The Kindle Fire was released towards the end of 2011, and was an important device in the Android Tablet space. With the low price point, and integration into Amazon’s Kindle and Prime ecosystem, it was the first Android tablet that really stood a chance at gaining significant marketshare. This review will cover the overall experience of using the Kindle Fire, as well as the implications the successes of the device make for the future of Android tablets.
The lower price point of the Kindle Fire would suggest a low-end device with mediocre internals; however device specifications are reasonably solid. The Fire has a 1024×600 pixel IPS display, a dual core OMAP 4 processor, 512mb of ram and 8gb of internal storage. Though these specs aren’t high-end by any means, the Fire is very well equipped at the $199 USD price point.
The Kindle Fire has a very clean and understated appearance. The device looks almost identical to the Blackberry Playbook, and is simply a black slab. Further, the Fire has very solid build quality, and has a hefty and solid feel in the hand. The main issue I have with the look and feel of the device is the fact that it really has no personality. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Fire’s hardware, and the matte finish feels great in the hand, there is nothing that really differentiates itself from any other black slab on the market.
The size and weight of the device are another aspect worth examining. The mainstream trend for tablet sizes (largely due to the iPad) is 10 inches. The Kindle Fire is one of the smaller tablets on the market, with a 7 inch screen. Since the device is branded a Kindle, and many will be using the device primarily as a reader, I feel that the 7 inch form factor is ideal. The device feels about as large as a standard book would, and really makes for a natural reading experience. That being said, the device is much heavier than a regular Kindle, which could be an issue for those simply looking to bring the device with them as a reading device, rather than fully featured tablet.
Overall though, my thoughts on the Kindle Fire’s design are mixed, as there really is nothing wrong with the hardware on the Kindle Fire, the device just has a very generic aesthetic.
The 7 inch 1024×600 IPS display on the Kindle Fire is adequate. Since it is an IPS panel, the viewing angles are better than your average LCD, but the pixel density is lacking. With the above mentioned resolution, the device has a PPI of 169, which is pretty low especially for a device that aims to be a reader. That being said, the low resolution is forgivable considering the fact that it is an IPS panel at the price point of $199. As mentioned earlier, viewing angles are what you would expect from an IPS panel (very good) and colors appear accurate, albeit a bit washed out if you are accustomed to AMOLED displays. Had the Fire been a more expensive device, the low pixel density would have been an area of more criticism, but overall the screen is acceptable for the price point.
The size of the display is perfect for this type of device though. For me, 7 inches really does seem to be the sweet spot for screen size on a tablet. I currently own and regularly use an HP Touchpad (with Android installed) and found that I really enjoyed the smaller size of the Kindle, and found it hard to go back to the Touchpad. It is a perfect size to hold in one hand while reading, and just doesn’t feel too heavy, large or cumbersome. Reading with the Kindle Fire felt very natural largely due to the smaller size of the display, though the experience would be enhanced with a higher PPI.
The Kindle Fire runs a custom interface on top of Android Gingerbread. My first impression of the interface was that Amazon was doing everything in its power to hide the fact that the device is running Android, or even associated with Google. There are no Google Apps pre-installed, nor the ability to do so without hacking. Instead you are presented with a handful of Amazon applications, and shortcuts to Amazon’s app, music, video and book store.
My initial impressions turned out to be quite accurate– Amazon did all that they could to mask the fact that this is an Android 2.3 device. The main screen on the Fire has a search bar with categories up top that list the different type of media on the device. Below these categories is a carousel that shows recently downloaded/ used books, applications, magazines etc, all in one list. While the interface looks very nice, and is relatively smooth, it is a bit unorganized, as every application you open appears on the list. The best way to fix this is by individually removing apps from the carousel so it does not end up looking too cluttered. Underneath this is a bookshelf that you can pin shortcuts of applications to.
The interface that Amazon implemented is slick, and pretty simple to use– but it is somewhat problematic. It is understandable that Amazon set this up to basically be a storefront for all of their content, but since this is also an Android tablet, it would have been great if Amazon would have included Google Play access and the rest of the Google Apps. Amazon could have included the Google Apps and still maintained the storefront interface– this simply would have given users more choice. The Amazon App store does have quite a few Apps, but it is missing much of the content that is found in the Google Play Store. The choice to omit Google Play makes sense since Amazon has their own app store, but it does limit the amount of apps available to owners of the Fire.
One annoyance with the UI overlay introduced by Amazon is how the navigation buttons are handled. On standard Ice Cream Sandwich tablets, the navigation bar is on-screen at all times, with the home, multitasking and back button at the bottom. On the Fire however, Amazon designed it so the navigation buttons auto-hide while in many applications like the reader, requiring a tap to bring them back up. I had some friends who were not tech-savvy play with the fire, and they had issues bringing up the buttons. Having the option to constantly present the navigation keys would be a useful feature.
Overall though, the software UI is very user-friendly, and very… Amazon. The device clearly is meant to be a storefront for Amazon which is great for pure media consumption, but is disappointing when it comes to app choice and full tablet functionality.
Overall, performance and battery life are quite good on the Kindle Fire. The dual core OMAP processor help make the device relatively snappy, and also pretty smooth across most applications. While the Fire is not the most powerful tablet on the market, as a media consumption and web-browsing device it has more than enough power. Launching apps is quick, generally the OS is pretty responsive and smooth. That being said, the Silk browser on the Kindle is often pretty laggy when utilizing pinch-to-zoom or when navigating around content rich websites. Overall though, performance is good on the fire, especially at the $199 price point.
One issue with performance however can be found on the main app carousel on the home screen. When scrolling through the list of applications in the main carousel, touch response and scrolling speed is often too sensitive, which makes it difficult to scroll through and select an app. While this is most likely do to a software issue, rather than hardware, it is still worth mentioning since it does hinder using the device. Further, the Silk Browser on the Fire can often be quite sluggish and laggy. This does not seem to be an issue with the internals on the Kindle Fire, rather it seems to be a problem with the Amazon created browser. With a name like Silk, one would expect smooth performance, but the browser leaves a lot to be desired.
As far as battery life is concerned, Amazon claims the device should get about 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback. Amazon’s claims seem to be pretty accurate, as the device can power through 7 hours of video playback without issue. Overall, battery life on the device is solid, and pretty accurate to Amazon’s claims.
The Kindle Fire is an extremely strong entry into the tablet market, especially at the $199 price point. The device feels great in the hand, has an easy to use (albeit somewhat flawed) user interface, and directly ties into Amazon’s strong media ecosystem. The Fire has been a huge success since being released last year, dwarfing any other Android tablet in terms of sales numbers. Clearly, Amazon has found a winning formula with the 7 inch form factor, strong content integration and low price point, as the device has been a huge success commercially.
Amazon’s success with the Fire has interesting implications for other Android tablet makers going forward. While many other companies have been focusing on making an “iPad killer” with quad-core processors, 10.1 inch high res screens etc– all of these devices were outsold by the Kindle Fire. The success of the Fire demonstrates that many customers looking for a tablet are far more interested in a low price and strong media-ecosystem, as opposed to raw power. Google’s recent announcement of the Nexus 7 demonstrates the impact that the Kindle Fire had on the tablet space. Google essentially took the same formula presented by Amazon, but instead is using Google Play as the ecosystem, and has beefed up the internals.
While there is nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking about the Kindle Fire’s hardware, it really is a game changing device for the Android tablet space. The success of the device is set to shift the focus from specs to content and price point. The Kindle Fire is a wake up call to Android tablet makers, and it appears that many of them, including Google are listening.
Photo Credits: Nick Margolin, Roxanne Plata