|Introduction & Specifications|
|The Kindle Fire is Amazon's attempt to blaze a trail in the low cost Android tablet market, and if doing so ends up applying a bit of competitive heat to Apple and its dominating iPad line, then so be it. To be clear, Amazon isn't pitching the Kindle Fire as an "iPad killer" nor will you find any veiled marketing attempts to cast this as Amazon's David to Apple's Goliath. The Kindle Fire is a different type of device aimed at a different type of buyer, namely anyone who can't afford a full-sized slate or simply isn't willing to fill a fruit basket full of cash and hand it over to Apple. At the same time, comparisons are inevitable because let's face it, outside of enthusiast circles, apparently hardly anyone wants anything but an iPad, or so say the market share numbers.
At $199 for the Kindle Fire, Amazon's venturing into a massive untapped market, one that's made up of consumers salivating for an affordable slate that, plain and simple, doesn't suck. If you go back to when the first iPad came out, everyone assumed once Android made an appearance, there would soon follow a cornucopia of lower priced alternatives just as capable as the iPad, but for much less coin. Instead, manufacturers pumped out a handful of $500+ Android tablets, some of which were technically superior to the iPad, but just as expensive and, for the most part, not as polished. That situation is slowly turning around as Android 4.0 approaches but the untapped market we're speaking of, is made up of the same buyers who pounced on Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad after it was marked down to $99.
But before we dig into the nitty-gritty on the Fire, let's digress a bit and give you some quick hands-on time with Amazon's new slate, to show you what a $199 tablet and eReader (without the need of a "fire sale" to get the price down) is capable of.
Unlike the TouchPad, Amazon's Kindle Fire has a future and is poised to be the game changer every mainstream shopper has been waiting for, albeit in a smaller form factor. By all means, the Kindle Fire is fairly well spec'd -- it has a dual-core processor, 512MB of RAM, and even an In-Plane Switching (IPS) display instead of an inferior TFT panel. In fact, the sum of its parts combined with manufacturing costs are believed to add up to more than what Amazon's selling each Kindle Fire for. The reason Amazon can sell the Kindle Fire for a loss is because of the content delivery system it's built around. From app purchases to eBook sales and Amazon Prime subscriptions, Amazon plans to more than make up the difference, and it's part of the reason why Amazon can afford to price the Kindle Fire at $199 when other tablet makers are charging twice that much. It's a brilliant strategy, and also a gamble because if the Kindle Fire is flawed, Amazon's plan will go up in flames.
Is the Kindle Fire a fully fledged tablet or a glorified eBook reader with tablet-like qualities? Looking over the system specs, it appears to be somewhere in the middle. It's only 7 inches, it doesn't have any built-in cameras, and there's no 3G radio, which is particularly surprising for a Kindle. But there is a dual-core processor with a capable GPU, half a gigabyte of RAM, Wireless-N connectivity, 8GB of internal storage, an IPS screen, and Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), albeit the operating system is heavily modified to the point where it hardly resembles anything Android.
If you're comparing these specs to the iPad, the Kindle Fire falls short in almost every category. It's also less than half the price and is capable of playing games, watching movies, listening to music with or without headphones, sending emails, surfing the Web, reading books and magazines, and editing documents. But can the Kindle Fire do all of these things well, or at least well enough to warrant a $199 investment? Let's find out.
|Design & Hardware|
It took some fancy finagling on Amazon's part to be able to sell the Kindle Fire for $199, and your first introduction to the many cost cutting measures is evident the moment you peel back the cardboard cover. Inside you'll find the Kindle Fire, a charging cable, and, well, that's it. Amazon doesn't include a pair of headphones to plug into the device's 3.5mm audio jack or any documentation, at least not any that are made out of pulverized tree guts. Sticking to its eReader roots, you'll find a user's guide under the Docs menu when you, um, fire up the Fire. Perhaps the most annoying omission is the lack of a micro USB cable to hook up to your PC -- boo! At least the port is there.
The very first thought that popped in my head when I picked up the Kindle Fire was, 'Wow, this is heavy." I don't mean heavy like a notebook, but since Amazon is branding this as a Kindle device, I had a preconceived notion that it would feel like a Kindle. It doesn't. Here's how the weight compares to other devices:
While heavier than I anticipated, weight isn't really an issue for the Kindle Fire; it's lighter than an iPad 2 and feels just fine when holding it with one hand. Just understand that this a very different device than every previous Kindle, and if you're expecting it to feel like one of Amazon's dedicated eBook readers, you're in for a surprise.
On a related note, the next thing I noticed about the Kindle Fire was how sturdy it felt. That's always a good sign when you're dealing with lower priced hardware, and though $199 isn't exactly chump change, it's far less expensive than all those $400 and $500 Android tablets.
One of the highlights of the Kindle Fire is the In-Plane Switching (IPS) display. IPS panels are typically reserved for higher end devices and can drive up the price. You're obviously sacrificing battery life with an LCD panel of any kind versus an E-Ink display, but by going with an IPS panel, Amazon delivers a high brow viewing experience on a blue collar budget.
The back shell of the Kindle Fire is covered in the same rubberized material found on most modern smartphones. It's soft, smooth, and not as prone to finger prints as a glossy carbon fiber finish, though it does still pick up smudges. I was a little concerned it might be a tad too slick, but unless you're tossing it across the room like a Frisbee, it's not likely to slide out of your hands, or hand (singular), as it were.
Underneath the shell is a non-removable battery rated for up to 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback, both with wireless turned off and presumably with the brightness not cranked all the way up. The battery is non-removable because you can't take the back cover off, not without ripping into it and nullifying the warranty.
The dimensions measure 7.5 inches long by 4.7 inches wide. It's 0.45 inches thick, which is ever-so-slightly slimmer than a Nook Tablet (0.48 inches) or Nook Color (also 0.48 inches), but chunkier than an iPad 2 (0.34 inches). Overall it feels similar to a PlayBook, and if the Internet rumors are true, both devices are built by the same manufacturer.
Call it simplicity or just plain lazy, but either way, Amazon took a no-frills approach to hardware design. There's but a single physical button on the Kindle Fire -- a lonely power button on the bottom of the device next to the mini-USB port and 3.5mm audio jack. It's odd having the power button on the bottom, but a non-issue from a usability standpoint. The headphone jack, however, would have been better served on top. Whenever I plugged headphones in, I found myself flipping the Kindle Fire upside down to avoid bending the connector.
For whatever reason, Amazon opted not to include a volume rocker on the Kindle Fire. Whoever thought it was a good idea to omit this on a content consumption device was simply wrong. This isn't a dedicated eReader, after all, it's a fully fledged tablet. Nevertheless, if you want to adjust the volume, you have to do so within the software.
You won't find any other buttons or ports on the Kindle Fire. There's no home button or microSD card slot, the latter of which wouldn't be such a big deal if Amazon sold models with varying amounts of internal storage. Every Kindle Fire device ships with 8GB of internal storage, which translates to a little more than 6GB of usable space. Amazon says that's enough for 80 apps, plus 10 movies or 800 songs or 6,000 books. No matter how Amazon trumps it up, 8GB (6GB+ usable) of local storage is a little skimpy.
One thing Amazon didn't omit was a pair of pretty decent stereo speakers. The speakers are on top, right where the power button and 3.5mm audio jack should have been. They're better than average for listening to music and pump out good sound overall, but not loud enough to rock the house. Some people have complained about the placement and said the sound ends up muffled when holding the Kindle Fire in landscape mode. I found that to be an overblown complaint. Even when applying an unnatural death grip to try and exaggerate the "problem," I could still hear things clearly.
|User Interface & Software|
|The Kindle Fire runs a heavily modified version of Google Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). It isn't Android like you've ever seen it before, though there's definite evidence of Google's open source DNA starting with the slide-to-unlock feature. I'm not a fan of most Android skins and generally prefer a stock build, but overall I really like what Amazon has done on the Kindle Fire.
Part of the reason why the iPad continues to be so successful is because iOS is incredibly easy to use. Outside of iTunes, there aren't a lot of barriers that would prevent a new user from jumping in and getting down to the business of having fun. It's all about ease-of-use, and Amazon brings the same level of simplicity to the Kindle Fire.
Android isn't overly complicated to begin with, but as implemented on the Kindle Fire, navigation is straightforward and intuitive. In place of a traditional home screen or desktop littered with icons, a navigation bar on top shuttles you around the operating system with plain English labels: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web. Whenever you tap one of the navbar options, a menu bar slides up from the bottom with a Home button, back arrow, options button, and search (magnifying glass). It's almost impossible to find yourself lost in the Fire, and even if you do get disoriented, a tap of the Home button takes you back to the main screen, just like any other Android device.
A carousal of recently used apps, books, and websites adorns the main screen and can be spun like a tie rack. It doesn't rotate all the way around, however, so once you arrive at the last tile, you have to spin back in the opposite direction. This is a very cool feature that, in theory, should make the Kindle Fire feel like a personalized device over time.
The Kindle Fire rocks for reading comic books and magazines with color, and it also does a good job with eBooks. That is, if you don't have an issue reading off an LCD screen, which is a different experience than consuming content from an E-Ink display. Amazon includes a sepia background to help ease your transition (and also white text on a black background), if you need it. This isn't something that bothers me, but if you're uncomfortable reading from an LCD screen for extended periods of time and are primarily interested in reading books, a dedicated eReader is what you want, not the Kindle Fire or any other tablet.
The other downside to an LCD screen is poor sunlight performance, which is the very thing Amazon ragged on the iPad in past commercials. It's possible to see some things on the Kindle Fire during a bright, sunny afternoon, but not much. Reading? Good luck with that. One thing that bothered me in particular about this is an ad showing a woman happily using her Kindle Fire on her front porch in broad daylight, and with no discernible loss in screen quality. It's misleading; Amazon didn't reinvent the LCD screen with some kind of super formula that suddenly excels in sunlight, and if you spend a lot of time sitting outside by the pool or on the beach reading books, again, a dedicated eReader with an E-Ink display is what you want.
When you flip on the Fire and punch the Apps tab, every app you've ever purchased and downloaded from Amazon's Appstore for Android is sitting there patiently waiting for a tap on the shoulder. Amazon makes great use of the cloud, which is where each and every app is stored. One thing I didn't like about this is there's no 'install-all' option; you have to download your apps individually from the cloud to install locally on your Kindle Fire. That doesn't seem like a very efficient way of doing things.
Another negative (for the end user, not for Amazon) is that you can't download apps from Google's Android Market. The Kindle Fire is all about hooking the user into Amazon's ecosystem. Every entertainment tab -- Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, and Apps -- integrates with Amazon's online store, and you're rarely further than a tap away from throwing cash at Amazon. That's fine, but limiting app purchases to Amazon's Appstore also limits your selection.
Even so, there are thousands to choose from, and every day Amazon offers up a different paid app for free. Supposedly every available app is also Amazon-tested on the Kindle Fire for compatibility and "the best experience possible."
Playing games on a 7-inch screen is a different experience than on a 9.7-inch display (iPad), but not a bad one. It's bigger than a handheld console, and certainly offers more real-estate than any smartphone on the market, at least for another couple generations (seriously, would anyone be surprised if HTC announced a 7-inch smartphone?). One thing I'd like to see in a future update is the ability to organize apps, and in particular separate games from utilities and everything else. As it stands, you can only sort your apps "By Recent" and "By Title."
And Amazon said, "Let there be Netflix," and there was Netflix. And Amazon saw Netflix, and it was good. Nay, Netflix is great, and for awhile, people wondered if Amazon would shun the streaming service in favor of its Amazon Prime service. Amazon wisely chose to support Netflix with an interface that's easy to navigate and search for movies, though choppy as you swipe through the available titles. I didn't notice any issues once I loaded up a movie or TV show, and the quality was quite good.
Perhaps not ironically at all, swiping movies in the Videos tab, which hooks into Amazon Prime, is smooth as butter. Prime Instant Videos is a streaming service with a catalog of thousands of videos available to Prime members.
|Silk Browser & Performance|
|Amazon Silk is the name of the cloud-accelerated browser designed specifically for the Kindle Fire. It uses what Amazon calls a "split browser" architecture, which is a fancy way of saying some web computation chores are offloaded to the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2). This works in tandem with the local browser and hardware, the theory being that it should load pages quicker and won't bog down the Kindle Fire.
In practice, Amazon oversold the experience. You can read about Amazon's Silk browser architecture in much more detail here, just don't wet your pants in excitement thinking this is a totally new browsing experience. It's not, and worse yet, webpages consistently stutter when you scroll. I wouldn't call it a broken browser and it's definitely usable for farting around the web, but after engaging Amazon's hype machine, you'll expect a lot more. Perhaps the experience will improve over time with updates but this remains to be seen.
Glorified eBook reader or a bona fide tablet? You're not going to answer that question with Linpack. Overall, the Kindle Fire posted a fairly strong score that's about on par with some older tablets and high end smartphones.
The Kindle Fire's SunSpider score, while respectable, is a bit heavy and is more in tune with a high-end smartphone than a top-tier tablet. This is probably due to Amazon's heavy modification of not only Android, but the Silk browser itself.
|Battery Life: The Real Deal|
|Manufacturers aren't shy about reporting best-in-case scenarios when it comes to battery ratings, though there hasn't been as much of that so far in the tablet market. With regards to the Kindle Fire, Amazon claims you'll be able to squeeze out up to 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback, as long as you turn off Wi-Fi.
Kindle Fire Battery, Stage Left - Image Source iFixit
I didn't test the Kindle Fire that way because I don't think turning off Wi-Fi is a real-world measurement. This is a tablet, after all, and Amazon went to great lengths selling the idea of leaning on its cloud. So, I turned on Wi-Fi, cranked the brightness to 75 percent, and streamed Netflix movies until the Kindle Fire extinguished itself. The result? About 5 hours of streaming playback.
That's pretty decent considering the constant wireless stream and video playback, and it's certainly long enough to keep you entertained on a cross-country flight or while sitting in the lobby at the DMV. Battery life will obviously vary depending on how exactly you use the Kindle Fire, and no, it's not going to last anywhere near as long as a dedicated eReader, even when just reading eBooks. But given its size, I don't have an issue with battery life here and the Fire's performance was better than expected, to be honest.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Amazon restricts access to Google's Android Market and only lets you download apps from its own Amazon Appstore for Android, so that put a kink in our normal gauntlet of benchmarks. But I was still able to test different aspects of performance, objectively and subjectively, and in both cases, the Kindle Fire is decent. That's to be expected with a 1GHz dual-core processor and Android DNA, even with a thick layer of Amazon's own skin applied on top. What I didn't expect was laggy browser performance. Amazon may have grossly oversold its Silk browser, or perhaps 512MB or RAM just isn't enough to process the custom UI and surf the web smoothly. Whatever the reason, scrolling through a webpage is consistently laggy and marred with choppy performance. Whether this amounts to a minor annoyance or a deal killer depends entirely on how much web surfing you plan to do. Power surfers will want to look elsewhere; casual web surfers shouldn't let this be a deciding factor against the Kindle Fire. Memory is so dirt cheap these days, however, that we're hoping Amazon releases an updated Fire with a full 1GB of system RAM. It could help immensely.
Navigating the UI is a different experience. For the most part, jumping around the menus and scrolling tiles are both smooth and fast. Perhaps not quite as smooth as the iPad, but still impressive actually. I didn't experience any issues with streaming playback or playing games, either.
The Kindle Fire isn't in the same league as the iPad 2. It's not really fair to compare a $199 tablet with another that starts at $499, but regardless of the injustice, that's what people shopping a slate are going to do. If you're in the market for a tablet, you don't care what's fair, you're just looking to make the best purchasing decision, and if you have $499 to spend, you'll get more enjoyment from the iPad 2 than you will with the Kindle Fire. That's just the way it is.
As a $199 tablet, the Kindle Fire is sometimes really good, other times not so much, and in some cases it's merely alright. What I like most about the Kindle Fire, other than the price, is the IPS display. It's bright, vibrant, and viewable from almost any angle with no discernible loss in picture quality. Amazon's ability to include a high-end display on a device in this price range is pretty incredible, and it's a major win for the Kindle Fire.
I also like the integration with Amazon Cloud. Sure, barely more than 6GB of usable onboard storage is a bummer, and it's compounded by the fact that there's no microSD card slot. But being so closely tied to Amazon Cloud takes some of the sting out of this, and I'll take the Amazon Cloud Player over Apple's iTunes 11 times out of 10.
Where the Kindle Fire turns cold is in browsing the web. This is not the tablet to buy if you're a heavy web surfer; you'll end up frustrated by its consistently choppy performance and feel betrayed by all the hype over Amazon's Silk browser. I'm not sure if a future update will address this or not, but today, the Fire just isn't a solid choice in a tablet for browsing the web, plain and simple. Casual surfers, however, won't be as turned off, just occasionally annoyed.
I'm also disappointed that you can't download apps from Google's Android Market, though I understand the decision to direct users to Amazon's own Appstore for Android. The Kindle Fire is first and foremost a content delivery platform for Amazon's services, and the tight integration is precisely why Amazon can afford to sell the Kindle Fire for $199, presumably at a loss. Still, it's frustrating to be limited to a single app store, and there are some popular Android apps that aren't available, which makes this limitation even worse.
So if the Kindle Fire isn't an iPad killer, then what is it? Well, it's a $199 Android tablet built from the ground up for fun and play. It's a content consumption device firmly planted into Amazon's ecosystem, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's less than ideal at times, but the upside is that the Kindle Fire is incredibly easy to use, it looks great, and it's a lot of fun for a reasonable price.