Amazon fired back at rivals Google and Apple Thursday by unveiling several new versions of its Kindle tablets, including a powerful larger-screen color model roughly the same price as the iPad and new versions of the Kindle e-reader, one of which comes with an illuminated touch screen.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos showed off the devices at a media event at an aircraft hangar in Santa Monica, California. Bezos has led Seattle-based Amazon’s charge into the e-reader market and, more recently, the tablet market as well. While the original Kindle, released in 2007, wasn’t the first e-reader, it was the first that managed to strike a chord with consumers. And as the demand for tablet computers has exploded during the past few years—due mainly to the immense popularity of Apple’s iPad—Amazon entered the fray late last year with the Kindle Fire, which has a seven-inch screen, a modified version of Google’s Android operating software, and a $199 price tag (less than half of the $499 price of the cheapest iPad).
Amazon has never given sales figures for its devices, but the Kindle Fire has helped open the tablet market to a wider audience. It also inspired competition from Google, which began selling its Nexus 7 tablet of the same size and price—but with some improved specifications—in July.
With the new tablets, it’s clear Amazon is feeling pressure to keep improving the specs of its devices to remain competitive.
Bezos trotted out three versions of the new Kindle Fire HD. Two of them have 8.9-inch displays, bringing them closer in size to the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen. A larger Fire with 16 gigabytes of storage costs $299, while a version with 32 gigabytes of onboard storage and the ability to connect to AT&T’s 4G LTE network costs $499 (a 12-month LTE data plan will cost $50).
The entry-level Fire HD, which is an update on the original seven-inch model and includes only Wi-Fi for accessing the Internet and 16 gigabytes of built-in storage space, costs $199.
The Fire HD models have faster processors, more RAM, and longer battery life than the existing Fire, as well as a front-facing camera. They also include two Wi-Fi antennas and MIMO—or multiple-input, multiple output—technology, in which several antennas work together to make one more powerful wireless connection. Bezos claimed that the combination of MIMO and two Wi-Fi antennas gives the Kindle Fire HD faster Wi-Fi speeds than either the Nexus 7 or iPad 3.
Amazon will also sell an updated version of the Fire with improved battery life and a speedier processor for $159.
“We have just built the best tablet at any price,” Bezos said.
The devices are available for order, and the seven-inch Fire will start shipping September 14. The larger Fires will ship November 20.
Although Amazon has never said how many Kindle Fires it has sold, the company said last week that it had sold out of the device. According to estimates from IHS iSuppli, Amazon sold nearly six million Fires between its release and the first half of this year. The market researcher believes Amazon is on track to sell another 1.9 million for the July-September period.
That’s still small potatoes compared to Apple, which has sold over 84 million iPads since releasing the first one in 2010 (17 million of them in the April-June quarter alone). But the introduction of the larger Fires could help Amazon lure more consumers away from Apple, especially during the upcoming holiday season.
Bezos showed off two new Kindle e-readers Thursday as well, including one with a “Paperwhite” touch screen that is lit from the front and offers higher resolution and contrast than on the previous Kindle. The Kindle Paperwhite, which is a bit thinner than the existing Kindle Touch, works for up to eight weeks on a single battery charge while using the backlight and has a feature that estimates how long it will be until you finish a chapter or book. A Wi-Fi-only version costs $119 (compared with $99 for the Kindle Touch) and starts shipping October 1. A version with 3G service costs $179 (the Kindle Touch 3G currently costs $149).
Bezos also introduced a slightly updated version of the entry-level Kindle, which at $69 is $10 cheaper than the existing device. It will start shipping September 14. The new Kindle e-readers are available for order from Amazon, with the Kindle Paperwhite shipping October 1.