Kindle Fire: The Root Experience

I've seen several reviews for the Kindle Fire from the perspective of someone who is trying to use the device as a stock device.  What I haven't seen is a review which describes what a rooted Fire is like.  Note that I'm describing a rooted Fire, which allows you superuser access, not a Fire which has been flashed with a new ROM.

This review is coming from the perspective of a competent techie who is quite comfortable with bash shells and the like, as well as devices of all types.

First experiences:

First off, the question of rooting in the first place.  The Kindle Fire is one of the easiest devices I've ever rooted.  I rooted it on day two when people were still sorting out exactly how to root the device in the first place.  There was one little kink in the process which involved getting the computer to recognize the device as an android device in the first place, but even that was fairly simple to work around.

It appears that many of the tried and true android rooting methods work on the Kindle without a hitch.  I've heard reports that SuperOneClick worked out of the box, and I used a lightly modified copy of ZergRush.

Android Market:

Even before I was rooted I was able to sideload a good number of applications, including the Android Marketplace.  I was however, unsuccessful in getting the Market to run correctly without root. I could intermittently get it to load, but I was never able to get it download apps.  Once I rooted the device, the problem went away.  One thing to note here is that you may need to manually update the permissions on the Market apk once it's been installed.  Some people have reportedly gotten it to work without doing that, but I found that I had to change the permissions.

The one problem with the market is the lack of an icon, or any other way of accessing the app in the first place.  The workaround I've been using, and which hasn't yet got on my nerves is to simply launch Google Books (which must be sideloaded as well).  There's a link in there which takes you to the books section of the marketplace, and from there it's simple to get out to the main market.  Once done, the Google Books link will perform as an impromptu Market link until the tablet is restarted.

The interesting glitch here is that most of the apps in the Market have low res icons which look fine in the apps browser, but look awful in the recent items carousel.

Despite those problems, I found that the Market works remarkably well, and functions exactly the same as on a phone.  Since I've already invested rather heavily in apps from the Market, I much preferred to have those apps instead of buying new copies of them from the Amazon App Store.  Interestingly enough, most of the apps I wanted don't exist in the App Store, and can only be found in the Market.  I've found that the App Store is far too immature as an app repository to contain anything of real use, especially and specifically for the Kindle Fire.

Google Apps:

GMail

A wonderful app, and really a game changer.  I was dreading having to resort to the default mail client on the Fire.  Luckily, having installed the GMail app, I can say that it works without any hitches.  It works just as well as the one on my phone, in fact it works exactly as well as the one on my phone.  Because the Fire is based off of Gingerbread rather than Honeycomb, the Kindle Fire is essentially a large phone.  You'll notice this feel in many apps, especially ones from the Market.

Google+

The app itself functions well, but be careful where you put your fingers.  I noticed due to a bad click that attempting to take a photo to add to a post will immediately crash the app.  I suspect the problem is due to the fact that since the Fire doesn't have a camera, it doesn't have some of the framework necessary to access a camera.  When the Google+ app attempts to access that, it dies.  However, attempting to add a photo to a post from a gallery seems to work without trouble.

Maps

The Kindle Fire really shines here.  Despite being unable to detect it's current location (due to not having GPS), It's quite a blast to be able to use Google Maps from this large of a screen.  I feel like this is the screen size that Google Maps was originally designed for and that putting it on a small phone is downgrading it from it's good performance.  It makes a great presentation surface to show off directions to get somewhere, as well as just showing off satellite imagery of the chosen area.  Street View is absolutely gorgeous in this format, and performs quite well. If you're on a good internet connection, the whole app is pretty fast, including, and possibly especially the Street View.

Voice, Talk, Books, Reader, YouTube

These apps all function as well as their phone counterparts, albeit with the feel that the interface is designed for a smaller screen.  Books does manage to provide good sized text, so you're actually reading books in full size, as opposed to reading horribly oversized monstrosities.

Music

Google Music (The cloud service, not the default player) functions quite well on the Fire.   Especially when held sideways (I've got a case which provides a nice viewing angle), the app displays albums in a beautiful layout. The new interface, which I suspect was updated for Ice Cream Sandwich, does a good job of making a tablet display, especially the tap screen while playing a song.

The one gripe I have about the interface on the Fire is that swiping in the albums list has no elasticity to it.  As soon as my finger leaves the screen, the scroll stops.  This means I have to manually scroll every inch of the way.  This may or may not be a problem, but if you're approaching the 20,000 song limit on Google Music, you're going to be wishing you had a way to swipe faster.  I'm not sure why this happens, as it scrolls fine on my phone.

Other Apps:

ConnectBot

One of the reasons I bought a Kindle Fire was to have some basic access to some of the linux servers I administer at work, as well as the ability to occasionally look up/edit some code on my desktop remotely.  I was heavily disappointed when I realized that ConnectBot is missing one important feature:  A way to initiate a connection.  The parameters set for the text box which pops up is set to the wrong value, such that the Kindle Keyboard doesn't contain an enter or return button.  When you go to start a connection, you'll find that you're physically incapable of initiating it.  I've been watching the bug report on this issue, and there's a patch and a user supplied apk available, should you wish to sideload it.

Oh, forgot to mention:  There isn't anything in the Amazon App store capable of ssh other than Better Terminal Emulator Pro, which costs $4.  It's a passable client, but it's a terminal emulator, not an ssh client which means you need to handle things like SSH keys manually.

Alternative Keyboards

You can't.  They devs over at xda have been working on a way to get a different keyboard installed, but so far I've had no luck managing to use something other than the somewhat gimped "Kindle Keyboard".  That's not to say that the default keyboard is non-functional, but as a programmer, I expect certain key combos to be available, including things like Tab, Ctrl, Meta, Alt, and the Arrow Keys.  Lack of these has been a minor annoyance, but I haven't really had a chance to need these keys due to above problem with ConnectBot.

Update:  As a commenter pointed out, the devs over at xda-developers have come up with a simple method to enable a custom keyboard.  Turns out you simply need to copy it to /system/app, rather than having it in /data/app.  Some keyboards are known to fail, but many work fine, including Swiftkey X and Hacker's Keyboard.

Streaming Video

Since it's been rooted, I've been unable to watch video with my Amazon Prime account.  This honestly doesn't bother me much as they don't have many things I actually want to watch.  Netflix has been a good experience with only occasional stuttering.  It seems that Netflix streaming at high quality is about at the limit of what the device can do, at least in terms of raw CPU power.  The video plays well, and any initial stuttering usually clears up in a moment or so.  That being said, I've had some weird issues with Netflix doing things like freezing the video but keep playing the audio, but it hasn't happened often enough for me to be concerned about it.

I have heard from a user on a forum that Amazon Prime is literally doing a stat on the su executable, so if you rename it to something like su2, you should (according to that user) be able to watch Amazon Videos without any problems.

Games:

No review would be complete without touching on the games that are available for the Kindle Fire.

Angry Birds

There's a version of Angry Birds available in the Amazon App Store for free, as well as an Ad-Free version which costs $1.  It plays well, and I haven't noticed any stuttering problems or anything of that kind.  It is, however, optimized for phones, and it feels like it.

Plants vs. Zombies

I've been killing a lot of time playing this lately, and there's actually a Kindle Fire version.  It doesn't appear to be different in any significant manner, save for higher resolution textures.  It does look good on the large screen.

Fruit Ninja

Works well on the large screen.  One downside I've noticed is that the Kindle Fire is dual touch only, so attempting to use three or four fingers for maximum fruit slicing is doomed to fail.

Minecraft PE

This game was meant for this screen size.  The Fire looks beautiful playing Minecraft.  My only gripe about the app is that the controls are apparently scaled to the screen size, meaning they're all blown up out of proportion on the Fire.  Other than that, looks, good and works well.

Other games are mostly similar to the above, and for the most part, games which work well on a phone will work well on the Kindle, although they will always feel a little bit clunky due to the size of the screen they were designed for.

Summary

All in all, I'm quite happy with my Fire.  For $200 ($300 with case and accidental damage protection plan), I got a tablet which lets me read books, watch videos, and play some low key games.  Hopefully soon, I'll be able to get ConnectBot to work, and I can use it for some simple server maintenance at my work. Update: Got it working.  It's quite useful, and while it's slower than a real keyboard, it's killer for on the go maintenance.  I'm satisfied with what I got, and glad that I rooted the device.  With only the Amazon App Store, I'd have felt out in the dark, but given the Android Market, the device feels like a natural extension of phone, giving me the large screen size to read and play and watch when I want it.  I find I tend to still use my phone for most of my daily activities, like checking email and my Google Reader feeds, and I still use my desktop for serious web browsing and gaming, as well as programming, so the device hasn't replaced anything.  Rather, some of the apps I would only occasionally use on my phone (Netflix, Games, Books), I use much more often on my Fire.

I hope to see some custom ROMs for the Fire in the near future, but I'm not sure I need to actually flash the device.  With the lax protection Amazon provided for the device in terms of rooting and sideloading, I feel like I'll stick with the stock firmware, but with the minor upgrade of the Google Apps.

I recommend buying a Fire if you're in the market for tablet, and I highly recommend rooting it once you've bought it.