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The Kindle Fire is the first Android tablet made and sold by Amazon. It’s a hybrid device that’s part Android tablet and part eReader. It’s been billed as the first real competitor to the Apple iPad and challenges the Barnes and Noble Nook in the advanced e-reader category. In this review, I’ll take a look at this latest entrant in the highly competitive tablet market.
The design of the Kindle tablet is lackluster. Physically, it's a plain, black rectangular tablet that looks similar to a BlackBerry Playbook. The only button on the device is the power button which is located at the bottom, next to the headphone jack and microUSB port. Amazon likely clustered these items at the bottom of the device, but the placement is not the best, especially for the headphone. This jack gets in your way when you are using headphones and hold the device with two hands in landscape mode. I discovered this unfortunate placement while watching a video on Netflix.
There's also no volume rocker which is a major oversight. To adjust the volume, you have to hope the app provides a volume control slider (Amazon's video player does, but Netflix doesn't). If it doesn't, you'll have to adjust the volume from the settings button at the top of the screen. It's an awkward design to say the least.
Even though the Kindle Fire is bland, its hardware is solid. The device has a nice weight to it, solid and heavy, and it feels balanced in your hands. Though I wouldn't advise it, you could probably drop the Fire and it will survive unscathed.
Speaking of dropping, the Kindle Fire has a soft, brushed backing that makes it feel smooth and silky in your hands. Maybe a bit too smooth as I can easily see the Kindle Fire slipping from my hands at the slightest bump.
The smaller details on the Fire are solid as well. The power button has a nice spring to it and the speakers are just powerful enough for you to listen to music alone in a quiet room.
The Kindle Fire is no slouch. It has a dual-core 1 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM and 8 GB of internal storage. The Fire also has a bright 7-inch IPS display with a 1024 x 800 resolution. The display is great for videos and photos, though there is a bit of glare on the glossy screen.
Notably missing is bluetooh which a disappointment for a such media-centric device. If you want to listen to music or videos quietly, you're forced to put down your Bluetooth headphones and connect a wired pair.
Also missing is 3G connectivity. WiFi is great when you are home, but you need 3G if you want to use the web browser or access your cloud content when you are out and about. You can download your files and store them locally, but that defeats the purpose of storing them in the cloud.
The Kindle Fire is powered by Android and the first thing you notice when you power on the device is how much it doesn't look like an Android tablet. The Fire has an Amazon overlay that removes most traces of Android. There's the home button, the back button, and the settings which are pure Android, but most of the UI is Amazon.
The software has a bookshelf theme with a carousel of thumbnails that lets you scroll through your Amazon eBooks, available apps, recently viewed web pages and more. The home screen carousel is fixed and you can't remove or re-arrange icons on it. Underneath the carousel is a bookshelf for your favorites. These favorite items can be added, removed and rearranged.
Kindle Fire performance is smooth and responsive, but switching from app to app is sometime sluggish. It's not horribly slow, there's just a slight noticeable lag. Selecting an item from the carousel is also a little wonky. It was hard to get the icon in the perfect position so you could select it. That being said, the software is stable and I have not encountered a single force close in two days of using the device.
Amazon's Kindle Fire ships with a custom web browser called Silk. The browser uses Amazon's backend servers to shoulder some of the processing and then sends the rest to the device for rendering. It's meant to speed up web pages by letting Amazon's server do some of the heavy lifting. In all the testing I did, the browser performed very well, but was not as fast as expected. It was as good as any other mobile browser on the market.
Silk also includes built-in support for Flash which is a nice benefit. Flash-enabled pages loaded up smoothly and didn't bog down the device. It supports pinch-to-zoom, but not swipe so you need to use the back and forward buttons to navigate through pages. Scrolling is a bit jumpy, but not terrible. I probably wouldn't have noticed the the jumpiness, but I am a heavy iPad user and its browser is as smooth as silk (no pun intended).
Multimedia, especially Amazon cloud-based multimedia, is where the Kindle Fire shines. The Fire plugs into Amazon's ecosystem of books, movies, music, docs and apps. Right out of the box, the Fire was already attached to my Amazon account and had my books, music and movies waiting for me when I turned it on. Besides Amazon's apps, there's also the full Amazon App store which has Pandora, Netflix, Rdio and more.
Amazon's built-in apps for music, movies and books don't appear as stand alone apps that you launch. There is no "Kindle" app like you would find on the iPad or other Android tablet. At the top of the device is a menu for Books, Music, Video, Docs and apps. Selecting one of these items sends you to a bookshelf filled with your books or your music or your docs. You can then open these files with the built-in player.
You can also choose to store your files in the cloud or download the locally from this bookshelf view. Its very easy to see which files are stored locally and move these files from the cloud and back. Overall, I had no gripes with any of the built-in apps. They were all easy to use and did what they were supposed to do - let you consume media.
The Kindle Fire's hardware is competitive with any tablet or high-end smartphone on the market, with one exception - the camera. The Fire is one of a few tablet devices that ship without a camera. No front-facing camera, no rear-facing camera, no camera at all. It's not really needed for a device that's meant for content consumption and not having one does keep the price down, but you do notice that it's missing. It also rules out the possibility of using the device for video conferencing.
The Kindle Fire doesn't include a cellular radio so call quality isn't a factor we can discuss. Battery life, though, is pretty good. I've used the device regularly since it arrived and I only had to charge it once. When you are not using it, the battery seems to hold its charge which is nice. It's advertised to have 7.5 hours of battery life when playing video non-stop and that seems in line with my usage.
Overall, the Kindle Fire is a great first effort for Amazon. It's lacking in a few major areas like no 3G and no Bluetooth and the software is a bit sluggish, but this is also a first generation device with first generation software. I expect that Amazon is already working on a software update to improve performance and the next generation Fire 2 will address any hardware limitations.
One thing the Fire has going for it is Amazon's ecosystem. Amazon has music, videos, a healthy app store, and an exceptional eBook store. There's also third-party apps like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Seesmic, and more. The Amazon tablet is great as long as you know it's not a full Android tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but an advanced eReader or a multimedia tablet. If you know that from the start, then you won't be disappointed. And with a price tag of $199, it can't be beat.