Kindle Fire Impressions – Insert Bad Pun Here

Yeah, you can make the bad joke yourself because I really don’t want to go there. That said, for anyone who isn’t interested in reading a few paragraphs of observations, I’ll save you the trouble and cut to the chase right now: the Amazon Kindle Fire is a good deal for $200, but it’s by no means the best tablet available, or even the best Android tablet (never mind that Amazon tries to hide that it’s Android).

So with that out of the way, let’s dive in a little bit and get into some of the meaty bits.

Amazon’s overall design of the unit is good, except for the placement of the power button. Stereo speakers are on the top of the device, the back of it is textured and grippy and says “kindle” (nice and subtle… sort of), and a headphone jack, micro USB port, and power button are on the bottom. There’s no SD card (or micro SD card) slot any no other connections. However, as stated initially, the power button (a small, circular thing) is in a terrible location. You’ll hit it accidentally while reading, browsing the web, watching video, basically while doing anything that involves holding the Fire in your hand. And you’ll do it over and over again.

Interestingly enough, there are no other physical buttons on the Kindle Fire. In a RIM sort of move, Amazon doesn’t have a single button on the front of the device, and instead uses soft buttons (read: on-screen buttons) for all controls. It gives the device a nice polish and a clean, uninterrupted look.

It feels good in hand with that textured back. If you’re used to the weight of an eInk Kindle, it may feel heavy to you. That’s the price you pay for a tablet, but considering it’s less than a pound, it’s really not heavy. It just, well, feels solid.

Moving in from the design, the screen (an important component for an ereader!) is quite good. It offers higher pixel density than the iPad, which means sharper, clearer text. However, it’s still not high resolution and you can’t see true HD video (be it 720p or higher) on the device. That said, it’s a high quality display and text and video look quite good.

The user interface on the Kindle Fire is something that Amazon developed all their own, completely forgoing the standard Android interface. Sure, certain aspects of Android remain, but with a carousel of your most recent activities (apps, books, music, video, etc.) on the home screen, it’s definitely a different look from Android. Below the carousel is a “bookshelf” that you can pin various things to. Always use that police radio scanner app and you’re sick of using the category tags along the top? Pin it to the bookshelf on the home page and it’ll always be there.

(A quick note: the carousel is hyper-sensitive. You may flick it a little bit to move to the next icon in line, only to jump past it. It’s very finicky, and I experienced this same hyper-sensitivity in other areas, such as the web browser. If you’re used to “flicking” on an iPad, you’ll need to limit your flicking speed greatly to not overwhelm the Fire.)

Speaking of those apps, in my limited testing, things run reasonably well. The Netflix app (available for free in Amazon’s app store) works, but is in dire need of help–it’s overly sensitive and incredibly limited in its usefulness, but this isn’t Amazon’s fault (maybe, see the note above).

The Kindle app more or less looks like the app on the iPad or any other device, without the front interface because the Kindle Fire has its own “homepage” for books. There are more font choices, as well as margin and line-spacing options on the Kindle Fire than the Kindle App for iPad. Page turns are relatively quick, though I experienced some slight stuttering in a couple of books, but this wasn’t a universal behavior. Much to my chagrin (both as a reader and writer), Amazon still doesn’t support image transparency. Nothing says “Let’s break the immersion” like a big, stupid white box around a graphic when you’re reading on a sepia colored (or black) screen. Oh well.

Movies are decent to watch. If you have some stored locally (perhaps you connected the Fire to your computer via a USB-to-micro USB cable that you already own because it doesn’t come with one), you just tap on it in the Movies category and it plays. If you don’t, you can buy or rent straight from the device, and for Amazon Prime members, you can go to a Prime area where you can watch videos for free. An interesting point of some of the rough edges: you can’t rotate the device to rotate the video. The controls overlay will rotate, but the video is “stuck” and won’t budge (at least when streaming a video).

Music is much the same, in that you can play locally stored content or buy straight from the device. You can also play any music you’ve stored in your Amazon Music account.

The speakers are serviceable: they’re tiny speakers on a tiny device, so they’re what you’d expect.

Overall, as said above, it’s a good deal for $200. You get a lot of functionality, and it’s ridiculously simple to add content to the Kindle Fire. Almost too simple, because it’s linked directly to your Amazon account with One-click enabled. That means you need to be careful when you hit the “buy” button: it just buys and you’re instantly committed. (Yes, you can get refunds, but it’s best not to make the initial purchase if you don’t really want it.)

Some things bother me, however. The sensitivity is a definite problem, but I also have weird things happen with the web browser. Somehow, the device doesn’t seem properly calibrated and I occasionally have to make multiple attempts to click the link I want, instead of the one it thinks I want. Also, the web browser sometimes insists on having a tab open of a website I only visited once, just as a test. So why does it keep opening it for me?

The Kindle Fire also feels sluggish to me. I hate comparing it to an iPad, because it’s like comparing a Subaru WRX STi to a Porsche. Yes, the Subaru costs quite a bit less and has a lot of performance under the hood and chassis, but a Porsche it is not, especially where fit and finish come into play. However, being that we’re talking about tablets, you can’t talk about the Fire and not talk about the reigning champion of tablets.

It’s by no means slow, but it just doesn’t have the same polish the iPad does. Part of that may be because the Fire is built on an old (old!) version of Android. Another part is that Apple builds everything that goes into the iPad, so it’s so finely tuned for every hardware component that it “feels” faster than other devices that actually have better specs. However, as I’m trying to make obvious, the Kindle Fire costs less than half of an entry-level iPad, so you should expect that is isn’t on the same level (and truly, the iPad is meant to be capable of more–this isn’t a mark against the Fire, just a point that they’re truly not in the same category even though the media wants us all to think they are).

I intend to give the Fire some more time before I form a final, complete opinion on it, but I see a lot of potential. It’s not meant to be an iPad and never will be, and so long as you look upon it as a content consumption device, I think you’d be reasonably pleased with it. For the price, it’s definitely the best bargain in the market right now.

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