Can a $200 mini-tablet take on Apple’s behemoth? Can it derail the plans of other Android tablet makers? And does the release of this product fundamentally change Amazon’s position in the market?
The answer is . . . maybe. But they have to do some tinkering first.
Amazon can start with the design, which looks nearly identical to that of the BlackBerry Playbook — that is, a black rectangle with a high-gloss display and a soft-touch rear panel. It’s uninspired, to say the least. And there are other issues, like a badly placed power button that caused me to nearly shut off the device a couple of times by accident.
Still, the Fire feels solid and well made. 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.
A tablet 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 from a design standpoint, too.
Inside the device is a speedy dual-core processor and 8GB of storage. There’s no camera, and no 3G connectivity like older Kindles — only Wi-Fi. If you want to take the Fire out for a walk, you’d better bring a portable hotspot with you.
Battery life was excellent on the Fire. In fact, I barely even thought about charging it while testing it. General performance was good, too, though I did see my share of odd behavior, such as the home screen redrawing itself for no apparent reason, and shaky behavior elsewhere when I was scrolling around. Those wrinkles probably have more to do with the software than the hardware.
Speaking of the software, Amazon has done something very interesting with the Fire. The device uses a version of Google’s Android operating system that is forked from the main version that Google releases to partners. That means that the Fire ships without Gmail, Google Maps, or more importantly, the Android Market app store.
It’s not always perfect, but generally the company has managed to create a wholly original version of Android. On your home screen, you navigate through your content by swiping a big list from left to right, and you can pin your favorite apps, music, movies or books to a virtual bookshelf. But Amazon has obscured some of the navigational elements of Android, such as the “back” and “home” buttons, which can sometimes make it hard to quickly move around the device.
Amazon offers its own app portal, unimaginatively dubbed the “Appstore,” which has more than 10,000 titles. But if you compare that with Google’s 360,000, it sounds a little light. It feels a little light when you’re using it, too. There are good apps to be found, but they’re few and far between, and developers will have to choose between Google’s ecosystem and Amazon’s. Amazon clearly thinks it can win this — but that’s just a theory right now.
What isn’t few or far between, however, is the Amazon content you can find on the device. That includes books, magazines, movies, TV shows, music and more. Probably the best feature of the Fire is its natural connection to Amazon’s content library, which makes it easy to find, buy and stream content.
As far as retail stores married to tablets go, Amazon has a leg up on its competition here. Even Apple.
There are other places Amazon is trying to innovate as well. The company is releasing the Fire with a customized browser called Silk. Amazon says that the new browser will speed up load times because it offloads some of the work to the cloud. I didn’t see much of a performance boost, and in fact, the iPad 2 and other Android tablets often outperformed the Fire.
Still, the Fire is an incredible tablet for its price point. The amount of content Amazon offers is staggering, and the software is easy enough to use that even novices will figure it out quickly. There are kinks to work out and finishing touches that need to be added, but that’s nothing the company can’t offer in a software update.
This might not be the iPad killer that lots of people were predicting it was going to be, but it’s going to change the landscape in the tablet game all the same. And that’s probably enough for Jeff Bezos this holiday season.
Topolsky: Will Barnes & Noble Nook ‘mini-tablet’ shake up the market?
Apple iTV may transform home entertainment
FTC in talks with Facebook over privacy settlement
LG may unveil TV using Google TV software
Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.
com), a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and the former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”