Amazon's hot, new tablet, the Kindle Fire, has been touted as a potential competitor to the iPad. Now that the tablet has launched and landed in the hands of several of our writers, it's time to take a closer look at Amazon's offering. You can read our opinions below and find out if the Fire lives up to its pre-launch hype.
When I first pulled the Kindle Fire out of the box, I fell in love with the size. I love the iPad, but sometimes it's hard to hold the tablet for any length of time with one hand. The Kindle, though, is just perfect. It's not a full-fledged Android tablet like the Xoom or Galaxy tab, but it does most everything I want it to do. You can listen to music, watch videos, read books and browse the web. You can install apps from the Amazon App Store and there's a free app everyday.
It's tightly integrated into Amazon's ecosystem and had all my content ready and waiting right out of the box. It helps that I am a long-time Amazon customer and have used the retailer's music store, book store and video store in the past. I'll lose some of my Apple cred, but I must admit I have more content tied up in Amazon's services than I do in iTunes.
It's not the iPad, though, and wasn't designed to be. It's a media consumption device for Amazon's content. It isn't a workhorse like the iPad, which I can use to write documents, edit images and create presentations. The Kindle Fire will find a home on my coffee table ready and waiting for me to read that next chapter in a book, watch that TV show or look up information on that web site. For $199, it's the best bargain tablet on the market.
It's obvious that Jeff Bezos had taken presentation lessons from Steve Jobs at some time in the past, because when he announced the Kindle Fire I thought it was going to be an incredible device. Don't get me wrong -- I've found some things that I like about the Fire, but it's definitely not an iPad-killer, at least not in its current incarnation. Instead, I think it's a way for Amazon to enter the tablet market with a splash, and then use the first Kindle Fire as a "gateway drug" for larger and better tablets to come. At $199, it's an amazing device.
The Kindle Fire is small - surprisingly so. I found that specific size (a 7" screen) to be too big to comfortably hold in one hand like I can an iPhone or iPod touch, and too small in terms of screen size to be friendly to my 54 year-old eyes. That's kind of an uncomfortable neighborhood to be living in, and at least I only had to pay $199 to find out that a 7" device isn't the right size for me.
My biggest complaint at this point is the utter lack of decent software. I'm used to the awesome built-in apps and wonderful third-party apps for the iPad. When I was trying to figure out how to take a screenshot, I quickly found out that there was no way to do it that was built into the device. A search for screenshot apps showed nothing. Finally, our own Queen of the iOS App Devs, Erica Sadun, figured out a way to do it -- something that a lot of people in the Android world were also trying to figure out. I'm used to being able to easily set up new email accounts with iOS Mail, which seems to take care of a lot of the details of setting up IMAP and POP accounts. Not so with the built-in email app on the Fire, which took a lot more work. I wanted to listen to some podcasts, so I looked for a way to do so on the Kindle Fire. Surprise - there's no native way of doing it. I was fortunate enough to find a third-party app that would allegedly allow me to download and play podcasts, but after entering in the feed URLs and downloading the feeds, the device just didn't want to play them.
I found that to be the case with many things I wanted to do with the Fire. I think Amazon is going to sell a boatload of the devices to Kindle book reader owners, and I think that things will get better as Amazon responds to early adopter feedback and has developers create apps that are designed for the Fire. But right now, it feels a bit like a work in progress.
My first reaction to the Kindle Fire was opening the box and thinking "Wow, that looks great." My second reaction was when I took it out of the box and thought: "Wow, that's heavy." I had one of the previous generation Kindles, and loved the fact that it was so light and thin, you could almost forget you were holding it. The Kindle Fire isn't like that. It might not be very heavy *objectively* but it feels heavy.
There were a few immediate frustrations, too. First, unlike all of the other Kindles, the Kindle Fire does *not* come with optional built-in 3G. "Free 3G" is included in the other Kindles primarily to download books, not surf the web. Browsing on the previous Kindles was listed as an "experimental" feature, and the experience was painful (I assume that is still true with the other Kindles). When I tried to download Watchmen (more on that in a moment), the download was painfully slow. I couldn't figure out what was wrong, when suddenly the Kindle announced that it had an OS update, and rebooted itself immediately. It's a little surprising to see an update needed on Day 1, but worse was the fact that the Watchmen download was about 50% completed when the Kindle rebooted, and then I had to restart the download from the beginning.
Reading on the Kindle Fire is great. The screen is really bright, it's a nice size despite the weight, and other books downloaded quickly. If the e-ink "flash" annoyed you, you'll be glad to know that it's not a problem with an LCD. Pages don't "curl" like the iPad, but that's not a feature I ever wanted or needed. Instead, pages slide out of the way when you tap or drag. If you've ever used a Kindle before, the move to a touchscreen Kindle is very intuitive...at least for reading books.
My wife picked it up and couldn't figure out how to turn it on. There are no buttons on the front, and the button on the bottom is very small. Once she was inside a program, she couldn't figure out how to get back out again (tap on the screen, then hit the back or home icons). Those are minor adjustments that will come with more experience. Cut/copy and paste, however, is a mess. Anyone who thinks Apple made a mistake by waiting to add copy/paste to iOS until they had a good UI should try the Kindle Fire. Trying to select text is difficult. Trying to adjust the selection is difficult. Once you get the word/sentence/paragraph highlighted, figuring out how to get it to cut/copy is difficult. It's so bad that I actually opened the manual and searched for a section on copy/paste. There isn't one.
In a world without an iPad, the Kindle Fire would be the best tablet device I had ever seen. But the world has now seen two generations of iPads. It's impossible not to compare them. Yes, the Kindle Fire is less than half the price of the iPad; unfortunately, it's less than half of the experience, too. Before someone objects to comparing version 1 of the Kindle Fire against version 2 of the iPad, let me be clear: the Kindle Fire compares unfavorably against the *first* generation iPad, and the UI compares unfavorably against the first generation of iOS.
I was sitting yesterday with my iPhone, iPad, and Kindle Fire. Someone sitting next to me pointed at the iPhone and said "I know what that is" and then pointing to the iPad "and I know what that is" then he pointed to the Kindle Fire "but what's that?" I explained told him what it was. "Is it a big phone or a small computer?" he asked. That's the experiential difficulty with the Kindle Fire. It's obviously not a phone.
While there have been plenty of people who have considered trading their laptops for iPads, I don't think many people will try the same with the Kindle Fire (for one thing, the lack of Bluetooth means you can't connect a keyboard). The Kindle Fire is primarily a color Kindle that also has a web browser, email, and some games. The addition of the Amazon Instant video library will be a benefit to some, but again the size makes it too small to be able to set down on a desk or table and watch comfortably, but too heavy to hold for the duration of a movie.
One last word, regarding the "Silk" browser. I live behind a high latency satellite connection, and I thought Silk was going to be a huge boon for me because of that. It isn't. In fact, it has no noticeable effect at all. On a fast DSL connection it doesn't seem any faster than my iPhone or iPad.
Oh, and about that Watchmen book, which is available exclusively on the Kindle Fire? It's unreadable. There's far too much whitespace around the actual page (a side effect of its shape?) which makes the page itself too small to comfortably read, at least for my 38 year-old eyes. I had expected there would be some sort of special feature or reason why it was only available on the Kindle Fire, but if there is, I can't figure out what. As far as I can tell, there's absolutely no reason why Watchmen isn't available for Kindle on the iPad, where it might actually be readable.
Even more surprising, the Kindle Fire cannot play the "Kindle Edition with Audio/Video" version of Stephen King's 11/22/63. If you want to read that, you'll need an iOS device, or get the regular Kindle version which doesn't have the "13-minute film, written and narrated by Stephen King and enhanced with historic footage from CBS News, that will take you back...to Kennedy era America."