Amazon’s Kindle Fire: $199 tablet is focused on ‘lean-back experiences’

When planning my review of the Kindle Fire, I knew I’d need two things: time, and a big list of music, movies, and books I wanted to dive into. I say that because I assumed going into the review that the Fire wasn’t about to take the place of my laptop. The Android-powered, 7-inch device didn’t exactly strike me as a productivity machine (at least when you look at the specs), and knowing the selection of apps and services I would have access to, I planned on doing some serious consumption of content.

Make no mistake about it — the Fire is a proper tablet, with many (though not all) of the capabilities of something like an iPad. But the focus on this product is most certainly on lean-back experiences, and that’s reflected in the price, too. But can a $200 mini-tablet take on Apple’s behemoth? Will the Fire derail the plans of other Android tablet-makers? And does the release of this product fundamentally change Amazon’s position in the market? I’ll attempt to answers those questions — and more — in my review below, so read on!

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HARDWARE/DESIGN

The design is just so in­cred­ibly unoriginal

The design of the Kindle Fire is anything but inspired. It would be one thing if the device were simply a black rectangle with a high gloss screen (spoiler alert: it is). But what’s more striking about the device is just how identical it looks in comparison to a product we’ve seen before. Namely, the BlackBerry PlayBook. I can’t overstate how similar these two products seem. They are a similar size (their dimensions closely match), both feature a 1024 x 600, 7-inch display on the front and have a plastic, soft-touch casing on the sides and back, and both weigh 0.9 pounds.

It’s been speculated on (and more recently stated as fact by Barnes & Noble) that Amazon used the PlayBook reference design as the basis for the design of the Fire, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the design is necessarily bad — it’s just that it’s incredibly unoriginal.

Still, the device feels solid and well made in your hands. It’s got enough heft that it feels substantial, but it’s not so heavy that you feel strain when holding it for extended periods. Unlike the 1.3 pound iPad 2, I never felt fatigue after reading a book or magazine on the Fire.

The size and shape might very well be the sweet spot for many users

I am confused about a number of decisions here, however. Unlike the PlayBook, iPad, or pretty much any other tablet on the market, the Fire has no hardware volume controls, meaning that you have to go through a series of taps (especially if the device is sleeping) to just change the volume. The Fire also has no “home” button — simply a small, hard-to-find nub along the bottom used for sleeping and waking the device, and powering up and down. That means that Amazon had to create software navigation for getting around the tablet, which would be fine... if the home button wasn’t always disappearing into a hidden menu. Also, I found myself accidentally pressing the power button when I was typing or holding the tablet in certain positions, causing the Fire to think I wanted to shut it down. I’m not sure why it’s located where it’s located, but it seems like a poor choice to me.

Knocks aside, I do like the general aesthetic and feel of the Fire. After using this device and then going back to the iPad 2, I was struck at how big and bulky Apple’s tablet feels. This size and shape might very well be the sweet spot for many users, and since most people have never seen or used a PlayBook, the Fire should be a relatively new experience for them from a design standpoint too.

INTERNAL/DISPLAY

The Fire isn’t a speed demon

The Fire isn’t a speed demon, though it definitely holds its own in the specs department. Inside the device there’s a TI OMAP dual-core CPU clocked to 1GHz. The Fire has 512MB of RAM and 8GB of onboard storage, plus Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n. There’s no Bluetooth, 3G, or GPS here, however. While the device has an accelerometer, it doesn’t appear to have a light sensor — at least, there aren’t any options for auto-brightness on the Fire. I thought that was a bit odd, considering the amount of reading in different settings you’ll be doing with this thing.

The Fire has a set of stereo speakers mounted at the top rear of the casing (if you’re holding it in portrait). Sound was reasonable from the device, though you’re probably going to want to plug it in to something (via the 3.5mm headphone jack) for more serious audio. You can charge or sync the Fire via a micro USB port.

There’s no removable storage on the Fire, and the only model being sold is the 8GB version (you actually get something more like 6GB of usable space). That could be a deal breaker for some — while you do get great streaming options with the tablet, you’re going to be limited to a small amount of content loaded onboard. That’s going to be a particularly vivid reality if you’re an avid HD movie or TV watcher.

The 1024 x 600 LCD display does a fine job with all sorts of media, displaying bright colors and crisp text. Touch response on the capacitive screen seemed relatively good — I do take issue with some scrolling behavior, though I think it has more to do with software than anything else (more on that below).

BATTERY LIFE AND PERFORMANCE

I never really found myself worrying about charging the device

The battery on the Fire certainly lived up to Amazon’s claim of 8 hours for “continuous reading.” In fact, it might have slightly outperformed the ratings while I was using it. Much like my experience with the iPad and iPad 2, I never really found myself worrying about charging the device — it went for days at a time without needed to be plugged in. I think Amazon could do a better job with letting people know where their battery life is at; like most Android devices, you can only see battery percentage inside of a settings menu.

SOFTWARE

Of course, as everyone knows, the Fire isn’t about specs. It’s not about horsepower. It’s about software and services — and there’s at least one of those places where Amazon truly shines. You can’t question that the company has music, books, TV, and movie options galore, but how does Bezos’ retailer fare at creating a siloed Android experience? The company made a big gamble that it could redesign and re-skin Google’s OS in a way that was more user friendly and cohesive. So have they succeeded?

Look and feel

To be clear, the software experience of the Fire isn’t wholly disconnected compared to other Android tablets or phones. You still have some of the basic pieces of the OS in place here, but others have been removed or heavily altered. Things that will seem familiar to Android users include the keyboard, (which has been reskinned, though works and sounds like a standard Gingerbread keyboard), the window shade notification area (though now it’s a tap instead of swipe down), and many of the submenus and settings screens.

There are huge changes elsewhere, however. For starters, there aren’t “home screens” or “widgets” here. Instead, Amazon offers a virtual bookshelf that has two specific places for your content. The upper level is a Cover Flow-style swipeable list which shows you your most recently used items (across music, books, magazines, apps, and more). The lower level is a user-programmable list which allows you to place your favorite selections into an organized grid. You can rearrange these icons much like you do on the homescreen of the iPad (they automatically reshuffle), and the list grows downward as you add more items. This is for all intents and purposes your new homescreen — and it works rather well. Along the top of your homescreen is a list of your content silos: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web, as well as a search box that lets you peer into your library or jump to a web search. It makes getting to your stuff quick and easy, and also blends well with the store options Amazon provides.

SHOPPING ON THE FIRE

Where Amazon is particularly strong is in breaking down the sense of a barrier between the content you own and have on the device, and its various stores where new content is available to buy and stream, or download to the Fire.

All of the content silos on the device offer a quick jump into Amazon’s store where you can browse and purchase new music, movies, books, or magazines. The experience is completely painless, and far more integrated in the Fire than it is on the iPad or any other Android tablet. If Amazon was trying to prove a point here, it seems to be working. The company is definitely presenting a smoother path to buying content than any of the other guys. Now, I’m not saying that Amazon’s method of displaying that content in the respective stores is superior to Apple’s — I’m just saying that the experience of getting there and purchasing what you’re looking for is nearly seamless.

As far as selection goes, Amazon will seem tough to beat in many departments. The company’s music offerings are well established, and its TV and movie content don’t lag very far behind the competition. In books and magazines, it’s tough to argue against Amazon, though many magazine and newspaper choices here are available elsewhere in nearly identical formats.

I found magazine reading to be a little cramped on the small display, and zooming and panning around lacks a smoothness that would make the experience more enjoyable. Some titles are offered in enhanced, tablet-specific formats (the Conde Nast titles, for instance), and I think users will notice the difference in presentation.

With music and movies, while the choices may be vast, there are limitations. The Fire relies predominately on streaming to get your content, meaning that if your connection is slow or you’re out of Wi-Fi range, you’re pretty much out of luck. You can sideload content, but I get the impression that mounting a drive on your computer and dumping files into it isn’t what Amazon really had in mind when they made the Fire.

If you’ve got a good connection, however, there are plenty of options to keep you happy. While streaming is the preferred method of enjoying your content, you have the option to download anything you purchase, and the process is relatively painless. Even better, the tablet tells you how many viewable minutes of video you’ve downloaded during the process. Of course, it doesn’t tell you how long the download will take — so it’s a give and take.

The biggest problem for most users will likely be the limited storage the tablet provides. If you are storing lots of music and movies on the device, you’re going to have to get into management of those files pretty quickly, and that can make for an unpleasant experience.

Minor complaints aside, my main takeaway from the Fire on the process of finding and purchasing content is this: Amazon has done it better and more elegantly than anyone else in the space right now, and I hope the competition follows suit.

WRAP-UP

There’s no question that the Fire is a really terrific tablet for its price

If you’re thinking about getting the Fire, you have to decide not just whether you want a tablet, but what kind of tablet you want. This isn’t an iPad-killer. It has the potential to do lots of things, but there are many things I have yet to see it do, and I wonder if it will get there given the lean software support. It’s my impression that Amazon believes that the Fire will be so popular that developers will choose to work on its platform rather than on Google’s main trunk of Android, but that’s just a theory right now.

Still, there’s no question that the Fire is a really terrific tablet for its price. The amount of content you have access to — and the ease of getting to that content — is notable to say the least. The device is decently designed, and the software — while lacking some polish — is still excellent compared to pretty much anything in this range (and that includes the Nook Color). It’s a well thought out tablet that can only get better as the company refines the software. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great start, and at $200, that may be all Amazon needs this holiday shopping season.

This article originally appeared on TheVerge.com as: Kindle Fire review

 
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