The Amazon Kindle Fire has been much talked about because Amazon is taking a “good enough” approach to competing with established tablet players like Samsung or Apple. Many prospect Kindle Fire buyers would not spend $300 or more to get a high-end tablet, so Amazon is not really trying to steal share, but it tries to make the tablet market bigger, faster.
 The big difference with other Android tablet makers is that Amazon is not a “pure hardware player”. While most companies earn a living by selling hardware for a profit, Amazon uses the hardware to prop sales of its online activities. Although they may be making a profit on the tablet, they don’t have to (and they don’t seem to). That is truly a game changer, as Amazon’s tablet business model is closer to what Sony and Microsoft do with the PlayStation and Xbox. Now, the real question is: what can Kindle do for you, who is it for, and should you get one? Let’s take a look…

Design (plain)

At first glance, it looks like Amazon has chosen to imitate the design of the Blackberry Playbook. But the resemblance is only superficial even if their thickness are quasi-identical. At 413g the Kindle Fire is 30% lighter than the iPad 2. Yet, it feels relatively heavy in comparison to its own size. I’ve added a shot of the Kindle Fire next to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 so that you may get an idea of its relative size.

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One side of the Kindle Fire hosts two speakers which produce decent sound. Interestingly, there are no physical volume dials and users have to tweak it using the on-screen user interface. It’s not a problem, except that the virtual controls sometime don’t detect that the screen has been rotated by 180 degrees and appear inverted by 180 degrees.

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The speakers are decent, but could have been louder

On the opposite side, the 3.5mm jack, a micro-USB port and the Power button have been crammed into a small space. In my opinion, this is not a great placement because both an audio connector or USB connector will get in the way if you’re holding the tablet in landscape mode. It would have been more convenient to place them all on a corner so that there is at least one landscape position in which this problem does not appear.

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The back of the Kindle Fire is made of a rubberish texture which seems like painted plastic, or magnesium. It’s soft to the touch and provides extra grip that should help in preventing accidental drops.

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Display (OK+)

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Despite being a low-end tablet, the Kindle Fire uses an LCD IPS display, which is great because IPS technology provides great viewing angle, plenty of brightness and good color reproduction. However, the 1024×600 resolution of the Kindle Fire’s display doesn’t provide nearly the pixel density that you may have gotten used to on smartphones. That said, the 1024×768 resolution of the iPad isn’t that impressive either, but its bigger 9.7” display makes thing a bit easier to read.

It is a bit ironic to think that Amazon made jokes about the iPad for the past couple of years, saying that LCD screens are terrible, especially in direct sunlight. The Kindle Fire’s display is as shiny -if not shinier- than the iPad’s. That said, the future is in color, and LCD is the way to go for now.

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The display is fairly reflective

It’s true that ePaper displays (used in previous Kindle eBooks) don’t strain the eyes as much, but they are slow, and monochrome. Maybe those Mirasol screens will power tablets one day, but not today. Look at the bright side: you can now read in the dark without requiring an external light source…

Hardware (could use a microSD slot)

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As you can imagine, a $199 product is not going to be a monster when it comes to specifications – and that’s totally fair. But let’s take a peek, just to get a sense of what kind of raw power we have in there:

  • 1GHz Dual-core TI OMAP SoC (same as the Playbook)
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB of storage (no microSD)
  • WIFI 2.4GHz B/G/N
  • No 3G, no Bluetooth

First, I’m glad that Amazon chose the dual-core OMAP processor. It worked great on the Blackberry Playbook, and this is certainly a good choice. 512MB of RAM is not a lot, but probably good enough if there aren’t too many background apps, and I think that it will suffice for the Kindle Fire’s purpose.

The 8GB of storage may be more problematic, especially for those who are interested in video. Although that’s plenty for books and alright for photos, local video files can consume space much quicker and this could be an issue down the road. Actually, a regular mix of Music, Photos and Videos could strain the storage capacity quickly. Granted, it’s also a “cloud device” that can stream stuff from the web, but there are cases where you don’t have access to the network.

I wish that Amazon had a microSD option because that would have been a cheap way to extend the storage. While most tablet manufacturers make additional profits on memory upgrades, Amazon should do everything it can so that customers can consume more from Amazon.com, and more storage would certainly help. I feel that MicroSD would have been the best option, and it’s not clear why it is not present.

Some folks may whine about the lack of 5GHz wifi, but my sense is that most users will be OK with 2.4GHz. It may not be optimum, but it gets the job done, and as far as I can tell, WIFI never gets in the way because the Internet is much slower than even your old WIFI. In the name of low-cost, it is not surprising that 5GHz was sacrificed. The lack of Bluetooth is more of an issue to me. It could have been used to connect to an external speaker like the Jambox, which could have been a great supplement to the internal speakers.

Unfortunately, there is not a cellular connectivity option. It’s too bad because this was hugely popular with the older Kindle devices, especially when the data was worldwide, and somewhat unlimited. I’m not sure what that is, but I bet that Amazon is a bit afraid that people may actually use it and that cost would quickly spiral out of control. Too bad.

Software (limited Android)

At its core, the Kindle Fire runs Android 2.3, a well-established and stable version that Amazon had time to build upon to create some kind of closed “Amazon garden” of content. This means that you don’t have access to the Android Market, and of course, this means that your choices are much narrower when it comes to apps.

For instance, Skype and Facebook don’t exist in the Amazon store, and while you can always go to m.facebook.com, it’s not as convenient as the actual Facebook for Android app. As for Skype, there is simply no suitable replacement that has the connectivity, chat capability and installed base.

There’s a trick to install Android Market apps without hacking the firmware, it’s called sideloading, and here’s how to sideload apps on your Kindle Fire in 3 steps.

User Interface (simple)

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The carousel looks good, but it really needs some tweaks to make it usable

But having a custom user interface (UI) can be a good thing too. For example, the Kindle Fire custom UI provides quick and easy access to what amazon deems to be the most-frequently used content: News, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, Web. Frankly, I even find it nicer than virtually every Android 2.x tablet that I’ve tested this year. Overall, Amazon did a good job with it.

On the homepage, this is another story: the carousel is impressively fluid for a $199 device, but it is also poorly tuned: it’s easy for the scrolling to overshoot and skip the content that you’re actually interested in. Also, only the icon at the forefront (on the left) is clickable. It would have been handy to have all of them be clickable. Fortunately, Amazon should be able to fix this with minimum trouble via a software update.

Amazon should let people customize their home page with whatever they want. The whole “recent” content idea may work for books because you may return to it, but it’s not so great for videos and music. If I’ve seen a movie yesterday, it’s unlikely that I’ll watch it again.

Content (very good)

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This is the same experience as Kindle on other platforms

Books (excellent): No problem there, books are easy to find, read and purchase. I have a number of them that I bought with Kindle on iOS and Android, and they automatically appeared, ready to be downloaded. The interface is arguably much cleaner than Kindle on iOS or Android, and I find the eBook experience to be better overall – except for the screen size.

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The music player is clear and simple

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At any time, you can access the music player from the notification area

Music (very good): I had not synchronized any tracks yet, but because I was logged-into my Amazon account, I had immediate access to my Amazon MP3 songs stored in the Amazon Cloud. I really like how simple it is for users to see where the tracks are located (Device|Cloud) and how easy it is download track to the device for offline use. Overall, the shopping experience is also much better than on Amazon.com, so I would not be surprised if Kindle users would shop directly from the tablet – I would.

If you have a massive music collection, I’m not 100% sure how Kindle Fire would scale, but with the built-in search, you should be able to access any track or album quickly.

When purchasing most media, you can choose if you want it transferred to the Kindle Fire, or to Amazon Cloud. Again, simple and easy to use – as long as you know what “the cloud” is (my parents don’t), but that should be easy enough.

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Videos are relatively blocky and a bit blurry - and the controls can appear inverted

Videos (low-quality): as an Amazon Prime subscriber, I get unlimited video streaming for a selection of movies, so it’s like having a second Netflix in some ways. Browsing and finding titles is easy and the recommendation engine is OK, so I don’t have any complaints there.

On the other hand, I was not satisfied with the overall image quality of the streaming videos. This is not new: the last time that I tried streaming an Amazon video on a laptop I had a similar experience, so I don’t think that the tablet is to blame here. Amazon should fix this because right now, watching videos on the Kindle Fire is not an attractive option.

Mp4 playback:  after copying the usual MP4 files that i use for virtually every reviews, I noticed that the Kindle Fire can’t play those back. It’s a disappointment because any recent Android phone can play them

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Amazon needs to kick it up a notch in terms of video quality

Web browsing (choppy): the Kindle Fire comes with a web browser, and at first sight, I would think that it is pretty decent. The rendering of the pages is actually good, but once the page is loaded the browser is plagued by a terrible lag when you try to scroll the page. For all the noise that was made around Amazon’s “Silk” browser (as in silky smooth), this is quite a disappointment.

If you missed out on what Amazon’s silk is: it’s a browser that has a cloud component: when viewing a page, some of the heavy lifting is done on Amazon’s remote servers and the final elements of the page are sent to the tablet. The idea is interesting and it has been explored in different ways by Opera or Skyfire. At the moment, the page loading gains are not obvious, and the post-loading user experience is fairly bad because the page scrolling is choppy.

I think that the page load difference would be much more perceptible over a 3G network, as latency usually is what kills the mobile web experience… but there is no 3G version of the Kindle Fire…

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The email is pretty decent, but it doesn't work with Microsoft Exchange

Email (OK, not business-friendly): the email client looks good and is pretty decent. It works with plain-vanilla email services, but there is no support for Microsoft Exchange. While the software is good enough, I found the typing experience to be sub-optimal. It’s largely due to the form factor of the device.

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Typing in landscape mode is not comfy because the keyboard is so wide

Typing in landscape mode is just “OK” but I have to extend my thumbs. In Portrait mode, I need to hold on the device very tightly as its weight tends to pull it forward, so the ergonomics don’t work well.

I would suggest Amazon to put the email commands and the special characters at the bottom of the screen so that the keyboard can be raised up closer to the center. That way I could hold it close to its center of gravity. It’s an easy fix and would go a long way to help.

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Apps (partial library): when apps are available, they should run just like they would on any other 7” Android tablet, but that’s a big “if”. As I mentioned above, some of the “killer apps” that I use like Facebook or Skype aren’t available, but if you want to find out if your favorite apps are, go check online. At least, Netfix and Hulu are available.

Notable missing apps: Youtube, Facebook, Skype [add your favorite missing app in the comments below]

System performance (average)

The performance is not “zippy”, but it’s OK. In fact, I find it to be perceptually better than a earlier 7″ Android tablets. Interestingly, the Blackberry Playbook (which uses the same chip) feels faster.

Let’s say that the Kindle Fire offers a level of performance that is “good enough” both in absolute terms, and for that level of pricing. It is clear that there is room for future hardware improvements, but it is also true that for a $199 tablet, it does much better in terms of user experience than the Vizio tablet for example.

Battery Life (very decent)

The battery life of the device is pretty decent and it is mainly drained by the display. For example, you can use the tablet for about 8 hrs of reading where the processor is doing close to nothing, or you can watch videos for 7 hours when the processor works more (+audio). I’m sure that 3D games would deplete the battery faster, although I haven’t run a 3D game for hours, yet. I’ll keep an eye on the battery life, but you can use this as a pretty decent pointer.

Conclusion (a specialized device)

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The Kindle Fire is a device that does exactly what Amazon wanted it to: it is affordable and provides an easy way to consume more content from Amazon. This is definitely not a “killer” for larger and faster tablets, but at the very basic level, it is a good multimedia player with a store access, and it is basically the best mobile interface to Amazon.com

Some say that the Kindle Fire is not a tablet. I would disagree with that – it’s actually better that most of the 7” Android tablets that I reviewed in early 2011, at least in terms of user experience – and even if it is more limited in scope.

In short, the Kindle Fire can be a great tool if you understand and accept its limitations, which are not negligible (size, apps, performance). Now the question is… should you spent $50 more and get the new Nook? I’m still waiting for my Nook tablet to arrive, but here are the first impressions from the Nook launch in NYC.

Theoretical use cases

/I read books, and I’m not really interested by Android, music and videos.
In this case, go get a regular Kindle, your eyes will thank you.

/I don’t want to spend $400+ in a tablet, but I need to send email do basic web browsing and play casual games
The Kindle Fire may be a good option for you. Email is better than with the monochrome Kindle (the bar was low) and although slow, the web browsing actually renders properly. You also have access to a number of casual games.

/I like the this tablet, but I don’t buy that much stuff on Amazon
The Kindle Fire has been built around the idea that you would consume on Amazon. Frankly, it’s pretty good at that. What do you want to do with it?

/I don’t care much for reading, but I love music and videos.
The Kindle Fire is good for music acquisition and storage. I like the cloud service very much. that said, the Amazon video quality is low. That’s a big minus for me.

/I want to buy this for my parents, they are not really techies
In terms of usability, it’s pretty good and I did think about that too. The only low point in my opinion is that the screen is small, so older people may have a hard time with the user interface small text

/This would be great for my kids
Maybe – again, it depends on what you intend for them to do with it. It seems fairly solid and should survive at least as well as any other tablets.

/Should I get an iPad or a faster Android tablet?
The point of the Kindle Fire is low price. If you can afford a better tablet, go for it. Anything that the Kindle Fire does, you can do with the more expensive tablets – except that the UI maybe easier on the Fire. Check our iPad 2 Review and our Galaxy Tab 10.1 review.

/Is it a tablet experience that is “good enough”?
It depends how you view “good enough”. I believe that the tablet experience is much larger than what the Kindle Fire has to offer, so I would say that “no”, it’s not “good enough” – not even for basic stuff like email and web browsing.

/the iPad or the Galaxy Tab seem so much better, why should the Kindle Fire exist in the first place?
Pricing and focus. As I said, this tablet can’t perform at the same level, but it costs $200, so we can’t (or should not) look at it in the same way.

I hope that this review was helpful. If you want more information, just drop a comment, and I’ll try to address it as soon as possible. If you liked this review, follow us on Facebook to keep in touch.

Filed in Featured >Reviews >Tablets . Tags: Amazon and Kindle Fire.
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