Kindle Fire or...iPod Touch? (Ask Maggie)

The Kindle Fire's $200 price tag will no doubt shake up the tablet market, but how does it stack up against Apple's iPod Touch?

Amazon's new Kindle Fire is so cheap that it's sure to appeal to people who would love a tablet like the Apple iPad, but aren't willing to pay $500 for it. So how does it stack up to other $200 devices?

In this installment of Ask Maggie, I try to answer that very question. One reader wants to know if he should get the Kindle Fire or the Apple iPod Touch for his young son. At $200 the Kindle Fire is hard to pass up. But before he preorders the new tablet, I offer some cautionary advice.

I also help a reader decide whether he should buy a smartphone now or wait a couple of months until the holiday season when carriers may offer even newer, hotter devices, plus some good deals on older generation smartphones.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

Kindle Fire or iPod Touch?

Dear Maggie,
I need some advice. I was thinking of getting my 8-year-old son an iPod Touch to entertain him on long trips with games and videos. I want something with a browser for Web surfing too. The iPad would be great, but it's too expensive. And well, he's 8.

But now I'm thinking that the Amazon Kindle Fire might be a good fit. Which would you recommend for him? The Kindle Fire or the iPod Touch? We're not a big Apple family. But we're not locked into Amazon either. We don't have Amazon Prime or any Amazon streaming services.

Thanks,
Dan from Long Island

Dear Dan from Long Island,
This is a great question. I know lots of pundits have been pitting the Kindle Fire against the Apple iPad. But I think it's more likely to compete head-to-head with the iPod Touch for the very reason you point out in your question: price. The Kindle Fire is $200 and the least expensive iPod Touch is $229. Meanwhile, you can buy two Kindle Fire's for less than the price of the cheapest iPad, which is $500.

So to answer your question: Kindle Fire or iPod Touch? Truthfully, I think it's still a little too early to say. The Kindle Fire was just announced this week. I haven't even seen it in person yet. What's more there are still several unanswered questions about the Kindle Fire and what it will offer. My CNET Reviews colleague Dan Ackerman does a good job of pointing out some of these unanswered questions .

Amazon's Kindle Fire
Amazon's Kindle Fire Amazon via Bloomberg

But as the launch date of November 15 gets closer, we should have a better sense of how this tablet will stack up against all competing products, including the iPod Touch.

Until then, let me explain why I am encouraged by the Kindle Fire and think that it might be a great alternative for the iPod Touch. And I'll also bring up a few of my concerns.

First, I really like the price. Anyone who knows me, knows I love a good bargain. I'm the kind of person who will buy almost anything for $9.99 (and 99 cents is even better.) In fact, I think the 99 Cent stores that are in every other strip mall throughout America were probably opened with someone like me in mind.

Of course, the Kindle Fire is not 99 cents or even $9.99. (If it were, I'd definitely buy it.) But it's the gadget equivalent, which is $200. This price-point seems to be the sweet-spot for many tech consumers these days. You made this point in your question. You are willing to spend $200 for a fun gadget for your 8-year-old son, but you're a lot less likely to spend $500, which is the going rate for most tablets these days. And that's understandable. Your son is 8-years old. And I've seen the messy state my gadgets are returned in when I let my 12-year old and 6-year old nephews play with my smartphone and tablet.

But the bargain basement pricing means that there are some trade-offs. There's no question that the $200 Kindle Fire, doesn't offer all the bells and whistles that you'd get with a more expensive tablet. That said, when compared to the iPod Touch, you're getting more horse-power and a bigger screen than what's offered on the iPod Touch. And I think if you expect your son to play games and watch movies on this device, the bigger 7-inch size of the Kindle Fire is preferable to the much smaller iPod Touch screen, in my opinion.

So my initial impression of the Kindle Fire is that it's got some potential as an alternative to other portable computing devices, like the iPod Touch. But there are still a lot of things we don't know yet about the Kindle Fire. And some of these issues could be deal breakers for me.

Related stories
• Amazon Silk: One step forward, two steps back
• Ten things we don't know about the Kindle Fire
• Kindle Fire an iPad killer? Yes. It's the price, stupid

Access to media content:

Keep in mind that Amazon's strategy is to sell you a device that you'll use to buy their digital content, whether that's books or movies. That's where Amazon makes it money. At its press conference in New York City , Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said all of Amazon's streaming media services will be available for the Kindle Fire. This includes the Kindle e-reader app and its streaming music and video services. Amazon already has 11,000 titles in its streaming video service, and it's working to get more titles. Most of this video content can be bought or rented. And with a $79 a year fee to Amazon Prime, you can get access to some, but not all, of the streaming videos.

The nice thing about the streaming service is that if you have a Blu-ray player or a Roku device with access to the Amazon streaming application, you can view the video on your TV as well as your Kindle Fire. And if you pause or stop the video on one of these devices, you can pick up where you left off on the other.

But what we still don't know is what other streaming services, if any, will be available. Amazon's Web site for Android apps indicates that there are some streaming music services that will be available, such as Amazon's MP3 app and Slacker Radio. But notably missing from the list are Spotify and Pandora, two of the more popular services.

Also missing is Netflix, which offers a competing streaming movie service, to Amazon's own streaming TV show and movie service.

Apple has its iTunes Store, where music and video content can be purchased. But it also supports Netflix, Pandora, and Spotify apps, as well as Amazon's Kindle e-book reader app.

Apps:

The Kindle Fire is built on Google's Android operating system. And Amazon said that it will offer many Android apps for the Kindle Fire. But it won't offer them all. At this point it's unclear which Android apps will be available and which won't. As I mentioned before, it doesn't appear as though Pandora and Netflix apps are available for the Kindle Fire. But these apps are available in the Android Market for other Android devices.

Meanwhile, Apple offers more than 425,000 apps that are available for download on the iPod Touch or the iPhone. (About 90,000 of these apps are also available for the iPad.)

That said, Bezos made the point of saying that the Kindle Fire will have a healthy helping of the most popular games available at launch, including Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. And I'm sure Amazon will be adding other apps and games.

Still, Apple's App Store is likely to give you the greatest choice in apps. Of course, quantity isn't everything. So you may be completely satisfied with Amazon's offering through its Android store. But like I said, it's still unclear what subset of the total Android Market will be available to the Fire.

Web browsing:

You mentioned that you wanted this device for your son so he could have access to the Internet. The Kindle Fire has a new browser that Amazon has developed called Silk. It's been specially designed for the tablet, and it's meant to speed up Web page downloads by learning your behavior and caching content it thinks you'll request ahead of time. CNET's browser guru Stephen Shankland applauds Amazon for speeding up the browser on a mobile device. He said it's sorely needed. But he explains there may be trade-offs down the line, including security concerns. For more detailed information on this check out his story on the subject.

Parental Controls:

Another big area of concern for you should be parental controls. It's great for kids to have access to the Internet on a mobile device. But let's not forget that when you put a Web-enabled device in the hands of a child, you're giving him or her access to the entire World Wide Web, including lots of content that isn't appropriate for children. Also giving kids access to tablets and other mobile devices like the iPod Touch, which have access to apps and other content that cost money, means you're essentially giving your child your credit card. Before you know it, your son could be filling his zoo on the game "Tap Zoo" with hundreds of dollars worth of virtual animals.

Apple has tried to address this issue through its parental control settings for all iOS devices. As part of these controls, you can choose to restrict access to certain apps and features on the device, such as the Safari browser, YouTube or app installation in general. You can also restrict the use of location-based services and the addition of friends to multiplayer games in the Game Center. You can also restrict access to in-app purchases, as well as certain music, videos or apps.

So far Amazon hasn't discussed what parental controls, if any, it will offer on the Kindle Fire.

The bottom line is that as much as I'd love to recommend the Kindle Fire to you right now, I think you should wait at least until some of the initial reviews are out. Then we'll know how it stacks up against the iPod Touch and other potential competitor out there.

I hope this helps. And good luck!

"Holiday, oh, holiday"

Dear Maggie,
I am an AT&T customer looking to finally make the leap from a "dumb"phone to a smartphone. Should I upgrade now to something like the Galaxy S II or iPhone5 (assuming it is finally released soon), or wait till the Christmas season in the hopes that better sales/phones will be around?

Thanks,
Luke

Dear Luke,
If you can wait a couple of months before buying a new phone, I would. I talked with Bonnie Cha, CNET Reviews editor for smartphones. And she said that the major wireless operators usually announce new devices in October and November.

"There might be a few that are announced in early December," she said. "But most of the carriers and manufacturers will push out new phones so that people can buy them as holiday gifts."

Also, carriers and some of the retail outlets that sell smartphones often offer special deals and sales around the holidays. So there could be discounts, two-for-one offers, accessory bundles or some other special deal.

With that in mind, it makes sense to wait just a bit longer to see what new phones come out or to see if you could get a great deal on some older model phones or cool bundle of accessories. I wouldn't expect the brand new phones that will be announced in the next couple of months to be offered at big discounts, but carriers have been known to slash prices on devices that were announced earlier in the year. Besides, the iPhone 5 isn't expected to hit stores until mid-October. And I imagine you'd want to wait at least until then to make your decision.

Good luck! And who knows? Maybe Santa Claus will bring you a smartphone.

 

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