With the iPad completely dominating the tablet space, companies have adjusted their strategies on how best to compete with Apple’s consumer computer juggernaut. As we approach the 2 year anniversary of the original iPad’s introduction, no competitors have cracked the code. The Android tablets of today are a mess. Things improved with the introduction of Android 3.0 Honeycomb, but a rushed release that was incomplete in spit and polish didn’t do anything to move the needle to Android away from Apple.
When Amazon announced the Kindle Fire, it looked like somebody was going to be able to compete with Apple’s ecosystem solution. Now that the Fire has shipped, let’s see if Amazon has what it takes to play on Apple’s field.
The Amazon Kindle Fire is a 7 inch tablet. It features a rubberized, matte plastic back. On the top of the unit are two speakers. On the bottom, a mini USB charging port, a headphone jack and a small power on button. In the hand, the Kindle feels substantial. I wouldn’t call it heavy, but for a tablet 3 inches smaller than an iPad, it feels about the same weight. It’s much thicker than an iPad, but at this price point, we shouldn’t expect any extravagance in the design.
The first thing you will notice if you have ever used an Android device before is that the Kindle Fire doesn’t feature any of the stock capacitive hardware buttons that most Android devices have. Then you will probably notice that the Fire doesn’t really have any buttons (apart from the small power button on the bottom) to speak of. This is a bold decision by Amazon, and in many ways, a welcome one. One of my chief complaints about Android is that the hardware buttons are inconsistently assigned, and serve more to confuse than aid a user. That said, navigating the Fire without any hardware button to get back to the home screen was a step backwards, in my opinion. Amazon has done a pretty good job of putting a home button on the bottom part of the screen in most apps, but in my testing, in some games, like Angry birds, it wasn’t immediately obvious how to get out of the game and get back to default home screen.
On the inside of the device, you will find a dual core processor with 8GB of internal storage for your media, and 512MB of RAM. The display is a multi-touch display with IPS and anti-reflective technology capable of 1024×600 pixels at 169 ppi, and 16 million colors. I found the tablet to have very good viewing angles and capable of producing a crisp, sharp picture when playing games or video.
Battery life is rated at 8 hours for reading or 7.5 hours of video play back with wireless off. In my testing, I got nearly 6.5 hours with wifi on. In my testing, I watched a 50 minute video of Star Trek: Enterprise streamed off of Amazon, surfed the web, read email, played some Angry Birds, listened to a radio station from the Tune-In Radio application, and browsed the Amazon Market for videos and applications. That’s not quite in the ballpark of the iPad, but should be sufficient in most cases. Amazon claims 8 hours with wifi off for reading, which seems entirely plausible.
You can move music and movies to your Kindle Fire, but you will need to purchase a USB cable to do so. The Fire does not come with the necessary micro USB to USB cable to connect to a PC or Mac. The only items actually in the box with your Kindle Fire are the Fire itself and a power cord.
While the Fire runs the Android OS (version 2.2, to be precise), it is well hidden from the user. The main ‘home’ page is the bookshelf. The shelf has links to books, videos, music and applications.
The Fire doesn’t include any of the Google created applications. For web browsing, Amazon includes it’s own browser, called Silk. There is also a custom email client that connects to most POP/IMAP email accounts (though sadly, not Exchange).
Silk is a WebKit based browser developed by Amazon. Silk pulls http requests through Amazon’s web servers, which is promoted as time saving feature. By caching frequently accessed files, less of the page has to be fetched from the original source. In my testing, I saw no discernible improvement in speed, though that could be due to the requests being made the first time, and the files on the webpage not being cached yet.
Silk features the Flash plugin built in. In my tests, Flash content from various sources loaded fine, although some Flash pages didn’t register taps as clicks. Of course, true to form, Flash crashed the browser on a few occasions. Buyer beware, as they say.
The price is certainly right at $199, but how does it perform? In my testing, not very well.
First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am an iPad owner and user. So my expectations of how a tablet performs are based on my iPad interactions. I expect scrolling to be smooth, taps to be recognized on the first attempt, apps to launch quickly, and usage to be intuitive. You do see where I’m going with this, don’t you? The Kindle Fire performs poorly at all of those tasks.
Scrolling is jerky and jittery. In the web browser, it often takes several taps on a button or a link before it is recognized. The Kindle itself booted very slow in my tests, even after receiving a system update upon first usage. And the lack of any hardware buttons can leave you, in some apps, wondering how you get back to the home screen.
My biggest disappointment with the Fire was the actual Kindle app itself. Most people don’t expect much with an e-reader, but coming from the iPad, I’m used to a more refined experience. For example, when I swipe to turn a page, I get a nice animation of the page turning. Not a huge deal, but a very comforting touch when you are relaxed and reading a book. On the Fire, in the Kindle app, a page turn is nothing short of a clunky, ugly transition to the next page. I bring this up because the Fire’s e-reader capabilities, with Amazon’s large e-book library in it’s arsenal, should have had more attention paid to it.
I’ll give Amazon credit for it’s ‘re-imagining’ of the Android OS, but what we have here feels very rushed and not very polished at all. This should change in time, I expect. But for now, expect the software experience to be what I would deem ‘late alpha quality’. It may be feature complete, but it still needs months of refinement.
Perhaps the best thing that the Kindle Fire has going for it (apart from it’s price) is the Amazon backed ecosystem. This is the first Android device that ships with an incredibly easy way out of the box to purchase books, magazines, music, videos, and apps, all from the same location. If you have a Amazon Prime membership, you also get access to a library of movies and TV shows that you can stream to the Fire whenever you want. While the selection isn’t phenomenal (it never is, right?), it does have a good bit of variety, and if you like Star Trek, there’s just about every episode of the modern day series (from the Next Generation to Enterprise) available to you.
The Amazon ecosystem is the main area where the Fire shines, and the biggest weapon Amazon has to compete with Apple. I’ll wager that if the Kindle Fire has any modicum of success, it will be largely on the back of the Amazon ecosystem at it’s disposal. Never underestimate the power of 1-click buying on a handheld device from a merchant with good prices and a great selection.
Is the Kindle Fire for you? If you’ve never experience an iPad, and want something to read books with, listen to music or watch the occasional video from your couch, I could see the Kindle Fire satisfying those needs.
If you have experienced the iPad, and your tablet expectations are shaped by that experience, I’m afraid you will find the Kindle Fire to be a half baked product with great promise, but ultimately, in need of serious polishing.
Amazon Kindle Fire
Pros: Low price ($199). Great Amazon buying experience for music, movies, books and applications. Hardware is unassuming, yet comfortable in your hand (albeit a bit heavy for it’s size).
Cons: Jerky application experience. Lack of a physical button means navigation in and out of applications is inconsistent and confusing at times. Main e-reader application is crap.
Link: Kindle Fire from Amazon