The Amazon Kindle Fire shipped this week as their answer to a need for a color e-reader. And, if you look at it from a certain perspective, as their answer to the iPad. But it's really something somewhere in between.
Amazon has set a very aggressive price for this device at $199. They’ve created a device that is essentially a tablet, but at a price that undercuts their competition by a pretty wide margin. Why not? The whole point of the Fire is to sell you more Amazon content, so they can more-or-less count on making their profits on the content you buy rather than the hardware itself. Everything about the Fire is designed to entice you to purchase content from Amazon… not just books, either. It also plays music, movies, TV shows, lets you purchase apps to run on the device, and it even comes pre-installed with an Amazon shopping app, already linked to your account. In a way, it’s genius. You’ve just got to resist the urge to go crazy with content purchases.
Reviews on the Internet have been all over the map. Some are praising the Fire as an iPad killer (it’s not). Others are essentially saying it’s the worst piece of electronics to come out in a long time (again, it’s not). Like so many opinions out on the Internet, the truth lies somewhere in between.
There are a lot of things I like about the Fire. It’s pretty easy to use. It’s a nice size and it isn’t too heavy to hold for long reading or video watching sessions. Amazon’s $79 per year (via Amazon Prime) access to a substantial streaming video library is quite intriguing. The screen is very good. It provides a low-cost point-of-entry into the world of Android apps. But, on the other hand, it also provides a low-cost point-of-entry into the world of Android apps. Yes, that is a backhanded compliment. It lets you install Android apps, but I’m not so sure this is a great thing.
Until fairly recently I was open to the possibility of the Android platform being a decent alternative to the iPhone and iPad of the world. That is, until I used an Android device. While some who complain about Android do so because they’re purchasing $49 phones, I used two different high-end models to take the hardware out of the equation. And I was not impressed. Not in the least. Every Android device I’ve tried now is clunky, generally sluggish, and incredibly inconsistent in the way it works. Having apps pause and stutter is just the normal way of doing things on Android devices… you have to expect it. And because there are no standards for how apps should look, feel, or work, everything is all over the map. One application might use on-screen touch buttons to get around. Others rely on the Back button. Some use an iPhone-like hierarchy of commands, others do everything through flat linking. Some apps look like the launcher that HTC has created, others like Samsung’s, others like nothing else. I can’t believe how incredibly fragmented and inconsistent things are under the Android OS. I am not impressed at all. Frankly, I am actually stunned that anyone could love their Android phone… I have to chalk it up to lack of knowledge of alternative choices. I may have gotten spoiled by my Windows Phone, but I really don’t believe how bad Android is, and have a hard time understanding how anyone could get excited by it, let alone put up with it.
With that, back to the Fire. Even though the Fire uses the Android OS at its core, Amazon has tried to isolate its users from it. To some degree it has done it fairly well. If you stick to the Books, Videos, Music, and Docs libraries, everything runs great. The device is responsive and (mostly) easy to use. The reader is everything you’d hope for in an e-book reader (aside from the e-Ink paper-like display), and videos play smoothly. If you’ve been populating Amazon’s music cloud with your own content, the music player is alright (although I will contend that anything larger than a phone is just too big for playing music). Pretty much everything in those areas of the device is great.
That is, until you get to the Apps library. The way Amazon has this setup is that don’t use Google’s App Market, but rather they have their own Android app store. And the Fire can run nearly everything in that store, within the inherent limitations of the device (you won’t be making phone calls, for example). Shopping for apps is pretty easy (although I would like to see more filtering capabilities to narrow down searches) and purchasing is even easier. There are, of course, a broad range of apps available for free, but since Amazon is in this to make money they don’t do much to make these super easy to isolate.
Where things really break down is actually running and installing these apps. It’s really a mixed bag. Most of the problems aren’t Amazon’s fault, so we have to give credit where credit is due, but it still doesn’t make for a great experience. Among my complaints…
- As mentioned, the sluggishness of Android is fully present here. The majority of apps are affected. Scrolling and navigation is clunky most of the time. It isn’t at all uncommon to tap something on the screen and not see any sort of response for as much as a second or longer. On a modern consumer electronics device, this is unacceptable.
- Most of the apps are written for phones, not something the size of the Fire. Very few apps have been designed to take advantage of a larger screen. This means that one of two things tends to happen: either everything on-screen is small (sized as if it was being displayed on a screen 1/3 the size) and it shows more content to you, or everything is blown up much larger than normal as if you were using a phone with a 7” screen. Neither experience is ideal.
- There are many first-rate apps in the store, but there is a lot more junk. There are a lot of no-good apps to sort through to find the gems.
- While Amazon’s Android App Store does have a lot in it, there are still a lot of popular Android apps that aren’t in it. You can, if you choose to, install other apps if you have access to their .APK files, but there isn’t really a good online repository of them. Most people who run Android get their apps from Google’s App Market (and as such, there hasn’t been much need for another repository), but that isn’t available here. I was able to find .APK files for several apps missing from the Amazon store (Skype, Zinio, for example), but only once I was willing to wade into some rather seedy areas of the Internet. I do not recommend doing this to the faint of heart. If an app isn’t in Amazon’s store, skip it.
So overall my thoughts on having the ability to install apps are mixed. Yes, you can install third party apps on the device, as if it were a full-fledged Android tablet. The real question is, are you really sure you want to?
Things are a little more muddy when it comes to the built-in web browser. The browser seems to do a decent job rendering most web sites. Better than the iPad in most cases. And since it supports Adobe Flash you can view many sites that the iPad can’t handle. But the trouble is, the browser is based on, you guessed it, is the Android WebKit browser. So it’s slow. Amazon has tried to speed it up by using their high-power cloud servers to accelerate the experience, but several online tests, and my own experience, show that this actually slows things down, and the feature should be turned off. Even something as simple as scrolling a page is slow and clunky. As if you’re the device to do something it doesn’t want to do, like asking a child to leave a toy store. You can absolutely browse the web. But not if you’re in a hurry.
I find it a little odd that Amazon is only offering a WiFi version of the Fire. If any of the Kindles screams “I need 3G” it’s the Fire. It’s the only model that has a supported (non-“experimental”) web browser, and the only model that can play music and videos from Amazon’s stores. We can speculate as to why there is no 3G model, but the fact remains that if you want to access Amazon’s stores or the web while away from home or the office, you need to either find or bring your own WiFi hotspot.
I hope Amazon works out some of the little kinks, because I really think the Fire has a lot of potential. I’m not saying that I dislike it, because it does do what it is supposed to do, it doesn’t crash or lock up, and at $199 it’s a steal for what it is. I’m just disappointed that Amazon has selected Android and all of its required baggage to run the thing. They could have done so much better.
My overall rating for the Kindle Fire is “good enough.” It isn’t a stellar device, but it really isn’t bad either, especially if you aren’t interested in the ability to run Android apps, or browse the web quickly. As long as you stick to the other libraries (Books, Video, Music, Docs) it’s excellent. Just don’t have high expectations once you wander outside of the Amazon-created areas of the device. You don’t have to use Android Apps on the device, and you don’t have to browse the web… as long as you consider those two features to be a bonus you’ll be very happy with the Fire. But if you buy it specifically for those features, you’re likely to be at least a little bit disappointed.
It is not an iPad, but it isn’t intended to be, and it costs, depending on the model you’re comparing it to, between 24% and 40% of what the iPad does. For that, you can make some compromises. A $20,000 Honda isn’t a BMW, either. If you’re happy with a Honda or Ford, you’ll probably be happy with the Fire. If you prefer to shop at Target rather than Nordstrom, you’ll be happy with the Fire. The Fire is a Honda sold at Target.