The Kindle Fire, Amazon’s entry into the tablet world. To date, the “tablet world” has been more of an “iPad world,” it’s been utter domination. Tablets are the new netbook, they’re hot and every company wants a piece of the action, but the problem is, people aren’t buying tables, they’re buying iPads (on the large scale). I’m not here to talk about the reasons for that, but there are many. The Kindle Fire has now come along with hopes of changing that, at least to a degree. Amazon, who has already had a lot of success in the eReader market, thinks that with an almost impulse-buy price of $200, they can undercut the iPad and gain traction where others have been stuck in the mud.
Introducing the Kindle Fire as I just have implies that it competes with the iPad, but I would say with some level of confidence that I don’t think it does. And that’s an odd thing because the Kindle Fire does compete with other Android tablets who, in turn, do compete with the iPad. Apple’s iPad represents an end-to-end ecosystem. You buy your hardware from Apple and then Apple continues to be your one-stop shop for music, movies, books, games, magazines, and apps (they are not the only source for music, movies, books, or magazines, but they want to be and they have the ecosystem to pull it off). This is an experience very different from Android tablets where you buy the hardware from one company and get your content from a smattering of other vendors. And this is where the Kindle Fire comes in and bests other Android tablets in a way that only Amazon can pull off right now. It provides the same kind of end-to-end ecosystem that users can get from Apple. This and a $200 price tag are what will make the Amazon Kindle Fire the first truly successful Android tablet (unless you want to include the Nook Color as a true Android tablet).
So yes, on that front, it seems like the Kindle Fire is an iPad competitor, but the difference comes from company philosophy. Amazon is a retailer. They sell you the Kindle Fire very cheaply because they don’t see it as their product, they see it as a conduit through which they can sell you the content and items they already love to sell you. Apple, on the other hand, is a hardware company, they use software and content as selling points to get their hardware into your hands. These different approaches are what really set the two devices apart.
If you keep up with technology at all or read any tech blogs or sites, you already know this and have read it over and over again. But if that’s not you, then this may be the kind of thing you don’t think about. In terms of what I’m going to go on to say, I’m not sure how much it matters, but it is something that’s been in the back of my mind for the past week and a half and it creeps to the foreground almost every time I pick up the Fire.
What good is a Kindle Fire for an iPad user?
Before I go into the device further, frequent readers of this blog may wonder why I would want a Kindle Fire if I have an iPad already. It may appear that I’m an Apple fanboy, as they say. I have an iPad, iPhone, and MacBook Pro. I love these devices and right now, for my money, Apple delivers what I want from a device that I’m going to rely on day in and day out. However, I’m not an Apple fanboy, I’m just an all-around gadget-nerd. As such, I’ve been feeling, for a long time, like it’s ridiculous that there hasn’t been anything Android in my home. I’ve been keeping my eyes on Craigslist for a while, looking for something that was just right to pick up. That something had to be cheap enough that I could justify spending the money since it would be nothing more than a toy for me. The Kindle Fire has been the first good (and not generations old) Android product that has come along with a price tag reasonable enough to justify its purchase.
Additionally, my wife and I share our iPad, but usually I just hog it. She is the one that really wanted it in the first place and I justified our purchase of it by figuring we’d use it enough between the two of us. I never thought that I’d use it for a couple hours a day myself. A second iPad seems like overkill for us, but the Kindle Fire is, again, cheap enough that it makes for a nice complement to our iPad. I can use the Kindle Fire when my wife wants to read on the iPad or bring it into the kitchen with her to read recipes from.
*Note: This thing was a bitch to photograph because of its glossiness, otherwise I would have taken a lot more photos of both the hardware and software. I had to choose between just posting this with what I had or waiting until next weekend when I’d be able to photograph with natural light.
For the most part, I like the hardware. It looks like a BlackBerry Playbook and is uninspired in design, but it’s simple all black exterior is aesthetically pleasing. The Kindle Fire feels solid, but isn’t heavy. The weight is nice for holding in one hand and your arm doesn’t tire out as quickly as it does with the iPad.
The 7″ size makes for a completely different physical experience than the 9.7″ iPad. Holding the Kindle Fire feels more like holding a big phone, you can wrap your hand around it. Sometimes, this is really nice and kind of preferred to the larger iPad. Over the last week and a half, I’ve found myself reaching for the Kindle Fire for looking things up while watching TV. It seems well suited to being used as a secondary point of focus while you’re doing something else. In other words, the 7″ size makes it much less of an immersive experience than a 10″ table can offer. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it’s not what you want.
The quality of the Kindle Fire display was surprisingly good to me. It’s decently bright and sharp enough that you shouldn’t have any problems. The colors and viewing angles are good enough that I didn’t take special notice to either one. The only knock against it is its crazy level of glossiness. You can get some serious glare coming off the screen. Plus, it’s a big fingerprint magnet.
Unfortunately, there is no physical volume control, but volume is just a single tap away so it’s tolerable.
While the hardware and design are mostly a positive, there is one insanely stupid aspect to the Kindle Fire. The power button is on the bottom of the device, right where you’ll often have a finger while you’re holding it. Or right where the weight of the device is going to fall when you’re resting it on your chest while laying in bed. I knew this going in, but I had no idea how annoying this would turn out to be. Even after a week and a half, I still find myself hitting this by accident all the time. Sometimes, my finger even holds the button down long enough that I get prompted with the device shut-down dialog. For apps that rotate a full 180°, I turn the device so the button is on the top, but not all apps rotate like that. This was such a stupid design decision that it almost feels as though the person responsible for it should be fighting to keep their job at Amazon.
There are two things worth noting right off the bat before I go on about the software. One, the latest update that Amazon pushed out to fix the big complaints came down automatically for me on the first day and seems to do a decent job of fixing the complaints others have had. The second thing of note, is that I rooted my Kindle Fire two days after opening it. I installed the Android Market and GO Launcher EX. With that being said, my software experience is a little different than most would have, but I bought the Kindle Fire with every intention of rooting it and, when it becomes available in a stable form, installing CyanogenMod on it.
As is very plain to see, Amazon has heavily skinned Android on the Kindle Fire. In fact, they’ve actually completely forked Android, from what I understand. The Amazon skin creates an experience that ties you right into Amazon’s ecosystem. You’ve got all your media front and center and purchasing new content from Amazon is right there. It’s so easy to buy new content that you can almost accidentally do it.
The Amazon skin looks decent enough, but if you want to do anything more than reading or some casual browsing, you may be left wanting more from it.
Amazon’s app store has a decent selection of apps, but I quickly found that many of the apps I immediately wanted to install weren’t there. The Kindle Fire allows sideloading of apps, but I find the process to be a pain in the ass. However, once I rooted the Fire and installed the Android Market, most of the apps I wanted were there and ready to go for me. Unfortunately though, I found some of the apps I wanted were incompatible and could not be installed through the Android Market. Annoyingly, many of them were apps that should be able to run on the Kindle Fire (i.e. they aren’t apps that require hardware the Fire doesn’t have). This was annoying. To this day, I still can’t get the Facebook app to run without crashing at login. Being a primarily iOS user, this whole experience seemed bonkers to me.
The apps themselves are mostly lacking in feel to me. There are many good apps, but it seems that for every app I’ve installed on the Kindle Fire, a better alternative exists for iOS. It may be that I need to spend more time with the Android Market to figure out how to better find the apps I need, but in reality, the big issue seems to be…
The overwhelming majority of Android apps for the Kindle Fire just feel like over-sized smartphone apps. Mainly, that’s because they are just smartphone apps since the Kindle Fire runs off Android 2.3 instead of 3.x or 4.0. This feels like a major problem to me, but again, I come at this with an iOS perspective. The extra physical size over a phone feels wasted without tablet-class apps. On the iPad, developers tailor their apps to make use of the extra screen real estate and it makes the experience substantially better. It’s more engaging and more productive. iPad apps have multiple panes and feel natural to use, these apps just blow everything up as if I’m a senior citizen with crappy eyesight. This is something you will want to keep in mind if you are thinking about a Kindle Fire, you won’t get tablet apps, you’ll get glorified smartphone apps. If that’s not okay with you, you’ll want to look elsewhere, either a Honeycomb/Ice Cream Sandwich Android tablet or the iPad.
I actually almost forgot to even mention the Silk Browser which is designed to offload the heavily lifting of web browsing onto Amazon’s servers. Ideally, this should help pages load faster. In practice, I found page loads to be painfully slow. I’m going to leave it at that.
For the most part, I’ve found that the Kindle Fire is slightly snappier than I expected. Scrolling isn’t smooth, but it keeps up with your finger and touch response is usually good. That doesn’t come without some caveats though. Zooming in the browser works, but is very jerky and jarring. I’ve also found that clicking URLs, more of than not, takes many taps before doing anything. This goes for all links, even results from a Google search or those from apps other than the browser. I don’t find this same issue when tapping buttons or other elements on the screen. What exacerbates this is that Android and its apps often provide no immediate acknowledgement of your actions. If your action is registered and quickly carried out (in say, less than .5 seconds) , you don’t really notice that much, but when the system takes longer to process what it needs to, you’re left there wondering if your tap was recognized or if the system is just taking a while to work on it. When this happens once in a while, it’s not that big of a deal, but constantly having to guess if my taps are being recognize can be maddening. Some simple indication that your interaction was registered would go a long way.
Overall, the Kindle Fire feels like a car that has plenty of horsepower, but is being slowed down by not having enough air in the tires. If the software cared more about the user experience, the Kindle Fire could be a significantly better device.
Battery life is fine. I can’t say I’ve done any scientific tests, but I’ve only had to charge it three times since I’ve gotten it. It’s not quite as good as the iPad 2, but you won’t have to worry about taking it with you for a weekend trip while leaving your charger at home.
As a whole, the Kindle Fire isn’t a bad gadget, especially for $200. In some ways, the device feels like a low-end product, but for the most part, the Kindle Fire feels like a steal at $200.
The Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad-killer or anything of the sort. As I mentioned in the beginning, it doesn’t really feel like it competes with the iPad. Even though I made many comparisons to the iPad throughout this review, it was mostly to drive home the point that this isn’t iPad competition.
What it comes down to is this, if you want an eReader that you can check email on and occasionally browse the web here and there or read some tweets, this is a must-buy. If you are sure that you only want to consume content, the Kindle Fire is worth a serious look. However, if you at all think you might want to use a tablet to get work done or even use it as your primary browsing/tweeting/Facebooking device, the Kindle Fire is not the right purchase for you. The end result would be a $200 purchase that talks you into a future $500 purchase of a 10″ tablet. If you have been telling yourself that you really “want an iPad,” don’t cheap out and get a Kindle Fire.
I’m happy with my Kindle Fire, but only because I have an iPad 2 for the big boy stuff.