Your first experience with the Fire will be with a beautiful lock screen showing close-up imagery of abstract things -- heads on a typewriter, freshly sharpened pencils, well-used fountain pen nibs. Writers will feel inspired by these poignant pics but anyone who likes customizing their home screen won't. There are no widgets to trigger here, just a thin arrow that you must drag left to get in. It's situated too high, in the middle of the screen, making it a bit of a clumsy reach. Choose to lock your device with a numeric code and you'll be stuck with the even more unfortunate Gingerbread number pad, which doesn't scale well on a display this size.
Unlocked, you're greeted with what Amazon calls the carousel. It's an endless stack of icons representing whatever you've most recently done -- apps you used, books you read, movies you viewed -- it's all here in a big pile. Drag your finger across and those icons flip aside much like Apple's iconic Cover Flow and this is, ultimately, an easy way to get back to where you were -- so long as wherever you were wasn't that far away.
However, it quickly becomes a little too deep to be all that useful, especially if you're hopping back and forth between books and movies (as we reviewers are wont to do). The solution is to pull anything you like out and pin it to your favorites, which start occupying the shelves below this main carousel. This makes for easier access, but we wish we could split the carousel itself into multiple shelves -- separate stacks of icons for most recent books, most recent magazines, most recent movies, and so forth.
You have to be annoyingly precise to get your chosen thing to launch.
A bigger problem is the carousel being a bit too sensitive to touch. You swipe left or right through the carousel and then tap whatever you want to launch. But, if your finger moves even a pixel or two in any direction when tapping the chosen item won't launch. The list will instead scroll just a bit and then pop back. You have to be annoyingly precise to get your chosen thing to launch.
Apps and content are co-mingled here and throughout the rest of the interface, categorized into the following sections: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs and Apps. Finally, there's the Web tab, which launches the Silk browser -- which we'll discuss below.
You can guess what you'll find where, and the layout of each section is similar. Tap on Newsstand, for example, and you'll be presented with a list of all the magazines and newspapers you've purchased. On top is a toggle with two options: Cloud and Device. When "Cloud" is selected it shows all content you've purchased, whether it be online or off. Tap anything that hasn't been cached locally yet and it'll instantly start downloading.
Switch over to "Device" and, surprise surprise, you'll find only the things that are actually on your Fire, presented in the same sort of bookshelf aesthetic that is continued throughout the interface. The more things you add, the taller your bookshelf gets. You can sort by recently viewed or by title, but you can't reorganize and put your favorite mags up to the top like you can on the home page.
Up top, the screen is a simple notification bar showing your name on the left, the current time in the middle and, on the right, a gear, a WiFi signal indicator and a battery strength gauge. Tap on these and you'll get a quick slide-down set of toggles and sliders that let you enable or disable the rotation lock and WiFi, while also letting you adjust volume and screen brightness. Reminder: this is the only way to adjust volume on the device!
You can sideload other keyboard apps without problem but, since you can't get to the Android setting where those keyboards are selected, you'll never be able to actually use them.
Tap the "More" button and you'll get to the full list of settings, a rather comprehensive suite of toggles that's nearly as broad as the all those Android has to offer stock, but re-skinned and somewhat restricted. For example, you can sideload other keyboard apps without problem but, since you can't get to the Android setting where those keyboards are selected, you'll never be able to actually use them.
Tap on the left side of the status bar (where it says your name) and you'll get a list of current things happening in the background -- downloads and installs and the like. If you're an Android user you might find it confusing that you can't simply swipe down from the top to get this list. You might also be lamenting the lack of buttons.
Most apps on the Fire take up the full screen, hiding the notification bar. To get that back, and to display a little navigation bar on the bottom, you usually have to tap somewhere in the middle of the screen. That done, the navigation bar appears and you have access to the Home, Menu, Search and Back buttons. Sideloaded apps are much the same, except you need to tap on a skinny gray up-arrow on the bottom of the screen. The tap-tap-tapping to hide and display menus is all a bit clumsy and not particularly intuitive. We'd have preferred a nice set of gestures for navigation, as found on the PlayBook or TouchPad.
Finally, there's no concept of task-switching here. Apps you've been using recently do remember their state and bring you back where you left them, but there's no way to, for example, do a long press of the home key and jump from one to the next. You'll always have to go back to that carousel and scroll your way through.
Much has been made of the Fire's Silk browser and its remote rendering, ostensibly reducing the workload on the tablet itself and shuffling some of the heavy lifting off into the cloud to provide better, faster rendering. Does it work? Well, it's not the fastest browser in the West, but it is mighty quick given its limited internals.
Stacked up against an iPad 2
the Fire routinely got beat in rendering pages -- but often not by much. We also stacked it up against Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, which was often slower. Finally, we couldn't resist pitting the Fire against the PlayBook, and we found those two to be neck-and-neck in most tests.
It's not a bad performer, but Silk doesn't quite live up to its smooth name.
So, the Fire is a fine rendering machine, not the fastest in the world but able to keep up with the best without any ugly dithering or visual artifacts to indicate the content's remote-rendered nature. However, if we move past pure rendering speed, interacting with pages definitely seemed occasionally sluggish. Pinch-zooming was a bit jumpy and scrolling somewhat laggy. It's not a bad performer, but Silk doesn't quite live up to its smooth name.
In terms of interface, Silk is comfortable and intuitive enough. The address bar at the top disappears as you scroll down, but a simple tabs list is always present, enabling you to quickly jump from one to another. A simple bookmark button in the menu bar brings up a bookmark interface that's quite similar to the stock Android browser. A simple grid of pages representing your favorites, and just hit the big "+" on the one you'd like to add.
Recently visited pages also show up in the carousel and, like anything else, can be added to your favorites for quick return viewing. Annoyingly, though, there's no way to add a page directly to your favorites from the browser itself. You need to browse to that page, exit to the home screen and then do it from there. A bit of a bother, that.
The Fire's stock keyboard is a relatively simple affair that offers suggestions as you type above the top list of keys. The suggestions are of course helpful, but the typing experience itself is a little cramped when the tablet is held in portrait mode. A particular annoyance is the spacebar on the keyboard, shifted off to the left thanks to an unfortunately placed period button. If you're the sort who exclusively hits the space bar with your right thumb you might find.yourself.typing.sentences.like.this. It's naturally a good bit more roomy when held in landscape, but even then the offset spacebar poses a bit of a challenge.
If you can get over that it's a bit more comfortable to use than the stock Android keyboard, and the word suggestions are genuinely helpful -- especially for finding punctuation. There's nothing in the way of auto-correction, though, so if you want the suggestions to help you'll have to reach up and grab them yourselves.
When you want to take things offline, with just a few taps you can download a song, an album or even an entire artist's worth of tracks.
If you've been using Amazon's cold storage for your tunes you'll be presented with your entire library the moment you boot up your Fire. Of course, none of those tunes will actually be on
your Fire, but you can quickly stream them at will. Streaming takes just a few seconds to start and, when you want to take things offline, with just a few taps you can download a song, an album or even an entire artist's worth of tracks. This makes it very easy to get your library where you want it.
As with the other sections, purchasing music is very easy -- perhaps too easy for those whose buying impulses outweigh their budget-keeping abilities. There's a "Store" link that's always present in the upper-right, calling for you to click it should you find your Ryan Adams collection is a few discs short of comprehensive. Purchases can be pushed to your tablet or your happy pocket of cloud storage and pricing is generally quite reasonable.
The actual music playback is simple enough, with the album art taking up the left half of the screen and playback controls on the right. Thankfully there's a volume slider right here, but that won't do you much good if you need to tweak the volume when the screen is off.
Audio quality through the integrated speakers is far from inspiring. Again, they're both placed on one side, so the resulting output is decidedly monotastic. Even at max volume the amplitude here is underwhelming. Sound quality is decent, but a bit hollow, as one might expect.
Swapping over to your own 'buds or headset obviously helps, but we still weren't impressed by the audio fidelity. There's a very, very subtle pop when playback starts and something of a constant hiss in the background during playback, even when the music is paused. Audiophile quality this isn't.
As with music, all your purchased or rented videos are easily visible, whether downloaded or not. If they're not, a quick tap brings them down -- but you won't want to ingest too many. After purchasing the two-hour Crazy, Stupid, Love
(we're suckers for a sweet romcom) we found it to take 560MB of our Fire's storage. With about 6.5GB at your disposal you'll have room for 10 movies -- and then nothing else.
Thankfully, though, you won't need to download them. With a quick tap you can stream your purchased content and save the local storage -- if you have a suitable connection. Whether downloaded or streamed the quality of the footage wasn't great, with plenty of compression noise providing muddying scenes with quick transitions. It didn't look bad
, but those who've sworn off anything but Blu-ray and its sky-high bitrates won't go five minutes here without grimacing.
Amazon of course also offers an ever-growing selection of streaming content for free through its Primed service. The offerings aren't quite up to par with what Netflix can serve you, but the assortment isn't far off. Sadly, though, none of this can be downloaded for later viewing and, should you find yourself pining for the library offered by another service, both Netflix and Hulu Plus will be available.
Again, the presentation here is simple and the controls intuitive enough, naturally hidden most of the time during playback, but without HDMI output there's no way to get this video content onto a larger display. We asked Amazon if wireless video streaming might be in the cards, but the response is that instead the company would like you to try streaming your video content through any of a number of other devices that can pull Amazon content. So, here's to hoping you own one of those, too.
Magazine reading is definitely a huge part of what Amazon's hoping people will love about the Fire, but our feelings here definitely fall more toward like. Amazon has lined up 400 full-color offerings for you to peruse, so chances are you'll find something that suits your fancy.
We downloaded a few photo-heavy folios, like Esquire
and House Beautiful
, to sample the reading experience and in general found it to be good -- but not great. Here the 7-inch display becomes a bit of a problem, just feeling a little too small and not packing enough pixels to clearly render small text. We constantly found ourselves zooming in and out to read. You can switch over to Text View, which pulls all the text out into a much more enjoyable full-page view -- but then you lose all the beautiful formatting and presentation that make magazines so engaging in the first place.
Thankfully page turning is quick and responsive and pinch-zooming reasonably so, but overall we just felt a bit restricted here, leaving us longing for that supposed 10-inch Fire
. (Might we suggest Bonfire?)
Amazon made a big deal about its partnership with graphic novel publishers for the launch of the Fire, and rightfully so. Comics have tried to go digital many times in the past and have yet to find a solid following -- at least among those willing to pay money for them. So, what's the reading experience like here on the Fire? Occasionally great, but it can't shake the occasional clumsiness that muddies things here.
As with magazines, text is often squashed too small to be read -- even if its drawn in bold, sure penstrokes. Shockingly, though, you can't pinch-zoom to get a closer look! You have to double-tap on whatever section of the screen you want a closer look at. You then get a popup window with a closer view of that section and, from there, you can tap or swipe your way from one panel to the next. This is a little annoying if you just want to zoom in on one section and then zoom back out again, but it sure beats not being able to read the text.
Other than that annoyance comics are a great addition. The Fire's screen does a great job recreating the bold colors and simple lines that make them such a joy to read.
This is, of course, not just the Fire. It is the Kindle Fire and, as such, reading is a big part of its game. You'll quite naturally have access to all the textual content you've purchased through Amazon in the past, all your bookmarks neatly synced here so you can pick up wherever you left off. Like with the other sections you can get a quick look at all your content available in cloud plus that which is already downloaded, and moving a book from one to the other takes just a tap.
The Kindle store is of course also easily accessible, which enables you to download book samples if you're not quite sure if a certain writer's prose will please your palate. Also, Amazon has just started the Kindle Owners Lending Library
for Prime subscribers, which lets them borrow one book a month for free.
You have eight fonts to choose from in case the serifs on the stock typeface rub your Helvetic sensibilities the wrong way.
The reading experience is about what you'd expect. By default you get black text on a white background, but if you find that a little too squint-inducing you can flip and get white text on black -- or even brown text on a yellow. You can dynamically change font size, line spacing and margins, and you have eight fonts to choose from in case the serifs on the stock typeface rub your Helvetic sensibilities the wrong way.
To turn the page you either swipe your finger left or right or tap on the appropriate edge of the screen. Unfortunately, you can't tap on the bezel, a feature we'd have liked, and the new expanded tap zones in the Kindle Touch don't work here. With that device the "next" tapping region takes over much of the middle of the screen. Here that real estate is needed to bring up the menu.
The Fire includes a version of Quickoffice out of the box, but it's capable only of reading Word-like, Excel-esque and PowerPoint-ish documents. If you want to edit or create you'll need to spring for the $14.99 Pro edition.
There's a simple email app included here as well. It isn't nearly as good as Android's iconic Gmail app, but it does work well enough and will sync with your Gmail account without much bother. You are able to send messages with attachments, if you're so inclined.
Sure, there are plenty of other 7-inch tablets out there, but at $200 it's hard to find a direct comparison. The best of the moment seems to be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, which we've been testing and generally liking. But, a starting MSRP of $400 makes that hard to compare -- even though it's thinner, lighter, faster and has full access to the Android Market. Another option is of course RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, which at $349 is getting closer. In general we found the PlayBook to offer snappier performance, but that device hasn't exactly seen a flood of support lately and, while it is more feature-rich than the Fire, it has an even more limited app selection.
The T-Mobile Springboard from Huawei is a compelling choice, a device that we surprised ourself by liking quite a bit in our recent review. It's running straight Honeycomb and is available for just $180 -- if you don't mind a two-year agreement. $430 off-contract is a bit harder to swallow.