Kindle Fire and iPad 2: Comparing the incomparable

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As you’ve undoubtedly heard, Amazon’s Kindle Fire has been elevated—in the eyes of some who really should know better—as a device that can be fairly compared to Apple’s iPad. Even Amazon has stepped in it with a silly Kindle vs. iPad comparison table. Goofy tables and cherry-picked accolades aside, I regret the comparison. And not because I believe the iPad needs any firmer pats on its brushed aluminum back, but because comparing the two can only make a good—though limited—device look bad.

The media machine

I own and like both devices, but for entirely different reasons. I purchased the Fire not because of its Android underpinnings but for its Kindle heritage. Much as I love my iPad, I find it too heavy for sustained reading. At the same time, I’m not enamored of the regular Kindles’ E Ink display. I know some people find it easier on the eyes, but I often read where the surrounding light isn’t ideal and packing around a book light seems a bother. I’d hoped that the Fire would provide a good compromise—a smaller, lighter device with a backlit display. While it’s not nearly as light as a traditional Kindle, it’s easier to hold with one hand than an iPad.

The Fire was largely designed as a gateway to Amazon, and if you purchase digital books, music, and videos from there, it’s darned-near a dream. Yes, at 8GB of storage you don’t have a lot of room for videos nor the contents of even a modest music library, but it’s serviceable, particularly if you stream much of your video. It’s when you attempt to use the Kindle as a real tablet with your own content that you run into difficulties. While you can sideload some content via the USB interface, it’s clumsy, requiring you to drop media into a particular folder of a mounted volume on your desktop. And although it’s an Android device, the Fire doesn’t have access to Google’s Android Market, which means some of the apps you’d like to use can’t be installed on the thing unless you hack it.

Closed vs blocked

As much as people carp about Apple’s closed ecosystem, it’s difficult to fairly equate Apple’s and Amazon’s restrictions. For instance, attempt to download an open-source ebook from Project Gutenberg on each device. They’ll each download it, but unlike with the Kindle, the iPad can then open it directly in iBooks if it’s an ePub file or the free Kindle app if it’s a .mobi file. With the Kindle, you have to browse to the file (on the device using a file manager app or when it's connected to your computer) and move it to the approved folder so the Fire can open it. The same rigmarole applies if you download something like a .cbz comic book file. The file will open directly on the iPad in a compatible app but must be manually moved before it can be opened on the Fire. I’ve run into walls with both the iPad and Fire, but it’s only with the Fire that I’ve felt such a strong sense of being blocked specifically to be directed to the vendor’s store.

Speaking of comic books, the Kindle Fire isn’t a good comics reader, and for a device largely developed for reading, that’s too bad. While the available apps are part of the problem, the main issue is size. The screen is just too small. The iPad isn’t an ideal comic book reader either—I find that I have to zoom in on the top half of the page, read it, and then swipe down to read the bottom half. Two-page spreads require even more swipes. But the Fire’s narrow 7-inch format is far more cramped, requiring many more swipes. I’ve begun reading comics again mainly because of the ability to do so on my iPad. Had I tried this initially with the Fire, I would have given it up as a bad bet.

And then there’s Netflix performance…

“But wait!” the voice-in-my-head-that’s-meant-to-be-you interrupts. “You’re doing exactly what you disparage—comparing the two devices!”

It is what it is

Fair cop. However, I’m doing so in the hope that you’ll understand that the two really shouldn’t be compared. I’m not disappointed that the Fire isn’t an iPad because I honestly believe it wasn’t designed to be a smaller and less expensive iPad alternative (regardless of Amazon’s ill-advised table). The Fire is a perfectly swell Kindle (unless you define any Kindle as being solely an E Ink device), it’s just not a great tablet. It’s too small, too slow, and the interface is too limited for your (or Amazon’s) protection.

Sure, it can be used as a tablet thanks to the device’s (weak) email client, web browser, and third-party apps, but these are features you’d use only if a more capable device (an iPad, for example) wasn’t within reach. I’ve found that there’s room for both devices in my life. I’ve very nearly abandoned books on my iPad in favor of the Fire, my daughter loves it for Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, and I'm tempted to sign up for Amazon Prime and use the thing for streaming videos. But when I need a tablet that is a tablet, it’s the iPad every time.

[Christopher Breen is a Macworld senior editor.]

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