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REVIEW: Kindle Fire is no iPad killer - but it is a killer device

The Kindle Fire is shown news conference Wednesday Sept. 28 2011 New York. The e-reader tablet has 7-inch (17.78 cm)

The Kindle Fire is shown at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York. The e-reader and tablet has a 7-inch (17.78 cm) multicolor touchscreen and will go on sale for $199 on Nov. 15. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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Updated: December 20, 2013 3:02PM



Take an iPad, solve its two biggest problems, and you’d hope to wind up with something exactly like Amazon’s Kindle Fire. The iPad has a 10-inch screen and costs a minimum of $499. The Fire slips into many pockets and purses and will set you back just $199. Its designers started off with a fundamentally good idea, executed that idea extremely well (despite a few 1.0 hiccups), and wound up with a product that fills a sorely-felt gap in the marketplace.

The iPad and the Fire are by no means the same kind of device. But that’s part of the Rightness of what Amazon has built. The iPad is an immaculately flexible computer that can handle just about any task that you’d normally throw at a notebook. In contrast, Kindle Fire is explicitly a device for enjoying books, periodicals, music, video, and games. But it can also handle the sort of computer-ish tasks that are often necessary distractions when you spend an hour or two in a coffeeshop reading a book. Things like checking email, looking something up on the Web, or telling your Twitter and Facebook friends that this dude who just walked into the coffeeshop has the most awesome mane of heavy metal hair spotted in the wild since Poison concluded their ’86-’87 “Look What The Cat Dragged In” tour.

Heft and Feel

The first thing you notice when holding the Fire is that it feels very heavy. That’s partly a psychological thing: you see the word “Kindle” (in orange at the top of the screen and embossed into its grippy, textured back) and you think “paper-thin and featherweight.” In truth, it weighs just under a pound. That’s about twice the weight of the latest generation of e-ink Kindles. But hey, you’ll get used to it. Remember when you used to read books that were made out of protons and neutrons in addition to just electrons? Most of those weighed more than the Fire. Somehow, you managed.

Rather than feeling heavy, the Fire feels solid. It’s very well put together. The device is also almost completely unadorned; wisely, the front face is a simple black frame free of any kind of distractions. At the top, there’s a pair of stereo speaker slots that put out enough volume to be heard, but not enough to compete with other sound in the room. You’ll find a headphone jack at the bottom, as well as a micro-USB port for charging, and sideloading content from your desktop. Though the Fire can live a long and productive life without ever being connected to another computer.

You’ll also find the Fire’s tiny power/sleep button there at the bottom. Tap it to wake or sleep, and hold it down for a second to power the Fire down completely. You will likely discover the latter feature by accident when you’re in the middle of reading a book, multiple times.

Oh, dear. Yes, the power button’s poorly-placed. But it’s easy enough to just turn the Fire 180 degrees and wait a second for the screen to auto-rotate. Not all elements of the Fire experience obey user rotation (the lock screen is one example) but it works fine for the reader app and the home carousel.

The Reading Experience

This carousel is the central hub of the Fire interface. The Fire is emphatically a content-driven device, so it makes sense that when you switch it on, you’re taken to a screen that presents all of your most actively-used media, like the books and periodicals you keep on the coffee table. The main carousel is at the top of the screen, and displays a “cover flow”-style horizontal scroll of all of the content you’ve recently touched. The book that you were reading when you put the device to sleep is at the very top, the album you started playing before you started reading is just behind it, etc.

Any content provided by Amazon automatically shows up in the carousel, including webpages you’ve visited via the Fire’s built in browser, any personal docs you’ve opened using the built-in document viewer, and any apps you’ve launched. It’s a neat and natural concierge for the pile of stuff that a device like the Fire acquires.

Alas, any content that you acquired from outside of the Amazon store ecosystem is excluded from the carousel view. The Green Lantern graphic novel (bought from the Kindle Store) that you read during your ride to work this morning shows up in the carousel. The latest issue of Green Lantern (bought from ComiXology through their own separate store app) that you read during lunch doesn’t. Instead, it’s represented indirectly by a launch button for the ComiXology app.

Any item already in the carousel can be pinned permanently to a vertically-scrolling bookshelf below and reorganized manually.

As an ebook reader, the Fire is strong competition to both the classic e-Ink Kindles and the iPad. The Fire’s 1024x600 IPS screen is crisp and detailed and has smooth, consistent backlighting from edge to edge. The reader will be familiar to anybody who’s read their Kindle content on a phone or other mobile device. I settled right in for hours and hours of reading -- oh, the stressful labors of research! -- and was perfectly comfortable both holding the Fire and reading the screen.

The 7-inch screen offers enough acreage to deliver a satisfying “full page” sort of experience, though I miss the utter luxury of the iPad’s big 10-inch display. However, the Fire packs 169 pixels per inch to the iPad’s 132. Under magnification, the difference is obvious. In real-world use, the added density simply helps to make up for the paperback-sized page layout. Neither device can hold a candle to e-Ink and its true print-quality resolution, but personally I think once a display’s ppi exceeds a certain comfy minimum, consistent backlighting makes a more valuable contribution to readability than more dots.

The reader app lacks the lovely little flourishes found in an iPad book reader. Page turns are mechanical, with little thought to transitions or interactions. When you’re reading content that benefits from a little manual panning and zooming (like the contents of a webpage, a PDF, or a hard-formatted digital magazine), the experience is very Android-ish. Effective, yes, but not anything like the instantaneous liquid feedback you get from an iPad.

The Fire’s compact size certainly makes it easier to physically handle than an iPad. It obviously makes the Fire more totable and it’s also easier to maintain control over the thing. On the subway, I tend to keep my iPad in my bag and read books on my iPhone, just to keep my elbows from encroaching on my neighbors’ airspace. And so that I’m not broadcasting “Hello, low-life scum! I’m holding a $500 gadget and sitting just two seats away from an open doorway! Why, a fleet-footed, sticky-fingered lad like yourself could disappear into that crowd on the platform almost immediately!”

That said, the smaller size limits the Fire’s reach. The text of an ebook is like water, easily reflowing to fit the screen dimensions of any container. A 7-inch screen can handle that kind of content. But the Kindle Fire prides itself on delivering all types of readables: magazines, children’s books, even comic books. The page layouts of those types of things are locked down. The iPad’s large screen allows for a satisfying reading experience with pre-formatted content (even a comic book page is readable in fullscreen mode). But the Fire can only deliver a functional experience at best.

Though ComiXology has come through for the Fire in a way that Conde Nast and other magazine publishers haven’t. The ComiXology app can display comics in either fullpage mode (which makes one nostalgic for those pulp Archie Comics digests at the supermarket checkout aisle) or in a “guided view” mode that moves a virtual “camera” around the page, following the story panel by panel. The system was originally created for phone screens, which completely failed to engage my excitement for digital comics, but on the Fire the system works well.

I can only hope that magazine publishers will follow ComiXology’s example, and provide the reader with an alternative to tedious manual zooming and scrolling.

Otherwise, the Fire is an excellent package. Seven inches is a Goldilocks screen size for many uses. Watching video on the Fire, for instance, is a huge leap up from a phone screen and it isn’t much less pleasant than watching the same thing on an iPad, assuming that you don’t want to share “Sex And The City 2” with a second set of eyeballs (which only seems prudent).

Steve Jobs, in the middle of lambasting 7-inch tablets as an utter disaster, insisted that they could only work if the box included enough sandpaper to grind down the user’s fingertips to half their normal size. Well, that’s just rubbish. All around, the Fire is as good a reader as the iPad. The two different screen sizes are just better in different scenarios.

As for power consumption, Amazon promises 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback on a single charge. That’s a far cry from e-Ink Kindles, which sip power so conservatively that the only way to run the battery down completely is by (understandably) forgetting that the thing runs on an actual battery. But it’s perfectly adequate. You’re definitely going to want to remember to top up the batteries at the end of the day, but over four days of heavy use I was never caught short-handed.

The Fire features a dual-core CPU. It’s plenty fast for gaming and, more importantly, video. Whether playing purchased video content stored locally, or streaming it via the Internet, fullscreen video was smooth and clean and despite its name, my hands warmed the Fire more than the other way around. Despite all of that, the Fire never feels exactly fast. That probably has more to do with its Android OS underpinnings than anything else.

Internet connectivity is solely via WiFi. Unlike the other Kindles, there’s no 3G option. The Fire worked just fine with the many home and public WiFi hotspots I tested it with. There’s no GPS and no camera -- remember, Amazon is defining the Fire clearly as a content device, not as a tablet computer per se -- but it sports enough motion sensors to make it into a credible gaming device.

The Ecosystem

But enough with the boring bullet points. The Fire and the iPad share a huge advantage over all other comers: they each have backing of a powerful and delectable infrastructure, run by an enormous media company that has made a mental connection between making users very, very happy and making lots and lots of money.

A Fire is associated with an existing Amazon account. So when you take it out of the box, switch it on, and introduce it to a WiFi connection, you immediately sense the reward for having bought all of your books from the Kindle Store and having stuck to Amazon MP3s for most of your music purchases. At the top of the Fire’s home screen there’s a bar of buttons for grabbing different kinds of content. Tap the “Books” button and after a moment of Internet chatter, a bookcase is populated with the covers of every Kindle book you’ve ever purchased. Tap a cover to download it onto the device. Ditto for every Amazon Instant Video you’ve bought or rented. Tap to stream it over the Internet or download it for local playback.

Ditto for music, apps . . . everything. The Fire organizes every kind of media by its location: Device (meaning it’s stored in the Fire’s memory), Cloud (representing all of the digital content you’ve already bought; tap to download it from Amazon’s servers) and Store. Everything’s nicely and tightly integrated. The physical location of any of your content doesn’t seem like a very important distinction (so long as you’ve got WiFi) and Store content feels more like stuff of yours that you simply haven’t purchased yet.

Apple could be credited for staying far away from the hard sell, I suppose. But discoverability of new content is a solid Fire feature. On the iPad, you have to explicitly walk away from a player and into the iTunes Store app to find and buy new content. On the Fire, the stuff on your bookshelf or video library helps you to find similar books or videos that you might also like. This is a good thing.

Amazon is already delivering a great expanded experience through tight connections to the Amazon digital store. But an Amazon Prime membership kicks the Kindle Fire ecosphere into a higher orbit. Most Amazon shoppers know Prime as the service that buys you free shipping on all orders fulfilled directly by Amazon and next-day shipping for a flat $3.99. Amazon Prime members also can stream thousands of movies and TV shows from Amazon Instant Video at no cost. Amazon recently added a new Kindle Lending Library, too. You can “borrow” any of thousands of name-brand, in-print books directly from Amazon as frequently as once a month...also at no charge. Keep it until you’re ready for another title.

Amazon Instant Video and the Lending Library aren’t exactly an infinite buffet of content, but there’s loads of great stuff in there. It’s an attractive benefit to buying into the Amazon ecosystem and it costs only about as much as a Chipotle burrito per month.

But is it a tablet?

The Fire is a terrific media device, particularly for $199. Is it a halfway decent tablet computer as well?

Mmm...probably not. Its user interface makes a clear statement about Amazon’s intentions. That said, it has a bunch of added features that makes it into much more than a reader.

An email app and a web browser being the central attractions. The mail client is for “convenience access.” It’s quite capable. It will configure itself automatically for many popular services and supports file attachments. But if your ability to keep your job is linked to your ability to keep on top of your email, you wouldn’t want to rely on it. It doesn’t support Exchange servers, for example.

The Silk Browser

Silk, the Kindle’s browser, is something new. It’s based on WebKit, just like every other mobile browser (including the iPad’s). Similarities end after that. Silk aims to speed up the fetching and display of webpages by invisibly splitting up the work between the app on the Fire and the cloud computing resources of Amazon’s servers after you punch in a URL.

Silk has many tricks up its sleeve. For example, a single webpage can contain assets from dozens of different domains. A conventional mobile browser needs to open dozens of separate network transactions to build the page. Silk foists those requests off on Amazon’s cloud computing system. The cloud operation pulls down all of those elements in parallel via an Internet connection that’s several kajillion times faster than the WiFi on the Fire. Once everything’s in hand it pushes it all back down to the Fire.

Silk also optimizes browsing by treating the entire community of Silk users as a cloud of data. If the article you’re accessing has been Farked, BoingBoinged, Fireballed, or Slashdotted, you might not have to wait additional seconds while the original site’s overloaded server forces you to wait your turn amid the mountain of incoming requests. Instead, the cloud side of Silk can push down a recently-cached copy that it set aside after noticing all of the demand.

Similarly, if you visit the Sun-Times’ site, spend a minute or two perusing the front page, and then tap the link for Roger Ebert’s blog, you might find that his page appears at supersonic speed. That’s because the cloud side of Silk has been watching and analyzing the behavior of all of the people who visited Suntimes.com before you. A huge percentage of them proceeded directly to Roger’s page, so Silk felt it was smart to pre-load all of that content for you while you were reading something else, just in case.

But holy cats! P-p-p-personal privacy! Yow!

Okay, well-spotted: you should be instinctively suspicious of any proxy system that has an opportunity to look at all of the data that you send every time you go anywhere on the Web. Amazon’s Silk team has engaged in a bunch of talks with the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- leading advocates of users’ rights -- about Silk’s potential privacy problems. The EFF notes some important concerns, but on their site they say that they’re “generally satisfied with the privacy design of Silk.”

Between the EFF’s reports and my conversations with Amazon, I’m cautiously satisfied with the safety of Silk. Amazon could be compiling an immensely lucrative amount of information about aggregate Internet use, but their ability to connect a specific user to specific data and transactions is limited, even if the company were interested in violating (or, admittedly, simply amending) their own privacy policies.

Furthermore, Silk deliberately doesn’t intercept or interfere with any secure (https://) webpages. If you’re still worried, the browser has an option to turn off the cloud-based optimization entirely and run as a conventional local browser.

Ironically, the optimization delivers at least one privacy benefit: because the connection between the Fire and Amazon is always encrypted, the optimized Silk is far safer to use over an open, unencrypted WiFi connection than it is with the cloud optimizations turned off. It’s probably not quite as secure as a real VPN, but it’s good enough to prevent varmints from sniffing your traffic.

Cool.

But doess Silk’s cloud accelerated browsing mode actually make things faster?

Ah. I’ve no idea. Sorry. I performed lots of tests (cloud acceleration on versus off, Fire versus iPad, with different WiFi access points at different times of day) but couldn’t gather any consistent results. At minimum . . . well, cloud-accelerated Silk isn’t any slower than the alternatives. Maybe Kindle Fire’s browser will show its stripes after the total number of active users increases from hundreds to millions.

The Fire and your own documents and data

Another factor in the Fire’s tablet-ishness is its ability to use documents and data from outside the Amazon store ecosystem. Here, the Fire earns high marks. According to Amazon, the Fire’s built-in readers can handle the following file types without any help: Kindle, TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, PRC, Audible, Microsoft Word (DOC and DOCX), JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, AAC (non-DRM’ed), MP3, MIDI, OGG, WAV, MP4, and VP8. You’ll have no trouble adding your own photos, videos, and movies to the Fire.

The Fire handles other file types easily, assuming you’ve installed a third-party app that knows how to deal with them.

And there are multiple ways to sideload that content. If you connect the Fire to your desktop via USB, it’ll show up on the desktop as a flash drive. Or, you can email a file to yourself and open it as a file attachment, or email it to the device’s unique Kindle email address to install it automatically, or download a file linked from a webpage, or install a third-party app that allows you to access and download content from your Box.net or other cloud storage account.

Assuming that you’ve got enough room for it all. The Fire comes with just 8 gigabytes of storage. That’s, um, the same amount that Apple puts in their cheapest iPod Nano. And also, incidentally, half as much as Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet, which also comes with a micro-SD card slot for expanding its storage even further and will be released just a couple of days after the Fire.

More storage is always better. I think you’ll find that’s why they call it “more” storage. But boatloads of onboard storage is far less important to a Kindle Fire user than it is to a Nook user, thanks to the Fire’s intimate connection to Amazon’s cloud services. 8 gigs is enough for several books, a few movies, a couple of TV shows, several hundred songs, and a pile of photos. That might not necessarily be enough to last you a couple of weeks, but it’ll certainly last until you find yourself near a hotspot and can swap out the stuff you’re sick of for some alternatives.

Plus: $199. You can’t sell a good 7-inch tablet for that price unless you carefully jettison any components you don’t feel the device absolutely needs.

Apps

Then there’s the presence of the Amazon Android App Store, which delivers 10,000 Android apps to the Fire. Amazon made a great move in choosing to base the whole thing on Android. They made a second great decision in choosing to work exceptionally hard to bury every possible trace of Android from the user. Thus, the Kindle gets the best of Android (a free OS and a large, established developer community and app library) without inheriting the worst of it (namely, a user experience that’s often akin to simultaneously discovering the source of that awful smell and the answer to the mystery of what happened to that old raccoon that you used to see hanging around near the back porch.

“Android on Fire” is actually quite lovely. Amazon has streamlined and de-cluttered it and aired out the smelly bits. Some elements will be familiar to established Android users. Swipe down from the top of the screen to pull down a windowshade of system notifications. But primarily, the shade is how you access almost all of the Fire’s device-level settings, such as WiFi management, volume and screen brightness, System settings, and a manual “sync” button. The last one is almost completely unnecessary (Amazon’s servers coordinate content between server and device smoothly on its own) but I understand that the Humans sometimes need a button to push.

The Fire can only find and download apps from the Amazon Android App Store; the Google Marketplace is completely disconnected. You can tick a checkbox in its Settings to allow the Fire to run apps downloaded from any arbitrary source (such as, downloading from a website or an independent repository) . . . but few users will find that necessary. Amazon is vetting the thousands of apps already in the store and certifying them for Fire. All they seem to be doing is making sure that the app won’t crash the Fire (by expecting it to have a camera or an old-timey row of fixed Android hard buttons, for example) and doesn’t have one of those phone-oriented user interfaces that looks intensely weird when scaled up to a 7-inch screen.

There seems to be nothing sinister or strategic about their app approvals. Thanks to Mantano Reader ($7.49 and well worth it), I now have what I’ve always wanted: a Kindle that can open and read ePUB books. Mantano even supports Adobe DRM . . . so at least in theory, the Kindle Fire can even import the books you might have bought from a competing digital shop, such as the Google eBookstore. The Fire would be much less than it is if Amazon decided to shut out any app that competed with the company’s own products.

Fire versus iPad

The Fire offers a thick portfolio of apps. Sure, it’s not nearly expansive as the iPad’s app library, but does it really have to be? It includes most of the heavy-hitters that have made a big splash on the iPad. Plus, the most compelling apps for the Fire wouldn’t be stuff like a VNC app that allows you to control your PC remotely. They’re the ones that make the Fire compatible with an even wider range of content. Once you’ve added Mantano, ComiXology, Netflix, Hulu+, Quickoffice, and Evernote, the Fire becomes every bit as capable a content device as the iPad.

That much is clear. It’s also clear that the Fire lacks the power and flexibility of the iPad. These days, I rarely take my MacBook Pro with me on short trips. I can do all of my work and drive my presentations right from the iPad.

The Fire is by no means a dumb device. It’s just that it’s more of a “hall pass” than a real computer. I can research, write, and file a 2,000 word article on my iPad, complete with photos imported from my SLR. The most ambitious thing I could accomplish with the Fire would be to receive a Word file attached to an email from my editor, make some cuts and changes, and then email it back.

I’m sure that the Kindle Fire team sleeps soundly, regardless. Through all of the Fire’s features and the ways that the device presents itself, Amazon clearly wants to define the Fire as a content device with tablet-ish bonus features available to users who wish to seek those functions out.

In that particular sense, the Fire is superior to the iPad. Switch on the iPad and you’re presented with multiple pages filled with gridded app icons. Switch on the Fire, and it shows you a direct, appealing interface of all of the content that you’ve been playing with recently, as well as a subset of content that you think highly enough of to always keep handy. Apple’s design choice probably makes more sense for the iPad, given the nature of the device, but it also adds to the learning curve.

Complaint Department

That said, I do have some complaints about the Fire. The interface is a big step up over stock Android, but it still needs some fine-tuning. The rotating carousel of recently-accessed item is on a hair trigger and as often as not, I still wind up scrolling just past the item I want to select even after three days of heavy usage. There isn’t quite enough communication between the UI and the user, either. Often I tap a button (to move from the carousel to the Movies area, or to purchase an item) and have no idea whether or not the Fire is actually doing the thing I believe I’ve just asked it to do.

I was also surprised to find that the Fire has practically no accessibility features to speak of. It can’t even read books aloud, which is a commonfeature found on e-Ink Kindles. The Fire is completely useless to the vision impaired, and lacks even the simplest and easiest-to-implement feature to aid the hearing impaired: a checkbox to automatically mix all stereo down to mono, to make the audio work better with hearing aids.

Yes, compare and contrast this with the iPad, which is almost exactly as useful to every user.

I’d also like to see the Fire move even further away from familiar Android tropes. There’s a Back/Home/Search deck of soft buttons that appears from the bottom of the screen, on command. “Home” always takes you to the carousel. It should stay. The others are just as inconsistent on the Fire as they are on any other Android device.

Finally, if Amazon is serious about defining themselves and the Fire as fundamentally cloud-oriented entities . . . why isn’t there any Fire support for Amazon Cloud Drive? Sure, there’s no shortage of ways to move a file from your desktop to the Fire. But it seems obvious that a folder that’s shared between your Fire and all of your other computers is the neatest and simplest way of them all. Why is Cloud Drive not invited to the party?

Conclusion

The Fire is a marvelous device. And Apple and Amazon couldn’t have created a more complementary pair of tablets if they’d colluded on it. Want a tablet that does everything, and which does books exceptionally well? Buy an iPad. Want something more compact, and you’re not terribly interested in much more than content consumption? The Fire is aces. I feel as if every potential tablet consumer will recognize themselves in one of those two descriptions.

There are two odd men out in this new post-Fire world. The iPod Touch was once the go-to device for people who wanted a nice multitouch device without buying a monthly 3G service plan. Today, well, $199 buys you a hell of a lot more tablet from Amazon than from Apple. Though the Touch still makes plenty of sense for gaming, for the high-level mobile apps that are only available for iOS, and for the intimate connection that iCloud maintains between your Mac and your mobile devices.

Otherwise? I’d probably steer a friend towards the Fire.

The $250 Nook Tablet is the device that’s waiting in the wings and fidgeting with its costume. It, too, is a 7-inch Android-based tablet centered around content consumption. But it lacks the immense foundation of Amazon’s multiple digital stores and cloud service portfolio. Has Barnes & Noble figured out a unique and wonderful new wrinkle? Or have they been blindsided?

I’m not the least bit surprised that a company has come up with a tablet that’s just as viable as the iPad. I’m only surprised that it’s taken more than a year and a half for such a device to appear. I’m also surprised that the market for 10” Android tablets has become even more desperate than it was a couple of months ago. Such a device isn’t fundamentally a terrible idea. It’s just waiting for the right person to come along with the right idea. But the Fire has clearly put such a product into the deep freeze, pending the arrival of those people. Or, a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin who can spin straw into retina-grade multitouch displays, which just might allow a 10-inch Android tablet to sell for less than $300 and finally answer the question “Why would anybody buy this instead of an iPad?”

Still, the Kindle Fire delivers that thing that Google has been working and hoping for: finally, there’s an Android-based tablet computer that people can justly get excited about.



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