By November 16, 2011 0 Comments

Amazon Fire: First Impressions and Purchase Decision Tree

I love Amazon. I’ve been an Amazon Prime customer for several years. I buy a lot of things from them, from dish soap to kettlebells to floor jacks to smokers. I even have some items on a recurring subscription model, like the Snackwells protein bars.

In addition to tangible items, I buy a lot of media from Amazon. All but one of my last two MP3 music purchases have been through Amazon (the exceptions were Pretty Lights and Soul Khan, who have direct channels). I have a ton of Kindle eBooks. I haven’t purchased any videos from Amazon, but we do take full advantage of the free movie and video streaming from my Amazon Prime membership. I love watching Iron Giant, and even though I have the DVD downstairs, it’s neat to just stream it.

So, I was very excited when the Kindle Fire tablet was announced. It seemed to have a ton of features going for it. Easy, direct tie-in with the Amazon content stream, a nice 1024×600 pixel display, a dual core processor, and a smaller 7″ form factor. The price was really good, too — $199 with free Amazon Prime shipping. I placed my pre-order on September 28th.

As the launch date neared (it was supposed to be today, the 16th), more details about the device emerged. Some of the details made me nervous, like you wouldn’t be able to access the real Android app Market serviced by Google, and you’d have to use Amazon’s App Store instead. There was no external storage; Amazon wants its customers to use their cloud storage service instead. Most of all, the Fire was to run a heavily customized version of the Android operating system, right down to the Silk Web browser, which would use Amazon as basically a proxy to “speed up” Web browsing.

The more I read about the Fire, the more I was concerned that the Kindle Fire was less of an Android tablet, and more like an Amazon media consumption device that happened to be built on the bones of the Android operating system.

Here are my first impressions about the device.

Unboxing and Overview

The Kindle Fire has a very explicit user experience story: this device is simple and easy to use. This immediately is conveyed in the packaging: it’s minimalistic, just like the device itself. The Kindle Fire is shipped in the same unassuming brown cardboard box it is packaged in. The Fire is contained in a thin, plastic protective sleeve. There is a thin paper ribbon that holds the AC charger together. A simple quick start card is all the documentation Amazon deemed necessary.

That’s it.

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The Kindle Fire immediately downloaded and installed an update as soon as I connected it to my wireless network. This took about five minutes or so. The Fire tried to explain how super easy it was to use but I tapped through the tutorial as quickly as I could. I checked the battery life, and the device had about 63% remaining. Funny how close this is to the battery level the iPad2 ships with from Apple.

Including the unpacking and the update, I was out of the box and tapping on the Kindle Fire in less than seven minutes.

Exterior

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The Kindle Fire is a pretty sexy piece of equipment. Remember that minimalist, easy theme? It’s personified in the hardware. There is one button (power) and two ports (micro USB for charging and data transfer, and a headphone jack), and two speakers.

That’s it.

Volume controls are software keys only, as are all of the navigation keys. Veteran Android device users will notice the lack of “soft” keys that typically represent the home, back, search, and menu functions. The Kindle Fire does not run the latest Ice Cream Sandwich Android operating system, but the form factor obeys the directive to keep the face of the device free of soft keys and as clean as possible.

The back is rubberized, with the word KINDLE embossed.

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As you can tell, this rubberized material picks up debris and gunk quite easily — there’s already a smudge of something on it.

The textured back helps me hold the Fire, which brings me to a massive selling point about the 7″ form factor. Its reduced weight and size compared to the 10.1″ tablets (like the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, or Motorola Xoom) make them much easier to hold with one hand. I also find that the 7″ size also frees me to rest the tablet against my body in different ways. The iPad2 forces me into using my legs as an easel, which isn’t comfortable for long periods of time. It’s easy to hold a 7″ tablet in one hand and keep it tilted at a comfortable viewing angle, something else I found uncomfortable doing with my iPad2.

I really like the look of the Fire.

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These are not unshielded exhaust ports. The Kindle Fire has no weakness against snubfighters.

The Kindle Fire has two speakers on the top edge. This is an odd design decision; usually speakers on the back of the device. This is particularly weird since you are guaranteed to cover one, if not both of the speakers while watching a video. Videos may only be watched in landscape orientation. If you have large hands, you may want to bust out your headset.

The power button is very small. It is in a typical position for a Kindle power switch. My 3rd generation Kindle Keyboard has its power slider in the same spot. However, this is non-standard place for power switches on Android devices. Usually it’s at the top of the device, even more commonly in the top left or on the left side very very close to the top. Again, a reminder that this is an Amazon device, not an Android device.

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Same goes for the headphone jack; it’s at the bottom. Most Android devices have the headphone jack on the top of the device, but on Kindles the headphone jack is at the bottom. Is this a nod to existing Kindle customers, or a more subtle design differentiation between the Kindle Fire and other Android tablets? Probably the former, but who knows.

The AC adapter is very short at about four feet long. The cord is so short that unless you are right next to a power outlet you won’t be able to use the Fire very comfortably while it is charging. The Fire does not charge while connected to my computer, even when plugged into a powered USB hub.

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The first of many disappointments with the Kindle Fire

Weight and size

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From left to right: Nook Color, Kindle Fire, iPad2

The Kindle Fire weighs 14.2 ounces. The Nook Color is 15.4 and the iPad2 (with the much larger screen) is 1 pound, 10 ounces with the SmartCover screen installed (1#, 5oz without).

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In general, the Kindle Fire is about the same thickness as the Nook Color. However, the bezel (plastic around the screen) is smaller, and it doesn’t have that dumb ass lanyard mount the Nook Color has. The Fire feels smaller than the Nook, even though they are roughly the same in weight and size. The Kindle Fire seems easier to hold in my hand than the Nook Color.

Comparing the size and weight to the iPad2 isn’t exactly fair or representative, aside from my overall favor of the 7″ tablet format. However, I know a lot of my friends have iPads, so I thought I’d put it in for reference.

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The screen

Okay, this is where my recommendation on whether to buy a Kindle Fire starts to depend on a particular person’s experience and expectations. I started my eBook reading career on a 3rd generation Kindle. The eInk screen seemed “coarse” at first, but I found the technology to very easy on my eyes and I tore through scores and scores of books since receiving it. It’s a great display to read by, but not so great for other types of media.

Some of my friends downloaded the Amazon Kindle reader program for their PC, or the app for their mobile devices. A former co-worker read a full-length book about every day and a half on his Blackberry. Holy shit, that’s a tiny ass, low fidelity screen. Many of my friends read their Kindle books on iPads, their smartphones, or on a hacked Barnes and Noble Nook Color (cough).

So, if you are used to reading eBooks on your mobile device you will be used to the high contrast, too bright, glossy screen that otherwise delivers other media in fantastic fashion. You will take to the Kindle Fire’s screen like a duck to water. It won’t bother you at all, and it didn’t bother me.

What did bother me was switching from my Gen 3 Kindle reader to my hacked Nook Color. It took several days for my eyes to adjust to the fuzzier text. I find that I can read less in a session than with the Gen 3 Kindle Keyboard. I think the eInk screen is far superior for reading. But of course, that’s not all that the Kindle Fire does.

Watching video on the Kindle Fire is awesome. I loaded up Iron Giant right away and next thing I knew I had set my notes aside and ten minutes into the movie. The screen seems absolutely beautiful.

However, there is a major issue with the screen I don’t seem to have with my iPad2 or my Nook Color: it reflects light like a mofo. I know I take “candid” style product shots for my reviews, but it was really difficult to get one without glare on the screen. Here’s an example:

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This led me to one of the first examples of the over-sanitized “mini-reviews” I read on the Internet prior to the Fire’s release. Very few really posted pictures of the Kindle Fire while under direct light. In fact, most of the pictures are taken inside darkened conference rooms. I am very concerned about glare on the screen, and any impact this may play on short-term viewability (OMG I can’t see due to the glare) or long-term readability (eye strain caused by stray reflections).

Media and performance

The Kindle Fire is great for consuming your Amazon audio and video content. The speakers are pretty good all things considered — especially if you set the device down and don’t hold it in landscape mode. Doing so will cover up one if not both speakers. I’m a little pissed that the Fire didn’t come with headphones, but I guess Amazon assumed most people would already have a favorite pair. And if you don’t, Amazon will happily sell you a set of Skullcandy TiTAN canalphones, which I use on my Nook Color and HTC Droid Incredible.

I already talked about reading eBooks, but if you’re conditioned to reading them on a mobile device then you won’t have any problem here, either.

In general, accessing video, books, and music is fast and seamless.

I disliked the Amazon Web browser. The Silk browser uses a proxy service that caches content for faster performance. Supposedly. I found it to be slower than the stock Android browser found on my HTC Droid Incredible and the rooted Nook Color. The Fire had a particularly hard time rendering any Web site with interstitials, like popup windows or modal dialogs. I’m not sure what the problem is there, but a lot of sites use these techniques to push advertising or registration. Quite a few use “pop up” panels for logging in or checking a shopping cart, or a quick product view.

Animations and whatnot render pretty quickly, so that’s cool if you are into that sort of thing. I’d rather get to my content quickly, so the Web browser performance is more important to me than if something looks cool on the desktop.

Software

The Kindle Fire ships with a bunch of software bundled from Amazon. As I wrote earlier, you can’t download your apps from the usual Google App market. Amazon gives away one free app a day, so I’ve collected a fair amount of apps from them, including Plants vs Zombies and a fistful of other games.

One thing that’s nice about the Fire is that access to my Amazon media is seamless. I signed in once — one time — and I had access to my Amazon music, the Amazon store, the Amazon video service, and oh yeah, those eBook things. On my real Android devices, this takes four different apps, each with their own logins, all of which time out at different intervals and ask for my username and password again.

I wasn’t able to take good shots of the user interface in action, but the consumption of content is paramount on the Kindle Fire. The home screen is not like an Android device at all. It’s a cover flow-style ribbon with thumbnails of the last three or four things you accessed. Right now on my Fire, that’s Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, an app called Easy Installer, an app called ES File Explorer, and “Acknowledgement” by Soul Khan.

As I swipe through the cover flow, the prior thumbnails rotate to the front. That’s a Web browsing session on the XDA Developers Web forum, the Fire’s integrated news reader app called “pulse,” and the Iron Giant re-release movie cover. And then after that is the first eBook I opened up, which features adult content.

That brings me to my first dislike of the Amazon UI. I don’t want all of my content to show up in a stream. I realize it’s handy for accessing the most recent content, but I sometimes read books that may bring unwanted questions. I just finished a number of books on different religions, and who wants to engage in that kind of unwanted discussion? I’m currently reading a book on how to be a good stepparent, and I am not interested in advertising that just by flashing on my home screen.

I am also bothered when thumbnails of Web sites I’ve visited show up. Do I really want my bank information on the home screen? Sometimes the Internet is used for, uh, adult reasons and if this applies to you then be careful when you turn your Fire on.

The Amazon UI doesn’t allow for the flexibility one would normally find in the Android OS. There’s no way to turn off the cover flow, and to my knowledge there’s no way to “hide” or “not display” certain items. It’s everything.

Speaking of customizing, there’s a lot you can’t do on the Kindle Fire that we take for granted on Android devices. For example, the Fire has a gallery of backgrounds that appear on the lock screen. There’s no way to customize these. I viewed the applications running on the Fire, and there’s one called “Live Wallpaper Picker” and one called “Magic Smoke Wallpapers.” I don’t know if either one of these is responsible for the lock screen, but neither are accessible to the user. They are running in the background, and I can’t even force quit them.

That’s a minor annoyance, but I can download WallSwitch and maybe that will work, right? Nope. WallSwitch isn’t available on the Amazon App store. Even if I could get it, I’m not sure if that would change it anyway.

Every Kindle device has a name. My 3rd Gen Keyboard Kindle is called Nombook, and I wanted to rename my Fire. In keeping with my mobile device naming convention, I wanted to name mine after a droid from Star Wars. Unfortunately there’s no way to do this within the Fire. I finally searched Google for the answer, and you can supposedly do it through your Amazon.com account. I changed the device name there, but it has yet to trickle down to the Fire.

You also can’t change the keyboard on the Fire, and this is a massive problem for me. I really like the SlideIt swiping keyboard, and I think a swipe style keyboard should be on every tablet device. Unfortunately, Amazon has taken that option away from me. Even if you sideload a different keyboard onto your Fire, it won’t work. More on sideloading in a bit.

Customization is harder than it should be.

Apps and sideloading

This is the part of the review that I tell you I won’t be keeping my Kindle Fire. Sedagive? may inherit it, otherwise it’s going on the auction block.

The Amazon App marketplace is missing several key apps that I use on a very frequent basis. The most important of these are the native Gmail app and Dropbox.

I have four Gmail accounts. One for this blog, one for personal use, one for my consulting firm and one for an ad agency I freelance with. All of these accounts — including their calendars and contacts if I choose — are integrated into one app. I could use the Web browser version of Gmail, or I could use the Amazon bundled Mail app. But why would I? Why can’t I just use the standard Gmail app that I use on my other Android devices? It’s because Amazon wants to control the content and application streams, and I find that repugnant and inconvenient.

I use Dropbox to synchronize key files, including my KeePass data. I have almost 550 unique passwords for different Web sites and applications. I’m screwed without that file. Of course, I could sync that file up with Amazon’s cloud storage service, but why would I, when I already have a system that works fine for me?

Now, there’s a concept called “sideloading,” where you download the application installer from the Internet (or rip it from your phone if you have root access) and then load the installer onto your device. In the case of the Fire, I transfered the dropbox.apk file and used Easy Install to install it. I got an error, and the install failed. I tried ES File Explorer and got the same result. Others are reporting difficulty installing other applications, and very very few of the Google apps work on the device.

So, should you buy one?

That’s the big question, isn’t it?

It depends.

The Kindle Fire is very attractively priced, and is a nice piece of hardware. However the value of the device diminishes the further away you are from the Amazon content ecosystem, and/or based on your familiarity with other tablet operating systems.

I’ve put together a decision tree based on how I am going to answer this question in person, and I hope it helps you decide what to do.

I won’t purchase any Kindle Fires as gifts this season, and unless Sedagive? likes mine or a root comes out quickly I will wind up selling mine. However, I am pretty happy with my hacked Nook Color for general use, I use the iPad2 for work, and will add an Asus Transformer Prime as my “big boy” tablet once it’s released. That leaves very little space in the stable for the Kindle Fire, and even though I love Amazon, the locked down user experience is just too much for me to swallow.

Frankly I think the Fire will appeal to people who are financially and/or emotionally invested in the Amazon content stream. If people wanted a good looking, locked down device they’d have purchased an iPad2 already. The Fire may wind up in homes because it’s so much less expensive than an iPad2, but it’s a terrible way to compare the two devices.

My biggest concern is that the Fire will be a lot of people’s first exposure to Android. Except it’s not an Android device, it’s an Amazon device that was built on the broad shoulders of the Android operating system. I am concerned that the Fire will turn people off — it’s limited right now, and there are some quirks with the user experience and usability that I didn’t have the time to get into. I just hope that people are willing to give Android another chance after owning a Fire, but I am afraid the Fire will set expectations on how real Android OS devices function.

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