Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet Review
By Sandy Berger on December 19, 2011
Since the release of Apple’s first iPad, competitors have been trying to duplicate its features in a less expensive tablet. No one has succeeded. Now Amazon has released the Amazon Kindle Fire – a tablet that takes a new approach. Amazon didn’t try to match the features or even the size of the iPad. They simply tried to create a new tablet that can provide Web surfing, email, and a wealth of entertainment options at an affordable price. We took a close look at the Fire to see if Amazon’s new approach created a worthwhile device.
The Kindle Fire comes in a non-descript cardboard box, as shown in Figure 1.
The box is actually a bit oversized, given the size of the contents, which are shown in Figure 2. These include the Fire itself, a Getting Started leaflet and a micro-USB power cable for charging. This power adapter supports 100 V to 240 V.
Thankfully, the box comes with a tear strip on the top so it is easy to open. There is no USB cable for connecting the Fire to a computer, although you can do so. We suppose that Amazon’s reasoning was that most users will never need to hook up the Fire to the computer, since, unlike some other tablets, all the important content can be downloaded online.
Amazon took a page from Apple’s playbook, making this a simple, solid device. It is even simpler than the iPad since there is not a single button on the front. Because it has only a 7-inch screen, the Fire at 7.5 x 4.7 x .47 inches (190 x 120 x 11.4 mm) is much smaller than tablets that boast a 10-inch screen. In fact, the Fire is much smaller than the iPad. Figure 3 shows the Fire next to the iPad with the Fire on the left and the iPad1 on the right. Its diminutive size is a big plus when carrying the tablet, but it is a bit of a minus when viewing Web pages and video.
The Fire weighs in at 14.6 ounces (413 grams). This is rather heavy for such a small device, but it is still easy to hold and feels good in the hand. Actually, its extra heft adds to the quality feel of the construction.
As noted earlier, the front of the Kindle Fire, shown in Figure 4, is devoid of buttons and/or other controls. This causes one dilemma. When you want to turn the Fire on, it is often hard to tell the top of the device from the bottom, which has the on/off switch. You will note in Figure 4 that the black screen border is slightly larger on the bottom of the device. That is the only way to visually find the bottom when you are looking at the face of the device.
The bottom of the device holds the only controls, which include a 3.5 mm headphone jack, the micro-USB port, and an on/off button, as shown in Figure 5. While some reviewers have complained about the location of the on/off switch, saying that it could be pressed inadvertently, in several weeks’ use, we didn’t encounter any accidental presses.
The back of the Kindle Fire is covered in a dull soft-touch black finish with the Kindle name embossed in the middle, as you can see in Figure 6. There is no opening for the battery which, like the Kindle reader, the iPad, and many others of today’s devices, is not user-replaceable.
The dull black finish of the back meets the shiny black finish of the front on the sides of the device. Although two different materials come together on the entire surround of the Fire, as you can see in Figure 7, there are no gaps or breaks. This adds to the solid feel of the device.
Setting up the Fire was completely hassle-free with no computer needed. The Fire comes with a small card describing how to charge, start, and unlock it. When you turn it on, you simply follow the on-screen instructions. The Fire immediately searches for Wi-Fi networks and connects to the one of your choosing. If you purchased your Fire from your Kindle account, it is automatically registered. Therefore, it also automatically downloads the latest Kindle software. Although you are told to plug in the unit before using it, it did come with enough juice to complete the short setup procedure.
The setup screens also walk you through how to use the Fire. One example of this is shown in Figure 8. There is also a Kindle Fire User’s Guide pre-installed on the device.
If you are not already an Amazon Prime subscriber, you get a 30-day free trial with your Fire. For USD 80 yearly, Amazon Prime gives you free two-day shipping on Amazon purchases, use of the Amazon Kindle Owner’s Library for free book rentals, and access to many movies that can be streamed directly to your Fire, computer, or television.
Once you have an Amazon Prime account, it is very easy to access Amazon’s Instant Videos that you can stream to the Fire. Amazon has thousands of movies and television shows that you can view for free, rent, or buy.
You don’t have to join Amazon Prime to use the Kindle Fire. You don’t have to use Amazon to stream videos. You can easily add free apps for Netflix and/or Hulu.
You can also purchase Amazon content, including books, movies and TV shows, even if you are not a Prime member. The Amazon music store has a selection that rivals the iTunes store and in general, we find most things at Amazon a bit cheaper than at Apple. The Amazon book store and their video store both have large selections and competitive prices. Amazon’s new Newsstand already offers over 400 full-color magazines and newspapers.
You will also want to set up an Amazon Cloud Drive account either on your Fire or on your computer that you can do through Amazon’s website. Amazon gives you 5 GB of free storage. Songs purchased from Amazon music don’t count toward your storage limit. You can get 20 GB of storage for USD 20 yearly, which includes unlimited space for music storage at no extra charge. Not only can you store music on your Cloud Drive; you can also store any of your own documents, pictures and videos.
Amazon makes it very easy to access your Cloud Drive content on the Fire. When you are in certain areas (such as the Music area), you will see two buttons neighboring buttons marked “Cloud” and “Device,” as shown in Figure 9. Press on Cloud to see the music you have in the Cloud drive. Click on Device to see the music you have on the Fire.
Although the Fire has only 8 GB of internal storage (approximately 6 GB available for user content) and no memory card slot, the ability to store data in the cloud and access it from there allows the Fire to work well with an amount of memory that would otherwise seem very limited.
Amazon says that the 6 GB of available storage is enough for 80 apps, plus 10 movies or 800 songs or 6,000 books. With easy access to your cloud data, you don’t need as much storage space as you would otherwise. Music plays right from the cloud, so you only need to download it when you will be away from a wireless network. All of your Amazon books and apps are stored in the cloud; you only need to download one when you are reading it. Assuming that the average user will only be reading two or three books at a time and watching about the same number of movies, the storage on the Fire, although limited, will serve the average user quite well.
The operating system that runs the Fire is Android 2.3 Gingerbread, but you would never know that just by looking at it or even when using it. Amazon has provided a highly customized overlay that makes the interface unique to the Fire. The Fire has only one home page, which is shown in Figure 10.
The Carousel holds the large scrollable items you see at the top of the screen. They represent everything that you looked at recently. Below that is the Favorites area. Touching any item on the Carousel and holding it for a moment will allow you to add that item to your Favorites or to delete it from the device. Tapping any item on the Carousel or in the Favorites will activate that item, whether it is a song, movie, book, or app.
You can add more than four Favorites. If you do, you simply swipe up on the screen to see them, as shown in Figure 1.
Unfortunately, you cannot rearrange your Favorites; nor can you create groups on the Carousel or in the Favorites. This is reminiscent of the omissions of features that were in the original Apple iOS operating system that were added in subsequent versions.
Just above the Carousel items is the main menu with seven choices: Newsstand, Books, Music, Videos, Docs, Apps and Web. These choices are simple and obvious. We’ve seen novice users who were confused by the Apple iOS on the iPad or iPhone because they didn’t know that Safari was a Web browser. Amazon eliminates that frustration by simply calling it “Web” on the menu.
At the very top of the screen is a notification bar. This shows your name on the left; the current time is in the middle; and an icon that leads to the settings and Wi-Fi signal strength, and battery strength indicators are on the right. Tapping on any of the icons on the right brings up controls for the rotation lock, wireless settings, volume, sync, and screen brightness. At the right side of this menu is the word “More.” Tapping on More gets you into a full-blown settings menu with listings similar to those found in other tablets. There is also a notification shade like the one found in other Android devices and in the newest version of Apple’s iOS. Just drag you finger downward from the top to see your current notifications.
The Kindle Fire is no speed demon, but it’s not sluggish either. It has a 1 GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP processor with 512 MB of RAM. It has occasional slow ups, but in general use, it is fast enough for the average user.
The on-screen keyboard is responsive and, like most other tablets, has suggestions for misspelled words but no auto-correction. Our only aggravation was that, as shown in Figure 12, the space bar is set off to the left instead of being centered. This quirk appears whether in landscape or portrait mode. If you are a hunt-and-peck typist, you may never notice this. If, however, you are used to pressing the space bar with your right thumb, it will be an annoyance that you will have to work to overcome.
The Kindle Fire allows you to perform all the basic functions that you might expect from a tablet. You can browse the Web, send and receive email, read documents like PDF, Word, Excel, etc., view photos, listen to music and watch movies.
It handles all of these functions with aplomb. Its Silk Web browser was specially created by Amazon to cache Web pages on Amazon servers and speed browsing. It performs well and supports Flash. It also gives you the ability to view Web pages in a text-only view. While Web pages load quickly, the small screen means that there is more scrolling and zooming to view pages. There are no private browsing or parental controls, both of which are found on other tablets.
The stereo speakers on the top of the Fire are adequately loud. Although there are no audio enhancements or EQ settings, the Fire has clear audio output. It sounds surprisingly good when paired with a good headset or ear buds. Both music and videos play smoothly and easily.
Email functions are pretty basic, but again, adequate for most users.
While all the basics are covered, advanced features are not. There is no GPS, maps, Bluetooth, external keyboard support, cameras, microphone, video output, compass, or ambient light sensor. This lack of features limits what the Fire can do, but it doesn’t thwart its main functionality which is to play content such as music, videos, and books.
Content is where the Kindle Fire excels. The Kindle bookstore is one of the best for digital books, newspapers, and magazines. It offers everything from classics to best-sellers and business periodicals to comic books. There are plenty of free books available; Fire owners who are Prime members can use the Kindle Landing Library to borrow books at no cost. Many local libraries are also currently lending digital books for the Kindle that work beautifully on the Fire. Although limited by the screen size, most newspapers and magazines display quite well on the Kindle Fire. We were surprised to find that the Wall Street Journal for the Fire was available for Wall Street Journal print subscribers for free, since even print subscribers have to pay an additional fee to get it on a regular Kindle.
If you are a Prime subscriber, you will find a wealth of movie and television titles to stream on your Fire at no additional cost. The selection is not as good as Netflix, but it is continually growing. Netflix and Hulu are supported on the Fire.
Games and Android apps for the Fire must be downloaded from the Amazon store rather than the Android Marketplace. Although constantly growing, the Amazon app store doesn’t yet have near as many apps as Apple’s iTunes App store or the Android Marketplace. Yet, most of the common apps like Pandora, Facebook, Evernote and Angry Birds are available.
The Kindle Fire doesn’t yet support mobile networks. It works only over Wi-Fi. It supports 802.11b/g/n and connected well even on networks of questionable signal strength.
Amazon promises seven and a half hours of battery life and our Kindle Fire lived up to those expectations. Although some tablets offer better battery life, we found the Fire’s to be adequate.
The main specifications for the Amazon Kindle Fire include:
* Researched at www.amazon.com on the day we published this review.
There is a natural tendency to compare all tablets to the popular, ground-breaking iPad, but the Amazon Kindle Fire really can’t be compared to the iPad. It is an entirely different, less expensive category of tablet. At less than one half of the price of the cheapest iPad, this should not be surprising. The Fire performs all the basic tablet functions quite well. You can easily use it to send and receive email, surf the Web, listen to music, read digital books and magazines, and play games. While the app selection is not as large as that of the iTunes store or the Android marketplace, there are good selections of games, entertainment, social networking, and productivity apps including must-have apps like Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, Angry Birds, and more.
For the price, the solidity of the hardware and the screen quality of the Fire are exceptional. Although the Fire is lacking some of the hardware options like cameras that are found in higher-end tablets, we found this to be acceptable because of its price. There are, however, two hardware limitations that we felt were weak points for even a basic tablet. We felt that Amazon should have included a microphone and a hardware volume control. We certainly hope that they will be included in future versions.
Although storage is very limited, Amazon provides useful cloud storage that offsets this limitation. There are limited customization options, but this results in a device that is very easy to use. We expect to see more customization options added as the operating system is updated. In fact, Amazon has already promised that such an update would be forthcoming.
With an extremely large bookstore, an excellent selection of music, and a constantly growing number of videos and apps, Amazon has made content a big draw for the Fire. It has also made it easier to access that content than any other tablet, including the iPad. Content and ease of access to that content is where the Kindle Fire excels and why it will be popular.
Power users might be frustrated by the lack of advanced features like cameras, GPS, Bluetooth, and/or by the small screen. These users should opt for a full-blown tablet. Those expecting basic functionality will be happy with the Fire. It is quite simply an outstanding entertainment device at an affordable price.