Amazon Kindle Fire

While Apple is rightly credited for starting the media tablet market, a latecomer rival has created the purest of such devices. While Apple bristles at the notion that the iPad is simply a consumption device, Amazon embraces the concept wholeheartedly. The resulting product, the Kindle Fire, isn't just a viable alternative as a result. In many ways it's the better tablet.

Just not for everyone.

The Kindle Fire discussion starts with the price, and owing to the iPad's exorbitant pricing, for many it ends there as well. The iPad is simply too expensive, and that fact is laid bare by the Fire's Crazy Eddie pricing scheme: It costs just $199. That's less than one-third the price of a mid-level iPad--which averages to $665--meaning you could buy three Kindle Fire tablets for the price of one 32 GB iPad and still have enough money left over to buy dinner. It's not even close.

Many critics have charged Amazon with cheaping out on the Fire in order to achieve this pricing, and some have further charged that the company takes a loss on each device sold. Both allegations are false. The Kindle Fire is a well-built, nicely designed tablet that is actually as nice as the iPad in some ways. And as I wrote in a recent Short Takes article, Amazon at worst is breaking even on the Fire--which is a fine strategy, as it turns out--and at best already making money on each one sold.

Critics will further complain that the iPad includes a number of features the Fire lacks. And obviously, this is true: The Fire does not include two cameras, like the iPad, though I'd argue that few people need or use such a feature anyway. The iPad includes both Wi-Fi and 3G networking options, while the Fire is limited to just Wi-Fi. And this is indeed an issue--3G should be at least an option--but this is in keeping with the Fire's mission as a forward-leaning cloud-supplied content consumer. 3G would just be too expensive and too slow. The need for more storage is a far more pressing issue.

The Fire is missing a few sensors that will only concern Apple partisans; all the important stuff is there and works well, including an accelerometer for motion-based gaming (and more pedestrian portrait-to-landscape mode switching). And so on.

I've seen complaints about the performance, and you can always tell when Apple PR has gotten their talons into a reviewer when they mention that the iPad has "a faster processor" than the Fire. That's immaterial baloney. The Kindle Fire is an able performer, with a slick and responsive UI and no hesitations at all. This thing screams.

Did I mention it costs just $200?

As the iPad gets more and more cluttered with niche features and becomes more and more complex as a result, the Kindle Fire, as a v1 product, retains a certain simplicity and singleness of purpose that I find generally attractive. The Kindle Fire doesn't have PC aspirations. It doesn't tempt you to waste money on docks, wireless keyboards, and fancy but silly cases so you can cart it out in public like some trendy hipster. Instead, it simply beckons you to play, and to read, and to enjoy yourself. It's casual entertainment, sans computing, at its finest. And it comes without the condescending superiority complex that accompanies using an iPad whose expense needs to be justified. You don't need to justify a Kindle Fire. It's inexpensive, so you can simply enjoy it. Who cares what anyone thinks? And people are still going to ask about it.

It costs just $200.

Remember when Apple claimed that the iPad was a magical device at an unbelievable price? Well, they got it half right. The iPad is awesome. But so is a BMW 7-Series. And like most people, I can't afford either one. But now Amazon has gotten the rest of it right too. The Fire is the full meal deal, the real thing. And it will make the iPad look silly from a pricing perspective until Apple lowers prices, offers a smaller and lighter form factor, and brings its powerful ecosystem to the masses. (I wrote about this very issue in a recent blog post.) Until then, the Amazon Kindle Fire is the best media tablet on the market.

I know, I know. That kind of statement is just a little too forceful for some people. Relax. I am not stating that the Kindle Fire is generally "better" than the iPad. They're both fine devices. But they are almost different types of products too. The iPad is a luxury device, aimed at affluent people who want a computer but not its complexity. And it serves that market well. The Kindle Fire, meanwhile, is the better media tablet than the iPad, partly because of the huge price disparity, yes, but also because it simply does virtually everything that's important to many people just as well or better than the iPad.

And let's be brutally honest here. If Amazon had simply delivered a middling tablet for $200, one could still argue, hey, it's just $200. And many people would buy it solely for that reason; it's half the price of most 7-inch Android tablets. Low pricing like that really is magic. But they didn't do that. They delivered an absolutely fantastic, almost-iPad-level-of-quality device. That is so amazing and unexpected. How neat is that? How utterly unnecessary?

Here's what you get.

Hardware. The Kindle Fire is a tablet computing device with a brilliant and responsive 7-inch widescreen display running at 1024 x 600. The screen is glossy and reflective, just like an iPad, but it works well for media in particular. The device back is rubberized and a joy to hold. There's no reason to cover it up with another expensive cover, like you do with the iPad.

The Fire includes a woeful 8 GB of storage with no possibility of expansion (there's no micro-SD slot) and no versions with more storage. This is inadequate in my view, and while Amazon has a plan in place--see below--that doesn't make up for the lack of storage.

We know that the Kindle Fire has a dual core processor of some kind, but we don't know how fast it is. It doesn't matter. The device runs speedily.

Aside from the missing components mentioned above, the Fire is also missing one port I think is important: HDMI Out. So there's no way to play Fire content on your TV. That was shortsighted, and it relegates the Fire to being a personal device only. For many people, that won't be an issue, but I'm just throwing it out there.

Software. The Kindle Fire runs on some version of Google's Android 2.x. Amazon's not saying which, and I'm not asking because it frankly doesn't matter. One nice thing about the Fire from a typical consumer's perspective--and yes, sorry, this will rankle the tech gurus in the audience--is that it's designed for normal people. So you won't be "rooting" this device or upgrading it willy-nilly to whatever Android version you prefer. (OK, I'm sure someone will. Normal people won't.) This is a curated version of Android that isn't at all recognizable as Android for the most part. That's what I like about it. And that's why it will be fine for most people.

The Kindle Fire user experience, then, is a custom job, and for the most part it's pretty good. The basic UI is a software carousel where you flick by the content (movies, TV shows, books, apps, whatever) you've accessed on the device, with the most recent content appearing at the front. This is no better than Apple's "grid of icons" in my opinion, and it may in fact be worse, and I wish there were alternatives. In fact, the Kindle Fire is so fast, that using the carousel is actually a little hard. I keep flicking by the icon I want because it's so smooth speedy. It's like greased ice.

Below the carousel on this home page of sorts is a Favorites area where you can pin apps in a more traditional grid of icons that is set up to resemble a book shelf. I suppose that's a nod of sorts to the Kindle's roots as an eBook reader. But it scrolls up and down as opposed to the carousel's left to right movement. Ah, consistency.

Across the top of this home screen, you'll see menu items for Newsstand, Books, Music, Docs, Apps, and Web, as well as a search box. These menu items provide a clue to the type of content the device can use, but also to Amazon's services picture (see below). So the Fire can access Kindle-based magazines, newspapers, and books, digital music, TV shows, and movies (on device and in Amazon's cloud), on-device documents, Android apps, and the web, using a new web browser called Silk.

A lot's been written about Silk, about how it is or is not inadequate and so on. I think it works fine, and I think that anyone who buys this tablet expecting to browse the web with it will be satisfied both by its performance and its rendering ability. It always cracks me up when I see comparisons of Silk vs. iPad's Safari, as if a load time of a few seconds was ever going to make or break a purchase. You buy the Amazon Kindle Fire because it costs $200 and it works well. Its browser works well.

Services. The one area where Amazon can really compete with Apple is in its ecosystem, which feeds the Fire with content. In this case, Amazon is taking the concept of the ecosystem to kind of a crazy extreme. That is, Amazon expects that most people will stream Amazon-hosted content to the device rather than sync and/or download content so that it's contained on the device. In fact, by limiting the Fire to just 8 GB of storage (about 6.5 GB of which is usable for content), Amazon is pretty much dictating this kind of usage.

That's fine for some scenarios but not for others. If you're the type of person who will use this tablet while sitting around a house with a decent Wi-Fi connection, the Fire is great, especially if you've uploaded your music collection to Amazon's Cloud Player and heavily utilize the company's video services. But if you want to travel with a device and use it on a plane or other offline location, the Fire's storage limitations could come back to haunt you. Yes, you can copy a few movies or TV shows to the device (or download them from Amazon). But only a few.

On the services end, Amazon integrates a number of useful things right into the Fire.

Newstand and Books, of course, integrate with the superior Kindle service, providing access to digital periodicals, books, and other reading material, and you use your Kindle account as means by which to populate the Docs area as well. (You send documents via email to a Kindle email address and they just appear on your device. Curiously, Docs doesn't integrate at all with the Documents section of Amazon Cloud Drive. Curious.)

Music integrates with Amazon's MP3 music store and of course the Cloud Drive-based Cloud Player collection you hopefully uploaded in anticipation of this device. Streaming works well, but if you want to listen offline, you need to download to the device manually. Fortunately, you can download albums, artists, and playlists in addition to songs. Still, when was the last time you had an MP3 player with only 6.5 GB of storage? Here, as always, the Fire works best when connected to Wi-Fi.

The Video experience ties directly into Amazon's Prime Instant Videos service (like Netflix, but less well-stocked, and free for Amazon Prime members), as well as its a la carte videos service, which provides TV show purchasing and movie rentals and purchasing. You can purchase or rent right from the device, and while the default is to stream your pick--video content you do buy is always available for later streaming--you can download to the device if you want to.

Oddly, if you connect your Kindle to the PC and manually copy video content to the device, it will not show up in the Video area. It took me a while to figure out why--I thought it was a file name extension issue at first--but instead it's just bad UI. Amazon doesn't show manually-copied, on-device content in the Videos area, apparently because that would be too obvious. Instead, you must access this via a non-discoverable separate app called Gallery. And this app stinks. It warps the video, doesn't allow any form of zoom, and, like the Videos playback app, doesn't support captions of any kind. That makes it a non-starter for me, and dooms the Kindle Fire, for me at least, to in-home use only. My quest for the perfect, highly-portable video player continues.

Amazon offers an excellent Android apps store, as you probably know, and the Apps area on the device provides views of your purchased and on-device apps, of course, as well as a link to the store, which is nicely filtered to only show apps known to work explicitly with the Fire. You can also access a version of this store on the web that only features Fire-compatible apps.

A number of critics have highlighted the relatively small number of Fire-specific apps as a minus for this device, but I don't see it that way at all. Everything most people would want is already available for the Fire and the list is growing every day. And it even has apps we're still missing on Windows Phone after over a year of waiting, including Audible and Pandora. So this is a red herring: The Fire apps story is excellent.

Screenshot slideshow

Here's a slideshow showing off the Kindle user interfaces. (I previously published a photo gallery of the device itself.)

Final thoughts

The Amazon Kindle Fire is a complex device to review. It's not for me, and that requires me to really look beyond my own needs and talk to other people about how they would use such a thing. What I come away with is this: The Kindle Fire is not an "iPad killer" because it's not a 1:1 replacement for Apple's far more expensive and complex device. But it is in fact an excellent iPad alternative, because it does exactly what most people want and it does so at a price that is ridiculously low. But price aside, the Kindle Fire is an excellent piece of hardware, with good software and excellent services integration for the most part. You'll never be abandoned here as you would be if you bought an HP TouchPad or RIM PlayBook, and you never have to worry about techy Android silliness as you would if you went with any other Android-based tablet.

I'll be using the Kindle Fire around the house, which is to say a lot less often than I had expected. That's because the Kindle reading experience is still superior on dedicated, e-ink-based Kindle devices, aside from a few magazine subscriptions. And it's because the device's paltry storage allotment and silly video playback limitations make it less than ideal as an offline video viewer for trips. Neither of these would likely be issues for many users. So take that into account when considering the purchase.

The Kindle Fire's biggest success is providing an amazing suite of functionality for such a low price. It really does make the iPad look silly, and gives the lie to Apple's tagline of "a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." That title never really applied to the iPad. But it belongs to the Kindle Fire now.

The Kindle Fire is highly recommended for most consumers and for travelers interested in e-reading and apps and games. It is not recommended for frequent travelers who need an offline media device.

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