The Amazon Kindle Fire is already and will continue to be a much talked about device. My Kindle Fire arrived early and due to a busy schedule I have not had as much time as I would like to play with the device. But, I’ve had enough time in a hectic schedule to discover that I think this device is going to be a real keeper for me. I also think that Amazon has been extremely smart about how it has built, marketed and hyped the device. This is going to be a popular device with many. And there are going to be (there already are) a bunch of reviews that ache to compare it to Apple’s iPad or label it a competitor. Let’s deal with that right away.
First and foremost, if you read what I scribble on the pages here at GBM there’s no mistaking me for anything other than an iPad guy when it comes to Tablets. I’ve tried Android Tablets and I’ve tried the HP Touchpad. Nothing yet comes close to being a real Tablet competitor to the iPad or the iPad 2. (Side note: Save the Android fan boy rebukes. None of them are original anymore and in all candor, I’m really happy that you are really happy with your Android Tablet. As long as it works for you and does what you want and need it to I think that’s fantastic. I’m not trying to change your mind about your preference. You aren’t going to change my mind. Google might some day. But that day has yet to come. ) But what about the Kindle Fire? While the Kindle Fire and the iPad 2 generically belong to the same family of devices we’re really talking apples and oranges. The Kindle Fire is the orange and the iPad 2 is, well… complete the analogy for yourself. These are two different devices aimed at different segments of multiple markets and while bloggers and gadget reviewers might want to shortcut their analysis by comparing them, in my opinion, they are selling both devices short by doing so.
Don’t get me wrong. There will be some consumers who will make a choice between an iPad (or some other Tablet) and a Kindle Fire. Saying that the two devices are going to compete for consumer attention is as obvious a statement as saying that fire burns or water is wet. I’m guessing there will be quite a few folks who will choose a Kindle Fire instead of an iPad 2. That’s only natural and it is largely due to Amazon nailing perhaps the most important feature in today’s world of collapsing economies: price point. At $200 Amazon nailed this most important feature. Most folks only have so much money to spend. In truth depending on how you plan to use one of these devices, you can get much of the same functionality on either device. Forget specs, forget form factor, forget OS wars, if a consumer is looking at a gadget this Christmas, I think the Kindle Fire will be very alluring. That said, Apple is going to sell a lot of iPad 2s as well. So, those who count the coffers at Amazon and Apple will be both happy and busy this holiday season.
The iPad and iPad 2 have been criticized for being a consumption only device. That’s last week’s as well as weak criticism because developers and users have shown that you can create on that platform. The Kindle Fire is first and foremost a consumption device and Amazon makes no pretensions about that fact. Amazon wants to use the Kindle Fire to sell you stuff. The design and form factor make this readily apparent. Those looking for HDMI connections, USB ports, etc… are coming at the Kindle Fire all wrong. At least for version 1 of the device.
So, bottom line, comparing the Kindle Fire to the iPad 2 is much like comparing a film classic to Reality TV. While the Kindle Fire does indeed contain some Tablet functionality, calling it a Tablet not only is wrong in my opinion, I think Amazon agrees with that perspective. That’s why you hear the world Tablet mentioned in relation to the Kindle Fire only by none Amazonians. I’ve already read some interesting criticism of the Kindle Fire that seems to start from the perspective that the Kindle Fire should be a Tablet, and I think that’s the wrong way to start. Amazon with the Kindle Fire, like Apple with the iPad has created a window on its own world. Both world’s are about consuming media, both world’s are about purchasing. But there the similarities end. Apple’s world is also about creation and a vision that may or may not pan out of a post-PC world. Amazon is content for you to enter its store, spend money on things, and if you can enjoy those things on a Kindle Fire, so much the better. Note also that Amazon doesn’t care if you spend money in its stores on other Tablets and devices either.
So, why do I think that the Kindle Fire is going to be a keeper for me? Well, it solves a few things that the 2nd Gen Kindle I owned didn’t. It also removes one thing that I liked. It also solves an issue or two I have with consuming Amazon content on other devices.
The biggest issue solved by the Kindle Fire is that I no longer have to a book light or leave a light on when I’m reading at night. Coupled this with the fact that I find it easier to hold the Kindle Fire rather than the iPad 2 when I’m reading laying down or propped up on pillows, this is a big win. The bright, backlit screen alleviates the need for a light. I enjoyed reading on the e-Ink screen in most other circumstances except in bed. That said, the non e-Ink screen means that the Kindle Fire won’t be as readable in daylight, so there’s a trade off there. But in my life, I spend more time reading at night than I do out on a beach, so that’s a fair trade off for me.
Second: While the Kindle Fire is a heavier device, I enjoy the feel of it in my hands. It is smaller than the iPad 2, which I have been using for reading, so if my early reaction holds, this will become my reading device of choice. There are some issues here that I’ll talk about later though.
Third: This may sound contradictory to what I’ve said earlier but bear with me, the fact that I can easily check email and do some other Tablet like functionality on this device is a real plus. It’s not that I expect to use this as a Tablet, I don’t. But I do like the option available to do other things if they become necessary.
Fourth: Like it or not, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft and others are in a battle where they want us to choose their respective ecosystem. Yes, devices matter. But, this is really all about us choosing a place to shop and spend our money. Just like I enjoy the benefits of Apple’s ecosystem, I also enjoy the benefits of Amazon’s and have been doing so for some time. Amazon got me like it did many others via books. It has gotten me hooked in so many other categories that I often find if I can’t purchase something on Amazon, then I just don’t purchase it. So, in many respects, I’m the guy Amazon is after with the Kindle Fire.
Below are some thoughts on the Kindle Fire.
The Device and Form Factor
I did not expect to like the device when I first picked it up. We all know that it is extremely similar to the RIM Playbook, and I wasn’t that enamored of that device when I played around with it. The 7-inch form factor doesn’t really suit my needs for Tablet computing, so that was another expectation. That said, when I took the device out of the box, I really enjoyed how it felt in my hand. It felt solid, it felt good to hold. It felt like it was worth more than $200. When I pick up a new gadget for the first time there’s usually an intangible, visceral reaction to it that is either positive or negative. Picking up the Kindle Fire for the first time it was very positive.
The form factor offers very little to explore. An on/off button on the bottom, next to a mini-usb connector for charging, next to an audio jack. On the top are two speaker slots. The rest is all case and screen. The ratio of screen to bezel is nicely proportioned. And interesting note about that location of the On/Off button. I’ve put the Kindle Fire in the hands of five friends. All of them looked for the On/Off button on the top. When the located it on the bottom all comments were in the realm of “that’s odd.”
Some might find the device a tad on the heavy side. I do as well, but I don’t think that’s a defeating factor. Your tastes may be different.
When you turn on the device, the screen is bright and crisp and, this is an intangible, just feels like you would expect it to look.
This is not a device to slip into a pants pocket. At least none of the pants with pockets that I own. But a case around it and it will also difficult to get it into some jacket or blazer pockets.
We all should know by now that Amazon has taken Android 2.3 and made that OS its own. This is a wise move and shows that Amazon understands the market it is aiming for. To be honest, the guts of the OS could be anything that could power the user experience that Amazon has created. But Amazon has gone all in with Android, deciding that this will be the place its Apps come from for all but the hacker crowd. When you delve into settings you’ll see Android touches, but they are largely irrelevant to the user experience. You’ll also see Android notifications at the top of the screen, the familiar home button and different buttons along the bottom of the screen depending on the context of what you’re viewing. If you’ve never used an Android device before, none of this screams Android at you, and that’s just the way Amazon wants it. I’m sure those who enjoy hacking will enjoying rooting this device as well. Be on notice though. Word is going around that if you root the Kindle Fire and you’re a Prime member, you’ll lose free video viewing through Amazon Prime.
The User Experience
So, let’s talk about that user experience. It greets you right up front after you get the device setup. If you’ve been reading Kindle Books you’ll see those titles on an easy to scroll top part of the screen with a few Apps (Amazon’s store being one) on a shelf below that. That lower shelf is your favorites. You can move books, Apps, etc.. to this shef and the one below it for quick access without scrolling through the tiles at the top of the screen. Open an App, bookmark a webpage, and they appear in the scrollable tiles here. Essentially this is a list of what you’re working with at any given point.
Tap a tile and you’re taken to that App, or book, or whatever the tile represents. Across the top of these colorful tiles is a bar that lists Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and the Web. Tap one of those categories and you’re taken to a different set of shelves with just that categories contents viewable. Except for the Web button, which takes you to the browser. More on that in a second. There’s also a search box that allows you to search your device or the web.
I’m guessing most consumers Amazon is targeting will never delve much deeper than a level or two beyond these easily navigable screens or the Apps that might get installed. But if you do, everything is easily scrollable or swipeable to get to what you’re looking for.
Here also is where hardware design, OS, and user experience metaphor don’t jive that well. Some things are easy to touch and scroll. Some times a tap doesn’t register and there’s no indicator that you haven’t registered a strong enough tap. Sometimes things scroll too quickly as the touch and scroll are not perfectly optimized. The what I call “sloppy touch” implementation is probably a vestige of using Android. I would hope Amazon addresses this in the future, but I wouldn’t call the touch experience optimal by any means. I’ve never been a fan of Android touch implementation and I’d like to see Amazon find a way to take this to a better level in the future.
I’m an Amazon Prime member and so viewing what video Amazon offers for free on this device promises to be a plus. In bringing up a movie I’m generally pleased in early testing. It takes a while for the content to buffer but once it does thinks play nicely. The speakers are nothing to write home about, but then I would imagine most users are going to be using some sort of earbuds anyway. Netflix loaded up content in much the same way as Amazon videos and played crisply after buffering, but I haven’t watched a film all the way through yet.
Since I’m looking at this as a device to read my Kindle content this is obviously important. I’m mentioned that I like the look and feel of the device and that I like the backlit screen. Pages turn quickly enough and the functions I use when reading (changing type size, bookmarking) are there and work as I would expect them to.
I have a portion of my music collection already in Amazon’s cloud because I purchase a lot of my music through Amazon. It then gets moved over to iTunes. I don’t see myself changing the way I do that. But I can see myself playing some Amazon purchased music while reading on the Kindle.
Amazon trumpeted its Silk browser and the technology that is supposed to make web pages render quicker. That technology caches things on Amazon’s end and then pushes it all at once to the browser on your Kindle. I’m not seeing much of a difference in every day use in terms of speed. And frankly, I don’t see myself using the web browser much on this device.
I haven’t used a keyboard that I’ve found this frustrating since the HP TouchPad. It is too easy to make an errant key press. I don’t care for this keyboard at all. I never used an Android 2.3 keyboard, but if this is what Amazon is using here, they should ditch it and start over. This is a huge weakness of the device.
All in all I’m impressed with what I see with the Kindle Fire. It is not a great device. It is a good device. I’ll obviously know more about it down the road, but I can see it becoming a fixture in my gadget bag. It won’t replace the iPad 2. But again, I don’t think it is supposed to. I know I’m unusual and that many would be very happy with and either or choice here and that’s just great.
I also have to say that I think Amazon is just getting started here. I’m anxious to see where Amazon will take the Kindle Fire in the future. My hope would be that Amazon would retain its current focus and not try to branch out into the broader range of Tablet computing. But then, who knows.