iPads' iOS 7 is a significant browser crashing bug. I've regularly used the two new iPads running iOS 7 during the last few months, and I consistently experience multiple browser crashes each day. It's apparently a glitch with the Webkit engine powering Safari, as the bug happens in third-party browsers (which all use Webkit) too. There are multiple Apple support pages with hundreds of complaints from customers with the same issue. Yet more than four months into iOS 7's lifespan, the company still hasn't fixed it. Apple's products usually "just work," but this is one obvious exception.
So which tablet should you buy? Does the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9" warrant consideration next to Apple's market-leading iPads? As always, that's going to depend on what you're looking for. On a hardware level, the answer is absolutely. On a software level, you need to start by asking yourself what you want a tablet for. If it's all about the basics – consuming media – then the Fire could very well be worth a close look. If you're more discerning about a large app selection of the highest quality, then you're probably better off sticking with an iPad.
Then there's the matter of value. In typical Amazon fashion, the Fire HDX 8.9 is the cheapest of the three. It starts at US$380 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi only model (though you'll need to fork over another $15 to get rid of lock screen ads). The iPad mini with Retina Display starts at $400 with the same 16 GB Wi-Fi configuration, and the equivalent iPad Air rings up for $500.
I personally have been very happy using the Fire HDX 8.9 for the last week or so. Its screen size is just about perfect for me, and despite being invested in Google's ecosystem, I haven't had too much trouble living with a Google-free mobile platform. The Fire's combination of hardware, pricing, and Amazon services is that good.
With that said, I've already spent a couple months enjoying these two iPads. They're big steps forward from their predecessors, and if you're already swimming in the deep end of Apple's ecosystem, there aren't going to be any surprises. Just watch out for that browser crashing: if you spend as much time on the web as I do, it might end up being a deal-breaker.