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Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet (2011)
Computer Reviews

Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet (2011)

A decent tablet experience that’s far and away more pleasurable than any other Android tablet currently on the market.

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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 over quantity.

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

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.

User Interface

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 been promising.

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 incomplete.

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 cumbersome.

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.

Silk Browser

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 Marketplace.

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 one service.

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 video.

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 versions.

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.

Gaming

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 real money.

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.

Conclusion

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 inevitable 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.

About the Author: Trent McGee