Amazon Kindle Fire: Insight and How Not To Get Burned

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:

 Amazon Kindle Fire
 Amazon Kindle eBook Reader (3rd Generation)
 Apple iPad 2
 Barnes & Noble Nook Color
 Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet

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.

Related content