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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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How Kindle Fire stacks up as a tablet device

Rather than trying to follow Google's official playbook for Android 3.0 Honeycomb and deliver an iPad-like tablet experience with an iPad-like price and features, Amazon has delivered what appears to be the first real challenger to Apple's iPod touch, albeit with a large screen. That's a somewhat novel approach to tablets, although Barnes & Noble beat Amazon to the punch one year ago with its very similar Color Nook, and Samsung, Dell and others have attempted to release 5 to 7 inch tablet-shaped devices without garnering much attention for them.

Compared to the iPad, the Fire offers less than half the screen real estate, and rather than being nearly square is a very wide rectangle. That limits its usability as a web browser or productive tablet in its wide orientation, and makes its oddly tall in its vertical orientation, much more like an oversized, stretched smartphone than an iPad-like tablet. The iPad only has 172 thousand extra pixels, but it presents them in a much more productive screen ratio and size, making it easier to hit small targets and perform multitouch gestures within more sophisticated apps.

For watching videos and playing smartphone-style games however, the Fire's display is great. One could say it's actually better suited to watching movies than the iPad, which letterboxes typical widescreen films. On the other hand, the Fire letterboxes TV shows and other non-wide media, and doesn't offer any way to fit video to fit its wide orientation. The primary downside to using the Fire as a movie watching device is that its built in speakers and much tinnier than either the iPad or the iPod touch, and it lacks any sort of wired or wireless output option (like AirPlay or HDMI) if you'd like to watch your movies on your HDTV, and doesn't support the use of Bluetooth headphones. Headphones aren't included in the box, but there's a standard jack available.

As a game playing device, the Android-based Fire works well for basic smartphone games but lacks a gyroscope or even basic accelerator motion controls, lacks anything like Game Center for multiplayer gaming or achievement tracking, and doesn't have mic or camera. Those missing features also preclude using the Fire for video conferencing, VoIP, capturing still shots and video, or any sort of augmented reality apps. It also lacks GPS or WiFi geo location and a digital compass, features many other tablets have.

Android games, outside of a selection of popular titles like Cut the Rope or Angry Birds, are a mixed bag, with lots of hobby craft. Amazon's selection combines Fire-targeted versions of apps with regular smartphone versions, and in some cases lists the generic version first. Android apps in general are not up to the same quality you'd expect if you regularly buy iOS titles.

Kindle Fire hardware


Hardware on Fire

Amazon's low cost Fire, as many reviewers have already noted, is not on par with Apple's fifth generation iOS devices. Its user interface hesitates and stutters, it lacks polish, and forgoes a lot of features. But the device is affordable and quite likable in some respects, much more so than previous Kindles.

It looks nicer, feels better, and despite a few awkward design decisions (the speakers are positioned on the top and are blocked by your hand when held in landscape orientation, just like the iPhone or iPod touch; the power button is oddly placed at the bottom of the unit; there's no convenient hardware home button or volume controls and so on), it is usable and works well enough to present mobile movies, play Internet radio, and run smartphone-style games.

Unlike the original eInk Kindle devices, the Fire provides a vibrant color display with touch features, although it's not as accurate and responsive as Apple's iOS devices. The dual core chip running the Fire is quite capable, but the interface seems to hesitate, touches don't always register, and animations seem a bit off, much like Android smartphones.

If Amazon plays its card right, it appears likely to sell a lot of Fire units to people who don't need a full tablet device nor want to pay $499 for the entry level iPad. These people aren't going to be bothered by the Fire's rough edges, just as budget PC shoppers aren't too offended by Windows and low end smartphone buyers don't seem concerned about Android's battery life, complexities, lack of interface polish, or other shortcomings.

Amazon isn't going to threaten Apple much, because iOS and iTunes customers aren't going to be as impressed with the Fire. It runs a different set of apps, a different type of apps and provides a decidedly different and much more limited overall experience (there's no Maps, no personal organizer apps, the browser isn't nearly as great, and so on).

But the Fire is a very direct threat to everyone else hoping to enter the tablet market, because now they'll all have to find a niche between Apple's leading, highly integrated, very polished iPod touch and iPad offerings starting at $199 to $499, and Amazon's larger screen loss leader at $199. That's a pretty severe constraint for Google's Honeycomb/Ice Cream Sandwich tablet licenses and those hoping to launch Microsoft's Windows 8 tablets a year from now. With iOS and Amazon's Fire, there's simply no oxygen left in the room.

Kindle Fire vs iOS 5

Compared to iOS in general, the Kindle Fire lacks support for push messaging for email, calendar, contacts, notes and reminders (although you can presumably find third party apps that link to cloud services, there's no system level support for such features. The built in email app only checks for new messages when you open it). There's also nothing like iOS 5's new iMessage for sending SMS like texts without a mobile plan, although you can install Android IM clients.

Given that the Fire lacks a camera, its photo support is also quite basic, although Android has two simple features that Apple should add to iOS: the ability to attach photos or other files to an email without using copy/paste, and the unrelated ability to backspace from the virtual keyboard. Outside of those flaws, iOS text handling and keyboard is generally more pleasant than the rather jarring stiffness of the Fire's spruced up version of Android 2.3 (particularly its oddball copy and paste). Neither iOS (outside of the Siri-equipped iPhone 4S) nor the Kindle Fire offer any text recognition, and the Fire lacks a mic to allow it in the future.

Kindle Fire software


Kindle Fire, as most other Android-based devices, has essentially no support for accessibility. While Apple has literally invented new ways to make iPad and iPod touch usable by people with visual, hearing, or motor disabilities (from Voice Over to Braille support to high contrast display options and vibration touch feedback), there's virtually nothing Amazon has done to make Kindle Fire usable by the disabled. That serves to make the device (and Amazon's other Kindle devices) impossible for educational institutions, libraries, and other entities covered by American disability laws to purchase.

The biggest difference between the Kindle Fire and iOS devices is Apple's vast App Store, with 500,000 titles, over 140,000 of which are tablet-optimized for the iPad. Amazon has a wide variety of Android apps, but all of them are just smartphone apps and many are limited by the Fire's conspicuously missing hardware features. Given all the talk about how $199 is too much to pay upfront for a smartphone for many people, it's hard to imagine how the budget audience who could be content with Fire's limitations will spring that much on what amounts to a very limited (by design) toy intended to sell lots of additional non-free content.

Amazon's Fire stoked by retail sales

Amazon's ace up the sleeve for the Fire is the company's unique position as a significant digital store vendor, the only really credible ebook, music, videos and mobile app merchant outside of Apple's iTunes. By leveraging Google's Android platform, Amazon has a relatively large library of smartphone-style apps to offer, and its unique store is not only better and more attractive than Google's own Android Market, but also regularly gives away developers' best apps at the developers' expense. It's not clear how long that's going to last however.

Amazon made lots of noise about its MP3 store being a threat to iTunes when it got into music sales (although this threat didn't actually materialize), was again cited as a threat to the iPod when it began selling personal music players including Microsoft's Zune (another threat that didn't materialize), announced efforts to take on Apple's iTunes videos with Unbox PlaysForSure DRM (a threat that didn't materialize), took on ebook functionality in the iPhone with its Kindle (another threat that didn't materialize), aspired to take over digital periodical distribution in beating Apple's own subscription content to market (although that threat didn't materialize) and has most recently launched its Android "appstore" hoping to take on Apple's own iOS app sales (although that threat hasn't materialized either).

While posing little threat to Apple, Amazon has successfully wiped out all of Apple's competitors, killing off any prospects for a significant number three in digital music sales, helping to squash any interest in Microsoft's Zune with Unbox, killing off competing e-readers from Sony, Microsoft and others with the Kindle, and eating up much interest in Google's digital periodical, music and app sales with its own more professionally run stores and programs. Amazon isn't leaving any room for Apple's competitors to thrive, even on a small scale. The Fire appears to be the next example of this, and is poised to destroy any potential market for alternative tablets outside of Apple's iOS offerings.

The best shot Amazon had at delivering a tablet nearly two years after the iPad's debut was to take as much existing stuff as it could find (RIM's PlayBook design, Android, Amazon's existing store), shave off as many features as it could (while still remaining functional), and pop the thing out into the market as quickly as possible, at a price as low as Amazon could dare.

That's more desperation on display than the competitive blow at Apple that many in the press are trying to portray the Fire as being. Still, it's impressive Amazon got the device to market and has created as much hype around it as it has. On the surface, Fire appears to be a nice device and its price is low enough to attract buyers for whom the iPad seems too expensive.

While certainly not up to Apple's standards, Amazon's Fire is likely to find reasonably good sales as the netbook of 2011. Amazon's biggest challenge will be to keep sales of the Fire lit without earning much in the way of operational profits on the hardware. Unlike most other Android licensees, Amazon has a backup plan to support its unprofitable hardware aspirations: retail sales. As with its other Kindle devices, Amazon doesn't have to immediately earn profits on its hardware in order to stay in business.

But with the Fire distantly behind Apple's iOS devices in terms of polish and completeness, it's not clear how long the company can continue to deliver hardware without earning any significant profits on it. That's a serious concern for buyers who care about whether the Fire will ever get updated, or whether it will be left in Android-limbo like previous 7 inch tablets from Dell and Samsung, never getting updates or enhancements. HP's webOS TouchPad and Windows 7 Slate PC, and RIM's PlayBook all offer similar worries about the long term viability of tablets outside of Apple's iOS ecosystem.

Kindle Fire in review

Watching movies and playing smartphone-like games are Fire's strongest features. Email is just fair (on par with an Android smartphone), web browsing is acceptable (quick page rendering but text looks poor at small sizes, and page navigation is clumsy), but working with documents or photos is flakey and the general interface of the Fire is only 80 percent there, with a stuttering, unpleasant jerkiness and the notable omission of smoothly animated transitions and little extra details like iOS' bounce when it hits the end of a scrolling list.

Those missing bits leave the Fire feeling like a meal without any seasoning, served on a paper plate and eaten with rubbery plastic utensils. Given that Apple serves up such delicious mobile experiences juicy with flavor, the Fire feels like you're giving up a lot just to save some money (over the iPad) or gain some screen real-estate (over the iPod touch). At the same time, if you've never eaten a good meal, the Fire might satiate your technology appetite.

In 2010, Apple released the iPad as a new type of tablet computer, not to watch iPhone content on a larger screen, but to enable new types of apps and functionality that were significantly differentiated from what is possible on a smartphone-sized screen. At the same time, it was also designed to be simpler and easier to use than a conventional notebook computer (or a scaled down PC netbook). The iPad has since found a series of uses from general education to uses as a sales presentation tool and in medical imaging and in replacing flight bags for pilots, none of which are really threatened by the movie playing, oversized "smartphone without a phone" role of the Fire.

For many business users, an iPad can replace the issuing of a full sized notebook, saving businesses a lot of money. The Fire isn't going to do that for very many users. In fact, it shares the same form factor as tablets that have been consistently rejected by business users (RIM's PlayBook) and consumers (Dell Streak, Samsung Galaxy Tab) that have tried to replace their notebooks with a lower cost tablet only to find that the tablet can't really do enough to fit that purpose.

Seven inch tablets have, since the Newton MessagePad from 1994, largely fit only needs of their reviewers, not the public at large, and only temporarily at that, until the fad wore off and the usefulness of carrying around a "companion" personal digital assistant was outweighed by the inconvenience. Many gadget lovers have already begun complaining that they've run out of reasons to use their iPad. If that's a real concern, it's also going to be an issue for the much more limited Fire.

At the same time, the Fire is also quite a lot cheaper than previous tweener tablets, creating the potential for its use as a coffee table consumer plaything in spite of its limitations. Unlike the iPad, Amazon's Fire, thanks to Android, presents more of the complexity of a desktop system (the file system is present and visible when you save downloads, even if you can't immediately access it from a command line) in a size that's too large to fit in your pocket but not big enough to present magazines (which are the size they are for a reason) or deliver as pleasant of a web browsing experience as the iPad can.

It will be interesting to see if the Fire's $199 price tag is enough to open up a new product niche between the smartphone and the iPad. Recall that just two years ago, few believed there was any room between the phone and the desktop, given the failure of every tablet prior to the iPad from ever gaining any traction. Amazon will not only have to sell lots of Fire tablets this holiday season, but will have to consistently sell millions more every quarter afterward if it hopes to enjoy anything more than a fad on the level of netbooks.

So far, Android-based tablets have been a failure because they don't ofter enough value over a smartphone to justify their cost. In skimping to deliver the Fire at a $199 price point, Amazon may be able to create a new perch largely isolated from direct competition with the iPad above or smartphones below. However, so far all it has delivered is a way to eat up Amazon content, without actually earning any hardware profits for Amazon on the device itself. Without those profits, Amazon will be pressed to deliver significant, regular new hardware and software updates in the manner Apple has with its very profitable iPod, iPhone and iPad products.

That's particularly a problem because the Fire isn't really finished. The user interface is unrefined and frustrating to tap at as it ignores you; video playback and games are its strongest features but are still only good, certainly not excellent; email and messaging are as bare boned as one could imagine; web browsing is fair but clumsy; book reading is serviceable but magazines are very disappointing to the point of being basically unusable.

Overall, the Kindle Fire is best experienced as an ad or a concept. In practice, the device is only fair at what it does, and what it does is very limited from the start. It feels like Amazon has created a clumsy new John Hodgman character to make the iPad or iPod touch look good in comparison. But for $199, you might take on the challenge of finding uses for it.

Rating: 2.5/5
2.5 Stars


Pros
Low price
Rigid and comfortable to hold
Vibrant color display
Good to fair video performance
Good to fair browser experience

Cons
Feels unfinished, poor usability
Android apps limited
Very limited hardware features
Fair to poor ereader experience
No physical volume controls

Where to Buy

Kindle Fire: $199 at Amazon.com