}

12/31/2011

Amazon Kindle Fire - the full review

The Amazon Kindle Fire
Look and Feel

The Kindle Fire has a very simple design and looks quite nice.  It feels substantial in your hands, and has a rubbery back that makes it easy to hold.  I can hold it easily with one hand.  The Fire is a tad thicker than I expected, but not so much that it's a problem.  I also found it to be a little on the heavy side - holding it up while you're in bed reading can get uncomfortable.  I've been propping it up on my arm or a pillow when I read or watch media while lying in bed.

The Hardware

The Kindle Fire has a 1024 X 600 IPS screen that looks fantastic.  Colors are bright and vibrant.  The screen is not HD, but at 7 inches it doesn't matter anyway.  

There is only one button on the Kindle - the power button.  Everything else is a software button.  You have to hit the 'options' software button to even get to the volume control.  Many times you have to hit a software button just to get the options button to show up.  Then you have to hit the options button, and then finally you can use the volume slider.  Volume control is a big deal on a media consumption device, and the Kindle Fire fails miserably on this count.

The speakers are another weak point for the Kindle Fire.  The speakers are on top of the Fire when you hold the unit in a vertical position.  I almost always watch videos and movies with the tablet in landscape orientation, which means the two speakers will be on the left or right side.  Stereo separation?  Headphones work fine with the Fire, my Beats headphones sounded great.  Usually when I watch media on the Kindle before going to sleep, I don't use headphones and am stuck with the two speakers on the side.  The audio quality of the speakers is pretty good, but small.  If you are watching a video where the source audio was recorded low, you will not be able to hear.  If you are watching the Fire in a noisy environment, you will probably not be able to hear the audio as well.

There are only two ports on the Fire - a headphone jack and a USB 2.0 port.  The USB 2.0 port utilizes a Micro USB-B connector and is used for charging and transferring data.  Notably missing from the Kindle Fire is a memory slot for SD cards.  There is 8GB of internal storage, but only 6GB of that is available for user content.  The Fire is pretty much a Wi-Fi only device, so fortunately the Wi-Fi reception is good.  I get much better Wi-Fi reception on the Fire than I do with my Motorola Droix X2 phone.

The Kindle Fire has a TI OMAP4 dual core processor.  I have found the processor to be very fast and have not experienced the sluggishness I have read about in other reviews.  The touchscreen and especially the on-screen keyboard are very responsive.  Moving from menu to menu or page to page is very fluid and not sluggish at all.

Amazon advertises a battery life of 8-9 hours with Wi-Fi turned off.  I haven't timed it, but battery life does appear to be excellent.  I can see the battery lasting an easy 7 hours while watching movies.  The Fire itself does not get overly warm during use.  The only drawback I can see to the battery is that it takes a long time to charge.  I guesstimate it takes around 3 hours to put a full charge on the Fire.

You didn't really want a camera anyway


Taking a picture with a tablet would be really stupid anyway, wouldn't it?  There is no camera on the Kindle Fire.  There's also no microphone and no GPS.  I don't need these on my Reader/Media Player, and I don't want to pay the extra money for them either.  At $200, you don't need the Kindle Fire to 'do it all' - you have real computers for content creation.

The OS and the Market

The Kindle Fire is running a heavily customized version of Android 2.3.  You basically have the homescreen, which is a bookshelf of apps, webpages, books, etc that you have used lately.  From the home page you can jump to Newstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps and the Web.  I appreciate the simplicity and in some ways find the bookshelf views more appealing than the stock Android experience.  The Fire certainly provides a much cleaner, orderly look which is more like iOS than it is Android.

The notification panel is fairly sparse.  One thing I like about my Android phone is the vast amount of information I can get just by looking at the icons across the top of the screen.  The Kindle Fire is much simpler as far as notifications go.  You simply have a circle with a number inside, which tells you how many notifications you have - to check them you click on the circle.  If this were a phone, I'd say this wasn't good enough.  Since it's not, I'm not crazy about the notification system, but it's good enough.

On a stock Kindle Fire, you are relegated to the Amazon market for downloading new apps.  Hulu plus and Netflix ARE there, which is a huge deal for me.  There are no Google apps in the Amazon market.  Not having a Gmail app on an Android-based device seems like a sin to me.  There are also no Twitter, Facebook or Youtube apps for the Kindle Fire as of this writing.  There are shell apps that pretend to be Facebook and Twitter, but really all they do is launch the browser on the mobile versions of those sites.

I can handle the Kindle Fire OS, and actually quite like it.  I hate not having access to the Android Marketplace for Google apps, Facebook and Twitter.  And that's not even mentioning the fact that I don't have access to all of the Android Market apps I've already bought in the past.  Many apps have a usable web counterpart for a workaround, but some don't.  My entire music collection has been uploaded to Google Music.  There is no Google Music app for the Kindle Fire and I have yet to get the Google Music site to work in the Silk browser.  I can get to the site, but once there I cannot scroll down, rendering the site useless.  With no external storage and no access to Google Music, at least for now, I am stuck in the mud.

One cool feature I really like about the Kindle Fire implementation of Android is the Lock/Unlock button.  In the settings screen you simply press lock to lock the current perspective or unlock for the Fire to orient it's screen as it sees fit.  Being able to lock the screen in both perspectives is a feature I've yet to see on Android until the Fire came out, and for reading or viewing in bed, it's an important feature to have.

Credit Cards

If you are planning on buying a Kindle Fire for a child, keep in mind that you will have to put a credit card on file for whatever account you use on their Kindle if you want them to be able to install any apps at all, including free apps.  I certainly didn't want our kids to use my account and I didn't want them to have my credit or debit card on their accounts.  The workaround that I found - I bought a $25 Vanilla Visa gift card at Walgreen's for $28 and was able to make that the credit card on file for both kids' accounts.  I just put their name under cardholder's name and entered the rest of the info straight from the Vanilla Visa.

I understand requiring a credit card to prove your identity, but you should be able to create 'kid's accounts' under your own main account.  Requiring a credit card for a kid before they can install apps is strange to me, especially considering Amazon won't even let you put an Amazon gift card on file in lieu of the credit card.


Reading

It is a Kindle, after all.  While not e-ink, I find the Kindle app on the Kindle Fire to be very well done.  You can customive the style of the font, size of the font, border size and amount of vertical whitespace in between lines.  I've found running the Kindle app with a beige background and the Trebuchet font, set at the second smallest setting is a very comfortable setting for me.  I've read very comfortably at that setting for a few hours at a time.

Movies

Movies, TV shows and YouTube videos are where the Kindle Fire shine.  The screen looks great, and the action is smooth.  The mobile version of the YouTube site is actually quite nice, but I do miss the YouTube app for Android.  Movies and video are the reason I wanted a Kindle Fire, and in my opinion it displays video to perfection.  

The Silk Browser

The Kindle Fire comes with Silk Browser, which is supposed to use predicitive technology to accelerate your browsing experience.  In practice, it hasn't worked so far, and the consensus is that the Silk browser is actually faster when acceleration is turned off.

I find the Silk Browser renders text badly when the browser is in portrait (vertical) orientation.  Instead of rendering the fonts at a smaller size, it looks like the whole page is just shrunk - and that makes the type look like crap.  Turn the Silk Browser to work in landscape orientation, and it looks great.

I've mentioned the Silk Browsers inability to display correctly quite a few Google sites.  Many times I am unable to scroll on GMail, the Blogger Dashboard and Google Plus.  The scroll bug has made Google Music unusable on my Fire, since there is no Amazon Market app and the Silk Browser will never let me scroll on the Google Music site.

I've searched the Amazon Market and there are no third party browsers available for download there.  Amazon took a big risk with the Silk Browser on the Kindle Fire and I consider it a big failure.  Why not just use a tried and true open source browser in addition to the Silk Browser or at least offer it for download?  The performance and compatibility of the Silk Browser are horrid, especially for those heavily vested in the Google ecosystem.

Final thoughts

In spite of all the weaknesses I have mentioned, the Kindle Fire fits my particular usage case very well.  I only use the device for watching movies and videos on YouTube and reading books at home.  The Fire performs these tasks exceptionally well, and at a very good price.  The 7 inch screen is a perfect size for personal viewing and is easy to handle.  I personally find 10 inch tablet to be a tad cumbersome and awkward.

My usage case may be different from yours.  I use the browser and email programs sparingly and very rarely will use the Fire in locations where WiFi is not available.  As a 'media-consumption device', the Kindle Fire is very hard to beat, especially at $200.  Those of you who travel a lot will be hamstrung by the lack of external storage, relatively small internal storage and lack of 3G.

As a side note, my daughter also received a Kindle Fire for Christmas and she absolutely loves it.  There are tons of free games that she loves to play and she likes reading books in the Kindle app.  The price is important in her case, because there was no way she would have ever gotten a $500-$600 iPad or other tablet.