Sep. 7, 2012 at 11:57 AM ET
Should you or shouldn't you pre-order? That there's the big question. With the latest announcements, Amazon asserts itself as a major player in hardware and cloud computing, and one of the kings of all forms of media — not just books but movies, TV shows, games and apps. But by offering pre-orders before anybody has reviewed the products, or has seen what is coming from Apple and Microsoft, Amazon is daring early adopters to take a plunge. If you are tempted, these multiple factors that should temper your decision.
Factor No. 1: The 1.9-inch difference
There are two Kindle Fire HD sizes. One has a screen that measures 7 inches diagonally. The other has a screen that's 8.9 inches. That spec difference will cost you $100 (for the respective 16GB models), and it could be huge or not noticeable at all.
The difference will come down to the little things like screen real estate (does emailing feel cramped on the smaller tablet?) and pixel density (will it matter that the 7-incher has only 216 pixels per inch while the 8.9-incher has 254?).
I'm willing to bet that battery life is not a big issue, since the device with the larger screen will also have a bit more room to squeeze in extra lithium polymer, but even that might cause dispute, especially since Amazon hasn't stated a battery life for the larger model. (The smaller one is supposed to run an ample 11 hours.)
For those chomping at the bit, saving $100 and buying the 7 incher means you get your tablet at least 2 months earlier than those holding out for the bigger model, so maybe that's reason enough.
Factor No. 2: Go cellular?
I have always recommended against going with a more expensive iPad that gives you 3G or 4G data, the argument being that the only time I ever really miss connectivity is on 3-hour drives between Seattle and Portland, and once I fire up a book or movie, I don't miss it even then. But Amazon has upped the pressure by offering a ridiculously cheap option for just that kind of sporadic cellular data access: $50 per year, and you get 250MB every month.
But you may not want to pre-order a $499 4G LTE Kindle HD just yet. The logo associated with it is AT&T's, and AT&T only has LTE in 53 markets to date, and it's not necessarily broadly deployed in all of those. If Verizon, which has far more developed 4G LTE coverage, gets in on the game, or if other tablets try to match this deal, then it would be worth waiting to compare options.
Factor No. 3: The iPad Mini
Who knows whether it will be called that or iPad Nano or maybe just "the all new but smallish iPad"? What we do know is that there are too many rumors swirling to ignore the fact that Apple will very likely be launching a lower-cost, smaller-screened product in the next month. The word on the street is that it will be nearly 8 inches measured diagonally. Think about that. It's almost exactly between the two Kindle HD products.
What's funny to me about this is that I've thought for a while that $249 would be the ideal price for Apple's pint-size iPad, and now Amazon is basically daring Apple to drop it right there, $50 more than the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, but $50 less than the 8.9-inch model.
Out of the box, any new iPad supports nearly every Amazon service. Now that there's an Amazon Prime streaming video app for iPad, the biggest thing missing from the iPad is the Kindle Lending Library. If you are a Kindle device owner who pays for the $79/year Prime membership, you can access a monster catalog of bestsellers, currently including the Harry Potter series, at no extra cost.
The latest and best iPad Mini rumors suggest that we won't see it on Sept. 12, when the next iPhone will undoubtedly debut, but that there will be a separate event in October to show it off.
Factor No. 4: The Windows 8 renaissance
Don't laugh, Apple fanboys, this could seriously happen.
Microsoft has been mounting a full-scale return to consumer tech, and I for one really want to see if the company can pull it off. Many people have been griping about the awkwardness of the Windows 8 desktop experience, and whether or not it will be good for PC gamers who love their 2-ton water-cooled monster rigs, but what I want to know is, what's the tablet experience like? And I'm talking about the Surface RT tablet first and foremost, because it's made by Microsoft and aimed right at the iPad.
Battery life, aesthetic comfort, customizability — these factors come second only to price, and all are unknown at this time. A happy Surface RT experience could be a major inroad to the things Microsoft's doing particularly well right now, such as the new Outlook.com email service and the amazingly multi-platform SkyDrive cloud storage. Get people hooked on that, and music, books and other services are not far behind. And Microsoft doesn't have to offer much beyond that. After all, it's not like Amazon won't offer its e-books, cloud music, streaming video and other services across the Windows 8 family of devices anyway.
Any other factors?
You may notice that I didn't mention Android tablets. This is in part because I have felt that Amazon is doing the best job of marketing an Android tablet — yes, people, all Kindle Fires are Android tablets. Amazon doesn't dwell on the fact that it's Android, but instead shows off everything you can actually do with a tablet. The other reason is that the best Android tablet play of the season has already been made: The Nexus 7 tablet is available, and if your heart is set on a 7-inch Android device, you can easily compare the two and make up your mind. I'll draw your attention to this helpful comparison chart from Digital Trends, to aid you in your mulling.
You may also notice that I didn't discuss the next version of the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. As much as I enjoy rooting for the underdog, I really feel like B&N is outmanned and outgunned in this battle. Just like Amazon can destroy a company like Groupon by just doing the same thing, better, as a teeny tiny side business, Amazon can innovate and cut costs like crazy, in ways that B&N can't hope to match.
I eagerly await what B&N may bring out next, but — and I've said this before — if you're not someone who already spends plenty of hours inside a Barnes & Noble store, wandering the aisles and drinking the genuine Starbucks coffee from the cafe, then you probably won't benefit from the bulk of what B&N offers its Nook customers.
So whether or not you pre-order comes down to how you feel about the factors I've mentioned. Odds are, most people should wait. Who shouldn't wait? Anyone already steeped in the Amazon Prime/Kindle Fire experience, who wants to stick with the 7-inch style but desires more storage, a Skype video-chat camera, better performance and a sharper screen.