eReader vs Tablet — Kindle Fire HDX vs. iPad mini with Retina vs. Kindle Paperwhite — Which to Buy?

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UPDATED December 2, 2014: Should you purchase a full-featured tablet or a select-features tablet or an e-reader? That may be a better way to ask the question. Do you want to spend the money on an iPad? If so, nothing else will do. If you're invested in the Apple ecosystem, there is no way that any other device is going to make you happy. That said, there are excellent reasons, such as price and performance, to consider purchasing a Kindle Fire HD or HDX. And, there are very good reasons to prefer a good, old-fashioned eReader. Let's have a look.

Apple iPad mini
Apple iPad mini

Apple’s iPad mini 3 with Retina Display

The iPad mini is everything you’ve come to know and love from the full-sized iPad, shrunk down to a 7” form factor. Apple’s iPad mini 3 is sort of a good news/bad news device. First, the good news: it’s the best small form-factor iPad Apple has ever created. Now available with 128 GB of storage, it can also hold more than any iPad mini that came before it.

Then there’s the bad news. The iPad mini 2 blew the first mini out of the water in just about every regard. It added a Retina display that significantly boosted the screen’s resolution, and it added a way faster processor. The iPad mini 3, meanwhile… is basically the iPad mini 2 with three very minor tweaks. Here’s a list of every difference between the second and third versions:

  • The iPad mini 3 added Touch ID.
  • You can buy the iPad mini 3 in gold.
  • You can buy a 128 GB version of the iPad mini 3.

That’s it. The Touch ID addition is nice, especially now that Apple Pay is starting to take off. But unless you’re looking to add a splash of gold to your mobile lifestyle or need a ton of room to store your media, the mini 3 isn’t a worthwhile upgrade over the mini 2. Apple is still selling both models, as are other retailers that sell iPads. Both are great devices, but the mini 2 has way more value. That’s the iPad to buy if you want to go with Apple.

The mobile landscape has been built around Apple, and the iPad Mini’s biggest strength is its expansive app catalog. Like every other iPad, the mini can run every app in the App Store, which is far and away the number one reason to buy an Apple tablet over any other brand. For productivity, games or anything in between, the best apps almost always go to Apple first, and then make their way to Android, Amazon and Windows.

You’ve probably used Apple products before. This is the same comfortable experience you’ve come to know and love from the company. Even if you haven’t, you’ll feel right at home in iOS.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX

Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX 7”

Just like Apple, Amazon has a slew of tablets for you to choose from. Amazon’s new flagship device is the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9” tablet. That tablet is the best device Amazon has ever made, and its most powerful. But it’s a device that is aimed to compete head to head with the full-sized iPad Air, not the mini.

Amazon’s 7” Kindle Fire HDX is the iPad mini’s direct competition, and a far more affordable option. While it’s technically “last year’s model,” the 7” HDX is Amazon’s best small form-factor tablet and still worthy of your time and money. The HDX starts at $179, which is $50 less than it was when it first launched. Even if you add 4G LTE and quadruple the storage to 64 GB, the device will only cost you $319, which is $110 less than the lowest price of the iPad mini 2 with LTE, and more than $200 less than the lowest price of the iPad mini 3 with LTE.

The new Kindle Fires have a few awesome features found nowhere else in the tablet world, like Mayday. Mayday helps you connect with an Amazon tech-support employee directly on your tablet. The tech support agent shows up on your screen in a tiny video box to help you. If you’re having trouble with your device, Mayday is here to help, and that’s awesome. Amazon’s staff won’t be able to see your passwords, and you can ask them to disable screen mirroring at any time. The feature also doesn’t use the Fire’s front-facing camera, so no worries there.

The Kindle Fire HDX won’t blow the competition away with specs – though they are impressive – but it will when it comes to support. Amazon has made its tablet friendlier and less intimidating, and wants to deliver a world-class experience. Mission accomplished!

The new Kindle Fires are also awesome if you have kids. A feature called Kindle FreeTime lets you create a personalized experience for each of your children based on the content you've purchased. You’re also able to use this to limit the amount of time your children spend watching videos in a day. It offers a level of customization and parental control not found in many – if any – other major tablets today.

Like all of Amazon’s tablets, the experience revolves around Amazon’s media. If you’re an Amazon Prime customer, or just a fanatic for Kindle books, Amazon Instant Video and Amazon mp3, the whole ecosystem will be a multimedia wonderland for you. In the year since the 7” HDX launched, Amazon Prime has gotten more expensive (it now costs $99 a year, up from $79), but Amazon also added more features. Prime now includes:

  • Over 40,000 movies and TV episodes.
  • Over 1,000,000 streamable songs.
  • Free two-day shipping on almost everything Amazon sells.
  • A free Kindle rental every month.

One final note: Amazon also has two ultra-low-end priced tablets: the $99 Kindle Fire HD 6, and $139 Kindle Fire HD 7. Neither is as powerful as the HDX, and neither offers 4G LTE connectivity. But both are way, way, way less expensive than anything Apple has to offer. Not sure if the Amazon ecosystem is one you want to live in? Try out a $99 tablet. Worst case scenario: you hate it and never want to use it, but now you have a $99 portable Netflix box for the guest room. At that price, it’s worth the risk.

Kindle Paperwhite
Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon’s Kindle Voyage and Paperwhite

Amazon’s Kindle Voyage is the best e-reader on the market today, but it’s also the most expensive. Starting at $199 (that’s $80 more than the Paperwhite), it’s a significant reading investment. Is that extra $80 worth it? That’s up to you. Here are the major differences:

  • The Kindle Voyage has an adaptive light sensor, to automatically adjust the screen’s brightness, and lower the brightness as your eyes adjust.
  • The Kindle Voyage has PagePress, which is just a different way to turn pages.
  • The Kindle Voyage’s screen is almost 50 percent sharper.
  • The Kindle Voyage is slightly smaller and lighter, but the screen is the same size.

Are those features worth $80 to you? If so, the Voyage is an awesome device. Its screen is amazing, and the device feels great in your hands.

Whether you go with the Voyage or Paperwhite, it’s important to remember that they’re “just” e-readers, which means you can’t use it to watch movies or play (real) games, or listen to music. The Paperwhite is a device dedicated to reading and it is priced accordingly.

The battery life in Amazon’s e-readers is killer – it’s measured in weeks, not hours – and each generation sees an improvement in screen quality, clarity and glare reduction. That means you can use them anywhere you go. Both have a built-in backlight, meaning even the dark can’t stop your voracious reading.

Both e-readers have awesome features built in that make reading a great experience. Kindle Page Flip lets you skim through your books by page, chapter or all the way to the end, without losing where you’re at. It features Smart Lookup, which integrates a full dictionary with X-Ray and Wikipedia. It also has a built in vocabulary builder, so any time you look up what a word means on your Kindle, that word is added to an easy-to-access list, where you can quiz yourself with flashcards. And, like the Kindle Fire, it has Kindle FreeTime, which is aimed at young readers and tracks their progress and awards achievements as they reach their goals. Awesome.

Price vs. Performance

When it comes to the iPad mini, the real drawback is cost. The mini 2 is more affordable than the new mini 3, but it’s still more expensive than its Kindle Fire counterparts. But if you’re willing to saddle up and pay the hefty sticker price, you’ll get access to the best App Store in the world.

The Kindle Fire packs a lot of value, but it doesn’t come with the App Store … or even Google Play. Its app store is getting better every day, but Amazon has a way to go. Rather than pursuing top-tier third party developers, though, Amazon has doubled down on the Prime experience as the main selling point for its tablets.

The Kindle Voyage (or Paperwhite) isn’t a tablet, but that’s not why you’re buying it. An eReader will never replace a Kindle Fire or iPad mini, but it’s not supposed to. If you have a big phone (Galaxy S5 or iPhone 6 Plus, etc.) you may not need a tablet, but an eReader may make you very happy. Especially if you like to read in direct sunlight – eReaders are perfect when you have lots of natural light. I can think of several reasons to own a dedicated eReader, including that fact that I'm willing to throw them in my briefcase or backpack and not care too much about what happens to them.

Which is Right For You?

If You Own an iPhone: You’ve entrenched yourself in the world of iOS and nothing but an iPad mini will do. Buying a Kindle Fire means starting from scratch when it comes to apps, which isn’t something anyone wants to go through. The iPad mini is still a fashion accessory, and if you’re toting around an iPhone loaded with apps and content, you’ll want the mini to match.

If You Own an Android or Windows Phone: Either will suit you just fine. But by using either of these devices, you’re asserting that you’ve broken free of the iOS atmosphere and want something a little more customizable, and a little more tech-y. The Kindle Fire is probably the better choice for you. Plus, you’ll save money!

If You Plan to Use it Primarily for Games: No question: go with the iPad mini. The best mobile games are always on iOS and maybe… possibly… eventually make their way to other platforms. Not even Android can compare in this field, let alone Fire OS.

If You’re a Media Hound: The Kindle Fire is built around Amazon’s media. From Kindle to Instant Video to Amazon mp3, Amazon’s media is built into the core experience of the Fire. iTunes offers third-party apps, but many of the most popular ones – like Netflix – are also on the Fire. If you lovelovelove media, the Kindle Fire is for you.

If You Just Want to Read: Voyage! That’s the ticket. You’ll save a ton of money and have the best reader of all three.