Monday, January 16, 2012

REVIEW: Kindle Fire, Amazon's Jewel

PROS: Huge functionality for the money, easy to use, a ton of content available, lots of free content
CONS: Backlit display might cause more eye strain than eInk or LCD; relatively short battery life; clumsy integration with cloud

My review of Amazon's Kindle Fire is perhaps best understood in the context of me being intimately familiar with the Kindle as an e-book reader.  As I mentioned recently I've had a Kindle for years; was indeed one of its earliest adopters. So in my opinion the product needs to be evaluated under two separate sets of criteria; namely, how it compares to previous incarnations of the Kindle, and secondarily how it performs as the more general entertainment/media servant that it has become.

The Fire is a little heavier than my old Kindle, and is just a little smaller, despite having a viewing area that is about 50% larger. While heavier, though, it would be difficult to conceive that the extra weight would cause any fatigue while reading.

The old Kindle's display was not backlit; it used an LCD display that required external light to work (later versions of the Kindle, including the current generation, use eInk technology that, while better than the LCD technology of the first-gen devices, still need an external light source). The Fire is of course backlit and shows deep, rich colors and the darkest blacks.  I was actually pleasantly surprised to see just how striking the display was, how rich the colors.  And reading text is soothing on the eyes due to adjustable brightness, the ability to adjust the font, size, and line spacing of the text, as well as the background: readers can choose white, sepia, or black (with white letters). You can find the most comfortable option for you which will cut down even further on viewing fatigue.

Any comparison of memory between old Kindle and the Fire is ridiculous.  The old Kindle had perhaps 128MB of RAM; the new one has 6GB.

However the Fire uses a lot of batter power, since it's so, well, powerful.  You can exhaust the Fire's battery power in less than a day, whereas the power requirements for an older Kindle are so low that you can read for days without having to charge, and go for weeks on standby. That's something to consider if attaching to house current is inconvenient or infrequent.

And don't discount the impact of the difference between LCD/eInk and a backlit display.  Some people think that the eInk is so much more natural on the eyes that it impacts their decision as to what they end up purchasing.  And if your eyes strain easily, or get tired after, say, staring for hours at a computer screen, and all you want to do is read books, you should consider at least looking at a standard Kindle.

But really, if you are anyone else, and you are replacing your Kindle, spend the little extra money and get the Fire.

As for comparisons against other products, there really are none:  There aren't really any other products in its class.  It's tough to call the Fire a tablet; the Fire would not stand up to any apples to apples comparison with an iPad.  From every perspective including its physical size, the Fire is less of a device than an iPad.  If your goal when you woke up this morning was to buy a tablet, you probably don't want a Fire.

But bring the realities of the physical world into play and things become less clear. The iPad starts off life at $500; options and extras move that number up over 800 bucks. Kindle Fire? $200, out the door. You might decide that getting 80% of the functionality of an iPad while paying 35% of what they want for one, consider a Fire.

So: now you've bought one.  First thing to do, before you want to set it up, is plug it in.  The Kindle comes partially charged but you want to charge it up all the way before you start configuring it.

Configuring it, by the way, is a very straightforward procedure.  You set up an (or link to an existing) Amazon account, give it a credit card number, and you can thenceforth buy and access content to your heart's delight.

In addition to buying content you can rent content as well, and not just books but TV shows and movies too. Instead of buying a movie for ten bucks, you can rent the content for 24 hours for two dollars or so. And all with two-click convenience.

One exciting plus when you buy a Fire is a 30-day membership to Amazon Prime.  Now I am already a member; Toots and I do enough business with Amazon that the free two-day shipping is worth it by itself. But when you are a member of Prime you have access to over 50,000 songs, TV episodes, and movies that you can watch for free.  Membership in Amazon prime is $80 a year, so if you buy a lot of stuff from Amazon and you have a Fire, it's a pretty compelling proposition.

The content, when it's presented to you, is flawless, with no pixellation, jumps, audio/video discordance, or any sort of digital noise. The volume is decent when turned up all the way but you're better off hooking up a set of headphones. A tap on the screen brings up a few options for tapping, like pausing, going back 10 seconds, etc., without stopping. A little icon of a cog in the upper right corner, when tapped, brings up configuration options like volume, brightness, and the wi-fi settings.  It's all very intuitive; interacting with the screen pretty much does what you'd expect it to do, which is the hallmark of a well-thought-out interface.

As nifty as this device is, there are things that the Kindle Fire is not good at.  As I've mentioned before, writing more than anything longer than a tweet is probably going to make you start to swear with frustration.  It is a tool for consumption of content, much more so than the creation of content.

Also it makes, in my opinion, clumsy use of the cloud.  It stores your content in the cloud and if you're going to be in a place where wi-fi is unavailable, like on an airplace, you have to download your content from the cloud to your Fire. If you forget, you're out of luck.  Also the device could stand to better integrate the cloud with the on-board memory; it thinks of the cloud as a separate entity and so it makes you think of it that way as well.  Hey, men and women of the Fire team:  work on that for the next-gen Fire, OK?

So, to sum up:  Amazon's Kindle Fire is an absolute gem of a product that has the potential to be so popular that it creates a whole new market segment: the, pardon the expression, mini-pad (we'll work on the name). Its tiny price tag leaves me slackjawed; I'm sure Amazon is betting that the content you buy will feather their nests sufficiently to make up for it. But a decent Kindle that doesn't blare commercials at you is $139.  To not pay the extra sixty bucks for a jillion dollars worth of better is just stupid. And for anyone who might want an iPad but can't justify the price, you now have a perfect product for you.

Run out, today, and buy a Kindle Fire.  You will be glad you did.


  1. Gary - thanks for your review. One thing I'm curious about ... can you play games on the Fire? I bought an iPad but sold it because I couldn't rationalize $600 for a game-only device (which is how I was using it). The combo of an eReader and game player for $199 is an easy decision.

  2. Cranky, yes. At its heart the Kindle Fire is an Android device, so you'll find it able to run many (NOT ALL) Android apps. In fact it's wise to check the App Menu every day, as there is an app that's usually for-money that's offered for free, a different one every day. Although I can't vouch for the fun factor of the freebies; today's is an app that lets one bake a virtual cookie. However, since free is free, something about gift horses and mouths comes to mind.

  3. Nice review. So far I am really digging my Kindle Fire as well. I come from a different perspective--never had any kind of Kindle before. I was looking for a book reader and as you called it--"a mini-pad." I want to be able to surf the web on something bigger than my android phone and this does the trick very nicely. If only it was possible to tether it to my Android phone with rooting it. Oh well, I suppose I could pay for a hotspot in a pinch. I love the feature where you can send them a word doc and they put into kindle format for you!

    I think it works for most of the things people are looking for in a tablet at a much better cost. I think a bigger tablet would be a problem for book reading, would tire you out fast.

    So far, so good!

  4. @Rob, there was a time where you could root your device (make it act sort of like a generic Android device; technically, give you superuser privileges), but current versions of the product safeguard against any attempt to do so.

  5. my Kindle Fire is by far my favorite Xmas present from the past decade.

    I really love this thing and am looking for the next generation that includes 3g instead of wifi (please? even if you just limit it to downloads and no online game content lol).

    I've watched TV shows on it, played more Angry Birds than I care to admit, stream my music and also look at words on the screen.

  6. Yeah, grrouchie, they'd have to shut it down for online play. But I think they tried desperately to keep costs low; rumors have them losing money on each one sold. So I wonder if they're going to put their implementation of 3G (they call it Whispernet) in the Fire without charging an extra $30 or so...

  7. I really like the Kindle Fire. I'm sure that I would really like it if I rooted and did other things to it to make it more tablet-like. But, those things are not in my plans. By eliminating paper and books, the Fire made it easy to do these presentations.

    Kindle fire reviews