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Kindle Fire Home Screen
Editor’s Note: We reviewed the Amazon Kindle Fire shortly after it was released, but given the extreme success it’s seen in holiday season buying, felt it was worth a second look after a month of use…

The Kindle Fire arrived on November 14 with hype and anticipation usually reserved for products hailing from Cupertino.  Staggering sales estimates and some of the early reviews pointed to Amazon having hit a home run with their first swing in the tablet market.  In the interim, the reviews have turned sour and user complaints are apparently on the rise.  Why?  Largely it seems because the Fire is not performing like a certain 10-inch tablet with a nifty magnetic cover.  I have been using mine for about a month, and I think the naysayers really need to tap the brakes, take a breath, and order up a healthy serving of perspective.   I am not an Android fanboy or an Amazon fanboy (do they even have those?).  If anything, my loyalties do skew toward Apple.  I tried the Fire after being given a unit to test at my day job.  Learning the ins and outs of this device at the same time that reviews kept cropping up gave me a bit of a guided tour, and I eventually found some niches for it in my tech gadget arsenal.  That is why this past week after hearing Clayton Morris and this story from The Week issue what I consider unfair critiques, I was moved to defend it a little.

Kindle Fire: The Physical Device

My initial reaction to the industrial design was mixed.  Kind of plain and lacking any iconic elements.  Weird decisions on the interface with no physical buttons for either volume control or to get you to the home screen and with the power button located on the bottom edge make the user experience more inconvenient than expected.  It was also a little heavier than I thought.  That heft also lends a feeling that this is a solid, densely packed device.  It is pretty thin, and the 7″ form factor provides easier handling than I would have thought, as long as you aren’t lying on your back trying to support it with one hand.  The rubberized back cover makes for a comfortable and secure gripping surface.  All in all, it is a very clean, tight look, if maybe a little austere.

Kindle Fire: The User Interface

One thing that Amazon has got bang on is what happens once you link your Fire to your online account.  Just like magic, all your Ebooks are right there on the shelf.  No download needed, there they all are.  Of course, that’s because it defaults to the Cloud view, made all the more important by the meager 8GB of onboard unexpandable storage.  Still, I was able to find music and my latest book right away.  Navigation is a little different from other recent touchscreen devices, but it’s not hard to figure out.  Apps are easy to find and download, although the selection is more limited than the full Android or IOS market.  Then there is the “carousel.”  I see where they were going with this, keeping the most recent app or web page in front and the rest coverflowing behind it chronologically.  However, putting every single thing you have done in there with no apparent way to delete it is a little silly and potentially embarrassing.  Do you really want anyone who picks up your Fire to know exactly what you have been watching, surfing, playing, or reading?  Somewhere in there is a potential guilty pleasure that may not be suitable for broadcast.  I do like the bookshelf of favorites underneath the Carousel, and that is easy enough to manage.

Kindle Fire: The User Experience

I didn’t really get much chance to use this as a business device.  I didn’t sort through the options for document editing, and I never even configured the mail client on it.  I wanted to treat this as an entertainment and information portal.  To that end, I’d say this thing passed with flying colors.

Reading on Fire

Reading 206 Bones in the Fire

Ready is easy on the Kindle Fire

I had to start out with the Kindle reading experience, having only used that app on my iPhone previously.  As much as I love the convenience and pocketability of the Kindle-on-iPhone reading experience, there is no question that the act of reading itself is better on the Fire.  Something about the page size and holding that slate form in the hand is more fulfilling and pleasant than constantly swiping across a smartphone screen.  Maybe reading in bed is trickier given the mass and relatively small area to grab without interacting with the touchscreen, but for reading on the couch, this is a big improvement.

Blackest Night on the Kindle Fire

Reading comics on the Fire

Next came comic books.  I give Comixology credit for finding a way to navigate through the panels of a comic on an iPhone screen, but it certainly helps when you have 4X the screen area to look at.  It still may require a little panning and zooming to get the whole page, but it’s certainly less of a hassle.

Gaming on Fire

How does it handle games?  I stuck to the casual variety.  Of course, Words With Friends and Angry Birds were available and free. and they worked just fine.  I was thrilled with the extra space to see where exactly I was placing the bird at the extent of the slingshot’s pull.  Fruit Ninja was a different story.  My 15-year-old niece immediately called attention to the lag in the trajectory of the fruit.  It wasn’t enough to impact gameplay, but it did compromise the graceful ballet of produce I had come to love on my iPhone.

Browsing on Fire

CBS Fantasy Football on Silk

Fantasy football scoreboard on the Silk browser

Surfing on the Silk browser was faster and more versatile for me than most other mobile browsers I have tried.  It was surprisingly snappy from the minute I launched it, and it had no problem tracking my Fantasy Football live scoreboard all Sunday long.  An even bigger surprise: a visit to Fox.com revealed that the Fire could play FULL EPISODES of Fringe and The New Girl.  Try that with an iPad.  It’s not a totally stable browser, and I managed to lock it up from time to time, but it did what I wanted more often than not.

Watching on Fire

Streaming Firefly

Captain Mal streaming on the Fire

Video is mostly a joy.  Netflix has been treating me to Law and Order marathons via the Fire.  I like the interface, and it plays quickly and smoothly. It does crash and need a restart on occasion, but it works at least as well if not better than my iPhone app did.  The Amazon Instant Video that I get free with my trial of Amazon Prime performs wonderfully, even if the library of streaming content isn’t huge.  A big plus: I was able to scrub along the timeline without crashing the stream.  Netflix and the Fox video player were not nearly as accommodating.

 

Kindle Fire: the Final Analysis

Returning to my original point, how did my experience with the Kindle Fire mesh with the recent venom directed its way from the tech pundits and demanding consumers?  Rather than disappointing me with its bugs and shortcomings, I was more impressed with the things that it could do well.  I would say that I properly managed my expectations.  At no time did I ever think this was going to be an iPad rival.  First, it was made by Amazon, which has learned a bit about making appealing E-readers, but it is never going to be confused with Apple when it comes to consumer devices.  Second, and this is important, so I want you to pay close attention… it costs THREE. HUNDRED. DOLLARS. LESS.  That’s $300 less than the cheapest iPad.  A 60% lower MSRP.  Given that discrepancy in price, it is hardly reasonable to expect comparable performance.  The Fire is not meant to play in the iPad market segment.  It’s also not fair to simply call it an E-reader.  It is cheaper than the original Nook Color while doing much, much more.  This lives in a product category between the base Kindle and the iPad.  It’s a bit strange to think that the tablet spectrum can have this many subdivisions considering that the category really barely existed three years ago, but that is exactly where the Fire falls.  Software updates should be able to address most of the bugs I found, and the mechanical shortcomings are not so troublesome as to ruin the experience.  Against that backdrop, the $199 price tag makes this a perfectly useful entry into the tablet space.  If you want the full iPad experience, pay for it.  For those who can’t afford that, the Kindle Fire is a great fallback option.

**UPDATE**

Remember how I said that a software fix might address some of those problems? Well, version 6.2.1 magically appeared on the Fire without any warning or notification, and some of these snags did improve.

  • The Carousel now gives you the option to remove an item that you no longer wish to see up there.  Just tap and hold for a menu to appear.
  • The Netflix player (either because of the system or the app update) now allows fast and flawless scrubbing through the video timeline with minimal buffering and no crashes (so far).
  • The Fox.com video player now asks for a newer version of Flash to watch.  Not sure what to do about that.
  • Fruit Ninja still lags just as badly.

So, not perfect, but still making progress.  It is encouraging to see them respond so quickly to user complaints.

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About The Author

Avatar of Jomichael Porter

Senior Mechanical Engineer at AMX, Inc and president of Intersect Product Design. Stanford ME and Product Design grad. Serious obsession with technology, sports, and media. I am from Houston and based in the northish part of Dallas. Husband of a Canadian scientist. Parent of two awesome dogs. @Jomichael on Twitter.

10 Responses

  1. Eric

    My main problem with this review is that you price compared it with an iPad, but then went on to compare it’s usability to an iPhone.

  2. Elizabeth

    The most relevant and fair review of the Kindle Fire I have seen so far. It makes up for the poor off-the-cuff initial video review done by many sites (hmm…no names). This is the review I would suggest people read when asking about the Kindle Fire. Thanks.

  3. mogelijk

    A slight correction, the Nook Color is the same price as the Kindle Fire. And the Fire doesn’t really do more (though Amazon does have a larger app catalog), especially considering you can expand the memory of a Nook Color with a microSD card, which you can’t on a Fire. There is also the point that the Nook Color has a physical volume button. Both machines have difference advantages and both offer the ability to play audio and video (including that both have Netflix apps).

    • James

      The Nook Color’s price was originally higher, but doesn’t change that it is also an older and significantly less powerful device than the Kindle Fire. It’s the new Nook Tablet that really competes with the KF on specs but that does come at a higher cost.

      You are right that both have different advantages and disadvantages though. Amazon does compensate a bit with it’s cloud services for the KF’s hardware limitations.

      However, only the Nook Tablet offers the HD version of the Netflix app but neither Nooks or Kindles offer HDMI out to really take advantage of that feature.

      • mogelijk

        Actually, the Nook Color is actually the machine that better corresponds with the Kindle Fire, the only real differences are that the Nook Color has a single core processor compared to a dual core processor and the Nook Color has the microSD card slot while the Fire doesn’t.

        The Nook Tablet is more powerful in that it has 1GB RAM, as compared to 512MB for the Kindle Fire and Nook Color. It also has twice the storage, 16GB, plus allows users to add storage with a microSD card.

        The Nook Tablet and the Kindle Fire have roughly the same processor and screen; they both appear to be using the Ti OMAP 4430 processor and the same graphics processor, POWERVR SGX540. They also have similar touch screens, and possibly the same, running at 1024×600 resolution — and the screen is also the same in the Nook Color.

        I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the Netflix app is different on the Nook Color than on the Nook Tablet. Both machines run the same operating system (currently version 1.4.1). The only difference I see is that the Nook Tablet comes with Netflix preloaded while the Nook Color the app has to be downloaded (as it requires OS 1.4) which the Nook Color doesn’t yet ship with. Though, of course, with the better specs the Netflix app will perform better on the Nook Tablet.

      • James

        No, dual core makes a big difference and the original Nook Color was clocked slower as well as being single core. While 1GB vs 512MB isn’t that big a deal for Android. It mainly just limits how much you could multi-task on the device. So KF compares closer to the Tablet than the Color. The Nook Tablet just edges out the Kindle Fire, while it’s up to how the device is used whether the lack of a card reader matters, versus the higher price of the Nook Tablet of course.

        Since, like I said before, Amazon does compensate a bit with their services. You may not be able to use a memory card but you do have more online storage than B&N offers, along with more services. Remember the main thing about the KF is it’s a platform Amazon to sell it’s services. The hardware is less a factor for them, though the KF had some OS optimization issues but the last update seems to have fixed most of those issues.

        The screens are also not exactly the same, look at the reviews that did detailed screen test and comparisons. They’re just all better than what you would normally get at their price ranges.

        While you may not be aware of it but the Nook Tablet is presently the only one with the Netflix HD app, all others are still using the generic Netflix app. Just do a search on the Netflix HD app and you’ll find the Nook Tablet is the only one that has it right now.

        Mind the Netflix HD app requires certain security features to be enabled to work. So even if you install the same app on another tablet, you won’t get HD unless those security features are active.

        The Neflix HD streaming does provide a noticeable difference, but unless you’re a heavy Netflix user then that’s pretty much the only clear advantage. Also the lack of HDMI out on any of these three tablets kinda defeats the purpose of watching video in full HD when limited to these small screens.

      • mogelijk

        He said the “original Nook Color”, which currently retails for $199 (and has been that price since before the Kindle Fire was announced). It is about like if someone wrote a B&N ad and claimed that the Nook Color or Tablet are significantly cheaper than the original e-ink Amazon Kindle (which sold for $399) or Kindle 2 (which started out at $359).

      • James

        No, unless you’re confusing when Amazon announced the KF with when it actually started being sold, prior to the KF announcement the original Nook Color was only ever at that price range for sales and refurbs. It wasn’t until after the KF was announced, with pre-orders already being made, and just as B&N announced their Nook Tablet that they decided to make the price reduction permanent.

  4. John

    I agree that the Fire and the iPad are two different devices. I always knew that and never understood why people tried to make them out as direct competing devices. My wife has an iPad and loves it because she can do basically everything on it. I have the Fire and love it because it’s a great reader with few cool extra features.