Comparing Apple's high-end tablet to Amazon's bargain Fire unit

What kind of gizmo nerd compares a tablet computer “starting” at $649.99 with one that goes for $79.99 - and finds value and excitement in both? Me!

What kind of gizmo nerd compares a tablet computer “starting” at $649.99 with one that goes for $79.99 — and finds value and excitement in both? Me!

Some skeptics are already counting this once-fashionable category down and out, pointing to a “spiraling decline” of sales for tablets and declaring that these ultra-slim, pad-like computers, pushed seriously by Apple since 2010, are now on “life support.”

Grumblers also point to the long life of touch-screen tablets (arguing that if you already have one, why get another?) and to the growing competition from other web-trolling, content-serving, missive-writing options, such as bigger smartphones, cheap Chromebooks, and two-in-one computers.

In fourth quarter 2016, tablet vendors shipped 52.9 million units, down 20.1 percent from the previous year, industry tracker IDC found. Full-year 2016 shipments of 174.8 million tablet computers were off 15.6 percent.

But category leader Apple, with 25 percent of the market in 2016, is still finding plenty of profit and improvements at the high end. Its newly revamped iPad Pro 10.5 is evoking enough excitement that this longtime iPad-ster felt compelled to invest in one, plus the accessories that help it shine.

(With all the gadgets in a house now remotely controllable on tablet apps, it doesn’t hurt to have several tabs in different rooms and connected on the same WiFi network, right?)

At the other end of the price spectrum, Amazon has been bucking trends, earning fans with its bargain Fire tablets. Sales doubled last year to 12 million units, because the master merchant plays out the old joke about “losing money on every sale but making it up on volume.” Amazon uses sweet-screened Fires to herd customers into the corral, then sells them other stuff. Better yet, the new Fire HD 8 I’ve been testing performs stunts even Apple hasn’t perfected.

Such as this: Alexa voice activation and cloud-linked smarts are hiding inside the HD 8 and also her smaller-screened and cheaper ($50) sister Fire 7. So with just a tap of the “home” icon (no need to even say “Alexa”), the girl is ready to answer your vocal calls for online searches (for weather or a game score), summon up music, or click on those smart light bulbs. (Many app makers now support the Fire-customized version of Android.)

Also exclusive on Fires are features such as X-Ray, which extracts info on topics mentioned in books or in movies you’re watching, Prime Video Downloads and Blue Shade, the screen tint adjustment that helps bedtime readers fall asleep easier.

Sized for one-hand gripping, an 8-inch screened Fire HD 8 weighs 1 pound, 2 ounces, including the optional ($29.99) smart cover. Amazon claims the unit is more durable than Apple’s latest 7.9-inch iPad Mini 4 ($399), which is a good thing if one slips out of your kid’s hands (Amazon also sells children-focused Fires) or slides off the bed as you’re drifting off to sleep.

Fire performance has been improved for this 7th-gen model with a quad-core 1.3 GHz processor and 12-hour capacity rechargeable battery. Screen res is reasonably high def; stereo sound is thin but disperses well with Dolby processing. The back camera (no flash) takes decent pictures; the soft focusing Selfie cam craves an upgrade but does (inadvertently) eliminate facial wrinkles!

Apple of my eye: What impresses most about the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro is how elegantly its pieces fit together.

The feeling starts with a larger, brighter screen squeezed into a thin, metal case barely longer/wider than that for 9.7-inch iPads. A magic trick achieved by shrinking the picture frame (aka bezel.)

The design team found room to fit four speakers where one was the norm while retaining a conventional headphone jack. It packs in the same great front/back cameras available on the iPhone 7 and slips in a microprocessor said to equal those in larger MacBook Pros.

All so this trim one-pounder can process data faster, handle the subtle turns of a $99 Apple Pencil (stylus) on the screen, and work the upgraded productivity features launching in the fall with iOS 11 (out this week in Beta test form). Multitasking with up to three apps is coming, ditto drag-and-drop picture-moving and file-management features.

The downside? IOS 11 — and all the upgraded apps to follow — could turn more older iPad models into near useless “bricks,” already the fate of the first iPad.

But for me, the rationale to go Pro (rather than buy a perfectly fine, $329, 9.7-inch iPad) is this tablet’s magnetic attraction to an iPad Smart Keyboard ($159) or, if you’d rather, to the “third party” Logitech SlimCombo keyboard/case ($129.99), enabling type- and screen-touch operations simultaneously.

Designed by someone who probably does origami, Apple’s fold-over Smart Keyboard and screen cover, when closed, maintains the tablet’s ultra-slim-line profile and light weight (adding just 9 ounces to the package.) And when opened up, the flip-around keyboard and stand functions better than you’d dare imagine for online searching, shopping, correspondence, and note-taking. It even balances OK on the knees.

Logitech’s variant isn’t as tidy, bulking up the system to 2 lbs and 4 ounces total and requiring extra desk depth (13 inches fully extended, vs 7 inches with Apple’s setup.) But the Slim Combo keyboard is better suited for lengthy typing. It is backlit and boasts an extra row of special function keys to raise/lower screen brightness and volume, shift music tracks, hide your work, or return to the home page.

As a light yet robust alternative to a laptop, the iPad Pro offers a best-of-both-worlds solution.