The $159 (£129) Amazon Kindle Fire was what the the tech fraternity likes to call a "game-changer." A gadget with the potential to irrevocably alter a sector of the market, by bringing something we've never seen before.
But, a fully fledged Android tablet with a top-level ecosystem of multimedia content for less than half the price of its competitors didn't just change the game, it changed the sport.
The Google Nexus 7 arrived last year priced at $199 ($249 for 16GB) packed with a host of top-level specs and the latest version of Android in tow, while the price for Android tablets in general has fallen steeply with more bargains (like the Acer Iconia 300).
Compare that with a year ago when RIM was still trying to hoodwink us into paying $400-plus for the DOA BlackBerry PlayBook?
But the revolution Amazon started with its 7-inch Android 2.3 Gingerbread tablet, which Amazon diligently plotted for the last couple of years off the back of its Kindle e-reader successes, has been jumped upon by Google and Co., and now the Kindle Fire faces competition from models with improved specs and software, for the same price. How does it stand-up now against the evolving market it created?
Amazon's idea is simple. It believes (and rightfully so) that it can replicate the success of its all-conquering Kindle reader devices by once again taking a hit on the hardware.
The built-in ecosystem of books, magazines, apps and movies Amazon offers allows it to do what RIM, LG, Samsung, Motorola can't and what Apple has no reason to - abandon the principle that profitable hardware is the key. A principal that Google has now adopted with the Nexus 7 rival.
The Kindle Fire is the first Kindle to boast a color screen, a holy grail to some users of the device. And with a 7-inch 1024x600 display it falls at the smaller end of the tablet sphere. With a skinned version of the now-dated Android 2.3 (rather than Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean) on board, it's also the first to run anything other than Amazon's non-native software.
When Amazon announced the Kindle Fire, and its price point, excitement was at a fever pitch. But it remained a gadget none of us had ever seen or played with. What would be the use of a $159 Android tablet that doesn't work, has a terrible touchscreen or buggy, unusable software? We picked up a device and put it through its paces.
Upon lifting the Kindle Fire from the extremely bland Amazon packaging, we felt like we'd seen this tablet before. The device bares a striking resemblance to RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, although Amazon will hope that's that's where the similarities end.
The glossy jet-black device has a 7-inch screen, just like the PlayBook, along with the same soft and comfortable rubberised, matte casing around the back and edges. At 0.45 inches, it's slightly thicker than the PlayBook (0.4-inches), but does have a significantly thinner bezel. The Nexus 7 on the other hand comes in slightly thinner at 0.41 inches, but its bezel is much larger.
Just like the PlayBook the device feels exceptionally well-built and it doesn't appear that Amazon has scrimped on this in order to keep costs low. This Kindle could probably take a kicking and keep on ticking.
There are no buttons on the face of the device, which gives the Kindle Fire a really clean look. In fact, the power button, nestled closely to the headphone jack and the MicroUSB charging port, is the only physical button to be found.
Both the power switch and the headphone jack feel like they're in the wrong place and would be better served on top of the Kindle Fire, but we understand Amazon's desire to keep the design smooth and minimalist. With that in mind two tiny speakers rest at the top of the device.
There are no volume switches or screen locks. Tellingly, there are also no camera lenses - front or back - something which Amazon has obviously deemed expendable (Google didn't and placed a 1.2mp camera on the face of the device). You can add a GPS sensor to that list of expendables too, but Amazon has made it clear that the Kindle Fire is a media consumption device, not a means for communication (no microphone either) and navigation, so it's difficult to criticize too much - especially at this price point.
Kindle fans will be pleased to know that intrinsically, this still feels like an Amazon Kindle device rather than a tablet PC. At 431g, it's way more comfortable to hold in one hand than the first-gen iPad. We found the best grip with the thumb rest against the side with the pinky finger resting along the bottom. Trying to hold between thumb and index finger could be a little more taxing.
On the inside of the device, the Kindle Fire boasts a 1GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP processor, the same one that rests inside the PlayBook which bragged of its "doing everything all at the same time" prowess. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 offers a Tegra 2 chipset, but it remains 1GHz dual-core at its heart. The Kindle Fire, like the iPad, only has 512MB of RAM however, compared to the 1GHz on the PlayBook.
UPDATE: This is now one of the areas where the Kindle Fire feels like the compromises we accepted willfully when the device came along, now makes it feel very dated. The Google Nexus 7 manages to pack in the very latest Nvidia Tegra 3-quad-core processor and 1GB of RAM, while still keeping the price down. However, the Kindle Fire HD made amends.
Another slight downer was the decision to pack in only 8GB of internal storage, which equates to just 6.54GB of usable storage. There's no room for an external SD card slot here, so you're really not going to be able to cram much of your music, videos and photos onto the Kindle Fire.
It's a very strange decision from Amazon. 6.5GB doesn't go very far with today's hi-res digital magazines, high bit-rate MP3s and, HD video. And that's before you start loading apps onto the device. There's only 1.17GB available for apps, and we quickly racked up .97GB.
One of the most positively surprising aspects of the Kindle Fire is the 7-inch, 1024x600 IPS LCD screen, which uses the same spec as the BlackBerry PlayBook. As soon as we switched on the device the vibrancy, crispness and pureness of the colours on that 169ppi screen really shone through (the iPad 2 is only 132ppi). This remained consistent on our journey throughout the user interface.
UPDATE: The rival Nexus 7 device rolled up with a 1280x800 HD display (216 ppi), offers a much higher and visibly better resolution than the Kindle Fire.
Text is equally crisp and vivid, especially when we zoomed right in while reading books and web pages. In that respect it reminded us of the iPhone's Retina Screen, but let's not get carried away. It isn't that good, and definitely cannot match up to the Samsung Galaxy 10.1's display.
We had no issue with the quality of the video playback. As with many things on the Kindle Fire, it's not the best and not the worst, but it's decent. It's certainly nothing to be upset about given the price point. Whether a 7-inch screen is enough for you to fully enjoy a movie or TV show is a matter of personal preference.
Moving past the look and onto the feel, the capacitive multi-touch screen on the device also dodges another potential bullet with consummate ease. This was another area where the $159 device could have fallen over, but we're happy to report that the Gorilla Glass-coasted display performs comparably with most of its main competitors. You will have to contend with rampant fingerprints, though.
It responded well to the deftest of pushes and prods, while double-tapping and pinching to zoom were efficient. Typing is always going to be more difficult on a 7-inch screen, but the keyboard is nicely spaced in landscape mode and we found mistakes were minimal. iOS devices are obviously the standard-setters in this department, but we're happy with Amazon's solution.
Interface performance and battery life
The Amazon Kindle Fire ran Android 2.3 Gingerbread when it first hit the market, which is primarily smartphone software. But since then, the OS has been updated to 6.3.2, which allowed for longer movie rentals and the ability to sync content to the Amazon cloud.
There's Jelly Bean (which debuted with the Nexus 7 and is now rolling out to contenders new and old).
However it's pretty much irrelevant seeing as Amazon covered up most traces of the Google's operating system with its own attractive and refreshing custom UI.
We're not too keen on the manufacturer skins that cover Android. They seem to get in the way at times. However, Amazon's solution brings a lot of the upsides of Android, iOS, WebOS and of course the original Kindle readers into one neat, tidy and functional experience.
Naturally, the homescreen takes the form of a book shelf. Your recent items appear on the top be they the book you're reading, the webpage you're browsing, apps you're using and games you're playing etc. Each of which are represented by an icon or a WebOS-like card, and it also looks fabulous in landscape mode and you won't find yourself pining for the generic Android experience - at least we didn't.
Flicking through the cards is a breeze, although the motion can be a little too quick on the trigger at times. We often caught ourselves swiping past our intended target. From the homepage, you can hit one of these icons at any time and it'll return you the point of your previous visit, so it's a good hub for multitasking.
The lack of a physical home button on the device can get a little annoying at times, especially as the on-screen one tends to disappear very quickly, but it's only a minor quibble. Key settings like volume and connectivity can be accessed from a drop down menu in the navigational bar, which can also be pushed to receive notifications, rather than dragged down a la most Android devices.
On the shelves beneath the recent items are your favourite apps, which can be placed wherever you desire on the shelf, by pressing and holding the icon, a la iOS. There's no folders functionality though.
The Kindle Fire is undoubtedly a straight-up media consumption device rather than a communications or navigational tool, hence the lack of cameras and GPS, so it makes sense that the top tab features all of the lovely media content Amazon wants you to by to offset its hardware losses. We've got Newsstand, Magazines, Booms, Music, Video, Docs and Apps, joining Web which is the only tabs that doesn't want your business. All of these store-fronts are extremely well laid out and very user-friendly.
Beyond the UI, Android does shine through in some areas. You can add Live Wallpapers to proceedings and word suggestions are omni-present when typing, but the bespoke Kindle keyboard is your only option. The menus and settings will be familiar to Android phone and tablet owners, while learning to navigate around this device won't be too challenging for first time buyers or Kindle graduates. It's a brilliantly thought out first-time effort from Amazon that helps push its primary goal of selling its multimedia content.
UPDATE: One of our key complaints when grabbing the Kindle Fire was a lack of password protection on your device. It meant anyone could pick up the Kindle Fire and access your apps, email and personal files. With update 6.3.1 released this spring, you can now add a screen lock password.
On a $159 tablet (we'll come back to this argument many times throughout the review) it's not asking a lot for everything to run as smoothly in the engine room as it does on the top line devices like the iPad 2. After all, even though a Ford Focus will get you from A to B, it won't do it with the same smoothness, style and speed as a Lamborghini.
Generally, the device and user-interface is slick and the pace is acceptable without ever being iOS-quick. However, a start-up time of 36 seconds is extremely pedestrian compared to the iPad 2 and the other top-of-the-line Android slates.
On occasions we did experienced a little bit of a lag when opening apps, and selecting new items from within apps, but it wasn't something that was overly annoying or apparent. Other reviewers have made a much bigger deal of this than is justified. It simply isn't that bad. We certainly didn't experience any lag when turning book pages as some reviews have claimed. However, apps often quit on us during our tests, which will need to be sorted by software updates.
UPDATE: This has been addressed by updates 6.2 and 6.3. We experienced very few app crashes during our second look at the device with the newer versions of the software.
Another slight issue: HD video can appear pixelated when streaming, before clearing a few seconds in as the processor catches up with the action. That's not something we'd expect from a quad-core device with an acceptable amount of RAM.
While the Amazon Kindle Fire only costs $159, you might want to set aside another $30 for a passable set of headphones, as the audio quality through the built-in speakers isn't quite as bad as those Poundland offerings we bought to amplify our Walkmans back in the day, but it's not far off. Definitely one of the most disappointing aspects of this device.
The Kindle Fire boasts a pretty massive 4400mAh battery, which takes up most of the space on the inside of the tablet. Amazon advertises a lifespan of 8 hours of video playback and 7.5 hours of continuous reading, but that's with the Wi-Fi turned-off, something that's not possible when browsing the web or streaming video.
We found that within about 5 hours of constant use, which included listening to music, watching video, browsing the web, playing games and reading books, we had about 15 per cent of battery life left and so put the device on for another charge.
In our tests, the iPad 2's battery life gave us 9.5 hours of constant general use, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 clocked in at around 9 hours for every-day use. Meanwhile, the Nexus 7 posted an 8-hour "active use" battery life in a recent review.
Six hours, give or take, is not really enough, especially if you're on a long journey. We'd advise taking it easy on connectivity when you don't need it, or turning down the brightness.
Aside from the price tag, one of the main talking points spawned from Amazon's announcement was the new, and revolutionary, Silk browser, which promised a different approach to loading web-pages, meaning you'd get your favorite content faster.
Here's how it works in theory. You see, Amazon isn't just the world's biggest retailer, it also owns most of the internet. It's servers host an astonishing amount of the web's content.
It's massive EC2 Cloud-based computers are hence able to do a huge amount of the heavy lifting when it comes to loading web content. Those servers will store a lot of the information about websites in a cache, meaning the Kindle Fire itself has to do less of the work the next time it brings up that page. The browser will determine the best division of labour necessary to load the page faster.
The Silk loading method isn't without controversy. As a lot of the information is handled by Amazon's own servers, there are privacy issues at stake. It means Amazon has a record of every site you've visited, exposing your browsing habits. There's a price to pay for that extra speed.
So how does it work in practice? Well, on pages we loaded regularly, like TechRadar.com, the back-end loading functionality was able to predict regular content like the banner heads, while the rest of the content follows almost instantly. It's a very fluid experience.
In terms of the look and usability of the Silk browser, it's definitely more likable than the default Android smartphone and tablet browser, but not as smooth or intuitive as Safari for iOS 6. However, the limited amount of apps on offer means that you can't access Google Chrome if you want an alternative.
We found that scrolling around web-pages was a simple task, and double-tapping to zoom in on certain areas worked well as did pinch to zoom. This didn't cause any negative effects on the resolution of text or images. However when video is present, any zooming can be very jerky.
Silk is flash enabled, meaning you'll have no problem using those sites still heavily reliant on Adobe's gaming and video platform, despite Adobe's vow to kill Flash on mobile devices. As they tend to, on mobile devices Flash banners do not always render in the correct place.
However, a lot will depend on how you cope with the 7-inch screen as opposed to 9.7 and 10.1 inch displayed offered by Amazon rivals. If you're using in portrait mode you'll not see the full width of many pages, while landscape displays minimal information above the fold. We had no problems with reading web articles on the 7-inch screen as text re-renders to fit your environment a la the Android browser.
UPDATE: Since Amazon launched the Kindle Fire it has been tweaking the Silk browser to eliminate performance issues and improve functionality. The latest update in March, version 6.3 of the Kindle software, brought a feature called Reading View. This neat feature, identified by a pair of specs in the menu bar, allows you to eliminate all of the background commotion from a website and view an article, even if it's spread across multiple pages. It looks great and reads great, too.
Purchasing movies, apps and books
The entire reason for the Kindle Fire's existence is to lock you into an Amazon-controlled ecosystem where you can equip the device with hordes of books, magazines, apps (more on that later), movies and music. How else do you think it can afford to lose a reported $6 on every device made?
As we mentioned above, the user interface very much revolves around pointing you to those online stores, so how does the experience play out?
When you enter each of the portals, you'll be greeted with a screen showing the content you've already placed on the device and also the files you have stored on Amazon's subscription-based Cloud Player.
To access new music, for example, you'll hit the Store tab, which is easy to navigate and offers MP3 previews of every track. Once you make a purchase, you have the option of storing on your device, or on your Cloud Player.
The cloud solution is one way to circumnavigate the paltry 8GB of storage on the device as you'll be able to access all of your music and video over Wi-Fi. It's not much help if there's no Wi-Fi available as this device isn't 3G, but there's always the option to physically download anything you have stored to the device.
In terms of accessing movies and TV shows, Amazon is keen for you to sign up for its Amazon Prime Instant Videos service, which is free in the U.S. for subscribers to the Prime two-day free delivery service which costs $79 (Kindle Fire buyers get 30 days free).
For that you'll get free and unlimited streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows, but don't expect the latest blockbusters. Those, along with the latest TV shows, are available to rent for 48 hours (twice as long as iTunes) for the same $3.99-$4.99 price. Like iTunes those files can be temporarily downloaded to your device for offline viewing.
UPDATE: The Prime Video service and access to the Cloud Storage locker, where you can now also store and download your documents, is still an area where Amazon holds the advantage over Google and the Nexus 7. Google doesn't possess an all-you-can eat video solution in its Play Store, nor is there integration of its cloud storage facility Google Drive for storing large media files.
The Kindle Fire offered the first tablet ecosystem that can compete with iTunes on an absolute level playing field. It doesn't quite possess the same nuances, like podcasts and iTunes U, but the essential stuff is there in abundance.
The Newsstand tab is very similar to its namesake in iOS 6. It features a huge array of magazines and newspapers which Amazon was smart enough to tie in prior to the Kindle Fire's launch. There's Vanity Fair, Wired, Cosmopolitan, GQ and The Economist as well as papers like The New York Times. These can also be stored on the cloud, rather than on the device, saving vital space.
How do they read? In terms of books, well it's a Kindle Reader.
The selection of 750,000 books is second to none and the purchasing interface transfers well onto the new medium. However, the reading experience isn't as pretty as on the iBooks app for iOS, we missed the true-to-life turning of the page when flicking through the book.
Members of the Amazon Prime service now also get the opportunity to rent one book a month from the store, absolutely free. Again, that service isn't yet available for U.K. readers.
UPDATE: In the recent 6.3 software update, Amazon added a pair of neat additions for bookworms. There's now a Share option, which is available when a passage has been highlighted. This gives the opportunity to share some particularly poignant wordage on social networks. The other update is called "Book Extras" which brings information from the Shelfari community - character details, glossary of terms, information on the authors and more. To top it off, students now get 60 percent off of the RRP for "print replica textbooks" from the store. We think that's pretty fair.
Apps and Games
As we mentioned earlier, although Android pumps the blood around its veins, the Kindle Fire doesn't really feel like an Android device. Nowhere is this more evident than in the app store department.
The presence of Amazon's own Android appstore means there's no Google-supported Android Market (now the Google Play Store) on this device. What that means is a dramatic reduction in the officially available applications for an ecosystem already struggling to keep up with Apple's 140,00-strong offering of iPad optimised apps.
Amazon went out and penned deals with a host of the main players in this arena, which means Angry Birds, Words With Friends, Plants vs Zombies, Dead Space and Scrabble are all present and accounted for, while Amazon continues to offer a free Premium app every day. Once again your apps can be stored on the cloud to download as you see fit.
UPDATE: Since our initial review of the Kindle Fire, the device has stepped it up a little bit in the gaming department. Angry Birds Space, Sonic 4, Temple Run, Asphalt 7, Scrabble, Tetris, Monopoly and more give a boost to the Amazon Appstore. However, it's still nowhere near up to the Play Store or App Store level.
The gaming experience on the device is relatively pleasing. It feels like using a large phone, rather than a tablet device as the extra screen real estate on devices like the PlayStation-certified Sony S1 and iPad 2 do enhance the experience, but anyone who has played video games on an Android phone will know what to expect. The multitouch-enabled touchscreen helps in this department.
In terms of streaming media there's the all-important Netflix, Hulu+, Pandora and Rdio apps.
UPDATE: Spotify finally arrived for the Kindle Fire in July 2012 along with HBO Go a month earlier, so the entertainment options are getting better.
In terms of social networking, the built in Facebook icon simply links to the mobile site and only recently did the official Twitter for Android client hit the Kindle Appstore. There are third-party alternatives Seismic, FriendCaster and Uber Social, though.
While the Amazon Appstore is well-stocked and will offer enough to get by on, but no Google support means no official YouTube app, no Google+, no Maps, no Gmail, Earth, Voice, Translate, Navigation (there's no GPS anyway). These are top shelf apps that bolster the Android platform and Amazon has alienated them. Without them the device feels a little bare. This device needs a YouTube app at bare minimum.
There is a way to circumnavigate this problem and root (or jailbreak) the device in order to load any app (or APK) you would like to, but this method is for seasoned tinkerers only and will void the warranty on your device.
Ten months on from the launch of the Kindle Fire, it's hard to emphasize just how big a difference it's made in the tablet world. The beneficiaries of that change are you and I - the consumer.
The Amazon Kindle Fire was a completely new kind of tablet device, that erred away from the "we can make an iPad, too" attitude that has seen the tech world so-far fail to replicate Apple's success.
It's forced companies to rethink, it ensured newer models including the Nexus 7 are priced much lower than they may have been otherwise and the likes of Samsung, with its Galaxy Tab 2 7.7 device, to think a little smaller with the price tag. All good news.
There were always going to be compromises with the Kindle Fire but Amazon struck a very fine balance between the essential functionality and the price point and left it up to users to decide whether they are sacrifices they're willing to make.
As we thought at the time, this hasn't turned out to be an iPad killer. People who want iPads have still bought them in record numbers. It's an alternative for those who thought "there's no way I'm paying $500 for one of those." It's worked out for everyone and now the 7-inch form factor is proving popular enough that Apple is reportedly going to jump in with an iPad mini. That'd be a huge shift, considering Steve Jobs once proclaimed 7-inchers "dead on arrival."
The 7-inch form factor is executed far more successfully than the BlackBerry PlayBook, or indeed the earlier Galaxy Tab efforts, as it retains the comforting feel of the much loved Kindle reader. The device feels solid, yet comfortable in the hand, sturdy but never cumbersome.
There's an awful lot about this device that spectacularly defies the bargain basement price point. The build is one of those things, while the refreshing user interface, display, touchscreen and built-in eco-system of content are better than they have any right to be at this price.
The buying experience was perfect and the ability to keep everything in the cloud does its best to negate the paltry 8GB hard-drive. We were also really impressed with the first iteration of the Silk browser, which is likely to only get better.
Because of the price point we were able to go a little easier on some of the Kindle Fire's limitations, which are numerous. The decision to omit things like a front-facing camera, a microphone, 3G data connectivity, Bluetooth, GPS, the Android Market, greater internal storage (and the option of external storage) were made to keep costs to a minimum. Regardless, these are things that we've come to expect on all mobile devices and they are invariably missed.
The software is largely great, but has some kinks to fix (Update: These have mostly been ironed out in subsequent updates), while the battery life is somewhat disappointing. The lack of native Google-built apps is a problem and the privacy issues that arise with using the Silk browser is something to keep an eye on.
The Amazon Kindle Fire still represents astonishingly good value for money. Perhaps the best gadget bargain of this era. The company has unquestionably succeeded in doing what it set out to; to produce a brilliant media consumption device that doesn't break the bank. It's a solid tablet perfectly tailored to its aim of pushing you to buy digital content from Amazon. It isn't an all-singing, all-dancing device that ticks all the boxes, but it doesn't attempt to be. It's an enjoyable device to use and defies its price point in almost all areas.
However, because of the limitations we've mentioned above, this can't be an iPad Killer. The iPad does absolutely everything better and so it should at double the price. People who want an iPad will still buy one. However, due to the sheer number of Kindle Fire devices that will sell, it's the first device that can truly compete.
Now that the first-gen Kindle Fire is well out of its nascent stages, we struggle to recommend it over the new Google Nexus 7, which is a sexier tablet with a greater selection of apps, better screen and with greatly improved specs for the same price. Comparing the two seems slightly unfair since Amazon laid down an incredible marker and Google simply surpassed it. But if you're going to buy one of the two, it has to be the Nexus 7. There's just less of those aforementioned compromises.
There'll be more cheap Jelly Bean tablets we'll reach the same conclusion about. The Acer Iconia 300 is likely to be the first of them. However, we're pretty sure Amazon will be back before Christmas with a new and improved contender, so we'll see how that pans out.
The Kindle Fire will continue to damage the other Android tablet-makers seeking at least $400 of your hard-earned money for their latest offering. It was already difficult for Motorola and LG to justify their prices. Now, it's impossible. They will have to cut their own prices and develop ways to combat Amazon and Google's content-buying platforms. This means more choice and better deals for everyone.