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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Amazon's Kindle Fire: So Misunderstood

My Kindle Fire arrived this afternoon, and now, after about two hands-on hours, it's time for some initial impressions.

But first, my dismay -- not with the device, but with the legions of online critics who had already written off the unit even before its launch. Their complaints often fall into a few buckets:

1. It's not an iPad. Very true. The iPad is 10 inches to Fire's seven, and the bigger screen is clearly preferable for watching movies. The iPad has a faster processor, a vastly more extensive app community, a better operating system, and triple the price tag, give or take. I agree with all of these points. However, Amazon wasn't trying to take on the iPad in the first place. The comparison is like condemning a Honda Civic because it's not a Lexus. Well...duh.

2. It lacks both a microphone and a camera (or two). I don't want a camera on my reading device. My smartphone has a camera. My PC has a camera. I don't need another freaking camera. I don't even like videochat in the first place. Not only does this omission leave Amazon room to grow its Kindle feature set later, but it keeps the device more focused on content enjoyment and not on interactive communication. This is a theme you'll see pop up once or twice more.

3. It only has 8GB of internal memory and no SD card slot for memory expansion. Right, so let's back up. Say you're Amazon. You've invested billions of dollars into building out one of the biggest cloud computing infrastructures and services on the planet. You host books in the cloud, store music in the cloud, stream movies from the cloud. You know beyond question that cloud computing is the future, and you want everyone everywhere to get used to relying on your cloud services, which, by the way, work amazingly well. So you build a content consumption device as a pipeline to these cloud services first and still provide some resources for local storage second. Yet many people insist on saying, "Why isn't Amazon building its device like every other tablet -- for local storage?" Because it's about the cloud, stupid. If you're not down with the cloud model, go buy something else.

4. The Kindle Fire is more expensive than several cheap, crappy Android tablet alternatives. This is also true. And for anyone who wants poor screen quality, no content ecosystem, no support, and the build quality of a pizza box, I say to you verily,  "Go for it."

The Kindle Fire lacks GPS, but being something of a privacy paranoid, I'm not sure this is a bad thing. (It still runs Google Maps without issue via the "Silk" Web browser, which will allegedly grow faster as Amazon logs users' browsing habits and strategically caches more pages.) In fact, my only hardware complaint is the omission of Bluetooth. I would like the ability to listen to audiobooks on my headset rather than wired headphones and perhaps add a wireless keyboard and/or mouse for use with Google Docs.

Speaking of which, Amazon's app store doesn't offer Google Docs or Dropbox, two services on which I depend every day. Fortunately, Amazon offers a free download of Quickoffice Pro, which not only ties right into both of those services but also Box, SugarSync, and others. It allows for easy viewing and editing of your Word and Excel files, PDFs, and more. As a writer, this will allow me to keep my Kindle Fire in my bag as a work tool and often leave my notebook at home.

Most of you don't care about this. You want to know about the experience of enjoying content on the device. So here are some initial impressions:

1. With a 1024 x 600 display, text and graphics look awesome. I've now put several books on the Fire, and they all look incredible, although my wife has to dial down the brightness quite a bit to be comfortable. I haven't tried any "enhanced" (interactive, animated) books yet, but I'm confident they will be quite satisfying. Are we taking a forward with color but two steps back by eliminating E Ink? For some, perhaps. I prefer the backlighting because most of my reading is done in a dim room before bed. My wife is more sensitive to light and prefers the more natural look of E Ink. If your principle use for a Kindle is ebook reading, then the monochromatic design may make more sense and save you $100 in the process. Personally, I prefer having more flexibility for a wider range of content.

2. The sound comes from two speakers in the top edge. I recommend digging into the EQ settings and choosing Rock for the best mix of bass and mid-range, but when I say "best," keep this in perspective. These are not Bose speakers. They sound worse than even the $10 beer can speakers included with $299 PCs. But they're better than nothing, and you even get something of a "wide" stereo effect. Unfortunately, this doesn't count for much when you rotate the Fire 90 degrees to watch movies.

3. I tried out the Prime free movie service, which is way simpler to use on the Kindle Fire than on any other Amazon-friendly device I've sampled (such as Google TV). In under 10 seconds, I had the movie Speed streaming at TV-level image quality. No dropped frames, no audio hiccups. Mind you, this was across the house from my router with only one Wi-Fi bar showing. That's pretty impressive.

4. I went to the Kindle Owner's Lending Library and checked out a book. It's really idiotproof. Just hit the button to borrow the title, exactly as you would to buy it. The book downloads in a few seconds and shows up in your library. If you try to borrow another one, you'll see a note saying that you've reached your borrowing limit for the month. You don't have to "give" the book back in 30 days, but you won't be able to check out another until the following month and you return the checked out title. The brilliance of this Lending Library is insidious. If you're enough of a reader to go through one ebook per month, and the average ebook costs, say, $6 or $7 each, then Amazon is giving you roughly $70 to $80 of free ebook enjoyment per year -- if you own a Kindle and subscribe to the $79/year Prime service. Mind you, Prime brings with it thousands of free streaming videos plus free two-day shipping on all Amazon-stocked physical goods orders. Amazon gives you a free month of Prime when you register the Fire, just to get you hooked. Now, I'm a Prime "guest" user on my wife's subscription, so I get the free shipping benefits already, but I don't get the Lending Library or videos. Will it be worth my family paying another $79/year for two full Prime memberships in order to get the extra benefits? This remains open to debate.

5. I went to my public library's site and borrowed a Kindle book. When I send library books to my Android phone via Kindle Manager, they arrive in only a few seconds. With the Kindle Fire, you have to go into the settings menu and hit Sync. It took me a few minutes of waiting for the books list to (not) refresh before I figured this out.

6. Overall, the Fire's interface is friendly and intuitive. I'm not crazy about how the home screen is dominated by a cascade of huge tiles showing your most recently open items. Once you've opened a couple dozen books, apps, songs, etc., it gets fairly cumbersome trying to scroll through these. Similarly, there isn't enough room in the Favorites area to stack your most commonly used items. I quickly found myself relying on the tabs across the top of the screen: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, Web. This entails more tapping and hunting than if the Fire would have had a usual Android desktop, but it is what it is. I hope Amazon improves this soon.

Overall, the Fire is everything I'd hoped for. It's a solid, high-quality, easy, and dependable pipeline to the cloud services I want. Also, I should point out that I own a Nook Color. The Nook is a good device and in some ways better than the Kindle Fire. However, I've held off on buying much content for it because, as a book lover, I still have this crazy idea that I'll "own" my book collection decades from now and be able to let my children and grandchildren enjoy the purchases I'm making today. Whether deluded or not, this begs the question: If I'm going to invest hundreds or even thousands of dollars into content in the coming years, which platform do I trust to be around for the long haul: Nook or Kindle? 

After that question, these ridiculous quibbles over SD slots and memory seem entirely misguided and short-sighted.


  1. Great speed-review. Excellent perspectives. Thanks! - SGC

  2. After reading some articles that outline the silly pros/cons comparing this to the ipad, I was getting nervous about it (my fire will be delivered via UPS any minute now...), but after your review, specifically "The comparison is like condemning a Honda Civic because it's not a Lexus. Well...duh." I'm now super-excited about it. :)

  3. I think we are a ways away from the "iPad killer". I have been curious about the Fire since it was announced. I like my Kindle for reading, and I don't think I can go back to back-lit readers. The e-ink is too good. I agree with the cloud promotion. It seems like with Prime the Fire is a must-have. Without Prime, I am not sure.

  4. dropbox is available direct from their site as an .apk download. You just need to tell the Fire to allow installation from all sources, and then you can install it.

    Good review. the bottom line with this device - for what I believe most people actually use their tablets for, I think this device does it at an amazing price. Plus the polish and build quality are certainly apple like.

  5. Wise and insightful review. Everything doesn't have to be an iPad.

  6. the reviews frustrated me too

  7. @James: Given recent headlines about the rise of Android viruses being tied to downloading outside of Google's Marketplace, I'm reluctant to make exceptions to a policy of not downloading from third parties. Possible? Sure, but when Quickoffice will not only allow Dropbox navigation but also let me work with the files and not have to bounce between apps, I'm good with the simpler route. If you're as much of an IT pro as I think you are, then you'll appreciate the less-is-more approach here.

  8. Hey Chip - good review - I put one on my Christmas list. BTW, I also like back-lit since I am usually reading in dimly lit places. The comparison between the Honda and the Lexus is apt.

  9. And speaking of the Nook Tablet and internal memory, it seems the thing devotes 12GB of memory to B&N purchases...and only *1GB* to non-B&N content. I seriously wouldn't have believed the company would do something so stupid if I hadn't seen it in this screen shot: http://engt.co/v7Q1DH. B&N's statement that partners will be able to utilize some of that 12GB does not soften the blow.

  10. nice review!
    but what is the best idea to call kindle fire? ebook reader or tablet?

  11. I read outdoors, not necessarily in the sun. Can you surf the net enjoyably and read with the kindle fire or the nook tablet? I can test the nook at a BN store, but how to check out the Kindle? I know e-ink is the best, but I'd be happy with "OK"