When the Kindle Fire first shipped a couple weeks ago, the reviews were mixed. Uncle Walt calls it good, but not great. David Pogue at the NYT thinks it is “sluggish,” lacking “polish or speed.” But the Kindle Fire is still selling like hotcakes. Some reviewers are disappointed that it is not an iPad, but that is the wrong way to look at it. The Fire is a standout media tablet that does a few things very well and I am going to tell you what they are.
I’ve been using a Kindle Fire for the past two weeks (that is, when my kids or wife haven’t absconded to another room with it). The device passes my first test: my family fights over it. The Fire is kid-tested, and mother-approved. Fruit Ninja is the new obsession with my young children. Even my two-year-old, who loves the iPad, is increasingly eyeing the Kindle Fire and scheming ways to get her Mom out of the room so she can play with it. My wife will have none of that, she’s reading Joan Didion’s latest book on the Fire. I sneak it away from the bedside table when everyone is asleep at night to watch old episodes of Arrested Development.
The Kindle Fire is purpose-built to find and consume digital media: books, movies and TV shows, music, magazines, apps, and the web. It is more limited in its capabilities than an iPad, but in these areas it holds its own. Let me address each of these areas individually:
A better comparison than the iPad is to other Kindles. I’ve been playing with a Kindle Touch as well, and the responsiveness of the screen is so temperamental that it is frustrating for me to use. The flicker of the E Ink screen also gives me a headache. No, if you are going to buy a Kindle buy the Kindle Fire. It is much better, even for reading digital books and magazines. The New Yorker magazine looks great on it.
Yes, I know backlit screens are not as good for your eyes as E Ink, but who are we kidding? Many of us are staring at screens for 8 to 12 hours a day. I, for one, am used to it and find backlit screens more readable than E Ink. It also is much easier to highlight passages or look something up on the web straight from the text.
The Kindle Fire also blows away the iPad as a digital book reader (as you would hope it would, coming from Amazon). Mostly, that is because of its smaller form factor. It is about the size of a large paperback. You can hold it in one hand and flick through the pages with your thumb. It is a much more pleasurable reading experience than the larger iPad, which is a little unwieldy by comparison for extended reading periods. Although, the Kindle app on the iPad is otherwise perfectly fine.
Despite its smaller screen size, the Fire is an excellent video viewing device. It ties in directly to Amazon’s Instant Video store, where you can either buy or rent video downloads. The selection is pretty decent, with a mix of old and more recent movies and TV shows. You can either stream the movies directly or download them for later viewing. I’ve had no issues with streaming. The pictures are sharp and I’ve watched entire episodes without any hiccups over a strong WiFi connection.
You can also watch movies through Netflix or Hulu Plus, which both have apps available on the Fire. But if you are an Amazon Prime member (all-you-can-eat shipping for $79 a year), you get Instant Video thrown in. That’s a good deal, considering that the Netflix streaming-only plan costs $96 a year, and you don’t get free shipping of any Christmas gifts with that.
The one drawback of watching video on the Fire is that it is a solitary experience. The small screen size does not detract from the viewing experience when you are holding it in your lap and watching alone, but it’s not great for watching a show or movie with someone else. It is the video equivalent of reading over someone’s shoulder. And there is no easy way that I can tell of projecting the video on a bigger screen like you can with Airplay on the iPad.
Quite frankly, I barely notice the music store on the Kindle Fire. There is nothing wrong with the selection, and I applaud the way it distributes MP3 tunes that are compatible with any player. But when it comes to digital music that I purchase, I am just too locked into iTunes (or streaming music services) to want to bother with the Amazon Music Store. It is too much of a hassle to figure out how to get the music into iTunes, where I can listen to it on my iPhone or through my stereo.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to walk around listening to an album on the Fire with my headphones plugged in. It’s not like you can go on a run with it. And listening through the Fire’s external speakers, while perfectly fine for a movie, is not the ideal listening experience. The one use-case where music does make sense is if you want to listen to something while you are reading or browsing the web on the Fire.
The Fire’s Silk browser is supposed to accelerate browsing on the device by pre-caching pages in the cloud and delivering them more intelligently. The browser is fast and functional, but from what I can tell it is no faster than the browser on an iPad. I tested about half a dozen web pages. If there is a difference in page-loading speeds, it is not noticeable.
In the Web browsing department, the iPad bigger screen size gives it the advantage. You are not squinting as much as you do on a mobile phone’s browser, but you squint nonetheless. I find myself pinching and zooming a lot to read webpages. The tabbed browsing on the Fire, however, is a plus.
Finally, there are the apps. The Fire only ships with a few thousand apps available for download, compared to more than 200,000 for the iPad. But Amazon has done an excellent job to make sure that many of these first apps are excellent. Games like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds, while not unique to the Fire, are addictive and show off its graphics capabilities. Media apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora expand its entertainment capabilities. Some “apps” like Facebook and Twitter merely redirect to their HTML5 mobile websites through the browser, but I suspect they will get full-fledged apps in time.
More importantly, the store, is much better organized and easier to browse than the official Android Market. If the Kindle Fire becomes the most popular Android tablet, as I suspect it will, then it could also become the biggest distributor of Android apps. Amazon’s app store finally brings a shopping and discovery experience to Android in much the same way that iTunes did for iOS apps.
The best apps are still on the iPad and will continue to appear there first, but you are not giving up apps by going with a Kindle Fire. And they are just going to keep getting better the more people flock to the Fire, a device where buying media, including apps, is encouraged.
People are not going to buy the Kindle Fire because of any of its specs. They are going to buy it because it eases them into the still-strange realm of digital books, movies, magazines, and apps. These are all media. The Fire makes it easy to find them and, more importantly, easy to pay for them. You hardly think twice about it.
The ability to pack all your media into one little 7-inch device is still an incredible thing. But it is not just your media that makes it compelling. It is the access to Amazon’s vast and growing digital library of millions of books, movies, apps, and songs, all at your fingertips and one click away from your consuming eyes. If you do end up buying a Kindle Fire, I guarantee that you will end up spending a lot more than the subsidized $200 price of the device on media. And once you start buying digital media for the Fire, you won’t be going anywhere. Amazon will have you as a customer for life, if it doesn’t already.
Watch the Fly or Die I did with John Biggs below for a look at the Kindle Fire in action.