What About Amazon Mobile Devices?

What About Amazon Mobile Devices?

You save, but you do pay in other ways

Choosing mobile and cloud ecosystems is hard. I'm voting against Amazon, for example, and won't be buying or reviewing any of its recently released smart phone, tablet or e-reader products. But as a few readers have pointed out to me, as long as you don't mind the retailer's heavy-handed buy-centric user experiences, these products all represent a significant savings over competing solutions.

Fair enough. But what price your soul?

The Amazon Fire Phone—which I last wrote about in my Amazon Fire Phone Preview—can now be had directly from the online retailer for free in 32 GB if you start a new two-year contract at AT&T. Ditto for the 64-bit version, actually. Of course, those are subsidized prices. These devices retail for $449 and $549, respectively, if you purchase them with a service plan.

Those aren't cheap prices, and many have argued—bemoaned, really—that Amazon isn't following its normal value equation with the Fire Phone. But I'm not so sure. The equivalent iPhone 6 models are $199 and $299 with a two-year contract, and $649 and $749 with no contract. (And the lower-end iPhone 6 has only 16 GB of storage, not 32 GB.) Looking quickly at Amazon.com, I see the same pricing for the Samsung Galaxy S5.

But you can get some excellent smart phones for significantly less. A contract-less Google Nexus 5, for example, starts at $350. And a 32 GB Lumia Icon is $499 with no contract at Amazon, and you can get the admittedly long-in-the-tooth Lumia 1020 for under $400 unlocked. The Lumia 1520 phablet, likewise, can be had for $450 unlocked. I'd choose any of these over the Fire Phone.

Helping somewhat undercut that upfront cost of the Fire Phone, however, is the Amazon Prime subscription, which is free (or extended, for existing customers) for a full year when you buy the handset. That's a $99 value, and if you're already using Amazon Prime—and I am—there's some major incentive there.

The thing is, when you forego the market leaders and opt for Amazon's Fire Phone, you're not just saving $200 (or $300, if you include Amazon Prime) up front. You're also losing out on the voluminous app stores that both Google and Apple provide. And if access to Microsoft's services is a must, the Fire Phone comes up particularly short though that situation is improving, with OneDrive, Skype and OneNote arriving in recent weeks.

(I think the content availability—music, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, e-books, and so on—is pretty much a wash for most people, though I'd point out that Apple offers amazing and unique educational material through both iBooks and iTunes U that is unmatched elsewhere.)

Moving up to mini-tablets, Amazon has two basic offerings: the low-end Fire HD line, which now comes in both 6- and 7-inch variants, and the HDX line, which wasn't updated this fall and still ships in 7-inch form only. Each is available in a variety of configurations.

The Kindle Fire HD 6 is the entry-level device—and is tiny; the Lumia 1520 smart phone has a 6-inch screen too—and comes with correspondingly low pricing. A Fire HD 6 with 8 GB of internal storage costs just $99 (or $115 without special offers), or you could opt for a more reasonable 16 GB version for $199 (or $135 without special offers). And these tablets come in a variety of colors, which may be attractive to the kids you're no doubt thinking about here. The Kindle Fire HD 7 is a more traditional mini-tablet, given the more reasonable screen size, and it ranges from $139 (8 GB, special offers) up to $174 (16 GB, no special offers), and also comes in a variety of colors.

Move up to the HDX and you get a faster processor, high-res screens, more (but still not expandable) storage and optional 4G LTE capabilities. Here, pricing starts at $199 for a 7-inch HDX with 16 GB of storage and Wi-Fi. But you can pay as much as $379 for a version with 64 GB of storage, LTE and no special offers.

Whichever way you choose, we're talking very reasonable price points here. On the non-HDX devices in particular, you get the specs to match, yes, but unlike the Fire Phone, these devices really do meet the Amazon value equation standard. They're not horrible on paper, and the HDX versions are in fact excellent. (I've not used any of the low-end devices, but I do have a 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX.) But they have the same ecosystem issues as the Fire Phone too: A lackluster app store compared to Apple and Android especially.

Unfortunately for Amazon, there is plenty of competition here. Not from Apple, pricing-wise, as a non-Retina iPad mini starts at $299 for a 16 GB, Wi-Fi only version. And certainly not from the iPad mini with Retina Display, which starts at $399 for the same configuration; that's more than the price of the highest-end, very most expensive Kindle Fire HDX.

No, Amazon's competition comes from Android and, suddenly, from Windows. You can buy sub-$100 Android tablets now, and excellent alternatives—like the 7-inch Nexus 7, which starts at $229—can be had for reasonable price points. These tablets offer compatibility with the Google Play ecosystem, which is obviously ideal. But even Windows mini-tablets can be had for $129 and up right now, and $99 tablets are on the way. As with Android, a great Windows mini-tablet like the Dell Venue 8 Pro or Lenovo Miix 8 starts at about $200.

The weirdest new Amazon tablet, in many ways, is the second-generation Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, which, as its name suggests, is a full-sized device with a nearly 9-inch screen. These devices range from $379 (16 GB, special offers) to $494 (64 GB, no special offers), meaning that the very most expensive HDX 8.9 is cheaper than Apple's least-expensive iPad Air. (Actually, there are LTE-enabled versions too, those range from $529 for a 32 GB version with special offers to $594 for a 64 GB version without special offers; an iPad Air with 64 GB/LTE costs $829.)

All the same rules apply with the HDX 8.9: The lackluster app ecosystem and in particular the absence of many Microsoft apps. But with this new second-generation HDX 8.9, Amazon is for the first time pushing this device as a productivity machine that could take on a Surface, other Windows 2-in-1s, or an Android tablet or iPad with a keyboard. This seems a bit laughable on the face of things, but if Amazon can sell a smart phone there's no reason it can't target productivity in tablets too. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that the notion of Apple products at work was nonsensical.

How the HDX 8.9 stacks up here remains to be seen. Amazon sells a Fire Keyboard for $59.99 for the HDX 8.9 but of course any Bluetooth keyboard would work, including a low-end unit like the AmazonBasics Bluetooth Keyboard for Android Devices. You'd also need a stand of some kind, since the HDX doesn't come with one built-in. The company's Origami cases offer a complex solution for that; they cost over $50 each too.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is obviously in a different league than the HDX 8.9. But a Surface 2 isn't. A 32 GB Surface 2 costs $349 right now at the Microsoft Store, or $488 with a Type Cover 2 in your choice of colors. By comparison, a 32 GB (non-LTE) HDX 8.9 is $529, or $640 with that Fire Keyboard and Origami case. About $50 more.

A more obvious comparison would be with various full-sized Android tablets. Like many, I've been waiting for two years to see how (or if) Google will update its Nexus 10, and I don't have a lot of experience with other full-sized Android tablets. But the Samsung Galaxy Tab S, with a 10.5-inch screen, starts at $489 and goes up from there, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition is priced similarly. So the HDX can be cheaper. But it is the better value?

Ultimately, that's the real question with all of these Amazon devices. For me, 2013 was a turning point and when I reviewed the Kindle Fire HDX 7 I found myself tiring of Amazon's "buy-forward" user interface design. (I bought and returned the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 as well.) And the Fire Phone is a new low in this regard.

You'll always pay in some way. The Amazon devices have generally low upfront costs but bog you down with a non-standard Android-based system that is not Google Play compatible and pushes Amazon purchasing. Google devices, likewise, can be low-cost, but with Google "you're the product," as Apple notes, and Android is designed to sell information about you to the advertisers that are really paying the bills. Apple offers a purer experience, if you will, buy you pay for the privilege, in this case literally: Apple's devices tend to be more expensive.

Oddly enough, Microsoft's approach is likely the "best" in the sense that they offer both low prices and a purer, Apple-like user experience. But since most people aren't buying Microsoft devices, the firm is ensuring that its online services are available through mobile apps on all popular mobile devices. So in that sense, Microsoft offers the most choice in the mobile world, just as it did in the PC era.

Ultimately, I think the thing that rubs me the wrong way here is that only Amazon treats its customers like dummies. Apple customers know they pay more but willingly do so because of the quality there, and the integration between the hardware and the software. Android customers go to that platform open-eyed, knowing that it affords them a PC-like environment that they can control and bend to their will. And Microsoft's customers, as pragmatic as ever, can move a bit more effortlessly between platforms because all the major apps and services they need will be represented.

What does Amazon offer? Low prices, obviously, but you also get less. And these products are masked in a never-ending advertisement to keep buying more, which will assuredly lower the value of those offerings over time. The whole thing just seems dishonest to me.

So I'll keep paying attention to Amazon and its ecosystems, of course. I'll keep hoping—praying—that the firm will eventually make demonstrable improvements to its Kindle and Audible apps on Windows Phone at least. (Knowing full well that it will never happen, and I'll be stuck using these terrible apps.) But my uneasiness from last year has only grown. And while these new Amazon devices are generally cheap, I think we can all do better, even if we end up spending just a bit more.

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