How does the new Kindle Fire HD compare with the best tablet on the block?
Eric FranklinFormer Editorial Director
Eric Franklin led the CNET Tech team as Editorial Director. A 20-plus-year industry veteran, Eric began his tech journey testing computers in the CNET Labs. When not at work he can usually be found at the gym, chauffeuring his kids around town, or absorbing every motivational book he can get his hands on.
ExpertiseGraphics and display technology.Credentials
The iPad and Kindle Fire HD are two different tablets intended for slightly different market segments. The iPad is a "does everything" tablet, while the Fire HD remains focused on media consumption.
However, most people shopping for a tablet don't have the funds to afford both (not that I'm at all encouraging anyone purchase both) and will therefore have to choose. The following is an attempt to make that choice a bit easier. With the iPad being the "everything" tablet in this comparison, I'll focus on comparing the two in categories both tablets are capable of, while also pointing out the strengths of each.
The Kindle Fire HD has three main video-streaming options: Netflix, Hulu Plus, and of course, if you're a Prime member, Amazon Instant Video. The iPad also has access to those same streaming services, so I tested both tablets using Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. When you take into account the vision behind each tablet, it's not too surprising which provides the better video-streaming experience.
I began by streaming the same episode of "Breaking Bad" through Amazon Instant Video on each tablet over CNET's internal Wi-Fi network. I then walked around the building, eventually leaving the building with both tablets, while the episode continued to play. Both tablets played without a hiccup during this time; however, only the Fire HD displayed and maintained an HD signal. The iPad's signal was strong, but decidedly SD.
After leaving the building and traveling about 20 feet from CNET's front door, the iPad lost the streaming signal, giving me only the spinning circle of death. The Fire HD continued to play in HD for another half block or so (about 100 feet) before it too stopped playing the show.
With Netflix streaming, I saw something very similar. This time, with an episode of "The Walking Dead" and when within five feet of our test router, the iPad delivered a quality, but sub-HD version of the episode, while Fire continued to push out a better-looking HD image. After walking farther away and eventually leaving the building, the iPad stopped streaming at about the same place as before (about 20 feet from CNET's front door) and while the Fire HD didn't get as far with Netflix as it did with Amazon Instant Video, it did make it another 50 feet or so before it lost the signal. Also the Fire HD was more consistent with its quality, rarely dropping to a low-quality mode -- something the iPad did frequently as I moved around.
I also tested the range of each tablet's Wi-Fi antenna by walking a block away from the CNET building and then walking closer and closer until I could connect to our internal network. Each tablet connected at about the same distance from the building (50 to 60 feet away). So my theory, at least in the case of streaming, is that it's not necessarily the range of the Fire HD that leads it to success here, but how quickly its MIMO-powered antenna allows it to buffer video. The Fire HD seems optimized for this. Which makes sense, given Amazon's vision for the device as primarily a media consumption device.
While the iPad proves a worthy competitor in the streaming-video challenge, the Fire HD currently has no equal in this department. If streaming video is at the top of your priority list, the Kindle Fire HD is the tablet for you.
However, 4G versions of the iPad (starting at $629) will obviously allow you to stream much farther, since the 7-inch Fire HD has no cellular component. A 4G LTE 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD will launch on November 20 starting at $499.
Safari, especially with iOS 6, is the best best browser on the iPad. By default, the Fire HD uses Amazon's Silk browser.
From a speed perspective, Amazon's browser comes up short. Silk on the Fire HD is sometimes even slower than on the original Fire, and usually a couple of seconds behind the iPad when loading the same page.
Safari also has a more streamlined design: bookmarks and history are easily accesible and reading list can be a very useful feature.
On the contrary, Silk feels clunkier and accessing bookmarks and history takes a few more steps than I'd like. However, Silk's full screen mode uses more of the Fire HD's 7-inch screen as it spreads pages to its edges -- a neat little extra.
Silk's reading mode converts web pages into Kindle book format, with the same font and pages color options you'd expect to see when reading a Kindle book. This mode works perfectly on some pages, but even on pages where the mode was available, it pages didn't always format as they should and most of the article could be missing. Reading mode is a neat idea, but needs to be compatible with more pages before it can be truly useful. The iPad has a very similar mode that seems to be compatible with more sites, but offers no color or font customizations.
You can use Amazon's Cloud Player on both tablets, and the iPad obviously has access to iTunes as well. Amazon Cloud Player allows users to stream music from their cloud library without having to actually download songs to their devices. Both tablets have access to streaming-music services like Pandora and Spotify as well.
But what about sound quality? As forcefully as the iPad's single speaker belted out sound, the tablet is ultimately outshone by the Fire HD, which delivered smooth, loud sound with appropriately equalized bass and treble. I don't recommend listening to music through most tablet speakers, but with the Fire HD I make a very clear exception. You've never heard tablet speakers as good as these.
Books and magazines
Both the Fire HD and iPad have access to thousands of books through Amazon's bookstore, while the iPad also has iBooks. If you're a Prime member and own a Fire HD, you also get to borrow one book per month from Amazon's lending library with unlimited return time. iPad users don't have access to this, whether they're Prime members or not.
It's what the Fire HD does with books that really sets it apart, however. X-ray for books, available only on the Fire HD, allows you to get more information about characters, terms, and historical figures mentioned in a Kindle book. It also highlights exactly where (via page number and a graph) in the book those details are mentioned and allows you to jump right to the appropriate page.
Immersion reading lets you read along with your audiobook. In addition, Whispersync for voice allows you to stop reading at any spot in the Kindle version of a book and then continue later at that exact spot in your audiobook and vice versa, even if it's on another device.
The iPad can't match most of these features; however, the Audible app for iOS 6 does support Whispersync.
The Fire HD's Newsstand app has a cool-looking new page-turning animation and the option to tap on an article and read it in simple text. Magazines on the iPad tend to have fairly slick-looking, more customized interfaces, with embedded video; however, simple text is not supported on the iPad.
Magazines on the iPad usually have huge catalogs of back issues. The Kindle Fire HD was just recently released and since each magazine issue on the Fire HD must be configured specifically, there are currently very few back issues available.
While many of the same content is available on each tablet, Amazon's lending library, X-ray for books, and Whispersync take the Kindle Fire HD over the top. Simple text as well for magazines is great for all you "I only ready it for the articles" people.
The iPad has the most games of any mobile platform and definitely the best games of any tablet. The Kindle Fire HD on the other hand has even fewer games than a typical Android tablet like the Nexus 7. Since Amazon heavily curates its store, many gamers must wait for Kindle Fire editions of games to be released before they can play. Of course users can sideload APKs, but that's not something most are comfortable with.
Also, the iPad's GPU is about a billion times (figure not actually confirmed) more powerful than the Fire HD's. At least the 7-inch version of the Fire HD. And many Kindle Fire-edition apps available on the original Fire don't currently work on the Fire HD. That said, compared to the original Fire, the Fire HD loads faster and delivers higher resolution in games. But so far, not higher frame rates.
As I said before, the iPad is the "does everything" tablet in this comparison. Not only can the tablet be used as an enterprise machine and an actual content creation device, but it also has more apps than any other mobile platform. Also, the best apps really take advantage of its beautiful screen and high resolution.
It's not that the Kindle Fire HD doesn't have apps. It's just that compared with the huge catalog available on the iPad, well, there's really no comparison here. The iPad also sports a higher-quality aluminum build, a high-quality back camera, a larger screen, GPS, and a clean and simple interface with a helpful and convenient hardware home button.
Make no mistake, the iPad is the best tablet you can buy today; however, the Kindle Fire HD is a great alternative if you don't want to spend iPad levels of money or simply want a smaller screen and form factor. So which do you buy? Simply put, you buy the tablet that's best for you. That's difficult to hear if you're looking for strict, clear buying advice, but it's the reality of the situation.
Aside from a few Amazon-specific features, the $500 iPad can do pretty much anything the Fire HD can, and with its incredible apps support, GPS, back camera, and more freeing OS, it easily earns its place as the best tablet. However, there are three areas in which the Kindle Fire HD excels: streaming video, speakers, and -- thanks to its multitude of features and Amazon's lending library -- books. If you're an Amazon Prime member and you don't want to spend too much on a tablet, there isn't a more apt device available right now than the Kindle Fire HD. It's $200, excels as a media consumption device, and is the best tablet for streaming video and reading books.
Things may get tricky soon, however. If rumors are true, we may see a $300, 7.85-inch iPad before year's end and a $300 8.9-inch version of the Kindle Fire HD with a higher-resolution screen and a faster processor, and the option to upgrade to 4G LTE is coming on November 20. But, for now, if you have the money, buy the iPad. If not, the Kindle Fire HD should satisfy all your media consumption needs.