Amazon’s HD Fire chases budget and premium buyers alike

If the Kindle Fire was an experiment at marketing quality tablets at a low price, Amazon appears to have judged the results a success. The follow-up is three different models that aim to challenge every section of the tablet market.

Back when reports of the first Kindle tablet surfaced, the speculation was that the device would cost around $300 to make but sell for $249 as a loss-leader to promote online shopping and services such as Amazon Prime. In fact it turned out the device cost $199.

Just in case anyone is in any doubt about Amazon’s tactics here, it’s now lowering the price on this original model (which is being reissued with no internal changes but a new casing less susceptible to fingerprints) to $159. While many people will not want to buy an outdated model, this has pretty much tied up the market for people who want the cheapest big-name tablet going.

The price cut is because there are now three new Kindle Fire tablets, each under the HD brand. There’s a 7 inch version for $199 (clearly a direct rival to the Nexus 7), a near-iPad sized 8.9″ Wi-Fi only version for $299, and an 8.9″ version that adds 4G LTE support at $499.

The list prices are for 16GB on the two cheaper models and 32GB for the 4G model, though you can get higher capacities if you pay a little extra.

An added selling point of the $499 version is that buyers can get a one-year data package for only $49.99, with Amazon suggesting this offers huge overall savings compared with getting and running a 4G iPad. Unfortunately it turns out this data package only covers 250MB a month, which means you won’t really get much benefit from the super high speeds. You’ll need to go through AT&T to get a more useful data deal.

Given the name, it’s not surprising the biggest selling point is the display. The 7 inch version is basic HD at 1200×800 pixels, while the 8.9″ versions are full HD at 1920 x 1200. That’s a little short of the 2048×1536 of the iPad, though take in account the slightly larger screen size and it might be interesting to see how many people can distinguish the difference with the “Retina” display.

Other new hardware additions include a front-facing camera and a dual wireless antenna that automatically connects to the strongest available signal. On the software side there’s enhanced parental controls and the ability to not only sync books on different Amazon devices but to sync e-Books with their audiobook editions. Meanwhile the X-Ray feature, which overlays background information when reading books now works with movies as well: Amazon claims the system can automatically recognize actors and characters appearing on screen and bring up IMDB information, making for a hassle-free solution to the “what else has that guy been in” quandry.

If you’re wondering how Amazon is selling these devices so much cheaper than their Apple equivalents, it’s not just a case of Amazon passing up high margins in the hope of getting extra cash from the way people use the devices. The Fire HD models will all carry two forms of advertising: “sponsored screen savers” on the lock screen and an ad in the bottom corner of the home screen.

Somewhat lost among the tablet hype is another model of the Kindle e-Reader, this time called the Paperwhite. The name comes from an increase in both pixel count and contrast that makes the “page” appear closer to the white of a printed book. There’s also a front light built into the screen (rather than a clip on bulb) that should avoid some of the glare of the backlighting used in tablets. And just for the fun of it, there’s now a tool that tracks your reading speed and estimates how long the current chapter will take to finish. The Wi-Fi only version is $119 while the 3G model (which as usual for Kindles doesn’t need a data plan) is $179.

Kindle Fire – $159
Kindle Fire HD – $199
Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ – $299
Kindle Fire HD 8.9 4G – $499

Kindle Paperwhite 3G – $179
Kindle Paperwhite – $119