Amazon Kindle Fire tablet: First impressions

September 28, 2011

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos took the stage in New York on Wednesday as the company expanded its Kindle line-up, slashed the base price of its e-readers and introduced the star of the show: a tablet that Amazon hopes will take the lead in the Android market.

In the bit of time I got to spend with the new Kindle Fire, I was impressed by how much Amazon had packed into the $199 tablet. While it didn't show fantastic performance, the value made the tablet incredibly attractive.

The Fire looks a lot like the BlackBerry PlayBook -- a plain, black screen -- but works perfectly as a portal to all the movies, apps, music and video one could possibly want to consume. The screen looked good in the demonstrations during the event, though I'd like a little more time with the device before I pass final judgment .

The battery life of the Fire is about eight hours with normal use, said Amazon's Kindle vice president, Dave Limp. In a worst-case scenario, he said -- say, if you're on a plane with no WiFi -- a user could watch video for about seven hours on the device with no problems.

Web browsing on the tablet is also very quick, thanks to its own browser, Amazon Silk. Silk taps into Amazon's huge (Bezos called it limitless) cloud to do some of the heavy lifting. Amazon Silk product manager Jon Jenkins said that the Fire supports Flash and HTML 5 and delivers the Web quickly to mobile users as it appears on a desktop computer.

In reality, the Kindle Fire is more a window to Amazon’s portal than a standalone device. The tablet itself only packs 8GB of internal memory, which the company says can't be expanded. But it also comes with free cloud storage, which gives users access to more content than they could hold on any other tablet. And at 14.6 ounces, it’s noticeably lighter than the 9-inch iPad.

So is it an iPad killer? Probably not. In terms of raw specs, the Fire can't compete with the iPad — and not only because it lacks cameras and a microphone. Bezos didn't mention any partnerships in his presentation, meaning the Fire may not have apps for, say, Netflix or MLB.Tv. There's no contest between the iPad's A5 processor and the Fire's dual-core TI OMAP. The tablet was snappy enough in demos, but the processing power just isn't there. And while the Fire's picture quality will be great for watching video on the go, it's not at iPad’s level of quality or pure screen real-estate.

That said, the Fire could become the most popular Android tablet because it's a simple way to deliver the content from Amazon's own vast ecosystem of services: Amazon Prime, Amazon mp3, Amazon Cloud Storage and its bookstore and newsstand. The home menu on the Fire makes it surprisingly easy to search and buy an endless number of products.

Not to be overshadowed, the Kindle e-readers are fitting additions to the company's successful lineup. Amazon has done its utmost to make the readers slimmer and lighter than their predecessors at a much cheaper price. The base model of the Kindle is now $79, and Amazon is selling two new touch models starting at $99 for WiFi and $149 for 3G, with advertisements and Amazon Local. Those who prefer an ad-free version will pay $139 for the WiFi and $189 for the 3G version, which does not require a data plan.

It's clear that Amazon isn't planning on abandoning reader any time soon. Limp said that e-ink is still the best way to read a novel or magazine, while the Fire is better for an all-in-one entertainment device. He added, of course, that the price point makes the devices cheap enough that consumers could buy both.

During his time onstage Bezos repeatedly mentioned that Amazon was offering "premium products at non-premium prices," clearly a thumbed nose at every other tablet manufacturer on the market -- especially Apple. By slashing prices and providing a seamless way to access its digital services, Amazon is in a strong position in the market. And this is only the first tablet device. The company has regularly improved its Kindle readers and cut prices, so who knows what's in store for the next Fire model if Amazon duplicate its e-books success with its other digital content.

Related stories:

Kindle Fire takes shot at iPad’s dominance

FAQ: Details on Amazon’s new products

In a streaming world, at-home gadgets multiply

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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