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Amazon Kindle Fire Expert Review

Amazon Kindle Fire

Rating: ★★★★☆

A fully-fledged Android tablet with a top-level ecosystem of multimedia content for less than half the price of its competitors isn’t just changing the game, it’s changing the entire sport.

The long-awaited, 7-inch, Android 2.3 Gingerbread tablet, which Amazon has been diligently plotting for the last couple of years off the back of its Kindle e-reader successes, also arrives at the perfect time with the tablet arena at a crossroads.

Despite a flood of Android Honeycomb tablets arriving throughout 2011 offering stiff critical competition to the iPad, nothing has really stuck with consumers who still, by-and-large, see Android tablets as poor-man’s iPads for the rich-man’s spending power.

£400+ for an undeniably luxury item is just too expensive for some, but the stunning demand for the largely mundane HP TouchPad fire sale proved people do really want affordable tablets.

Kindle fire

Now, once Amazon decides to launch in the UK (at present there’s no launch date or price in the works) everyone can own a tablet with real pedigree, minus the buyers remorse. It costs just $199 in the US, which works out to about £125.

From Amazon’s point of view, the idea is simple. It believes it can replicate the success of its all-conquering Kindle reader devices by once again taking a hit on the hardware.

The built-in ecosystem of books, magazines, apps and movies Amazon has built allows it to do what LG, Samsung, Motorola can’t, and what Apple has no reason to; abandon any thought of profitable hardware.

This is the first Kindle to boast a colour screen, a holy grail to some users of the device, and with a 7-inch, 1024×600 display it falls at the smaller end of the tablet sphere.

With Android 2.3 (not the newer tablet-centric Honeycomb 3.0 software) on board, it’s also the the first to run anything other than the non-native software. However, Amazon’s custom designed user interface takes precedence.

Since Amazon announced the Kindle Fire, and its price point, excitement has been at fever pitch, but it remained a gadget none of us had ever seen up-close or played with.

What would be the use of a $200 Android tablet that doesn’t work, has a terrible touchscreen or buggy, unusable software? We flew over a device on launch day in the US, so it’s time for the hype to subside and for the testing to begin.

Features (Hardware)

Upon lifting the Kindle Fire from the extremely bland Amazon packaging, we felt like we’d seen this tablet before. The device bares a striking resemblance to RIM’s BlackBerry Playbook, although Amazon will hope that’s where the similarities end.

The glossy jet-black device has a 7-inch screen, just like the PlayBook, along with the same soft and comfortable rubberised, matte casing around the back and edges. At 0.45 inches, it’s slightly thicker than the PlayBook (0.4-inches), but does have a thinner bezel.

Kindle fire back

Just like the PlayBook the device feels exceptionally well-built and it doesn’t appear that Amazon has scrimped on this in order to keep costs low. This Kindle could probably take a kicking and keep on ticking.

There are no buttons on the face of the device, which gives the Kindle Fire a really clean look. In fact, the power button, nestled closely to the headphone jack and the MicroUSB charging port, is the only physical button to be found.

Both the power switch and the headphone jack feel like they’re in the wrong place and would be better served on top of the Kindle Fire.

Kindle fire power/port/jack

There’s no volume switches or screen locks, but we understand Amazon’s desire to keep the design smooth and minimalist. With that in mind two tiny speakers rest at the top of the device.

Tellingly, there are also no cameras – front or back – something which Amazon has obviously deemed expendable, but users hoping to video chat might see things differently.

You can add the lack of a GPS sensor to that list too, but Amazon has made it clear that the Kindle Fire is a media consumption device, not a means for communication (no microphone either) or navigation so it’s difficult to criticise too much – especially at this price point.

Kindle fans will be pleased to know that intrinsically, this still feels like an Amazon Kindle device rather than a tablet PC. At 431g, it’s far more comfortable to hold in one hand than the iPad.

one hand

We found the best grip saw the thumb rest against the side with the pinky finger resting along the bottom. Trying to hold between thumb and index finger proved a little more taxing.

On the inside of the device, the Kindle Fire boasts a 1GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP processor, the same one that rests inside the PlayBook that, if you remember, bragged of a ‘do everything all at the same time’ prowess.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 offers a Tegra 2 chipset, but it remains 1GHz dual-core at its heart. The Kindle Fire, like the iPad, only has 512MB of RAM however, compared to the 1GB on the PlayBook and most of the Honeycomb tablets.

Another slight downer was the decision to pack in only 8GB of internal storage, which equates to just 6.54GB of usable memory.

There’s no room for an external SD card slot here, so you’re really not going to be able to cram much of your own music, videos and photos onto the Kindle Fire.

Side

It’s a very strange decision from Amazon. 6.5GB doesn’t go very far with today’s hi-res digital magazines, high bit-rate MP3s and, HD video. And that’s before you start loading apps onto the device.

Display and touchscreen

One of the most positively surprising aspects of the Kindle Fire is the 7-inch, 1024×600 IPS LCD screen, which once again boasts the same spec sheet as the BlackBerry PlayBook.

As soon as we switched on the device, the vibrancy, crispness and pureness of the colours on that 169ppi screen really shone through (the iPad is only 132ppi). This remained consistent on our journey throughout the user interface.

lockscreen

Text is equally crisp and vivid, especially when we zoomed right in to read books and web pages. In that respect it reminded us of the iPhone’s Retina Screen, but let’s not get carried away. It isn’t that good, and definitely cannot match up to the Samsung Galaxy 10.1′s 1980 x 1080 HD display.

We had no issue with the quality of the video playback (when fully buffered). As with many things on the Kindle Fire, it’s not the best and not the worst, but it’s decent. It’s certainly nothing to be upset about given the price point.

Whether a 7-inch screen is enough for you to fully enjoy a movie or TV show is a matter of personal preference.

Touchscreen

Moving past the look and onto the feel, the capacitive multi-touch screen on the device also dodges another potential bullet with consummate ease.

This was definitely an area where the $200 dollar device could have fallen over, but we’re happy to report that the Gorilla Glass-coated display performs comparably with most of its main competitors. You will have to contend with rampant fingerprints, though.

It responded well to the deftest of pushes and prods, while double-tapping and pinching to zoom were efficient. Typing is always going to be more difficult on a 7-inch screen, but the keyboard is nicely spaced in landscape mode and we found mistakes were minimal.

iOS devices are obviously the standard-setters in this department, but we’re happy with Amazon’s solution.

Interface, performance and battery life

Interface

The Amazon Kindle Fire runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which is primarily smartphone software, rather than the Android 3.2 OS used on tablets like the Sony S1 and S2.

However that’s mostly irrelevant seeing as Amazon has covered up most traces of the Google’s operating system with its own attractive and refreshing custom UI.

The skin brings a lot of the upsides of Android, iOS, WebOS and of course the original Kindle readers into one neat, tidy and functional experience.

homescreen

Naturally, the homescreen takes the form of a book shelf. Your recent items appear on the top shelf; be they the book you’re reading, the webpage you’re browsing, apps you’re using and games you’re playing etc…

Each of which are represented by an icon or a WebOS-like card, and it also looks fabulous in landscape mode.

Flicking through them is a breeze, although the motion can be a little too quick on the trigger at times. We often caught ourselves swiping past our intended target.

From the homescreen, you can hit one of these icons at any time at any time and it’ll return you the point of your previous visit, so it’s a good hub for multitasking.

The lack of a physical home button on the device can get a little annoying at times, especially as the on-screen icon tends to disappear very quickly, but it’s only a minor quibble.

Key settings like volume and connectivity can be accessed from a drop down menu in the navigational bar, which can also be pushed to receive notifications. In this area, you merely touch the top of the drop down notifications bar, rather than pull it down.

Some people might be frustrated that these controls are hidden behind a touch gesture, but we found it to be intuitive and easy to get used to.

On the shelves beneath the recent items sit your favourite apps, which can be placed wherever you desire, by pressing and holding the icon, a la iOS. There’s no folders functionality though.

Hubs

The Kindle Fire is undoubtedly a straight-up media consumption device rather than a communications or navigational tool, hence the lack of cameras and GPS, so it makes sense that the top tab features all of the lovely media content Amazon wants you to by to offset its hardware losses.

There’s Newsstand, Magazines, Booms, Music, Video, Docs and Apps, joining Web which is the only tabs that doesn’t want your business.

All of these store-fronts are extremely well laid out and very user-friendly.

Beyond the UI, Android does shine through in some areas for example, word suggestions are omni-present when typing, but the bespoke Kindle keyboard is your only option.

The menus and settings will be familiar to Android phone and tablet owners, while learning to navigate around this device won’t be too challenging for first time buyers or Kindle graduates.

It’s a brilliantly thought out first-time effort from Amazon that helps push its primary goal of pushing its multimedia content.

Performance

On a $199 tablet (we’ll come back to this argument many times throughout the review) it’s asking a lot for everything to run as smoothly in the engine room as it does on the top line devices like the iPad 2.

After-all, even though a Ford Ka will get you from A to B, it won’t do it with the same smoothness, style and speed as a Lamborghini.

In the main, the device and user-interface is slick and the pace is acceptable without ever being iOS-quick. However, a start-up time of 36 seconds is extremely pedestrian compared to the iPad 2 (22 seconds) and the other top-of-the-line Android tablets.

On occasions we did experience a little bit of a lag when opening apps, and selecting new items from within apps, but it wasn’t something that was overly annoying or apparent. Other reviewers have made a much bigger deal of this than we feel is justified. It simply isn’t that bad.

We certainly didn’t experience any lag when turning book pages as some reviews have claimed. However, apps often quit on us during our tests, which will need to be sorted by software updates.

lost

While the Amazon Kindle Fire only costs $200 (£125), you might want to set aside another £25 or so for a passable set of headphones, as the audio quality through the built-in speakers is one of the most disappointing aspects of this device.

Battery life

The Kindle Fire boasts a massive 4400mAh battery, which takes up most of the space under the bonnet.

Amazon advertises a lifespan of 8 hours of video playback and 7.5 hours of continuous reading, but that’s with the Wi-Fi turned-off, something that’s not possible when browsing the web or streaming video.

We found that within about five hours of constant use, which included listening to music, watching video, browsing the web, playing games and reading books, we had about 15 per cent of battery life left and so put the device on for another charge.

In our tests, the iPad 2′s battery life gave us 9.5 hours of constant general use, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 clocked in at around nine hours.

Six hours, give or take, is not really enough is it especially if you’re on a long journey, so we’d advice scrimping on connectivity when you don’t need it, or turning down the brightness.

Silk Browser

Aside from the price tag, one of the main talking points spawned from Amazon’s announcement was the new, and revolutionary Silk browser, which promised a different approach to loading web-pages, meaning you’d get to your favourite content faster.

Here’s how it works in theory. You see, Amazon isn’t just the world’s biggest retailer, it also owns most of the internet. It’s servers host an astonishing amount of the web’s content.

It’s massive EC2 Cloud-based computers are hence able to do a huge amount of the heavy lifting when it comes to loading web content.

Those servers will store a lot of the information about websites in a cache, meaning the Kindle Fire itself has to do less of the work the next time it brings up that page. The browser will determine the best division of labour necessary to load the page in the fastest way.

The Silk’s loading method isn’t without controversy. As a lot of the information is handled by Amazon’s own servers, there are privacy issues at stake. It means Amazon has a record of every site you’ve visited, exposing your browsing habits. There’s a price to pay for that extra speed.

But how does it work in practice? Well, on pages we loaded regularly, like TechRadar.com, the back-end loading functionality was able to predict regular content like the banner heads, while the rest of the content follows almost instantly. It’s a very fluid experience.

In terms of the look and usability of the Silk browser, it’s definitely more likable than the default Android smartphone and tablet browser, but not as smooth or intuitive as Safari for iOS 5.

We found that scrolling around web-pages was a simple task, and double-tapping to zoom-in on certain areas worked well, as did pinch to zoom. This didn’t cause any negative effects on the resolution of text or images, but when video is present, any zooming can be very jerky.

Silk is flash enabled, meaning you’ll have no problem using those sites still heavily reliant on Adobe’s gaming and video platform, despite Adobe’s vow to kill Flash on mobile devices. As they tend to, Flash banners do not always render in the correct place.

However how much you enjoy enjoy Silk will greatly depend on how you cope with the 7-inch screen as opposed to 8.9, 9.7 and 10.1 inch displayed offered by rivals.

If you’re using in portrait mode you’ll not see the full width of the many pages, while landscape displays minimal information above the fold.

We had no problems with reading web articles on the 7-inch screen as text re-renders to fit your environment a la the Android browser.

Shopping for movies, music and books

The entire reason for the Kindle Fire’s existence is to lock you into an Amazon-controlled ecosystem where you can equip the device with hordes of books, magazines, apps (more on that later), movies and music.

How else do you think it can afford to lose a reported £6 on every device it sells?

As we mentioned above, the user interface completely revolves around pointing you to those stores, so how does the experience play out?

When you enter each of the portals, you’ll be greeted with a screen showing the content you’ve already placed on the device and also the files you have stored on Amazon’s Cloud Player.

Prime music

To access new music, for example, you’ll hit the Store tab, which is easy to navigate and offers MP3 previews of every track. Once you make a purchase, you have the option of storing on your device, or keeping it on your Cloud Player. You can also upload your own tracks to your Cloud Player account.

The cloud solution is one way you can circumnavigate the paltry 8GB of storage on the device as you’ll be able to access all of your music and video over Wi-Fi.

It’s not much help if there’s no Wi-Fi available, as this device has no 3G connectivity, but there’s always the option to physically download anything you have stored to the device for long journeys. And of course it saves the battery if you’re not streaming all your content.

In terms of accessing movies and TV shows, Amazon is keen for you to sign up for its Amazon Prime Instant Videos service, which is free in the US for subscribers to the Prime 2-day free delivery service which costs $79 (Kindle Fire buyers get 30 days free).

For that you’ll get free and unlimited streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows, but don’t expect the latest blockbusters.

The newest releases, along with the latest TV shows, are available to rent for 48 hours (twice as long as iTunes) for the same $3.99-$4.99 price. Like iTunes, those files can be temporarily downloaded to your device for offline viewing. As soon as we have more info on the UK features in this area, we’ll update the review.

It’s the first tablet ecosystem that can compete with iTunes on an absolute level playing field. It doesn’t quite possess the same nuances, like podcasts and iTunes U, but the essential stuff is there in abundance.

The Newsstand tab is very similar to its namesake in iOS 5. It features a huge array of magazines and newspapers which Amazon was smart enough to tie in prior to the Kindle Fire’s launch. There’s Vanity Fair, Wired, Cosmopolitan, GQ and The Economist as well as ‘papers like The New York Times. These can also be stored on the cloud, rather than on the device, saving vital space.

Magazines read well, but the fluidity and panache we experienced on the iPad isn’t present here. In terms of books, well it’s a Kindle Reader…

The selection of 750,000 books is second to none and the purchasing interface transfers well onto the new medium. However, the reading experience isn’t as pretty as on the iBooks app for iOS, we missed the true-to-life turning of the page when flicking through the book.

Members of the Amazon Prime service now also get the opportunity to rent one book a month from the store, absolutely free. Again, that service isn’t yet available for UK readers.

Jobs

Apps and Games

As we mentioned earlier, although Android pumps the blood around its veins, the Kindle Fire doesn’t really feel like an Android device. Nowhere is this more evident than in the app store department.

The presence of Amazon’s own Android appstore means there’s no Google-supported Android Market on this device. What that means is a dramatic reduction in the officially available applications for an ecosystem already struggling to keep up with Apple’s 140,000-strong offering of iPad optimised apps.

Amazon went out and penned deals with a host of the main players in this arena, which means Angry Birds, Words With Friends, Plants vs Zombies, Dead Space and Scrabble are all present and accounted for, while the company is continuing to offer a free Premium app every day. Once again your apps can be stored on the cloud to download as you see fit.

The gaming experience on the device is relatively pleasing. It feels like using a large phone, rather than a tablet device as the extra screen real estate on devices like the PlayStation-certified Sony S1 and iPad 2 do enhance the experience, but anyone who has played video games on an Android phone will know what to expect. The multitouch-enabled touchscreen helps in this department.

Angry birds

In terms of streaming media there’s the all-important (and newly revamped) Netflix, Hulu+, Pandora and Rdio apps, but no Spotify as of yet.

In terms of social networking, the built in Facebook icon simply links to the mobile site and there’s no sign of an official Twitter client. There are third-party alternatives like Seismic, FriendCaster and Uber Social, though.

While the Amazon Appstore is well-stocked and will offer enough to get by on, no Google support means no official YouTube app, no Google+, no Maps, no Gmail, no Earth, no Voice (there’s no microphone), no Translate and no Navigation (there’s no GPS anyway).

These are top shelf apps that bolster the Android platform and Amazon has alienated them. Without them the device feels a little bare. You feel it really needs a YouTube app at bare minimum.

There is a way to circumnavigate this problem and root (or jailbreak) the device in order to load any app (or APK) you would like to, but this method is for seasoned tinkerers only and will void the warranty on your device.

Conclusion

The Amazon Kindle Fire is a completely new kind of tablet device, erring away from the “we can make an iPad too” attitude that has seen the tech world so-far fail to replicate Apple’s success.

There were always going to be compromises, but Amazon has struck a very fine balance balance between the essential functionality and the price point. It’s up to users to decide whether they are sacrifices they’re willing to make. On the whole, we feel that Amazon has got it right.

We liked

The 7-inch form factor is executed far more successfully than the BlackBerry PlayBook, or indeed the earlier Galaxy Tab, as it retains the comforting feel of the much loved Kindle reader. The device feels solid, yet comfortable in the hand, sturdy but never cumbersome.

There’s an awful lot about this device that spectacularly defies the bargain basement price point. The build is one of those things, while the refreshing user interface, display, touchscreen and built-in eco-system of content are better than they have any right to be at this price.

The buying experience was perfect and the ability to keep everything in the cloud does its best to negate the paltry 8GB hard-drive. We were also really impressed with the first iteration of the Silk browser, which is likely to get better.

We disliked

Because of the price point we were able to go a little easier on some of the Kindle Fire’s limitations, of which there is a laundry list.

The decision to omit things like a front-facing camera, a microphone, 3G data connectivity, Bluetooth, GPS, the Android Market, greater internal storage (and the option of external storage) were made to keep costs to a minimum.

Regardless, these are things that we’ve come to expect on all mobile devices and they are invariably missed.

The software is largely great, but needs some kinks ironing, while the battery life disappointed somewhat. The lack of native Google-built apps is a problem and the privacy issues that arise with using the Silk browser is something to keep an eye on.

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Pros

  • Excellent custom UI
  • Price-defying build quality
  • Great new browser
  • iTunes-matching content
  • Surprising display quality

Cons

  • Poor quality speakers
  • Silk browser privacy concerns
  • No cameras
  • No mic
  • No GPS or Bluetooth
  • Performance niggles
  • No Android Market
  • Only 8GB storage
  • No expansion

Verdict

The Amazon Kindle Fire represents astonishingly good value for money; perhaps the best gadget bargain of this era.

The
company has unquestionably succeeded in doing what it set out to; to
produce a brilliant media consumption device that doesn’t break the
bank. It’s a solid tablet perfectly tailored to its aim of pushing you
to buy digital content from Amazon.

It isn’t an all-singing,
all-dancing device that ticks all the boxes, neither does it attempt to
be. It’s is an enjoyable device to use and defies its price point in
almost all areas.

However, because of the limitations we’ve
mentioned above, this can’t be considered an iPad Killer. The iPad does
absolutely everything better and so it should at double the price. This,
however, is an entirely different proposition to any other tablet on
the market and can’t be judged on the same merits.

People who want
an iPad will still buy one. However, due to the sheer number of Kindle
Fire devices will sell, it will first device that can truly compete in
terms of popularity and uptake.

Rather than hurting Apple, it is
more likely to damage the other Android tablet-makers seeking £400 of
your hard-earned for their latest offering. It was already difficult for
Motorola, LG and and co to justify their prices, now it’s nigh-on
impossible.

They will have to cut their own prices and develop
ways to combat Amazon’s content-buying platform. This means more choice
and better deals for everyone.

The Amazon Kindle Fire is here and
the tablet landscape can never be the same again.Now all we need is for
Amazon to confirm a UK launch date and price and all this excitement
will finally be actionable.

Amazon Kindle Fire

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