The $199 Amazon Kindle Fire is a worthy device. It’s not an iPad slayer, but it could be the first tablet to ably stand atop Mount Tabulous (or at least on a rock ledge just a few dozen feet lower) with Apple’s industry-dominating slab computer.
This is a product I wanted to love. The Kindle Fire’s unveiling was so impressive. Jeff Bezos hitting all the right notes in true Jobsian fashion, telling the tale of a product vision so clear it made my eyes tear up. Instead, now I’m discovering it’s a somewhat flawed gadget — a product that literally does not always know which way is up.
First the good stuff. The Amazon Kindle Fire is a tablet that simply works. From the moment you turn it on to the first time you download music from your own personal cloud to the minute you start watching a movie on the device and then continue watching on your HDTV — without connecting the device to the TV — you’re hooked. This is a smart tablet with a fully thought-out ecosystem. It is — and I don’t think Amazon would disagree with this — very Apple-like in its insistence in keeping you within the Amazon playground.
Having an Amazon account or, better yet, an Amazon Prime account ($79 per year for free 2-day shipping, one free book rental per month and free streaming flicks), opens a world of content possibilities on the 7-inch-screen device. Amazon, like Apple (and like Barnes and Noble with its upcoming Nook Tablet) has your credit card on file. It’s tied to your Amazon user name and account. For me, it’s also tied to my original Kindle 2. When I first started using the Kindle Fire, it was already tied to my account, but signing in with your Amazon account is also simple. This Fire calls itself “Lance’s 3rd Kindle” (that’s because I was also looking at the Kindle Touch). Each device syncs whatever content it can. In the case of the multimedia-friendly Fire, that’s books, magazines, music, apps and more.
The device itself is, in some ways, unremarkable. Its finish is a stark black color and it has exactly one button. It weighs 14.6 ounces (solid-feeling, but not uncomfortable to hold), is less than a half-inch thick and has a pleasantly rubberized back that keeps the Fire from slipping out of your hands. The speakers, which can blast out near-room-filling-sound, are on the narrow side of the device, opposite the side where the device’s sole button and audio jack are located. There’s no camera, no microphone (the Nook Tablet has one, as does the 9.7-inch iPad 2), no screws and no discernible way of opening the device. The Kindle Fire’s screen has 1024 x 600 pixels (like the Nook Tablet. The iPad 2 is 1024 x 768) and things look superb on it. Inside it’s running a dual-core 1GHz CPU (similar to the Nook Tablet and the Apple A5 chip in the iPad). It has 512MB of RAM (like the iPad, but half of what’s in the Nook Tablet) and 8MB of on-board storage (the Nook Tablet, by contrast, has double that and a micro SD card slot). Like the iPad, the Kindle Fire does not blemish its clean lines with a memory card slot. Amazon’s focusing primarily on extending storage space via the cloud, which has a prominent position on the Fire Interface.
The Main Interface
The Kindle Fire is an Android 2.3 device, but the interface is all Amazon. It is, naturally, dominated by a virtual bookshelf. This is not a new screen metaphor. I first encountered it on the iPad’s iBook bookshelf. To be honest, it’s a cute concept on the Fire, but with a somewhat clumsy execution. Whatever you looked at recently — books, a movie, apps, web pages, etc. — all sits on the top shelf. As a result, it’s a hodgepodge of icons. Some are movie boxes or posters, which look good. Book covers look great as well; giant icons for email, Facebook, Angry Birds, the Wired Magazine app — look ridiculous. The shelves use a carousel to let you swipe through your content. This is effective once you get used to the Fire’s tendency to let the moving icons run away with themselves — I constantly missed the item I wanted to access.
As a device not much larger than my original Kindle (though almost 5 ounces heavier), reading on the device is a joy. The pages look great, and accessing any of Kindle reader’s smarter features such as highlighting and definitions is easy. While I love my Kindle ereader, it’s definitely much easier to simply touch what I want to access — I do not miss the physical joystick from my e-ink reader. I’m what you might call a Kindle serial reader: I often go from my Kindle ereader, to my phone, to my iPad, and now to the Fire with the same book. As long as I allow these devices to sync, wherever I leave off on one device is where I pick up on another. Of course, this will only work on the Kindle Fire as long as you have access to a Wi-Fi connection—there is no 3G (same for the Nook Tablet).
Whenever I wanted to get back to the home screen I simply tapped the screen once to access the home button in the lower left corner. The Kindle Fire’s one physical button is only used to put the device to sleep, turn it off completely and turn it on. Its placement is a bit odd: The button sits on one narrow side, and more than once I accidentally rested the device on a table or my lap and it went to sleep. Because there’s an accelerometer in the Fire, I can turn the device completely over so the button is on the top, but then the speakers rest on my lap. In general, the button sticks out too much and is too easy to depress.
Content and Controls
Before using the Kindle Fire, I uploaded a bunch of my music (the non-DRM variety) to the Amazon Cloud. As a result, it was all available to me on the Fire. I also bought an album or two directly through the Fire. The music store is clean and easy to use. I especially enjoyed playing music on the device while I read a book.
As noted earlier, watching movies is also easy and entertaining on the Fire. With my Amazon Prime account, I can stream any one of hundreds of movies direct to the device. No first-run films, but a few decent ones like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Iron Giant (As with Netflix streaming, there are also a lot of duds). When I wanted to see a new movie, I simply rented it on the device ($2.99 for the SD version of The Green Lantern) and started watching. Best part? I was able to pause on the Fire, turn on my Blu-ray player, access my Amazon account and simply pick up where I left off in the movie. Worst part? The Kindle Fire only had access to the SD version of the film, so I had to pay again to watch the HD version on my HDTV.
Put simply, the Kindle Fire is an excellent and easy-to-use content consumption device. It’s also a decent — though not perfect — web browser. The tab-based Silk browser was, on occasion, as fast as promised. Some pages zip in, but other times Silk would stall out and refuse to load a page. Silk is not like other Android tablet web browsers. Amazon built this one and it uses Amazon’s own servers to pre-fetch pages it thinks you’ll view next to help websites load fast. Amazon tells me the experience will get faster as Amazon’s servers cache more page info. Email is another story. First of all, Amazon hid the email under Apps, so I had to find it to set it up. I don’t understand why it isn’t on the main interface from the start. It sits on a shelf once you’ve set it up. I do not like the default email screen — it’s black with white text and too hard to read. Email messages show up as black text on white screens. The switch is inexplicable and annoying.
There is a bigger problem with the Kindle and I saw it in everything from email to menus and setup. This interface is not always optimized for 1024×600 resolution on a 7-inch screen. While the bookshelf and items on it are large, some of the controls are tiny. The main menu, which includes Newsstand, Books, Music, Videos, Docs, Apps and Web, is fine, but the setting icon is smaller than the tip of my pinky — it does bring up a list of items that are somewhat larger and I do like that the settings are simple and obvious: lock the screen orientation, volume, brightness, Wi-Fi control, sync and a more button. Digging into many of these controls I was confronted over and over again with shockingly small text — often white on black or gray on a deeper gray. Virtually all of the email app (controls, subject lines and the contents of messages) is small and hard to read. Even the “Buy” buttons are tiny — you’d think Amazon would at least want to make those much larger.
Many things look wonderful on the Kindle Fire, but only if the partners design for the screen. I bought a bunch of magazines through Newsstand (often I had to download apps first then subscribe or buy individual issues — still an easy process). GQ and The New Yorker looked great. Esquire’s PDF pages, though, look bad and some are unreadable if you zoom in.
Web pages look good in portrait mode, but there isn’t enough screen real estate to see much of the page. Portrait mode makes the pages tiny — you can pinch and zoom, but then you’re only seeing part of the page. This is a place where I definitely prefer my iPad’s larger 9.7-inch screen.
Quirks and Conclusions
The device has its share of quirks (not sure if I’d call them bugs). Sometimes the accelerometer gets stuck and the page you’re looking at remains upside down. This happened to me repeatedly. Wi-Fi was easy to set-up, but was often slow to return after sleep. The device also does its own minicrashes. It does not shut down, but simply drops you out of what you were doing — reading a book or magazine, or looking at the home screen. The latter sometimes blanked out and reappeared.. These are all likely 1.0 issues that are easily solved with a software update. To be fair, my iPad 1 crashes a fair amount — though the crashes are all related to third-party apps, and not the native Apple iOS.
Speaking of software, I’m convinced that some of the font size and interface oddities I’ve noticed are a result of the Android 2.3 operating system running underneath. Amazon has done all it could to hide and re-skin it, however it does no always feel like every bit of Fire’s interface was designed for a 7-inch device, or to be more precise, this device. When you use an Apple iPad, iPod or iPhone, it’s clear that every bit of it was built with the hardware in mind. As most people have heard, Amazon reportedly took a shortcut and used the Research in Motion PlayBook’s reference design. The Kindle Fire looks almost exactly like it except for the lack of cameras and, obviously, the operating system.
Most of these gripes are minor, and to fully appreciate the Amazon Kindle Fire, you have to step back and look at all you’re getting for $199 (the base 16GB iPad is $499, the Nook Tablet $249). This is a highly polished device and collection of services. It bakes in books, music, movies, apps/games, magazines, multi-tasking, universal search, easy access to anything you have in Amazon’s cloud, and a sense that this device and Amazon know you. It is the closest tablet I’ve seen yet to an Apple iPad: a consistent, well-thought out marriage of hardware and services that offer an almost frictionless environment for app purchase and content consumption. This is why the iPad has been so successful and why I think the Kindle Fire, despite its imperfections, is a winner, too.