Kindle Fire – A Review

Update:  After several days of continued use, my dissatisfaction with the Kindle Fire grew, so I decided to return it.  I have faith that Amazon can do better, as they have with the E-Ink Kindles, but for now, I’ll keep my $200 and wait for the next generation.

 

Disclaimer: I’m an unapologetic Apple Fanboy, but I’m also a huge fan of the Kindle.  If you’re looking for a completely unbiased opinion about this new Android-based device, you won’t find it here.

Why I bought the Kindle Fire

First things first – I pre-ordered the Kindle Fire the day it was announced, paid for it myself, and I’m the intended primary user of the device.  I love my Kindle, and have owned each generation since the second, so I looked at the Kindle Fire as a color Kindle that could do a few other things, including running some Android apps.  I’d told my Android-using pals that if I could ever get my hands on the Android equivalent of an iPod Touch, I’d do it, just to try to keep up with the other platform.  I also figured that Citrix Receiver would be available for the Kindle Fire (it isn’t just yet, but I heard from the developer today that it has been submitted for approval), so the Fire could pull double/triple duty as my Android test unit for our large Citrix XenDesktop/XenApp environment.

Why I did not buy the Kindle Fire

The thought that the Kindle Fire, especially in this first generation, would ever compete in any meaningful way with the iPad never occurred to me.  It was clear from the product announcement that Amazon wasn’t positioning the Fire as a competitor to the iPad, and after a couple of days of hands-on experience, I’d have to say that anybody who has used both an iPad and the Fire who thinks the latter competes with the former is nuts.  Do they do some of the same things?  Sure.  But the Kindle Fire competes with the iPad about as much as a Vespa competes with a minivan.

The Basics – Size, Weight, Appearance

Amazon says the Kindle Fire weighs 14.6 oz.  They also say my Kindle with a keyboard weighs 8.7 oz.  Apple says my iPad 2 (wifi) weighs 1.33 lbs, or 21.28 oz (thanks, Siri).  Having used the Kindle 3G and iPad 2 for quite a while, I will say that the Kindle Fire seems very heavy.  It isn’t twice as heavy as the Kindle 3G, but it feels like it is.  It also feels about twice as thick.  Comparing how it feels to the iPad 2 is harder, because while it definitely feels lighter when compared at the same time, or one right after the other, as a much smaller but thicker object, the Fire seems… more dense, I guess.  The weight seems more concentrated.  As a long-time E-Ink Kindle user, I think that’s due mostly to the increased weight over the Kindle 3G I’m used to holding.  Still, it’s not heavy enough to be a bother.  Also, the day the Fire arrived, I assumed (incorrectly) it would not fit in the slipcase I had for my Kindle 3G, so I took the Fire to dinner without a case.  While walking around I felt comfortable tucking the Fire into my back pocket – something I’d never done with the Kindle 3G.  The Fire seems sturdier, more rugged than the Kindle 3G.

As far as appearance goes, the Kindle Fire is a black rectangle with a screen that is even more of a fingerprint magnet than the iPad’s.  Here are a couple of pictures of the Kindle Fire laying on top of my iPad 2.  In the first shot, the Fire looks smaller than the iPad 2, but the second shot shows just how much more screen real estate the the iPad has over the Fire.  7″ isn’t just “a little smaller” than 9.7″ – it’s a lot smaller.

Kindle Fire Tall

Kindle Fire Wide

Where the Kindle Fire Succeeds

To me, the Kindle Fire is primarily a new Kindle.  In that respect, LCD vs E-Ink corner use cases notwithstanding, I think the Fire does well.  Not perfectly, mind you, but well.  I’d give the Fire a solid B as an e-book reader, which is the same grade I’d give the iPad.

If serving as an e-book reader is the Kindle Fire’s primary function, I’m pretty sure Amazon would say its secondary function is to serve up multimedia content, especially streaming video and music from Amazon.  I’m a huge fan of the Amazon MP3 store, having switched over to it for nearly every purchase since it launched with DRM-free content, beating Apple to the punch.  I tested several songs from my Amazon Cloud Player on the Fire and they played fine, albeit through the crappy little speakers at the top of the device.  Music sounds fine via headphones.  I also streamed part of a movie available to me as an Amazon Prime subscriber.  Watching video on a 7″ screen is one of those “yeah, I guess it works” kind of things that I can’t imagine myself actually doing.  If I were going to watch video on a tiny screen, I’d do it on my iPad, but I doubt I’d do it there either.

I’m not sure if Amazon would list running apps as the Fire’s tertiary function, or browsing the web, but running apps is the one I’d pick, and it’s also the area where I’d say it succeeds.  I’ve installed quite a few apps so far.  You can see several in the screenshot above – Evernote, Angry Birds (free version), Seesmic (Twitter & Facebook client), Bejeweled 2 (free yesterday), and something called Enhanced Email, which does seem like quite an enhancement over the built-in mail client, as it was able to connect to both my Gmail and Exchange email accounts with only a little bit of poking and prodding.  All of these apps run, and for that I give the Fire credit, because I have no other device on which I can run Android apps.  I even confirmed that you can “side-load” apps from other Android sources if you wish, after enabling the feature in a settings menu.  Side-loading only half-worked for me, as I was able to install something called “GetJar” but was then unable to use it to install the more generic Citrix Receiver for Android.  I’m not terribly concerned as I know Citrix is working on a version of Receiver for the Amazon store, and I’m also comfortable with getting my apps only from Amazon.  I am, after all, a satisfied iOS user, so running apps only from Amazon’s curated store doesn’t bother me.

Other than those things, I’ll quickly mention that the bookshelf paradigm works for me.  I’ve added the apps and book I’m currently reading to my favorites, and I can flip through the coverflow-like for the rest, or delve into the various sub-shelves for apps, books, etc.

Where the Kindle Fire Stumbles

The single largest issue I have with the Fire is the responsiveness of the UI is terrible.  I don’t know if this is the fault of the Fire itself, as a device, the shell Amazon has written to sit on top of Android, or Android, or perhaps all three.  I don’t know and I mostly don’t care – I just know it’s terrible.  I found myself wiping the screen repeatedly the first night I had the Fire, because for all the good it was doing me to click and poke around, it seemed like I was driving this touchscreen device through a layer of Jello.  I finally realized that my fingerprints had nothing to do with it – the UI really is just horribly slow and unresponsive.  Not unusable, and for all I know if you’ve been using Android for a couple years you won’t think it’s a big deal, but I can say that as a longtime iOS user, the Fire’s UI is painfully bad.

An example would be the responsiveness or clickability of just about any element on the screen.  Take those app icons on the screenshot above for example.  I’ve had to train myself to be very precise, to click as much in the middle of the icon as possible, or the app doesn’t open.  The UI registers the click, though, because the icon moves a little bit.  It’s maddening at times – almost like some effort was put into making the UI jiggle a little bit if you didn’t get the tap exactly right, instead of just launching the app/menu/book you clicked on.  I wondered if it was just me, or if I were being hypercritical (a great podcast on the 5by5 network, btw), but then I saw Leo Laporte using a Kindle Fire on TWiT and he was having the same issue.  He’d click on an icon, then click again, and sometimes a third time.

In a similar vein, I find the web browser on the Fire to be pretty close to unusable, or at least so cruddy that I have no desire to use it.  I’m not even talking about the supposedly super-cool caching/compressing technology Amazon touted for their Silk browser, where pages would be cached and pre-rendered on the Amazon EC2 cloud.  Frankly I don’t care much about that because my experience in actually reading and using what the browser displays has been so terrible that I don’t care what’s happening behind the scenes.  Again, I don’t know if this is the Fire’s fault, the shell’s fault, or Android’s fault.  I just know something I take for granted on iOS – double-tapping a column of text on a webpage to make it expand to fill the screen, doesn’t work properly on the Fire.

Here are some screenshots to demonstrate this issue on the same website when viewed on the iPad 2 and the Kindle Fire.  Here are the iPad 2 shots, first the full page, then the column I double-tapped to zoom.

IMG 0053

IMG 0056

Now here are the same type of shots on the Kindle Fire:

IMG 2149

IMG 2150

Whereas the iPad does a decent (not perfect) job of zooming the column in the middle, to the point that the picture above the column and much of the text on either side is zoomed past, the Fire does a horrible job in comparison.  Forget the fact that the entire picture above the column of text is left – what’s going on with all that wasted white space above it?  And did the Fire/Android really think that when I double-tapped that specific column in the middle of the page, what I wanted was to continue to see several inches worth of other page content all around it?

Now, could I manually zoom just that column further?  Sure I could, and I did, numerous times.  But why should I have to?  My opinion is that average web text on the Kindle Fire’s 7″ screen is too small to be read comfortably anyway, so this bizarre failure to properly zoom really confuses me.

Another UI-based issue I have with the Fire is that many of the animation effects seem to be affected with varying degrees of jitter.  One of the main reasons I don’t grade the e-book reader functionality any higher than a B is because the page turning effect is not smooth.  When launching/opening the book there is also a noticeable freeze (and spinning circle effect) as the book cover expands to fill the screen, then switches to the page I was last reading.  I would rather do without the animations and fluff if they’re not smooth.

Where the Kindle Fire Doesn’t Make Sense

The Kindle Fire works great for e-books.  Where it doesn’t work so well, and where I’m not convinced it ever will, at least not in this current 7″ screen iteration, is for magazines or newspapers.  I tried the New Yorker on my original Kindle, and while the text of the articles and stories was the same as the printed version, I found it to be a much less compelling reading experience.  In a way that doesn’t make sense even to me, I am comfortable reading a several hundred page book broken up into 6-7″ screen chunks, but short and long-form magazine content, especially content I am used to seeing with pictures and cartoons and all of the visual niceties that make a magazine nice to look at, just don’t work for me on such a tiny screen.  Nor does it on the Kindle Fire, and I have a couple of shots to demonstrate why.

IMG 2141IMG 2143

See those gray bars on the top and bottom?  That’s what you get by default, I guess because the magazine page size is just shrunk down to fit proportionally on the Fire’s screen.  Mostly unreadable, in my opinion, especially on a 7″ screen.  You can change from “Page View” to “Text View” and my guess is that’s the only way anyone without eagle eyes would be able to read the articles in this magazine.  Here’s a shot of an article in “Text View”

IMG 2144

That’s better, especially since the gray bars are gone at the top and bottom, and the article content fills the whole screen.  And that may work for some people, but it just doesn’t for me.

I’ve read several issues of the New Yorker on my iPad, and even that, with the larger screen, isn’t as good an experience as reading the actual magazine, but it is much, much closer than I think any 7″ screen will ever be able to produce.

Conclusions

For all its faults, I’m satisfied with the Kindle Fire overall.  That isn’t saying much, as all I really expected from the Kindle Fire was for it to be a color Kindle that could let me dabble in the Android world without shelling out several hundred dollars for a full-sized Android tablet.  Even so, the Fire is inferior to my Kindle 3G as an e-book reader  in many respects.  I may keep the Kindle 3G around for those rare occasions when I want to read outside in the sun, but I can accept the Fire as an indoor replacement, even with its UI/animation warts.

But is the Kindle Fire an iPad competitor?  Not even close, nor do I believe Amazon bills it as such.  It’s a $200 device that does a variety of things, some fairly well, some not so well.  If you’re looking for a 7″ device to use to read books, watch videos, listen to music, and run some Android apps, and you don’t own an iPad, I bet you’ll be pretty happy with the Kindle Fire.  If you own and like an iPhone or iPad, well, you’ll probably find as many things to complain about the Fire as I do.

Thinking about the future for the Kindle Fire, I can definitely see Amazon producing a 10″ version at some point.  A larger screen would address some of my concerns, especially the magazine-related ones.  The unresponsiveness of the UI, the double-tap zooming, and the animation hesitations would have to be resolved for me to be satisfied with such a device, however.  I can forgive a lot in a $200 device that I use primarily as an e-book reader.  I wouldn’t pay $400 or more for an XL version of the Fire with these issues.

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7 Responses to Kindle Fire – A Review

  1. Michael G. says:

    Thanks for helping me make up my mind on not buying the Fire, Mike.

  2. Mike Stanley says:

    Glad to help, Michael. After reading a few other reviews, particularly Marco Arment’s here:

    http://www.marco.org/2011/11/17/kindle-fire-review

    I’m not so sure I will keep my Fire. I think in my interest to feel like I was giving the Fire and Android a fair shake, especially as an iOS user, I may have overestimated the slack I’m willing to cut it for being “just” a $200 device. I’m 100% satisfied with my Kindle 3G, so I don’t think I’m going to settle for being 60-70% satisfied with the Kindle Fire. Amazon can do better.

  3. Jennifer says:

    We bought an IPad 2 about 2 weeks ago and since then we (my husband and I) have not seen it because my 5 year old son has had it playing with it. My question is could we get the Kindle for him as a Santa present and he be as satisfied as he is with the IPad or will we be wasting 200.00? and can any app that is an android 2.0 work on the fire? because lets face it that would be the primary reason for buying the fire along with it being 300.00 cheaper.

  4. Mike Stanley says:

    Jennifer:

    I fear you’d end up feeling like you wasted $200, for several reasons. I need to update the review here to reflect that I have returned my Fire. Over the next several days it became clear to me that the slow UI wasn’t the fault of the hardware, but the software Amazon has written to ride on top of Android. Also, the battery life was atrocious – going from a full charge on Friday to zero charge Sunday afternoon with only a couple of hours reading Friday and Saturday night.

    The only apps you can be certain will run on the Fire are those on the Amazon app store, although even there you might not be 100% safe, as sometimes apps are marked as “Kindle Fire Edition” – which makes me think the non-Fire edition either might not work, or might not work well on the Fire.

    Hard to say it, but if your son uses the iPad 2 full-time, you might end up having to become a two iPad household. We have, and with a little one on the way, I would imagine there will come a day when we’ll be a three tablet household. Maybe tablets will advance enough in a little over 5 years that we won’t also have to be a three computer household as well. :)

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    • Mike Stanley says:

      I actually host this blog and several others at wordpress.com. I register all my domains through hover.com and pay wordpress.com a small annual fee ($13 I think) to let me point my domain to the otherwise free blog.

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