Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Light-weight and durable tablet that works well and is easy to use
Cons: Lacks physical buttons and a few usually standard features

The Kindle Fire from Amazon is a wonderful little tablet device that is part of Amazon's line of Kindle e-book readers. It features a 7" color multi-touch IPS display with a resolution of 600x1024 pixels, a 1GHz dual-core processor from Texas Instruments and 8GB of internal storage space. While the Kindle Fire isn't top of the line and loaded with all the bells and whistles that a lot of tablets have these days, its moderate $199 price tag more than makes up for it.

While the Kindle Fire does run Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), it is a version customized specifically for the device and thus lacks some of the common features of other Android powered tablets. One noteworthy example is the fact that the Kindle Fire eschews the use of Google Play/Android Marketplace and uses a separate Amazon Appstore instead. The selection is noticeably smaller, but you can still find many popular titles such as Angry Birds, Zenonia and Netflix.

One thing I dislike about the way apps are handled with the Amazon Appstore is that you are required to have a credit card on file even to download free applications. Every app "purchase" is done through Amazon 1-Click, which requires a billing method to be on file. Granted, on a phone your payment method is already on file as well since the stuff is charged to your phone bill, but I still feel that this is completely absurd and I see no reason why it's necessary. I guess you better make sure you have a credit card if you want to download apps from the Amazon Appstore.

Physically the device is 7.5" tall, 4.7" wide, 0.45" thick and weighs 14.6 ounces. The 7" color screen is a rather nice looking IPS display with multi-touch capabilities, which really helps to allow the device to encroach upon some of the tablet market instead of being relegated to a simple e-book reader like it's predecessors. While the hardware stats may be impressive for the low price point, a few features that you would expect to find standard in a tablet are missing from the Kindle Fire. At the price point you can't really expect a lot and the device is good at what it does; it's a terrific first step for someone looking at tablets who isn't sure if it's the right decision or not, but it doesn't work well as a replacement for current tablet users.

Notably missing is any type of camera -- even a single low resolution camera for capturing images would have been appreciated. The Kindle Fire also lacks a gyroscope, GPS capabilities, does not have Bluetooth support and does not come in a 3G version. This means you're limited to Wi-Fi only, so if you live in a small area and/or have terrible internet service like I do then you're probably going to be annoyed by the biggest of my complaints, a lack of expandable memory via an SD card slot.

While the 8GB of internal storage may seem like a lot, it's partitioned between actual user storage space and the space dedicated to application storage. Amazon expects users to use its cloud services to store their files, and thus did not include any type of micro-SD card slot to add in additional memory. This is more than a little annoying when nowhere around has decent Wi-Fi and my internet at home is absolutely terrible at the best of times, so I have to be careful not to store too many things on the device at once. I've installed maybe a dozen apps on the Kindle which leaves me with 0.93GB available out of 1.17GB of application storage. I also have available 5.34GB out of 5.37GB of internal storage because it has a handful of books on it and nothing else. Books don't take up a lot of space, but if I were to start adding music, videos and other things to the device that 5GB wouldn't suffice for my use.

As a tablet the Kindle Fire is slightly lacking only because of it's missing features and it's non-standard user interface. It's actually pretty responsive and most of the games I've played on it worked perfectly and maintained a steady frame rate. As an e-book reader it's obviously terrific, mostly because it's had a lot of time to be refined as such during previous generations. Books look great and there are few different settings available to suit your preferences. You can change the page color to black, white or a pale yellowish color, as well as change the font type and size.

You can switch pages by swiping horizontally or by tapping the edge of the screen, and transitions are smooth and fluid. You can read in either portrait or landscape mode, though when holding the device on its side you still switch pages from side to side instead of scrolling up and down -- which seems counter-intuitive to me, but I couldn't find a way to change it. The device does have a rotational lock feature in the settings menu though which will lock the device to the orientation that you are using. I find this handy for when I'm lounging on the couch reading and holding the device at a weird angle, because without being locked the screen sometimes wants to rotate when I'm not trying to due to the angle it's being held on.

You can touch and drag across the screen to quote snippets of books and save them as note for later (or share it), or search for the quote in the book, on the web or on Wikipedia. You can also highlight a single word to get a definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes pre-loaded on the device. When reading on the Kindle Fire, the user interface automatically hides itself to get out of your way; you can bring it back up by tapping the very bottom of the screen.

You can read multiple books, and when you close them the device keeps track of what page you were on. You can also set multiple bookmarks per book by taping the top right-hand corner of the page, and then return to those bookmarks later through the menu. Great for reference books, and also nice to keep track of things if multiple people will be using the Kindle Fire and possibly wanting to read the same book at the same time. The screen does collect fingerprints fairly easily, but the back of the device does not. The back also features a rubberized type of texture that makes it comfortable in your hands and also helps to keep it from sliding around on smooth surfaces, to an extent. There's really no texture to it, other than the word "kindle" engraved a little over halfway up the back, but the material itself helps.

The screen is nice and vibrant, and works wonderfully from average to no brightness. Outside in the direct sunlight however, the screen picks up a lot of glare and makes it hard to see. Turning the brightness up all the way helps a bit, but you're not going to want to sit on the beach and read a book on this thing. Under the shade of a tree or an umbrella would be usable, as long as there's no direct light hitting the screen. Also, since it's a Gorilla Glass display, it's really scratch resistant. No really, I ran my car key across the screen (purposefully) a dozen times with no effect; it's also been knocked off the desk a couple of times and is no worse for wear.

Web browsing on the device is acceptable using it's default Amazon Silk web browser. Silk supports Adobe Flash and uses tabs like other modern browsers, but it offloads the bulk of its processing to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud instead of doing everything locally on the device. It also makes use of Google's SPDY protocol to try and make browsing on the device as fast as possible, though in practice I really didn't notice any difference between browsing with Silk on the Kindle Fire and using Firefox on my DROID 4.

There are a couple of design quirks and user interface issues that I'm not a big fan of. For one, there really aren't any physical buttons on the device save for the power button (which is unfortunately located on the bottom of the device instead of the top). No home or back buttons, no volume buttons. In fact, the outside of the device is pretty clean and clear. There are two small speakers on the top of the device (one on each side), and the bottom holds the aforementioned power button as well as a headphone jack and the Micro-USB connector for charging the device and attaching it to a computer. Both sides of the device are entirely devoid of anything. Adjusting the volume or clicking home or back require tapping the top (or bottom) edge of the screen to bring up the user interface. While not exactly time-consuming, it is an extra step that should be unnecessary.

Plugging the device into the computer brings it up as a USB mass storage device and allows you to copy files back and forth easily. I downloaded some free e-books online (in .mobi format) and threw them into the Books folder on the Kindle Fire, and they popped right up on the main screen and worked perfectly when I started reading them. I was glad for this, as I prefer to look for new books on my computer where I have a larger screen and a physical keyboard to work with and then put them on the Kindle Fire all at once later. Amazon's library does include a lot of free e-books as well that you can download (and the selection is pretty good), in addition to it's extensive collection of paid books. You can pretty much find anything you want there, so there is a ton of content to choose from in every genre and category imaginable.

The Kindle Fire supports a number of different content formats, including .kf8, .azw, .txt, .pdf, .mobi, .prc, .aa, .aax, .doc, .docx, .jpeg, .gif, .png, .bmp, .aac, .mp3, .midi, . ogg, .wav and .mp4 (some of these are only supported if they are not restricted or have digital rights management). It's a pretty extensive list to help ensure that as many things as possible are compatible with the device.

Being a smartphone user, the battery life of the Kindle Fire is better than I expected with such an increase in screen size. With the Wi-Fi running the entire time sucking down juice, I can still watch a few shows on Netflix and then read for a couple hours before recharging the device. If you turn off Wi-Fi and tone the screen brightness down a notch, I can easily see the battery lasting the 8 hours that Amazon advertises while reading books, and that 7.5 hours of video playback isn't too far-fetched either (granted that's not going to happen watching Netflix, as you need the Wi-Fi enabled).

The Kindle Fire at a glance:

Dual-core 1 GHz TI OMAP 4 4430 processor
PowerVR SGX540 graphics chip
7" Gorilla Glass IPS multi-touch color screen
600×1024 resolution
8GB internal storage
512MB memory
4400 mAh battery
Custom Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
30 day Amazon Prime subscription

The Kindle Fire came packaged neatly in it's box along with a wall charger, but since it uses the same Micro-USB connector as my Motorola DROID 4, I never use the included charger. It's nice having one set of chargers (one plugged into the wall, one plugged into my computer, and one in the car) that work for my phone and the tablet both. It does take a few hours to fully charge the device, but for moderate usage you can easily get away with just plugging it in before you go to bed each night and not worry about it.

Overall the Kindle Fire is a great little device, who's shortcomings are easily balanced out by the moderate price tag. I mean, if you're willing to pay twice as much for a more fully-featured Android tablet then you should do so... otherwise, the Kindle Fire is an excellent alternative. It works great for reading books and doubles as a light-duty tablet for everything else. I play a lot of games on mine and watch quite a bit of Netflix, and I'm pretty happy with it. I'd use it for a larger variety of tasks if it had more internal memory or a 3G version so that I could use it when I'm away from home, but all in all the device exceeded my expectations.

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