Because of its low price, and the fact that Amazon is the only company on the planet with the media chops to take on Apple iTunes, the Amazon Kindle Fire has been painted by some as the putative heir to the Apple iPad 2's throne as king of tablets. Sadly, beneath the Kindle Fire's slick veneer and unparalleled shopping integration lies a tablet that fails to impress as either a tablet or as an e-reader. We don't know when we'll get it in the UK, and that may not be such a bad thing. See also: New iPad review. (See also: Kindle Fire HD vs Kindle Fire HD 8.9 review.)
The Kindle Fire is best considered a relatively inexpensive, hassle-free but flawed way to consume books, music, and videos purchased at Amazon. Like an iPod, but for Amazon. As a tablet, though, the Fire can't hold a flame to the best tablets available today: it has subpar specs, a limited interface, and a surprisingly messy app store.
When the Amazon Kindle Fire was first introduced, I immediately wondered where it would fit into the overall tablet universe. It runs a custom operating system based on Android 2.3, limits you to buying apps solely via the Amazon Appstore, and has just 8GB of storage, all red flags that made this tablet stand as a curiosity amidst the rest of the Android crowd. But at $200 in the US, and with the colossal weight of Amazon behind it, the Fire automatically becomes worth talking about.
And that despite that Amazon hasn't even given a date when the rest of the world can buy the Kindle Fire (our best guess is that we may have to forget this iteration, and wait for a Kindle Fire 2).
Amazon Kindle Fire's integration with Amazon's media storefronts is, bar none, the best thing about this tablet. Rather than have one place to shop, and another to use your digital media, Amazon consolidates these experiences into one. The Newsstand, Books, Music, and Apps tabs all take you to your personal library first, and then have a prominent but not offensive option to go to the store for that category. (The exception to this is the Video tab, which deposits you in the video storefront first, and then lets you hopscotch into your personal Library.) The seamless interface makes acquiring content of any kind - be it for ownership, or, in the case of movies and TV shows, streaming, or rental - the best experience of any I've tried on a tablet.
In most other respects, Kindle Fire left me feeling tepid, at best. Let's walk through the device step-by-step to see which marks it hits, and which it misses.
Amazon Kindle Fire: Simple Design
Physically, the Kindle Fire does little to distinguish itself. Contrary to some reports, it really doesn't resemble black tablets like the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, which was rumoured to to be Amazon's starting point for the Kindle Fire. In fact, the Fire is smaller than the PlayBook, measuring 190x119x11mm, and weighing just over 400g. That's a hair heavier than Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, and noticeably heavier than Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus.
While the Fire didn't feel especially heavy or tiresome to hold in one hand while reading, its weight is still less than ideal. In fact, a survey of five colleagues saw a clear preference for the weight and balance of the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. All preferred the Fire's velvety back, which has a smooth, rubberized texture that makes it easy to hold.
Overall, the Fire has a curious design. It has an asymmetrical black bezel surrounding the 7-inch display (it's thicker along the bottom, when held in portrait mode). The tablet takes simplicity to the extreme. It has just one button, a sleep/wake/power button placed along the bottom edge. I liked that the button was easy to press, and that it glows red when charging, but it was also too easy to accidentally invoke. Next to the power button are the micro-USB port for charging and transferring data, and a headphone jack.
Both of the Fire's speakers are located along the same edge (the top, if held in portrait mode, the left edge in landscape). That means you'll lose the stereo effect no matter how you hold the Fire, and likely end up covering one of the speakers with your hand when holding it in landscape.
The only cabling included is a wall charger; you'll need your own USB cable (if you want to transfer data between your PC and Fire) and headphones. Volume control is handled entirely via software, and this proved problematic time and again, especially when in apps (more on this later).
When you first start-up the tablet, the Fire walks you through a few simple setup points, and then deposits you into your home screen - the same screen you land in when you swipe to the left to unlock the device.
The home screen has a search bar at top, with tabs for Newsstand (where you access various periodicals), Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web beneath. At the centre of the home screen is a central carousel that shows your most recent acquisitions or most recently accessed content of any sort - books, periodicals, music, videos, web sites, apps - in reverse order, with the latest on top. You can flip through these, and they go by surprisingly quickly, but I found it bothersome to find age-old books I'd bought showing up in this carousel, even if I hadn't downloaded the books from my cloud archive to the device (at least the same didn't happen with my sizable Amazon music collection).
At the bottom of the home screen is a Favorites shelf. Kindle Fire comes with Amazon's Appstore app, the Pulse reader app, the IMDB app, and the Facebook app icons pinned there already. Temper your enthusiasm, though - the Facebook "app" merely leads you off to the mobile version of the Facebook site.
The top of the home screen shows the name of your device, the time, battery status, and Wi-Fi status, and it also features a "gears" button that calls up a popover. for quick access to various settings like the rotation lock, the volume slider - your only volume control for the tablet - brightness, Wi-Fi, and sync (for use with Amazon's Whispernet synchronization between Kindle devices). And it serves as a the jumping point for the main settings menu.
Want to go back to where you were previously? Tap on the sole, clearly delineated back arrow at the bottom of the screen. Or tap the home button, also clearly delineated, when it appears at the lower left. When in apps, you can navigate by tapping on the up arrow at the bottom of the screen, which in turn reveals the home, back, and menu buttons. But if you're viewing video in Amazon's video player, you'll need to swipe up from the bottom, since the player takes up the whole screen.
Overall, on the surface Amazon's grey-and-orange themed interface is an improvement over standard Android 2.3, with clearer labels and cleaner design on the whole.
As noted already, Amazon did a good job at integrating its stores into the Fire's individual content sections. Visually, the book-shelf metaphor of your content libraries works well, even if that presentation lacks the personalization many crave. Moving between content in Amazon's cloud locker and stuff stored on the device is as simple as choosing cloud or device; the two are clearly delineated by a consistent visual element throughout all of the libraries. Find something you love, or want to remove? Just tap on the cover and hold down - and pick between adding to the favorites bar on the home screen, and removing from the tablet entirely.
I liked how the Amazon video player functions. Even if you're watching a video streamed on- demand from the Amazon cloud, you can still easily skip ahead a bit. And if you miss a few moments, no problem: Tap on the 10 second rewind for a quick fix.
The built-in email app will get the job done for the basics, but its layout is not especially optimized for landscape, for example, as you'll find with an Android 3.x Honeycomb tablet. And if you back out of the email app to do something else, it returns you to the top of your email list, not to the last message your were viewing.
Forget about multitasking as a whole. Kindle Fire lacks shortcuts to make it easier to get between content, as you'll find in standard Android 2.3 or in the tablet-optimized Android 3.x.
Amazon's contacts app is uninspiring; and surprisingly, the Kindle doesn't come with a basic calendar or clock app, two standard inclusions in Honeycomb tablets.
For all the fuss made about Amazon's Silk Web browser, which uses a proxy server to cache frequently accessed sites and purportedly speed surfing speeds, I can't say I noticed much of a difference in my Web surfing. Maybe I didn't hit the popular sites, or maybe the difference is that minimal that it won't be obvious in casual use. The browser supports tabs, at least, which is an improvement over the standard Android 2.3 browser, but I'm still a bit leery of how Amazon manages the whole caching process. And I'm so far not convinced of the process' efficiency.
Even the Docs tab didn't behave as I'd expected. I thought it logical that all documents I've transferred to the device to show there, but only PDFs showed up there. The other Microsoft Word and Excel documents were only accessible via the included Quickoffice document viewer app, under the "Apps" tab. If you want document creation or editing, you'll have to step up to the full Quickoffice Pro or another compatible office suite.
See also: eReaders reviews
NEXT PAGE: Apps and the Appstore