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Sunday, November 20, 2011, 08:02 am PT (11:02 am ET)

Amazon's new Kindle Fire tablet: an in depth review




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Using Music, Videos and Documents on the Fire

If you use Amazon's Cloud Player, you can benefit from an iCloud-like download of your Amazon music and video purchases, although there's no alternative to an iTunes Match service by Amazon, so you'll have to manually upload all the songs you want to have in the cloud, a time consuming process. Amazon's own "Cloud Drive" program costs $20 per year, and includes unlimited music storage (once you upload the songs, a real world limitation). The service can also be accessed from iOS devices or a Mac or PC, similar to iTunes. You will need to upload your previous Amazon purchases however, as unlike iTunes, past purchases are not in the cloud until you save them there.

To get documents on the Fire, you can email them as attachments to a special account (your account name @kindle.com), and they'll show up on the device. You'll need to manually configure, online in Amazon's web configuration, each email address you want to be able to send you email documents. How soon the documents actually get there seems rather random. This isn't instantaneous like iCloud; it's more like mailing a colleague for an answer to a problem you desperately need while they're busy doing other things: painful.

I tried to send a variety of files via this email, but Amazon reported that Fire couldn't use or convert an m4a unprotected (no DRM) AAC song file from iTunes however, limiting its usefulness to iTunes users. The Fire also (of course) can't play any video from iTunes, which is DRM protected. Again, the point of the Fire is to buy content from Amazon, not to use your existing library of movies and music.

As with iOS devices, you can also email yourself documents via attachments to your standard email configured in the Fire's built in email app. This lets you access any documents anyone sends you, without having to authorize them or use a special email address. It's also a lot faster. Fire lacks push email, but it checks email and downloads attachments at reasonable speeds (although not in the background like iOS). On the Fire, emailed documents appear under the documents tab. It's also possible to copy over documents manually via USB.



As with iOS, you can also access Hulu+, Pandora and Netflix content on the Fire via third party apps. Amazon also bundles a free month of its own Amazon Prime, which enables users to access the company's library of 10,000 movies and TV show episodes on demand. Prime sounds great, but it's a much smaller streaming selection that even Netflix's on demand titles, and not everything is actually free, particularly among TV programs.

Netflix presents movies with significant artifacting (blocks of the screen that don't update correctly) and enough stuttering audio to ruin even TV programming. After pausing a video, I returned to Netflix and it was completely locked up and unresponsive. Exiting and reopening the app did nothing. After the Fire sat on the table for about ten minutes, the video began paying again spontaneously. This sort of poltergeist user interface is not pleasant to deal with, but it's just how the Fire works.

If you're used to watching movies on your smartphone, the Fire provides a (somewhat frustrating) experience that's significantly larger, but in a device that's not pocketable. It remains to be seen whether users will see $200 of value in being able to watch movies and play smartphone games on a larger screen, with the added cost of having to carry it around, especially given its beta quality feel overall. A lot of people are going to be disappointed this holiday.

Books and periodicals on Fire

Amazon has long maintained that the original Kindles' eInk displays were vastly superior for reading text compared to the screen of the iPhone or iPad, but the new Kindle Fire's conventional LCD screen erases all that rhetoric and repaints the company's mobile ambitions as a way to buy dynamic, full color digital content in addition to basic ebooks, closely following Apple's iTunes and App Store model.

So much for readability: the Fire's display lacks the brightness to deliver pure whites (and the screen's LEDs leak distracting when the screen is black); it delivers small text that looks ugly compared to the iPhone's Retina Display and lacks the screen real estate to comfortably zoom in (like you can on a iPad) to make for a pleasant reading experience. The Kindle Fire isn't the best Kindle for ebook reading.

Had Amazon never crowed about how superior eInk was, it would be easier to swallow the Fire's pixelated reading experience, which is worse than a smartphone. While its screen is three times the size of the iPod touch, it essentially displays the same number of pixels, albeit in a wider format. It's this much lower pixel density of the Fire makes its small text look ugly and less pleasing to read. It seems like it would be far nicer then eInk Kindles for reading glossy magazine content however.

Until you try to use it. Opening Newsstand, I tried to sign up for a trial of The New Yorker. Like Apple, Amazon hasn't convinced all publishers to embrace its automated newsstand publishing system, so the The New Yorker is delivered as an app. Unfortunately, no matter what I tried, I could not login to actually obtain any content. First, the app crashed as unresponsive when I tried to set up an account (tap tap tap on the screen and nothing, below left).



Subsequent tries insisted that I must be an existing paper subscriber. Reviews of the app indicate lots of other people were having problems even logging into the app, which must be done every time you try to use it. Then an hour later it suddenly it decided to offer a download button, and delivered a copy within the app (above right).

This magazine looked well suited to the page, but the text is quite small to read and there's no obvious way to make it any larger (below left). Can't zoom in via taps or pinches, and all it offers to do it show me some navigation options (below right). This appears to be a smartphone app stretched to the size of the Fire. After trying to read a paragraph of blurry small text, I gave up. The graphics below are shrunk and compressed, but the actual text quality on the screen is not much better. It's unpleasant to read, and that's coming from an avid reader of books and web content on smartphones.



I tried a second magazine, Details, (from the same publisher) which does support Fire's newsstand rack. This one spent some time downloading and then sat directly on the newsstand shelf. After opening it up, it was less pleasant to read than a generic PDF of a magazine on a PC, partly because of the Fire's frustratingly bad responsiveness to touch, partly because of its oddly tall orientation, partly because of its low resolution density, and partly because the PDF rendering appeared terrible.

Text looked awful at every zoom level. The magazine page size doesn't fit the display by default (below left; the grey area the magazine is floating in is the Fire's screen), and even if you zoom in, the text looks jagged and blurry (below right). Most maddening is that the touches, swipes and pinches to navigate the page are usually ignored, and more often than not result in some random change. Try to zoom in a bit and suddenly the the neighboring page slides over, or you end up looking at the other end of the page. This is a dreadful experience.



Reading magazines as magazines on the Kindle Fire is so bad (below left) the only way you can get any readable content from your subscription is to enter "text view," (below right) which presents plain text of the articles. Of course, that's a pretty primitive way to read a glossy magazine. Might as well have a 300 baud modem downloading your text files.



In this view, you get readable text, and can pull up options (below left) for changing the text size, font, line spacing, page margins and colors. This is more in line with basic ebook reading, but certainly doesn't measure up to how Fire is hyped as something that can peruse real magazines.



The very thing the Fire should excel at (reading full color magazines on a sizable display) is a frustrating, ugly experience. If Apple or Microsoft released something this bad at looking at magazines, one might make the excuse that magazines lie outside of their core competency. But Amazon? How did this abject failure get released by the apparent leading vendor of digital ebooks and periodicals?

Browsing the web on the Fire

While you could browse the web "experimentally" on previous eInk Kindles, it wasn't very fun at all because the web has a lot of dynamic, interactive color content on it that eInk can't render acceptably. Kindle Fire's browser offers an experience that's far better. It's not an iPad, but again, more like a large smartphone. As someone who finds the iPhone browser extremely useful, the Fire's browser is that much larger, offering what should be a much better experience. It's not clear that it does, however.

The Fire lacks the Retina Display resolution of the iPhone 4 or iPod touch, so as with ebooks, small text on the web looks unpleasant on the Fire compared to the same text on iPhone 4. The iPad doesn't offer Retina Display resolution, but its screen is much larger, making it easier to zoom in and read text at a larger size. The much smaller screen of the Fire means you can't zoom in as much while still having the page's layout visible.

Pinching, flicking and zooming on the Fire is not fluid like iOS; it's jerky and hesitant like an Android smartphone. If it's all you've used, the browser experience should be acceptable. Compared directly with an iPad or iPhone, it feels amateurish and clumsy.

The Fire's screen can't render bright white as the iPhone or iPad, with its version of white looking more like beige, even with the screen brightness turned all the way up. Pages render quite quickly however, thanks, ostensibly, to the "Silk" preprocessing that caches content on Amazon's servers and harvests your browsing sessions for anonymously collecting aggregate data for marketers, a feature that helps Amazon subsidize the Fire as a loss leader. That's the same business model that makes Facebook and Google Maps free.

A comparison of Silk acceleration turned off and on, however, indicates that the Android WebKit browser is relatively fast because it's running on a fast dual core chip, not because Silk is doing much to actually speed things up.

With preprocessing on, the Kindle Fire scores a BrowserMark score of 77,680, about in the middle between the iPhone 4's 51,076 and iPhone 4S 85,367. With its faster clocked chip, one might expect the Fire to beat the latest iPhone 4S and its similarly featured, but roughly 20 percent slower clocked A5, rather than being about ten percent slower than the iPhone at rendering JavaScript tasks.

The Fire's default presentation of AppleInsider squashed text to make the page fit the screen at a zoom level where the text was still decipherable (below left). A double tap, which we expected to zoom in, instead zoomed out to present the overall page more like a desktop browser would, but in doing so left most of the text so small that it was unreadable (below right).



Tapping to zoom in again messed up the rendering, leaving the text squashed up next to dead open area. A visit to the Wall Street Journal provided the opposite, where the default view was nearly unreadable small text (below left), but tapping to zoom offered a pleasant browsing experience (below right).



Size wise, the Fire is often described as being "less than half" the screen size of the iPad (the Fire is actually 46 percent as large). With screen dimensions of 3.5 by 6 inches, you get 21 square inches of display. The iPad's 5.75 by 7.75 inch screen affords 45.6 square inches. The iPod touch's 3 by 2 inch screen gives you 6 square inches, 29 percent of the Fire's screen. Browsing the web on the Fire feels a bit like a netbook: you have more real estate than a smartphone, but it's rather cramped compared to the magazine-like screen of an iPad.



The Fire's widescreen orientation means that browsing on the Fire feels like you have an oversized smartphone in your hand, again, unlike the more square iPad. Its tabbed browsing seems like a nice feature until you realize that the tab UI never goes away, even if you're only viewing one page. The lower UI bar is also static and doesn't drop out of sight as it does in other apps, meaning that in landscape orientation, almost an inch of the 3.5 inch height of the screen is wasted. This encourages you to use the Fire browser in its tall orientation like a big iPhone.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a close examination of the Fire (or other tablet competitors) serves to endorse the design decisions Apple arrived at, because doing things differently from the iPod touch or iPad seems to result in remarkably poorer experiences. Of course, the reason why Apple's design decisions seem better isn't because they're from Apple, but because Apple spent more time thinking about what it was doing rather than just rushing hardware to market.





On page 4 of 4: Fire hardware and software as a tablet