During 2011's holiday season, Amazon ruled the low end of the tablet market. Its first Kindle Fire struck just the right chords with pricing, simplicity, and brand familiarity. In 2012, though, the low-end of the tablet market is set to be a brawl. Amazon has two new Kindle Fires, Google has the terrific Nexus 7, and Barnes & Noble is trying to hang in there with the Nook HD.
The elephant in the room, however, is Apple's new iPad mini. Though it rings up at US$130 more than most of its competitors, it may lead to some restless nights for Amazon's execs.
Only time will tell how the market will play out, but we don't have to wait to see how the budget tablets stack up. In tonight's main event, we have iPad mini vs. Kindle Fire HD …
The biggest difference here is the iPad mini's thinness. It's much more svelte than the 7-inch Fire HD. Apart from that, the dimensions don't look remarkably different.
Design quality can be subjective, but the iPad mini will, for most people, be the winner in that department. Its aluminum unibody design comes in both black/slate and white/silver (like the iPhone 5). The Kindle Fire HD's backing, meanwhile, is made of plastic and rubber: comfortable to grip, but lacking that premium aesthetic.
The iPad mini is lighter than the Fire HD, but not by a monumental margin.
At least on paper, resolution is a big advantage for the Fire: it packs more pixels into a smaller display. Apple, wanting to avoid software fragmentation, used the 1024x768 resolution from the first two iPads. It will look sharp enough on the 7.9-inch screen, but Amazon's tablet should come out ahead.
Apple's tablet does, however, offer nearly an extra inch of (diagonal) real estate. If you want a maximum viewing area in a mini form factor, you may want to check out the iPad mini.
Both tablets sport dual core chips that are growing a bit long in the tooth. For most people's needs, they will deliver good performance, but neither sports the most advanced processor on the market today.
The iPad mini's RAM is unconfirmed, but – as the small tablet borrows much from the iPad 2 – we're betting on its having 512MB. We'll find out for sure after benchmarks and teardowns hit the web, but the Kindle Fire HD's 1GB is a sure thing.
If you're holding out for 64GB of flash memory, then the iPad mini is the only option. Otherwise, both devices are even.
The Kindle Fire HD is Wi-Fi only, while the iPad mini is also available in a (more expensive) 3G/LTE model. If you want a Kindle Fire with cellular data, you can wait for the upcoming 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD 4G (due on November 20).
As we're referencing manufacturers' estimates, you'll want to take these with grains of salt. Both Amazon and Apple are serious about delivering solid battery life, though, so you'll probably be fine with either device.
This is a clear advantage for the iPad mini. The Kindle Fire HD only has a front-facing camera, while Apple's tablet also has a 5MP rear-facing shooter. It's debatable whether budget tablets need rear-facing cameras, but, for iPad mini owners, the option is there.
Apple is gambling that customers will pay an extra $130 for the iPad mini's attractive design and loaded App Store. The Amazon Appstore has a good selection, but it still trails the number (and quality?) of native tablet apps in Apple's marketplace. Any app that runs on a full-sized iPad will run on the iPad mini; for many customers, this is all that matters.
Though you won't see old Billy Mays ads, the base version of the Kindle Fire HD ships with "Special Offers." It costs an extra $15 to get rid of the ads, but that still makes it $115 cheaper than the entry-level iPad mini.
The Fire HD's heavily-skinned version of Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, is more of an Amazon storefront than a traditional operating system. It's easy to read Kindle books, watch Amazon Instant Videos, and surf the web, but don't expect anything resembling the iPad mini's polished iOS 6.
What are you looking for, and how much are you willing to pay for it? Those questions are crucial with any purchase, but they're especially relevant here. If you want better software and a premium design, you may find the iPad mini to be worth an extra $130. If you like purchasing Amazon content and want a sharper display, then you might be happy to save some money on the Kindle Fire HD.
Either way, expect to be hearing a lot more about these two tablets – as well as the Nexus 7 – during the next few months. This holiday is a budget tablet steel cage match, and these two devices will be right in the thick of it.