Wait—which Kindle Fire should I actually buy?

There are now four new Kindle Fires out there, each with different specs. What's the best value, and which one makes sense?

Amazon didn’t just update the Kindle Fire at its big tablet event yesterday. It added four serious contenders to the young tablet market. Now there’s a Kindle device for nearly every tablet price point: $159, $199, $299, and $499, putting the Fire in direct competition with Nexus 7, the iPad, and probably whatever next version of the iPad arrives. But which one is the best value?

You’ve got the new version of the straight-up Kindle Fire, which picked up what Amazon claims is “40% faster performance, twice the memory, longer battery life.” Amazon customized the 7-inch Fire interface with a version of Android 4.0, or “Ice Cream Sandwich,” one version behind the current (and best) Android release. Here’s hoping they did some major work. Literally everybody I’ve talked to who owns a Kindle Fire likes it well enough, especially when it’s just playing a video, reading a book, or playing most games. But using the original Kindle Fire as a multi-purpose tablet is a bit painful, as you feel the little processor and small bundle of memory try to serve you, like a diner that suddenly got swarmed at 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Without handling the new Fire myself, and not trusting most figures given out at press events, I can say with some certainty that a reasonably capable $159 tablet is absolutely perfect for one kind of customer: a customer with kids. The new Kindles allow for creating separate user accounts for family members, and there’s a “FreeTime” feature that puts a time limit on Fire usage for certain activities (games, videos) for certain users (or self-aware procrastinators). And given the way kids treat devices with glass screens, being able to replace the device at $159 is much more palatable than even $200, or especially $300 or $500.

That leaves all three of the Kindle Fire HD devices: the 7-inch “Kindle Fire HD,” the “Fire HD 8.9””, and the “Fire HD 8.9” 4G LTE Wireless.” That last name almost seems like a stunt between product designers, to fit as many vaguely-defined acronyms into one imaginary device as possible, but it’s a real product, for $499 with 32 GB of storage memory. The 8.9” HD kindles sport 1920x1200 displays with 254 pixels per inch, which is a bit more fine-grain than the Nexus 7 (216 ppi), a bit less than the iPad (264 ppi), and quite a jump up from the previous Kindle Fire or, say, the Galaxy Tab (169 ppi, each). The 7” Kindle Fire HD is 1280x800, with roughly the same pixels-per-inch as its pricier brothers.

All of the “HD” Kindles sport what Amazon claims is much faster Wi-Fi than any other tablet out there, due to two Wi-Fi antennas in each device and an algorithm that somehow crunches numbers to utilize signal echo in the data stream. They also have new support for Exchange email, along with Gmail and other webmail providers, and “Exclusive Dolby audio and dual-driver speakers” that nobody has really had a chance to test (the event was held in an airplane hangar). They are, in other words, a step closer to a general purpose, even productivity-minded device than the original Kindle Fire, which was built, pitched, and accepted as an entertainment delivery device.

It’s hard to boil down all those factors and see which Kindle best fits your palate. Personally, I think the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD is the best value. It’s not much more than the standard Fire, but the speedier Wi-Fi and crisper screen are worth $40. More than that, and more than anything about tablets, really, the money you spend should reflect what you believe to be the value of your free time. When you, as a working, responsible adult, find yourself with free time, is it usually when you’re in a living room, where there’s a much larger screen waiting? When you’re in a waiting room, a coffee shop, or another public spot where sitting is expected, is your phone usually enough for you? How much time do you really have between casual phone checking and sit-down streaming enjoyment?

For some people, the answers might actually indicate that, yes, a nearly 9-inch screen is something they want to have around, to enjoy all those moments in which Captain America: The First Avenger can be enjoyed with dual-driver Dolby sound and a nearly Retina-sharp screen. Otherwise, I think $159 is perfect for those with kids, $199 for those without.

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