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Up close: Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 vs. iPad Air & Retina iPad mini

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January 28, 2014

Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 to the iPad Air and Retina iPad mi...

Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 to the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini

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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.

Hardware

Both iPads are very comfortable to hold

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.

The Fire HDX 8.9 is quite the lightweight itself, as the least dense of these three tablet...

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.

It's plastic vs. aluminum

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.

The iPads are each 7.5 mm thick, while the Fire HDX 8.9 is 7.8 mm thick

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

The Fire is nearly as long as the iPad Air, though it's screen is 21 percent smaller

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 Kindle Fire's Mayday Button connects you with an Amazon support rep who can help answe...

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.

The iPad's loaded App Store is its biggest advantage over the more sparsely populated Amaz...

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.

The decision

Too big, too small ... and just right??

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.

The iPads look and feel a bit higher-end, with their tight aluminum construction

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.

If you're still torn, you can hit up our individual reviews of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9", iPad Air, and Retina iPad mini.

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About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin covers consumer technology for Gizmag. He's previously written for Android Central, Geek, GottaBeMobile, Android Police, and The Huffington Post.
He lives in New Mexico, U.S., with his lovely wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
4 Comments

Number of apps is an interesting metric. It seems to assume that all the apps are good. I can get lots of roast beef sandwiches, but put a Panera Asiago Steak or an Atlanta Bread Company Roast Beef against something from Arby's, Subway, etc and it becomes an obvious choice. Search for any app and you get gobs of options, but a good share of that is crap. Quantity does not equal quality.

Bruce H. Anderson
29th January, 2014 @ 08:50 am PST

Never mind the software, the fact that you're limited to Amazon for your media means I'll never buy a Kindle. I kinda like the ability to download books from my local library or various independent publishers.

I appreciate the ability to subscribe to Netflix and Hulu.

I can buy my music from wherever I want and import it.

Yes, I have to buy my software from Apple's store, but at least they're not controlling my media choices.

Bryan P
29th January, 2014 @ 10:28 pm PST

Bryan,

You realize that there are Netflix and Hulu apps in the Amazon app store, don't you? It says so in the article you are commenting on. There are Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, etc.. apps as well. I fail to see how are you limited to Amazon for your media means if you buy a kindle.

hugoliva
30th January, 2014 @ 06:37 am PST

@hugoliva: one of the advantages of the iPad - or perhaps a Google tablet (I'm not sure) - is that your choice of stores is not locked down to one. Certainly on the iPad I can shop for books in different stores, and read them in their native apps (the Kindle app for Amazon, the Kobo for Chapters-Indigo, the Apple bookstore, etc.). Oddly enough, I've found a price difference between them too. Of course, I'm not sure that the money I've saved would justify the extra expense of buying the iPad over the Kindle Fire - that would take some time to do the math.

As for music or movie media - what if you want to purchase? Can you purchase from other stores and watch it on the Fire, or are you stuck with Amazon's store? My guess is that it's the latter.

wolfshades
3rd February, 2014 @ 09:25 am PST
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