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?

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The current Kindle Fire options, as shown by Amazon.com

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.

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