Kindle Fire Review – All Play, No Business
The Kindle Fire isn’t perfect. It has quite a few flaws, in fact. But what matters is that it’s great for what it’s supposed to be. IMO, it’s a game changer and will be VERY successful for Amazon. For techies or people looking for a tablet to perform a significant amount of productive work, the Fire will be a disappointment. But it’s not intended for productivity or work, it’s a content delivery device designed to entertain users and integrate closely with Amazon’s Cloud service. And that’s where it shines.
The Fire is convenient. It’s intuitive. It’s easy to use. It’s fun. Most of all, content is front and center and very easy to access, and with a Prime membership, there’s a lot of free content. At the end of the day, the Fire is designed to pull people into the Amazon ecosystem (music, movies, books, apps, etc.) and hopefully get people to sign up for Amazon Prime, which at $79/year is already a bargain for people who do a lot of shopping from Amazon. The availability of free content served up on the Fire for those with Prime memberships almost makes it a no-brainer to add that service. It’s a bold strategy and it’s going to work. The Fire is the perfect front for all of Amazon’s services, including its large selection of media content, apps, and general shopping. Everything is integrated and nothing is more than just a couple clicks away. Prime further enhances the experience.
The most important thing to keep in mind is this is still a first generation device, and it has some issues as most first gen devices do. Primarily the Fire is missing features such as a camera, bluetooth, external ports, that would integrate well with a media driven device like the Fire. Furthermore, there’s also a lack of GPS, poor speakers, slightly frustrating touch sensitivity, and the ever-present choppy/laggy scrolling found in almost all Android devices. Hopefully Ice Cream Sandwich can solve this issue on future Android phones and tablets, but the Fire is a heavily modified version of Android 2.3. Really, other than the notification bar, you wouldn’t even notice its Android. That’s a GOOD thing here. I love stock Android, but the Fire isn’t a typical Android device and the modifications here serve an obvious purpose – change the way the user interacts with media. It’s unique and intuitive and is easy for non-technical people and kids to understand and find what they are looking for.
Here’s why the Kindle is going to be successful. My 3 year old daughter can already navigate to everything she wants after just a few minutes of using the Fire. So can my wife, and I’m not sure which feat is more impressive. Suffice it to say that the UI modifications have made the Fire very user friendly (a few small glitches that I’ll address later aside). Almost as importantly, and as anyone with kids can attest, there is only one physical button on the entire device – the power button. This is great since young kids love to push buttons, which with Android typically leads to closing out of apps, opening settings options, or initiating a search – all of which frustrate kids. Every other function is handled through the touch-screen and the options are simple and easily understood. There is some inconsistency in how to launch the touch screen options depending where you are and what apps, books, movies you have open. It doesn’t rise to the point of being confusing, but it’s something that I think will be improved on in future versions.
Before getting to a more detailed description of the device below, the main takeaway after using the Fire for a little more than a day is that it’s not for power users. It’s for accessing books, music, videos, apps, the internet. It’s for families and kids. While it may not serve every purpose that someone looking for a full-fledged tablet is looking for, they’ll enjoy having it around as a secondary device to play games on or just watch a TV show in bed. It’s fun. It’s easy. It performs all of the functions that 90% of the people who buy their tablets actually do with their tablets. And its $200.
The Fire will sell millions and future generations of the Fire are going to fill in the holes in this device and make it a true powerhouse for the low-cost tablet market. It will drive new tablet buyers because of the low price and it will cannibalize sales of higher priced tablets because Amazon has focused on what users actually user their tablets for. Sure, there’s still a huge market for full size, full featured tablets, but the Kindle Fire has found a sweet spot that will be successful. Especially if they can incorporate some of the missing features that fit well with a media consumption product (Bluetooth, external ports, camera) while keeping the price in the $200-$250 range.
The first thing you’ll notice is the small form factor – although 3” doesn’t seem like that much of a difference, it is when comparing the Fire to larger 10” tablets. In some regards the size is perfect, and others it’s limiting. The Fire is very portable and will easily fit in almost all purses and will fit in the front pocket of a lot of shorts, but definitely not most jeans. It’s heavy for its size and somewhat bulky, although it’s easy to hold – much easier to hold with a single hand than larger tablets. If I had to choose one word to describe it, I’d say “solid” fits perfectly. The Fire feels like a quality device and the materials and assembly are top notch. The front is gorilla glass and the back is a rubberized surface similar to some Motorola phones like the Droid X. I do wish the rubbery back was a little more tactile or “sticky.” As it is, the Fire is comfortable to hold even though the rubber is a little slick. This may be due to it being brand new and after time the rubber surface may be a little less slick.
The design is minimalist with no visible buttons or markings on the front and only a power button, micro-usb port, and headphone jack on the bottom. On the top are two speakers, which unfortunately seem to be relatively low quality and definitely don’t provide quality sound. Also, since the speakers are only on the top when holding the Fire in portrait mode, the sounds when listening/watching shows in landscape means the sound comes from one side of the device. A minor annoyance.
Overall, its impressive and you definitely don’t feel like Amazon cheaped out on the build quality despite the low price.
As I mentioned above, the Fire is running on Android version 2.3, albeit heavily customized. Like all Android devices, scrolling and animations aren’t always completely smooth. There’s still some stuttering and choppiness, although it’s more in line with higher end Android phones where its noticeable but doesn’t really impact the usability. Hopefully Ice Cream Sandwich will address these types of issues, but that isn’t going to help this generation of the Fire. The overall UI is appealing includes subtle touches like shading and gradients to add some polish to the overall feel. The over sensitive touch screen when attempting to tap on an icon needs to be fixed ASAP. It’s frustrating and is the biggest issue I’ve come across on the tablet. My daughter has asked me several times to help her select a game she wanted to play because she couldn’t get them to launch. That’s really unacceptable and definitely impacts the user experience. Hopefully it’s something that can be fixed quickly.
There is the typical Android-style notification bar, but it doesn’t pull down unless there is an actual notification. Its primary purpose is to provide general information such as the time, battery life remaining, wifi connectivity status, and the device name. Furthermore, there is a dedicated settings button in the notification bar that pulls down a menu for locking the device, volume, screen brightness, wi-fi, sync, and +more options. I won’t get into all of the individual options, but it’s easy to access and simple to use. There’s also non-physical Home, Back and Menu buttons included along the bottom and which conveniently disappear when not being used. They are easily accessed at almost any time by tapping on the screen or, if you have something else open, by clicking on a small arrow. It’s all relatively intuitive and seamless.
The Home screen is where things are truly different. It’s basically a bookshelf with every item you have recently looked at, whether it’s in the Amazon Cloud, on the device, or content being served directly from Amazon. Icons for everything are listed in a scrollable carousel on the top shelf of the bookshelf. The items aren’t categorized but are simply ordered by Most Recently Used. Longpressing on any item will let you add it to Favorites, which is the second bookshelf. Luckily, the Favorites can be easily re-arranged so that the items you use most recently are the most accessible however that’s basically the extent that you can organize your content.
However, this brings us to the most glaring problem with the Fire. While scrolling through the carousel is fast and mostly responsive, actually selecting any particular item can be somewhat difficult. First, any slight movement of your finger when tapping on an icon to launch it will lead to additional scrolling away from what you are trying to select. It is also difficult to completely control the scrolling so that the item you are attempting to select stops in the first spot (which is the only spot you can click on the icon to launch the particular item). If the icon is visible in the scrollable list, you can tap on the icon to move it to the front of the list to be launched, but this requires a second and unnecessary tap to launch. The concept here is great, the execution not so much. Hopefully a future update will correct this issue because its quickly frustrating and young children can definitely have an issue tapping and launching the icons in the list.
If you’re looking to narrow down the list of selections, you can select from a variety of options at the top of the bookshelf including Search, Newsstand, Books, Music, Videos, Docs, Apps, and Web. These are pretty self-explanatory and let you look at all items in each of those categories. You can choose to look at all items, including what’s stored in your Amazon cloud, or limit it to items currently on the device. Most screens also provide the option to go directly to the Amazon store with a single click.
The 7” screen size is convenient for taking it with you and for holding for extended periods of time. However, the small form factor can be an issue at times when viewing content. While movies and TV shows from Amazon fit the screen (and its wide-angle dimensions) nearly perfectly in most cases, browsing and watching videos on YouTube leaves a little to be desired. Videos streamed or downloaded from Amazon work perfectly and playback has been completely smooth. As far as browsing the internet, Silk is a nice and easy to use browser. It has tabs and the smartbar allows you to search or enter a web address easily. Web pages generally render relatively quickly and there’s a setting to default to mobile sites or full sites, which is a nice feature. In portrait mode, web pages are readable, but somewhat small. In landscape mode, the text is larger and easier to read, but the limited vertical space means additional scrolling and at least some reviewers have complained that scrolling on web pages is very laggy and choppy; however, while not perfect I can’t complain. That may change as I visit more graphics intensive sites. At least some videos on YouTube don’t scale properly and I’ve had some issues with slowdown and choppiness loading and playing videos. Reading books is comfortable and I haven’t experienced noticeable issues with scrolling from page to page as some others have apparently experienced.
Overall the smaller size isn’t a huge issue, but it makes me think that Samsung may have the right idea of a “mid-size” tablet in between 7” and 10”.
Using the Fire and Accessing Media
The initial setup was a breeze and took just a few minutes, including loading a software update. The lock screen is relatively simple with different “retro” backgrounds and a simple arrow to drag across to unlock the device. The Fire is already linked to your Amazon account (if you order through Amazon). Any music, movies, books, news articles that you have previously purchased from Amazon and stored in the cloud are almost instantly accessible through the Cloud. I have thousands of songs that I have purchased from Amazon (or that I uploaded using Amazon MP3) and all of this was available pretty much immediately. Same with books, videos, and applications. It’s this type of simplicity and integration that many other Android options have been missing without the use of 3rd party applications.
Clicking on the Video tab brings up a list of free (for Prime members) streaming options and pay movie and TV options. Streaming videos is quick and usually takes just a few seconds to load before the video starts, assuming a strong wireless signal. The downside, obviously, to the streaming option is that it isn’t stored on the device itself, and with only wifi connectivity, the streaming likely isn’t an option when you are traveling. However, movies, videos, and TV shows can be purchased and downloaded to the Fire so they can be viewed without internet access. A limitation, certainly and hopefully one that Amazon is able to come up with a solution to fix in future generations.
The other Kindle’s already have 3G access, but the amount of data being transmitted for books pales in comparison to music and video content streaming. I would personally like to see an affordable Prime + plan which incorporates 3G streaming access. I think there would be strong consumer demand if the price point for this type of plan (including the typical Prime membership) was between $129 – $199 or less per year. This would mean that a year’s worth of 3G service would run between $50 ($4.17/month) and $120 ($10/month) either of which would be much cheaper than similar data plans from the major service providers. I don’t know if they can make this happen, but sign me up.
Other content such as books, apps, music, etc. all operate in much the same way as the videos. You have direct access to the cloud or you can limit your view to content located on the device. Everything downloads quickly from the cloud and the entire process is seamless. This is how content integration should be and it’s the future of the cloud. I haven’t had enough time with the Fire to provide more details for each of the integrated apps for reading or listening to music, but in the time I did use these nothing stood out. To me, that’s perfect because that means everything is working the way it should be and the content rules. It’s like going to a nice restaurant and having great service – if it’s done right you don’t even notice it and you can focus completely on the experience.
In summary, the Fire is really good for media consumption, but to be great it needs to be accessible everywhere. It would be great to have a 3G option in the future. Also, a lack of Bluetooth compatibility (to play music through car speakers or other Bluetooth speakers) is another unfortunate limit to the device, as is the lack of external ports (specifically HDMI). However, these omissions are understandable considering the price tag and the fact that it’s a first gen product. I anticipate seeing all of these being available, at least as options, in future iterations of the Fire.
The good here, though, greatly outweighs the bad. No, this isn’t a device for everyone, but everyone will enjoy it. And at $200, it’s great as a family tablet, especially if you don’t want to hand off your $600+ tablet over to your kids. The ease of use and intuitiveness makes it a great introduction to tablets for non-technical family members and children. Amazon is providing a ton of media content these days and there’s no easier way to access it than through the Fire. It’s going to be a huge success because people are already familiar with the Amazon brand and the Kindle.
The Fire is a natural extension of the previous Kindle products and is a great first step into the world of tablets. Beyond sales of the device, which is assumed to be a loss-leader, it should be a huge boost to the overall Amazon ecosystem. The Fire, as another blog called it, is “a storefront” for purchasing additional Amazon content, but it isn’t tacky about it. It’s mostly out of the way, but never far away and the overall feeling is one of increased access to content we are interested in. Also, the tie-in with free streaming is a bonus for people who already have Prime accounts and no doubt many new people will sign up for Prime as well. The Fire is a big product for Amazon’s growth potential for the future, and it’s a great first step in tying together all of Amazon’s products, services, and content into a convenient package.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Fire to someone interested in getting a tablet, especially for those who already use Amazon for books/music/video The recommendation comes with the caveat that it is missing some features which power users will likely find increasingly limiting, so it probably isn’t the best choice in those cases. However for people looking for a second tablet for the family/kids, or simply a low-priced tablet, the Fire is a great option.