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

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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.

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