When planning my review of the Kindle Fire, I knew I'd need two things: time, and a big list of music, movies, and books I wanted to dive into. I say that because I assumed going into the review that the Fire wasn't about to take the place of my laptop. The Android-powered, 7-inch device didn't exactly strike me as a productivity machine (at least when you look at the specs), and knowing the selection of apps and services I would have access to, I planned on doing some serious consumption of content.
Make no mistake about it — the Fire is a proper tablet, with many (though not all) of the capabilities of something like an iPad. But the focus on this product is most certainly on lean-back experiences, and that's reflected in the price, too. But can a $200 mini-tablet take on Apple's behemoth? Will the Fire derail the plans of other Android tablet-makers? And does the release of this product fundamentally change Amazon's position in the market? I'll attempt to answers those questions — and more — in my review below, so read on!
Hardware / design
The design is just incredibly unoriginal
The design of the Kindle Fire is anything but inspired. It would be one thing if the device were simply a black rectangle with a high gloss screen (spoiler alert: it is). But what's more striking about the device is just how identical it looks in comparison to a product we've seen before. Namely, the BlackBerry PlayBook. I can't overstate how similar these two products seem. They are a similar size (their dimensions closely match), both feature a 1024 x 600, 7-inch display on the front and have a plastic, soft-touch casing on the sides and back, and both weigh 0.9 pounds.
It's been speculated on (and more recently stated as fact by Barnes & Noble) that Amazon used the PlayBook reference design as the basis for the design of the Fire, and I wouldn't be surprised if that were true. Don't get me wrong, it's not that the design is necessarily bad — it's just that it's incredibly unoriginal.
Still, the device feels solid and well made in your hands. It's got enough heft that it feels substantial, but it's not so heavy that you feel strain when holding it for extended periods. Unlike the 1.3 pound iPad 2, I never felt fatigue after reading a book or magazine on the Fire.
The size and shape might very well be the sweet spot for many users
I am confused about a number of decisions here, however. Unlike the PlayBook, iPad, or pretty much any other tablet on the market, the Fire has no hardware volume controls, meaning that you have to go through a series of taps (especially if the device is sleeping) to just change the volume. The Fire also has no "home" button — simply a small, hard-to-find nub along the bottom used for sleeping and waking the device, and powering up and down. That means that Amazon had to create software navigation for getting around the tablet, which would be fine... if the home button wasn't always disappearing into a hidden menu. Also, I found myself accidentally pressing the power button when I was typing or holding the tablet in certain positions, causing the Fire to think I wanted to shut it down. I'm not sure why it's located where it's located, but it seems like a poor choice to me.
Knocks aside, I do like the general aesthetic and feel of the Fire. After using this device and then going back to the iPad 2, I was struck at how big and bulky Apple's tablet feels. This size and shape might very well be the sweet spot for many users, and since most people have never seen or used a PlayBook, the Fire should be a relatively new experience for them from a design standpoint too.
Internals / display
The Fire isn't a speed demon, though it definitely holds its own in the specs department. Inside the device there's a TI OMAP dual-core CPU clocked to 1GHz. The Fire has 512MB of RAM and 8GB of onboard storage, plus Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n. There's no Bluetooth, 3G, or GPS here, however. While the device has an accelerometer, it doesn't appear to have a light sensor — at least, there aren't any options for auto-brightness on the Fire. I thought that was a bit odd, considering the amount of reading in different settings you'll be doing with this thing.
The Fire has a set of stereo speakers mounted at the top rear of the casing (if you're holding it in portrait). Sound was reasonable from the device, though you're probably going to want to plug it in to something (via the 3.5mm headphone jack) for more serious audio. You can charge or sync the Fire via a micro USB port.
There's no removable storage on the Fire, and the only model being sold is the 8GB version (you actually get something more like 6GB of usable space). That could be a deal breaker for some — while you do get great streaming options with the tablet, you're going to be limited to a small amount of content loaded onboard. That's going to be a particularly vivid reality if you're an avid HD movie or TV watcher.
The 1024 x 600 LCD display does a fine job with all sorts of media, displaying bright colors and crisp text. Touch response on the capacitive screen seemed relatively good — I do take issue with some scrolling behavior, though I think it has more to do with software than anything else (more on that below).
The Fire isn't a speed demon
Battery life and performance
I never really found myself worrying about charging the device
The battery on the Fire certainly lived up to Amazon's claim of 8 hours for "continuous reading." In fact, it might have slightly outperformed the ratings while I was using it. Much like my experience with the iPad and iPad 2, I never really found myself worrying about charging the device — it went for days at a time without needed to be plugged in. I think Amazon could do a better job with letting people know where their battery life is at; like most Android devices, you can only see battery percentage inside of a settings menu.
On the performance side, the Fire seems to be on par with much of its Android brethren, though it's possible that some of Amazon's customization is making the tablet feel a little more bogged down than what you'd get with a raw Android experience. In Linpack, the Fire scored a respectable average of about 34 MFLOPS. In the browser, the Fire returned a SunSpider result of 2541.9ms — not too shabby, but compared to the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus's score of 1634ms, it seems a little sluggish.
Of course, as everyone knows, the Fire isn't about specs. It's not about horsepower. It's about software and services — and there's at least one of those places where Amazon truly shines. You can't question that the company has music, books, TV, and movie options galore, but how does Bezos' retailer fare at creating a siloed Android experience? The company made a big gamble that it could redesign and re-skin Google's OS in a way that was more user friendly and cohesive. So have they succeeded?
Look and Feel
To be clear, the software experience of the Fire isn't wholly disconnected compared to other Android tablets or phones. You still have some of the basic pieces of the OS in place here, but others have been removed or heavily altered. Things that will seem familiar to Android users include the keyboard, (which has been reskinned, though works and sounds like a standard Gingerbread keyboard), the window shade notification area (though now it's a tap instead of swipe down), and many of the submenus and settings screens.
There are huge changes elsewhere, however. For starters, there aren't "home screens" or "widgets" here. Instead, Amazon offers a virtual bookshelf that has two specific places for your content. The upper level is a Cover Flow-style swipeable list which shows you your most recently used items (across music, books, magazines, apps, and more). The lower level is a user-programmable list which allows you to place your favorite selections into an organized grid. You can rearrange these icons much like you do on the homescreen of the iPad (they automatically reshuffle), and the list grows downward as you add more items. This is for all intents and purposes your new homescreen — and it works rather well. Along the top of your homescreen is a list of your content silos: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web, as well as a search box that lets you peer into your library or jump to a web search. It makes getting to your stuff quick and easy, and also blends well with the store options Amazon provides.
One thing I would like to see on the Fire is a way to do a unified search of all content available on the individual stores as well as your library. Right now each piece is broken off, and it would be really helpful to jump right into a content search from that persistent search box.
The software experience of the Fire isn't wholly disconnected compared to other Android tablets or phones
For ease of use and simplicity, the general concepts get high marks from me, though I do think some tweaking is required. One of the more annoying aspects of this screen is the sensitivity of the swiping area. It's actually quite difficult to get the item you want to focus and stay still, and often a tap doesn't register on those items. Furthermore, you can't remove unwanted items from the list, so if you've visited a webpage or opened an app that you no longer want at the top of the list, you just have to wait for it to shuffle off of the front page of your device.
The pinning area below is a nice idea, though I don't see how it differs much from a homescreen full of icons and links to webpages (pro observation: it doesn't). I will admit to missing widgets, though there are still some Android apps you can download that will allow you to keep toggles or quick links in your window shade area.
Speaking of that area, another place Amazon has changed the OS (and improved it, in my opinion) is that the Fire offers a tap point on the right side of the status bar which drops down quick options to set volume, brightness, and other settings, as well as providing access to your currently playing music.
The Fire OS does miss a bit with its handling of the home, menu, and back buttons. Clearly these are necessary for much of the navigation of the device, but unlike Ice Cream Sandwich, which almost always keeps these items present onscreen, the Fire often hides the buttons and demands a tap to bring them back up. That can be distracting and confusing when you're trying to quickly get around the tablet. Additionally, the way they're surfaced differs depending on the application you're in. Sometimes they're brought forward by a single tap to the display, and sometimes they're buried in a weird little pull-up menu which hovers along the bottom of the screen. Most of these issues might have been solved by making the sleep / wake button a home button as well. Perhaps Amazon will provide a software update with this as an option.
Otherwise, the OS has been generally cleaned up and made whole — so every app and menu that you're in looks cohesive and feels like part of the same family. Things aren't exactly perfect, however. I did notice some weird behavior on the homescreen where data seemed to be reloading or recaching randomly; the icons would flicker out and then flicker back on unexpectedly. The navigation icons in apps (home, back, and menu) were often finicky, wouldn't accept touches, or failed to appear when I wanted them to. Additionally, the overall OS performance feels stuttery and sluggish, there are odd visual bugs, and things like the keyboard are slow to respond — going back to the iPad 2 from the Fire was a stark contrast in fit and finish. There's a lot of polish here, but I see a lot that Amazon still needs to perfect.
Believe it or not, there is an email client on the Fire. The offered software is a basic but capable IMAP client. You won't find any fancy Gmail features here like archiving, conversation view, or label management, but you should be able to deal with your inbox all the same. If you're a Gmail user, you'll be happy to know that the device automatically sets up your mail as an Exchange account, thus allowing for push updates.
Thankfully, you also get multiple message management as well as the ability to view a unified inbox which aggregates multiple accounts.
Generally the email client works well — though I couldn't help but fantasize about how good the Fire would be with a native Gmail client onboard.
Obviously there's book reading software on the Fire, and if you've ever used any of the company's clients for Android, iOS, or webOS, you'll have a pretty good picture of what this reader is capable of. And that's pretty standard stuff. Aside from obvious formatting and re-formatting of width, font size, and coloring, you're also able to select words or groupings of words for notation, searches, and highlighting.
For studying and note-taking, the Fire's client seems superb, though I was a little disappointed to find that the company didn't include the innovate new X-ray feature it's touting on the Kindle Touch. I was also a surprised to see slower frame rates on page turns than on iOS or Android. As the new flagship Kindle, I expected the experience to be a little more polished.
Music and video
The music and video playback aspects of the Fire are solid, but won't exactly surprise you. Both apps on the device are clean and structured, but clearly not trying to win any awards for "most innovative." I actually take that as a good thing. I want my media players to get out of the way and do their job, and that's definitely the case on Amazon's tablet.
Music is a no-frills affair which gives you options to sort your collection by what's available on just the device itself, or your full library in Amazon's cloud. One thing that's odd is that you can't see both buckets in a single view.
When playing back music, you always have a small controller and listing of what's on at the moment, and as I mention above, you get persistent controls in the dropdown navigation. I did have some issues when making playlists where my selection options would jump around and I wouldn't be able to add certain songs unless I scrolled the list of tracks up and down. It's clearly a software bug that needs working out.
Video is a similarly simple affair, though instead of starting you out in your library, it plants you in a "featured" front page of store content. That makes a lot of sense on the Fire, and at least in my case — because I'm a Prime subscriber — free content is shown in the main slot. It's a great enticement to browse around and discover new shows or movies. When you view a piece of content, you get choices to watch immediately or see purchasing options.
Playback of video was handled in an almost identical fashion to playback on the company's video player for devices and its web player. The controls for video watching float above your content, and quickly fade away when you're not interacting with the device. One interesting thing of note: you can't watch video in portrait mode at all. The Fire immediately switches to landscape when you start a video.
Shopping on the Fire
Where Amazon is particularly strong is in breaking down the sense of a barrier between the content you own and have on the device, and its various stores where new content is available to buy and stream, or download to the Fire.
All of the content silos on the device offer a quick jump into Amazon's store where you can browse and purchase new music, movies, books, or magazines. The experience is completely painless, and far more integrated in the Fire than it is on the iPad or any other Android tablet. If Amazon was trying to prove a point here, it seems to be working. The company is definitely presenting a smoother path to buying content than any of the other guys. Now, I'm not saying that Amazon's method of displaying that content in the respective stores is superior to Apple's — I'm just saying that the experience of getting there and purchasing what you're looking for is nearly seamless.
As far as selection goes, Amazon will seem tough to beat in many departments. The company's music offerings are well established, and its TV and movie content don't lag very far behind the competition. In books and magazines, it's tough to argue against Amazon, though many magazine and newspaper choices here are available elsewhere in nearly identical formats.
I found magazine reading to be a little cramped on the small display, and zooming and panning around lacks a smoothness that would make the experience more enjoyable. Some titles are offered in enhanced, tablet-specific formats (the Conde Nast titles, for instance), and I think users will notice the difference in presentation.
With music and movies, while the choices may be vast, there are limitations. The Fire relies predominately on streaming to get your content, meaning that if your connection is slow or you're out of Wi-Fi range, you're pretty much out of luck. You can sideload content, but I get the impression that mounting a drive on your computer and dumping files into it isn't what Amazon really had in mind when they made the Fire.
If you've got a good connection, however, there are plenty of options to keep you happy. While streaming is the preferred method of enjoying your content, you have the option to download anything you purchase, and the process is relatively painless. Even better, the tablet tells you how many viewable minutes of video you've downloaded during the process. Of course, it doesn't tell you how long the download will take — so it's a give and take.
The biggest problem for most users will likely be the limited storage the tablet provides. If you are storing lots of music and movies on the device, you're going to have to get into management of those files pretty quickly, and that can make for an unpleasant experience.
Minor complaints aside, my main takeaway from the Fire on the process of finding and purchasing content is this: Amazon has done it better and more elegantly than anyone else in the space right now, and I hope the competition follows suit.
The experience is far more integrated than it is on the iPad or any other Android tablet
I didn't notice any page load times that I would consider noticeably speedier
Amazon made a lot of noise about its new browser at the launch event for the Fire. If you'll recall, Silk is a WebKit-based browser that relies on server-side elements and more persistent connections to supposedly speed up site load times. Some of the more interesting aspects of the technology involves learning browsing behavior from the mass of users hitting a specific website, and then pre-cacheing some of that data based on likely behavior. That means that if most people are going to the New York Times' business page after hitting the front page, Silk will begin loading that page two data while you're browsing.
It sounds good on paper, but in my testing, I didn't notice any page load times that I would consider noticeably speedier. When speaking to Amazon reps, they made it sound like lots of people would need to hammer on Silk to start to generate usage patterns. Still, I expected to see some bump in load times, and I can't say there was anything visibly different in the experience. In fact, the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 had much faster load times on most sites I tested side-by-side.
Additionally, much like the standard Gingerbread browser, the Fire suffers from laggy scrolling and imprecise, clunky pinch-to-zoom behavior. Next to the iOS browser or Honeycomb tablets, it just seems less capable.
There are some bright spots, like the use of tabs, but overall I was underwhelmed with browser performance.
Because the Fire is on Android 2.3, many of the applications offered feel like glorified phone apps
As you probably already know, because Amazon has completely forked Android, you won't find any of Google's native apps on this device — including the Android Market. That means that you're getting "over 10,000 apps" versus the 360,000+ which are currently available in Google's store.
Amazon has had its Appstore up and running since March of this year, and it's got a respectable set of applications — but that set is by no means complete. Even though Amazon's PR touts flagship titles like Netflix, Hulu, and Angry Birds, there's much you won't find here. If you've been an Android or iOS user from the early days, you probably remember what a low-population software selection feels like. The Fire's offerings start to get pretty thin pretty quickly. Even some advertised apps like Words With Friends weren't available at the time of this writing.
For an OS that's still playing catch up to iOS, and one which is plagued by fragmentation in its main, fully supported app store, the introduction of a completely separate store on a completely separate product which developers now have to to consider seems relatively awful to me. Sure, there are some great titles available to Fire owners — but what's the long term plan? If the Fire doesn't reach parity with Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich, all of the new "tablet" Android apps will be unavailable for this platform or require a second build which developers will have to maintain, and that seems untenable.
Furthermore, because the Fire is on Android 2.3, many of the applications offered feel like glorified phone apps. That works sometimes, but often it feels clunky and cheap.
I respect Amazon's desire for a complete and clean ecosystem, but the divide it's going to cause — particularly for smaller developers — could have a chilling effect.
You're probably familiar with Whispersync for Kindle books, which lets you leave off in a specific place on one device, and then pick up in that same place on another. For the Kindle Fire, Amazon has extended the feature to video, which means that you can now pause something you're watching online or on a Roku, TV, or other box equipped with an Amazon Video application, and pick it up on your Fire, or vice versa.
In my testing, the feature worked without fail. It's a relatively simple piece of the puzzle that many people won't need, but for the slightly more connected Fire owners, I can imagine it coming in handy in all sorts of situations.
If you're thinking about getting the Fire, you have to decide not just whether you want a tablet, but what kind of tablet you want. This isn't an iPad-killer. It has the potential to do lots of things, but there are many things I have yet to see it do, and I wonder if it will get there given the lean software support. It's my impression that Amazon believes that the Fire will be so popular that developers will choose to work on its platform rather than on Google's main trunk of Android, but that's just a theory right now.
Still, there's no question that the Fire is a really terrific tablet for its price. The amount of content you have access to — and the ease of getting to that content — is notable to say the least. The device is decently designed, and the software — while lacking some polish — is still excellent compared to pretty much anything in this range (and that includes the Nook Color). It's a well thought out tablet that can only get better as the company refines the software. It's not perfect, but it's a great start, and at $200, that may be all Amazon needs this holiday shopping season.
Want to see how the Kindle Fire stacks up against the Nook Tablet, iPad 2, and Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus? Check it out right here in our product comparison!