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

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Amazon's new Kindle Fire represents the company's first device to move beyond black and white ebook readers and into the realm of apps, music, videos and magazines, delivered using a color touchscreen.

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Fire takes on iTunes, not the iPad

The Fire follows Apple's lead in introducing the iPad as a stripped down device missing a few features (the original iPad lacked a camera, for example) in order to achieve a price point less than half of what other tablets on the market had been asking. At $199, the Fire is again half as much as Apple's entry level iPad, but Amazon's efforts to get the device that cheap have required some deep cuts that threaten to erase much of its potential allure.

While many observers view Amazon's new tablet as a challenge to Apple's iPad (and even evidence that Amazon will next leap into the smartphone market with a similarly unprofitable loss leader handset), it's really more of an attempt to pad the audience for Amazon's shopping site, online music, movies, apps and cloud storage services. Amazon isn't taking on the iPad, it's trying to maintain a retail position in the face of iTunes, iCloud and the App Store.

Amazon didn't have much choice about whether it could release a luxuriously full featured, full size iPad competitor at the iPad's price. Far more experienced manufactures, from Motorola to Samsung, have already tried to do this throughout 2011 using more advanced versions of Android and have all failed miserably. There simply isn't a tablet market waiting for new entries next to the iPad, just as there wasn't really ever a demand for iPods from sources other than Apple.

That being the case, Amazon is taking a loss on Fire hardware sales to get out a client device exclusively tied to its own version of iTunes, more closely following the strategy of the Xbox and PlayStation: lose money on hardware and earn some back in the software market. That's the opposite of Apple's business model, which sells elegant, profitable hardware by way of free or low cost software and cloud services that the company offers at slim profits.

Getting started with the Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire ships in a plain box that rips open to reveal the device and a micro-USB power adapter behind it. There's no headphones and no micro-USB cable for connecting to your PC (the power adapter is molded into the cable), but Amazon isn't stressing any USB-PC device sync, as it wants users to use its online cloud services to obtain their content. There's also a brief card in the box that shows how to get started: push the power button, wait for it to boot, then swipe the screen with your finger, just like Apple patented.

Setting the up the Fire doesn't feel anything like setting up an Apple device; it feels like a PC experience. Amazon doesn't have a direct equivalent to iTunes, so the only way to set it up is "PC free," just like newer iOS 5 devices. Unlike Apple's setup, Amazon jumps right into getting you on WiFi and then auto-configures itself to use the Amazon account you bought it with, which is handier than Apple's configuration that requires you to enter your Apple ID on multiple occasions.

You can, however, disconnect the Fire from the account it shipped with and set it up to use a separate Amazon account (unlike previous Kindles, which were hardwired to your Amazon account). The Fire does need to be configured with an Amazon account (and a credit card for billing) before you can download any content, even free apps. This is no different than Apple's iOS and iTunes.

As soon as the brief configuration was done, the Kindle Fire announced (without asking for permission) that it would be downloading an update and rebooting, and recommended that it be plugged in so it wouldn't run out of battery before it finished the update. Overall, the setup isn't complicated but it's also not nearly as polished as iOS. That's not remarkable, given that Kindle Fire is a 1.0 effort compared to Apple's fifth iteration of iOS.

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On page 2 of 4: Fire apps, appstore, missing features

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Fire features: App organization

Once you've configured the device and it updates and restarts, a brief series of introductory pages provides a tour of the device and its user interface. Unlike most Android smartphones or Honeycomb tablets, Kindle Fire's home page doesn't look like Apple's iOS Home page with a grid of icons (nor are there any widgets).

Instead, the Fire's home page presents a search field, a banner menu of text options (newsstand, books, music, video, docs, apps and web), and below that a graphical dock of apps that combines a Coverflow-like dock selector (below) with an iBooks-like shelf of "pinned" favorite items.

The Coverflow animation looks nice, but doesn't seem as effective for paging through a lot of installed apps compared to iOS' standard grid of icons harkening back to the original Newton MessagePad. The more apps installed, the clumsier it is to swipe through all of them. Just like Coverflow in the Mac Finder, it's a flashy but not very practical way to present a large group of icons. On the Fire, it is a bit worse because the screen doesn't always reply accurately to your touch, so there's a bit of extra flicking back and forth to get to the app you want to open, even after you find it. Again, iOS users are likely to find this awful, while those with lower expectations will likely find it reasonably acceptable.

On the other hand, the Fire's shelf of pinned apps (shown above) lets you quickly jump to rows of favorites that can scroll up from below as a series of shelves (contrasted with just the four icons presented in the Dock of iOS on the iPod touch, or the six of the iPad). This is a bit more like iOS' conventional grid of icons, albeit placed on a shelf. However, getting apps into the Fire's favorite shelf requires a tedious touch and hold gesture that brings up an "add to favorites" menu you must select to get them there. There's no drag and drop organization of app icons, just one of many rough edges in the Fire's rather bare user interface.

Again, iOS users will be dismayed to find that there's no touch and hold gesture that makes app icons jiggle until you finish moving them around to organize them the way you'd like. Organizing apps on the Fire is like using a Zune or Windows Mobile or early Android smartphone: you're back in the realm of picking options from popup menus rather than direct touch manipulation.

The Coverflow depiction of installed apps works a lot better in landscape orientation than in portrait. Because of its widescreen format, the Fire is much more like a big smartphone than a scaled down iPad. Critics once complained that the iPad was "just a big iPod touch." However, that wasn't really true, and certainly wasn't a problem for the iPad. It also doesn't seem to be a problem for the Fire, either. If anything, a successful launch of the Fire might induce Apple to release a large screen version of the iPod touch itself, aimed at the same tweener market.

Fire features: Acquiring Apps

Like the iPod touch, the Fire runs apps (albeit Android, obviously) designed for smartphone-sized screens, but they're blown or scaled up to fill its "tweener" form factor. That gives it access to the thousands of Android 2.2/2.3 apps intended for smartphone users, ranging from Facebook to Netflix to Angry Birds. Amazon already sells these apps in its store, so there's no waiting around required to see if developers jump on the Fire bandwagon, a Catch-22 issue that helped kill any interest in HP's TouchPad, RIM's PlayBook, and even Google's own Honeycomb tablet aspirations.

The bad news is that while Amazon includes several basic, general purpose apps on the Fire (a graphics viewer, PDF reader, Quickoffice for docs, email, a web browser, a videos and music player), they all seem fairly unstable and prone to crashing. Several times, I had to retry basic features because I thought I was doing something to trigger a return to the home screen. Turns out the app was just crashing a lot. Resize a graphic and scroll up to see it? Crash. Try to attach a file to an email? Crash.

It's not just app stability. The entire user interface requires repeated touching and finger mashing just to select a target or open an app. Everything feels unresponsive or unpredictable. As you work with the Fire, your expectations plummet to meet the low bar of functionality of the device. In contrast, when you use an iOS device, everything seems to "just work," escalating your minimum expectations toward perfection. This makes the slightest flaw of anything in iOS stick out, while the major lapses of the Fire and its Android underpinnings are given a pass for ever having worked right at all.

Installing new apps is straightforward: touch "apps" in the home page's banner menu and you get a listing of all the apps you have installed on the device and any Android apps you may have previously purchased from Amazon that are in the cloud. A store link brings up Amazon's "appstore" for Android apps, which is similar in many respects to Apple's App Store. It provides an app overview, screenshot photos, reviews, and recommendations of related apps. Every day, Amazon also gives away one of its developers' apps.

Amazon's "appstore" presentation is very similar to Apple's, clearly an effort to leverage the public's familiarity with the iOS App Store. The Android platform injects additional complexity however, adding "application permissions" that aspire to empower users to protect themselves from malware or inappropriate apps, but are really just confusing enough to be ignored by most users. It's still far superior to Google's own app market, however.

Amazon's Android app library is generically intended for both smartphones and the Fire, so when you install Pandora, for example, it ominously warns "this product will use a large amount of data and you are responsible for all data charges. Please contact your carrier's customer service to confirm / add an unlimited data plan." Of course, that doesn't really apply to the Fire because it gets its data exclusively through WiFi, but for the non-technical Amazon audience it is aimed at, this type of Android technical gibberish presents a poor user experience.

In the face of Android's expanding malware crisis, Amazon's software market appears to be significantly safer than Google's own Android Market (or other Android app stores), because it uses the same type of curation Apple pioneered for iOS. Fire users don't get a choice however, as the device is as hardwired to Amazon's content as iOS devices are to Apple's App Store. If you have bought apps from Google's Android Market, you can't simply move them over to your Fire. Of course, most of these are free anyway, while Amazon provides a choice between free versions of Android apps and paid versions that lack the advertising.

At the same time, however, you may discover Android titles elsewhere that you might not be able to obtain from Amazon, because the company's merchandizing policies have upset many developers. In addition to Apple-like policies restricting some forms of content, Amazon also reserves the right to give developers' apps away at its own discretion, rather than allowing software authors to pick their own price as Apple has. Additionally, new Android apps that make use of features in Android 3.0 Honeycomb or 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich won't work on the Fire at all. There aren't that many of these, however.

The selection of Amazon's apps is large enough to keep a user busy with games and utilities, although it lacks Apple's depth or scale. Amazon carries EA's Dead Space, for example, but there's no Infinity Blade or Gangster Rio or 9mm or Brothers in Arms for more avid game players. There's are no real tablet optimized apps, as Fire is intended to be a big smartphone minus the phone, not an iPad-like tablet computer. There won't be the same educational apps, because schools haven't adopted Android the way they have the iPad. And there won't be the same range of enterprise apps, because Android doesn't even have half the share Apple has among business users.

If you are looking for a device to play smartphone-type games and watch movies on, the Kindle Fire works well enough. Sure, it's missing the pocketable size of the iPod touch and weighs in at less than half the screen area of the iPad, but as a vehicle for Amazon content, it seems to be around the right size, with a more attractive screen, navigation and overall build than previous Kindle devices.

Missing Fire Features

The biggest problem for the Fire isn't the lack of third party games but its lack of first party utilitarian apps (there no Maps, no notes/reminders/alarms, no calendar/contacts, nothing like iMessage or FaceTime or Voice Control). It doesn't have Apple's attention to design and lacks a lot of iOS functionality (no camera, no mic, no 3G mobile data options, no motion controls, no Home button (the software home and back buttons are always a couple touches out of the way), no simple screen shot feature, no external volume controls), but if you want a very simple tablet or, even better, a big screen iPod touch for watching videos and playing basic games, the Fire is actually a quite credible option.

While lacking any hardware buttons apart from the oddly positioned power button, Fire does make it fairly easy to adjust settings from any app, via a drop down control (below left, accessed by touching the gear icon in the top right corner of the screen) that presents screen orientation lock, volume, brightness, WiFi network, and sync controls, along with a "more" button (below right) that brings up account, sound, display, time and other settings.

Apple's first generation iPad similarly lacked a camera, and its first generation iPod touch didn't have a mic and even lacked (at launch) organizational apps like Contacts and Calendar. But Amazon is now competing with Apple's fifth generation of iOS, and users appear to see calendar and contact apps as important features. After all, a key complaint about RIM's PlayBook (which is nearly identical to the Fire in many respects) was its lack of connectivity and messaging apps. However, RIM also targeted its product at business users and set a price more than twice as high as the Fire.

Another branch of "missing features" are those that non-Apple users might expect, things that are similarly missing on Apple's iOS devices. There's no SD Card slot, for example, so you're limited to the 8GB of installed storage. That's the same as Apple's entry level iPhones, but there's no more expensive Fire option with more memory for users to opt from. That's a pretty severe limitation for a device aimed squarely at attracting people who don't like Apple's stuff. Along the same lines, the Fire lacks the removable battery that non-Apple users claim to find requisite when buying electronic devices.

Amazon says the limited 8GB of storage on the Fire is irrelevant because you can store all your content on the cloud. If you only use it where you have WiFi, this might be alright. If you plan to use it as a mobile device, you'll be pretty limited in what you can put on it, as there's about 6GB of free space, and adding photos, music or movies rapidly eat into that (a typical movie is around 1GB). If you plan to use it around the house where you have WiFi, then accessing cloud storage of your content seems more reasonable.

The other area of missing functionality Apple users will notice relates to Amazon's lack of a direct iTunes/iCloud alternative. There's no provision for automatically syncing content to your PC, so you can't so easily sync your music, photos and videos library to the device (via Dock or wirelessly). Instead, you must plug it in via USB and manually copy files over. There's no bookmark sync nor email accounts, contacts, or calendar sync. There's also nothing quite like iCloud for the documents and data or device and settings backups, although Amazon web-based configuration pages allow users to review newspaper, magazine, Audible audiobooks, and documents on their device.

Fire's biggest missing feature however, is that magic that makes you love it. It's not really slow but feels slow because it lacks the continuity provided by iOS' nearly invisible animated transitions. There's all sorts of missing touches that make the Fire just utilitarian rather than desirable. It appears that these touches are missing because Amazon rushed the product to market. But in retrospect, Amazon has never seemed interested in making any previous Kindle devices wonderful, even after their release though subsequent updates.

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On page 3 of 4: Using music, videos, documents, books, web on Fire

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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.

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

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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

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