The question has often been asked: is there really a tablet computer market,
or is there just an iPad market? And it's a fair one, too, as countless would-be
"killers" have come and gone, leaving the increasingly lucrative tablet market
basically all to Apple since they introduced the original iPad back in 2010. But
with the Kindle Fire Amazon has the best chance to buck that
trend, and they're doing so by taking a completely different route
than the glut of other Android-powered tablets have only served to fragment and
frighten away potential users, sacrificing bleeding-edge tech
and scores of apps for a tighter, more controlled experience that favors quality
Essentially, they’re taking more than a few cues from Apple’s
closed system, delivering thousands of movies, TV shows, music, and apps to your
fingertips direct from Amazon's gigantic selection of digital goodness. And best
of all is the pirce - at $199 it's less than half the cost of the cheapest iPad,
but Amazon had to pare down the hardware considerably to reach that ‘magical’
price point, which may or may not be the real breaking point for those looking
to adopt a non-Apple tablet at this time.
The hardware itself is up to the task, running a
1GHz Dual-core OMAP Processor with 512MB of available RAM, 8GB of onboard
storage, with the only additional features being the built-in WiFi (2.4GHz
B/G/N) to get you online and into Amazon’s Cloud. This means that quite a few
standard features are missing, like no digital cameras, microphone, no Bluetooth
connectivity, and no extra expansion or memory ports (like micro-SD) to beef up
the available storage. This means no snapping picture or taking videos, and no
voice-recording or using VoIP services like Skype.
Further driving this point home is the barebones
packaging the Fire comes wrapped in; you’ll get the tablet itself, a power
charger…and that’s it. There’s no headphones with handy volume rocker (which is
an issue), no mini-USB to connect with your computer to transfer files, or even
an instructional manual, which is actually located digitally on the tablet, so
hopefully you’re savvy enough to get that far.
Physically, the Fire’s body measures 7.5" x 4.7" x
0.45" with a large bezel around the screen, and weighs in at a slightly hefty
14.6 ounces, a bit heavy for a relatively ‘smaller’ tablet, with a boxy build
that looks exactly like Blackberry’s Playbook and sports a rubbery back that
felt pretty great in my hands, though it catches grease and becomes pretty
spotty after a few feels; I tried cleaning them off but had little luck. The only physical button on the unit is the tiny
power button located on the bottom (in portrait mode), right next to the
micro-USB and 3.5mm audio jack ports. On top are two stylish speaker grates for
stereo, which is a strange placement for them considering that most content
needing stereo sound would be viewed in landscape mode (meaning your hand might
actually muffle the sound when it covers the grates).
The viewable screen is a 7" multi-touch IPS display
running an impressive 1024 x 600 pixel resolution at 169 ppi, which is good
enough for the content being displayed but nothing spectacular. Protecting it is
the ultra-tough Gorilla Glass, which is great for those of us who like to carry
out tablets around without protective covers (yes, we exist), and certainly
feels ready for the long haul of accidental abuse, bumps, and scratches.
Amazon‘s major selling feature with the e-ink Kindle against the iPad has been
how great its screen was in direct sunlight; the Fire cedes this advantage,
though text still looks nice and sharp when in the right lighting, an important
thing for one of the tablet's biggest features. Just get
ready for glare galore and a non-existent picture in sunlight, as well as
smudges and fingerprints; the banes of just about every tablet at this point.
The Fire runs a radically altered version of
Google’s Android that even the most avid droid fans probably won’t recognize,
which may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
I found the Fire comfortable to hold, especially in
landscape mode, as the larger bezel made things feel a bit squished when in
portrait mode. To be fair, this seems to be a problem with most 7” tablets that
I’ve used, as the smaller screens and odd aspect-ratios don’t lend themselves to
non-landscape holding bliss, and this ‘holds’ true for the Fire.
Amazon’s version of Android 2.2 is unlike anything
you’ve seen before, and this is a good thing. Gone are the iOS-like rows of
icons and screens, replaced by a cover-flow interface that attempts to make
Amazon the center of your digital life. You’ll navigate your recent apps,
programs, and other content while flipping through a 3D-like tray of blades.
While this looks cool initially, it’s not the most practical solution and can be
frustrating as you’ll have to flip through countless blades to get to the app
you want instead of being able to select it individually. Why couldn’t there be
a flat – and more efficient – alternative? It reminds me of the original Xbox
360 interface before Microsoft completely overhauled it.
Overall, the experience is adequate for what the
tablet is, but more than a little choppy, and not quite as smooth as Amazon has
Amazon does not allow you to customize your
interface as you like, choosing to display what your most recent items are,
rather than allow you to arrange them yourself. You cannot remove certain apps,
such as Facebook, Oxford Dictionary, and even the ESPN ScoreCenter app; this
isn’t really a deal-breaker, but why are licensed programs given such
preferential treatment here? The Facebook app isn’t even a real app, but a
glorified internet shortcut, making its immovability here all the more puzzling.
You do get to dock up to 8 of your favorite apps to the bottom of the screen,
which is standard, but the lack of customization throughout the interface feels
All of the stock music, video, and email apps get
the job done and were easy to use. As the Fire doesn’t have the normal Android
hardware buttons, you’ll use a virtual button at the bottom that opens a menu
that controls the interface with Android-like options like back, menu, home,
etc. Tapping the top-right screen opens a system menu that lets you adjust
options like volume, rotation-lock, WiFi, and other system-critical menu items.
I’m really disappointed by the lack of physical volume buttons, as having to tap
through so many virtual menus just to raise/lower the sound level was really
You’ll be able to connect the Fire to your PC/Mac
and copy over select videos and music formats to the available memory on the 8GB
storage, though I wasn’t able to test this feature for myself (for this review I
used the hardware as Amazon intended).
I’ve got a larger music collection that I already
own, and the idea of having to buy tracks doesn’t really sit well with me (or my
wallet), so I opted to load my own tracks to the Fire. Unfortunately, this
wasn’t the easiest process as it didn’t come with the necessary cables to
interface with my computer, as uploading my music to Amazon’s Cloud service was
a bit clumsy as doing so requires the use of Amazon’s propriety uploading
software, and only then was my music available for streaming or downloading to
the device (no downloading from the Cloud).
It would have been great if Amazon would have
included a micro-USB cable to make this easier, but this would have meant even
more tethering ‘temptations’, and that wouldn’t do for a tablet meant to live in
the Cloud. It’s pretty clear they don’t want you putting your own music or
content on the machine, and would prefer you buy from them instead.
A big selling point of the Fire has been the new
Silk web browser, which is supposed to funnel all of your internet traffic
through Amazon’s huge farm of servers to help speed up downloading, giving users
a big speed-boost as more content is cached. Unfortunately, at the time of this
review the Silk browser just wasn’t very good. Like most browsers, you get to
input web addresses, browse your favorite sites, add bookmarks, and the usual
touch features like pinch/zoom, etc.. Flash support is decent, but it runs slow
and can be really choppy if you try to run at anything higher than 480p. Adobe
recently announced they’d be killing Flash for mobile devices, so this may not
be the trump card that Amazon thought it would.
The real issue with Silk is that it’s nowhere near
or stable as fast as other mobile browsers, especially when compared to the
Safari on iOS or even stock Android browsers on other tablets. Button presses
often went unnoticed, and I was surprised at how often it crashed on me. Amazon
promises that the more their services cache the most-used sites, images, etc.,
the faster Silk will be, but I don’t know. Their Lady Gaga CD $.99 cent deal
crashed their website earlier this year. If they can’t handle Gaga, how can they
handle the whole internet?
Amazon Prime and Apps
Amazon boasts having over 10,000 apps readily
available on the Fire, but this is only partly true. Because you won’t have
access to Google’s own Android Marketplace, you’ll have to rely on Amazon’s
“curated garden” for your extra software, games, and other goodies. This isn’t
necessarily a bad thing, as it helps keep the quality up and frees unsuspecting
eyeballs from the unfiltered and sometimes scary world of the Android
The real focus of the Fire is that it directly
links into Amazon Prime, which the company was kind enough to give a free 30-day
subscription taste with every new Kindle Fire. Not only does Prime give you
instant access to thousands of streaming movies and television shows, but you'll
also get free two-day shipping as well as other goodies as long as you pay the
$79 annual fee. To compare, a monthly streaming-only Netflix subscription runs
about $7.99 per month, which comes to roughly $95.88 annual, and that's just for
But we’re talking about the best and most
comprehensive streaming service available, and while Amazon’s Instant Video
streaming selection was pretty good, users coming from Netflix’s enormous
library are bound to be a little disappointed by the relative lack of selection
here. Of course, you can always snag the Netflix app and have the best of both
worlds, which is probably what most users will be doing, but that means having
concurrent subscription plans just to watch content you won’t actually own.
Welcome to the Cloud, folks.
Using the Instant Video to watch movies and TV
shows was decent, though I was confused by the lack of search options to sort
through the available selection. The service offers suggestions after you finish
watching a video, yet it blends the streaming and pay-only titles together,
which led to some frustration about what was ‘free’ and what had to be
purchased. It made me wish there was a separate Prime app for streaming-only
video, if only to lessen the disappointment of being teased with unavailable
Downloading non-stock apps was pretty easy, after
you set-up One Click Buying, as Amazon’s service is certainly a huge step up
from most App markets in convenience and quality selection. The only problem is
that, so far, none of the selection in Amazon’s store seemed tailored for the
Kindle, as Amazon seems to have cherry picked many of the most popular apps from
the Android Market in time for launch, with even the user reviews alongside them from different smartphone
Netflix was the best, with a clean interface that
seemed designed to smoothly on the hardware and was a pleasure to use,
especially alongside Amazon’s Prime service. Skype, one of my most
frequently-used apps, wasn’t available and probably won’t be anytime soon, as
the Fire lacks the necessary hardware (i.e. microphone) to handle internet
calls. Stitcher, my favorite podcast-streaming app, was often unresponsive to
simple gestures and was slow to respond to the most basic commands, which made
navigating my favorite podcasts frustrating. Ebay looked just like what it is, a
mobile app designed to run on smartphones and not optimized for the Fire in any
way, with an ugly interface and unresponsive UI. It even taunts you to ‘take
pictures’ using your non-existent camera.
Then there’s Facebook, which comes preloaded and
for whatever reason can’t be removed, was nothing more than a glorified bookmark
and when pressed just launches the web-browser. Pretty lazy if you ask me.
One misconception that needs clearing up is that
there wouldn’t be any productivity apps on the Fire, and this simply isn’t true.
The unit comes with a lite-version of the popular QuickOffice app, which only
lets you view Office documents (Word, Excel, etc.), but you can purchase the
full version for a full suite of programs to let you create, edit, and share
documents. Also, I was able to access Google Docs online and it performed
flawlessly across multiple platforms. No Bluetooth keyboard or onscreen mouse
hurts, but clever developers should find ways around these issues to extend the
usefulness of the Fire if they want to.
At least they curated the malware and porn out, as
none of the Android Marketplace’s infamous Chinese porn infestation was available, which may
or may not be a positive depending on your tastes. Kudos to Amazon for keeping
their garden relatively clean.
If you’re like me than you might enjoy playing
games on your tablet, and the Fire is more than ready to accommodate most of the
most popular games out there, including the usual suspects like Angry Birds,
Fruit Ninja, Doodle Jump, Plants vs. Zombies, and even Dead Space. But unlike
native Android versions, they aren’t free, with most costing at least $.99. But
there are lite-versions if you want to try them out first before plunking down
The Fire may not be bleeding-edge, but it’s capable
of handling graphically-intense games, even those running Epic’s Unreal Engine.
Dungeon Defenders, an Unreal-powered game, shows off the potential to run killer
visuals on the relatively underpowered hardware, and it looked pretty good when
static. But when things got moving the game is plagued with erratic frame-rate
issues and frequent crashes, and the dual-stick controls weren’t optimized for
the larger 7” screen, making them difficult to reach across while playing in
landscape mode. Developers are going to need to make Fire-specific versions of
their games before we really see what the hardware can do, instead of just
blowing up smartphone graphics and hoping for the best.
If you're looking for a less expensive alternative to Apple's dominant iPad
that can handle basic functions like listening to music, watching video, and
playing games, then Amazon’s Kindle Fire may be the tablet for you
- just as long as you don’t expect a top-shelf experience at this time. There are
performance issues galore, from stuttering motions to application crashes during the most basic functions, and don’t get me started on the inadequacy of
the Silk web browser. But Amazon has always done a great job improving their
Kindle hardware lineup in the past, and you can practically smell the
inevitable hardware refresh coming, which I’ll bet money will fix many of
the current machine’s most inescapable issues. And this is what makes this first-generation Fire so difficult to recommend right now, as
the only way to 'fix' these issues will be to buy an entirely new machine.
If you’re willing to put up with hardware that’s
definitely going to be drastically updated soon, than by all means, pick one up
and start investing in Amazon’s ecosystem now, as all of your purchases will be
available when the upgrade comes. And in the meantime, you’ll have a decent
tablet experience that’s far and away more pleasurable than any other Android
tablet currently on the market.