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
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.
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
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
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.
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.