Editorial: My first days with the Kindle Fire (and my first tablet)

I received an email on Monday of this past week: my Kindle Fire had shipped, and it would arrive Wednesday.  Like many of my Amazon purchases, the estimated delivery date was spot on and my device was waiting for me when I arrived home on Wednesday.  After a few days of playing with the device I decided to write an editorial to go over what I like and don't like.  One primary reason - all of my friends are going to ask me what I think of it, and thanks to the verge I can point everyone to my thoughts here.  Before I get ahead of myself, let me give some background on myself and how I intended to use the device.  EDIT: I wrote this before reading Josh's review.  Any similarities are a result of common likes or dislikes.

My Background

I read the verge, and followed the group on their magical mystery tour guided by Dr Shenanigans to get here, but I may not be the typical reader.  By and large, I am not an early adopter of consumer technology, however I work in technology as a computer systems designer / programmer.  Two years ago I took the plunge into the smartphone market, purchasing the original Motorola DROID on Verizon.  I was one of those people who wanted an iPhone, but had to stay on Verizon for reception reasons, so Android it was.  I already had a GMail account, and used Google Calendar extensively, and I appreciate Android's integration with both.  At the same time I have my other foot firmly planted in Apple's camp, owning both a Macbook and a first generation iPod touch.  I have never paid for an Android or iPod touch app, because I was always satisfied with the free versions or the use of web apps (I am happy to access GMail and Google Calendar over the web on both devices).  I don't play games often, but I do software programming, video, and photo editing frequently on my Macbook.  To sum me up, I am a content creator on my laptop and a content consumer on my other devices.

Since the announcement of the iPad, I have toyed with the idea of buying a tablet.  My primary concern - the price point.  I read the reviews of the devices (both iPads and Android tablets) and knew that they could not perform all of the content creation actions I perform on my laptop (specifically the programming aspects).  I could not defend the price to myself when I could buy a windows laptop that could do everything for the same price, or a little more, and dual boot it to linux for programming.

My Expectations for the Kindle Fire

I figured out where a tablet would fit in my life.  I knew that my tablet use would be essentially the same as my DROID or iPod touch use, improved by a larger screen - web browsing, reading RSS feads, reading email, chatting with friends.  I needed a tablet at a price point close to those two devices ($200 range) to make me take the plunge; the Kindle Fire did that for me.  Here's a brief list of what I needed to do with the Kindle Fire to make it useful.  I want it to do more, but these are the 'core' functions I need:

 

  • Checking and responding to email when I come home from work: I like the 'instant on' feature of my phone or ipod touch in this respect, but I don't like the screen size limitation.
  • Browsing web sites and not being limited to mobile web: This was a bigger problem for the iPod touch than the android phone, however the lack of processing power on my DROID made some sites (like the verge) load REALLY slowly if I didn't use the mobile site.
  • Looking up and referencing recipes in the kitchen: Ok, why is this a separate bullet?  My wife and I cook A LOT, and we use the macbook or her laptop in the kitchen.  I would prefer to put the $200 device next to a hot stove and liquid than my $1000 macbook :)
  • Quick triage of Facebook updates and comments to see what people are up to: I don't check these things during the day @ work, but I like to keep up to date.  Going into facebook to do it isn't always the easiest method...
  • Google chat: Most of my friends live in the google-verse, and we chat there to keep in touch or make plans.
  • Quick triage of RSS feeds and new posts: I follow A LOT of RSS feeds in google reader, and I need a good way to keep on top of them....most of them now are at 1000+ unread messages
  • Streaming content (movies or music): This is more of a bonus.  I like listening to Pandora stations while I program.  We have a roku in the basement that i tie into the television, so I already do streaming video on one device.  I figured I would give both a try.

 

My Review

I did my best to use the Kindle Fire, with nothing other than stock or free applications, to perform each of the tasks I listed above.  My measure of success was that of frustration - did I fall back to the macbook instead of using the kindle fire?  It seems simple, but it makes sense to me - if I reach for my macbook while I am holding the kindle, something must have gone wrong!  As a brief glimpse of what is to come, I tried to write this review using only the kindle fire.  My initial intent was to bust this one on the reader as a 'surprise' at the end, but alas reality set in.  I was immediately thwarted by an incompatibility between the default kindle browser and the verge's website (when I clicked on the editor to enter text, my android keyboard didn't activate).  I wrote the first paragraph of this review using the 'paste as plain text' feature, because that was the only way for me to enter text...but that wouldn't do for the full review.  While writing, I did use the keyboard in both portrait and landscape.  I was able to two-thumb type comfortably in both configurations.  Sigh - I tried, this was written on the macbook.

Checking and responding to email when I come home from work

I turned on the Kindle Fire and opened the email application.  It made connecting the device to google servers easy (radio button selection of 'GMAIL address') and my email was downloaded to the device.  Then came the frustration.  I never had a full appreciation for what integration with GMail bought me until I used the email app on the fire.  I felt transported back 6 years, before I had my gmail account - no threaded conversations and the sync with other devices was inconsistent.  After a few minutes trying the email application, I went back to google's web app, which worked well on the Fire's built in browser.  In doing so, I lose notifications of 'new' email, but I am willing to make that compromise to make sure that all of my actions in GMail are accessible on all of my devices.

Browsing web sites and not being limited to mobile web

The Fire has a built in launcher with a tab for 'web'.  I clicked it (as one would).  After frustration with all sites defaulting to mobile I found the setting that allowed me to 'optimize for desktop sites'.  That worked nicely!  I found that many of the desktop sites that I frequent worked well.  Zooming and unzooming into parts of web pages worked really quickly.  Really, a night and day comparison to performance on my DROID.  Double taps to zoom into text were smooth and really quick.  Other than my previous issue with the verge's website, I haven't experienced any major roadblocks from sites that I frequent to force me back to the macbook.

Looking up and referencing recipes in the kitchen

I went to a few of my favorite recipe web pages and researched recipes.  We thought about using it in the kitchen and quickly ran into one roadblock.  The tablet lies flat on the counter, and we can't see it unless we prop it up.  We bought a cover (that should arrive shortly) to use as something to prop it up at an angle, so we won't need to touch the device with sticky hands.

Quick triage of Facebook updates / RSS Feeds

This is an example of where Amazon made a very smart choice of at least one application to include at launch.  I was never a user of Pulse Reader on other devices, but it came installed out of the box on the fire.  I fired up the application and set up a few custom groups of things to watch.  If you haven't used it, I suggest you give Pulse a try.  I find the UI very intuitive.  While Amazon can't completely get credit for this piece of software, including it was a smart play.  I can breeze through a number of news feeds, and facebook updates, all from one spot.  Also theres a simple one click share to facebook with comments (I've used that already).  I have experienced some problems with the feeds failing to update, which after a quick google search seems to be common.  Hopefully there will be a software patch to this; the suggested fixes that I found via google didn't work 100% of the time.

Google chat

If there is a default chat application, I can't find it.  I went to the app store and found an application (IM plus for Android) that seems to do the trick.  When you quit, the app backgrounds and you will get notifications when people send a message.  The app works well so far, and I have also linked in my facebook and old AIM account.  I don't think there is a 'message waiting' light when the device is sleeping, which would be helpful.

Streaming content (movies or music)

I watched a few trailers from amazon's streaming service.  The picture quality was good, and I was happy with it.  So far, I don't see myself using this feature instead of the roku.  I will post an update if I do.  I also downloaded Pandora's app, and immediately started listening to some of my favorite stations.  The built in speakers were not great for either video or audio playback.  I'd prefer to plug in headphones if I am doing extended listening.  The frequency range of the speakers was really limited, and I found the volume to be lacking as well.  I had to mute my television to hear the audio from a trailer that I was watching at max volume!  PS - there are no volume rockers on the device, so the only way to turn the volume up/down was through software control that is conveniently available at the top of the screen.

Conclusion

The Kindle Fire doesn't do everything I want, but it does do everything I need from a tablet.  I see a lot of promise in the platform, and what Amazon has done.  The UI is really simple, and I like what they have done to customize Android.  I am frustrated by the lack of integration with core google services that resulted from Amazon's fork of Android, but not significantly enough to make me stop using the Fire.  The big looming question - will I root it to put another version of Android on it.  As of right now, no.  Amazon has done a nice job with the software, and I don't see a major benefit to rooting the device.  My opinion may change when ICS is available, but for now I will stick with the stock Amazon config.

EDIT - After further use, I wanted to make a few additional observations.  First, I can now see that a tablet, and specifically this size, is really natural for me to use for reading.  I do almost all of my reading on the fire by choice now.  Second, the lack of google integration actually had a positive effect on my productivity.  Perhaps this says something about my ability to focus in the face of multiple distractions, but without GMail and Chat integrated into the device I get to choose more specifically when to connect with people.  Notifications aren't constantly interrupting my focus to tell me what someone else is doing.  I know that I can configure this kind of thing, and I don't normally change my Chat status or disable sync on my phone, because I want that device to be in touch all the time.  It took the lack of integration to show me that on this device, I like being isolated...and I may keep it that way.