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Will the bargain $200 price mean Amazon's Fire tablet competes with Apple's $500+ iPad?

Or will it simply be used as an eBook reader, and suffer in comparison to Apple's less expensive monochrome Kindles?

 

For the last 30 years, David Rowell - The Travel Insider - has been both a corporate traveler and owned a travel wholesaler.  He now writes and consults on industry related issues.

 
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Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet review part 1

An exciting and affordable extension of the basic eBook reader concept

Amazon Kindle Fire

This sleek new tablet combines eBook reading functions with broader tablet computing capabilities too, all for a dollar under $200.

Part 1 of a 2 part article - please also read the second part.

Please also see our three part article series when the Kindle Fire was first introduced :

1.  The evolution of eBook readers
2.  Amazon's four new readers
3.  The Fire compared to the Nook and iPad

 

 

In just under four years, Amazon has progressed from its initial clumsy monochrome Kindle that essentially could display basic books and not much else, and first sold for $399; to a lovely color screened tablet device with broader computing capabilities, priced at half the original Kindle (ie $199).

Indeed, regular monochrome Kindles similar to the original Kindle are now available for as little as $79.  Progress can sometimes be a wonderful thing.

Please see also our earlier three part series introducing the Kindle Fire and Amazon's other new Kindle e-readers.

The Amazon Kindle Fire - What You Get

Amazon's new Kindle Fire eBook reader/tablet comes packed in a combination shipping box/product box, making for an efficient packing/shipping process on Amazon's part and a minimum of waste in packaging materials.

One simply pulls a zip tab, then opens up the box, to reveal the Fire inside, wrapped in a clear mylar type bag.

Also inside the box is a mains charger.  This is an internationally compatible multi-voltage charger and claims to deliver 1.8A of charging current at 5V.  Enough to charge the Fire, but not quite enough to charge an iPad, and in any event, the charger unfortunately has a hard wired cable between the wall 'brick' charger and the micro-USB connector which limits its use only to devices that accept a micro-USB charging cable.

 At least Apple provides a standalone brick charger with a regular USB connector so you can connect any sort of USB power driven charging cable to it.

Doubtless Amazon saved a dollar by choosing the cheapest most generic type of wall charger it could, but it loses out on overall panache by presenting such an ugly and basic charger with the Fire.

This approach is doubly disappointing because Amazon do not provide a USB connecting cable to enable the Fire to be connected to a computer.  This is necessary if you wished to transfer content directly from the computer to the Fire, or to charge the Fire from a computer or any other type of USB power outlet.

The only other thing inside the box is a tiny card (3.2" x 5.5") that on one side has 75 words about 'getting to know your Kindle' and on the other side, many more words in the finer print of legalese.

A more detailed Users Guide is preloaded onto the Fire.  However, although it is more detailed, it is still far from complete in terms of the information it provides, and the options it explains.

One is left wishing for a third fully comprehensive manual, but none currently exists.  Hopefully some enterprising person will quickly write one and start selling it - as a Kindle eBook, of course.

The unit was reasonably well charged straight out of the box.

The Fire comes with a one year warranty.  You can also buy a two year 'warranty and accident protection' policy for an extra $45 which gives you a second year of regular warranty cover and two years of accidental damage insurance (you are allowed a maximum of three claims during this time).

Alternatively, you could also protect your new Fire with a similarly priced $45 leather cover and stand.

Although the price of Amazon's Kindles has plunged over the years, the price of Kindle covers has risen.  The original Kindle came with a cover included, whereas now we are told that a cover is optional and has a $50 cost - a quarter the cost of the unit itself - something that seems a ridiculously extortionate situation.

There are already after market covers appearing at better but still high prices.

The Amazon Kindle Fire - First Impressions

The Fire is a featureless black slab with a single button at the bottom for on/off.  The front side is covered in a special hardened glass (probably Corning's Gorilla glass, but surprisingly most equipment manufacturers prefer not to admit to using this wonderful product, preferring instead the mystique and vagueness of simply claiming to use special hardened glass).  The glass quickly acquires finger prints and smears

The back side is covered in a hard semi-nonslip rubber material, and unlike iPads and various other devices, it has a flat back and straight slab sides.  It is more like an oversized iPhone 4/4S than like an undersized iPad.

The Fire is surprisingly dense to pick up - although it is about one third lighter than an iPad, at first it feels the same due to its unexpected density.  The iPad is more than twice the size of the Fire, but only half as much heavier.

The Fire truly is lacking in any/all external controls - it doesn't even have a volume control.  Yes, you might understandably wonder what a volume control would do on an eBook reader; but earlier Kindles had them, and with the Fire's broader role as a multi-media player, a volume control is definitely a necessary feature.  Instead, one has to go through various software menus to find the volume control (it is in a different place in different applications).

For some reason, I keep expecting the power button to be on the top of the unit rather than on the bottom.  All the phones I've owned over the last many years, and my iPads, and my earlier Kindles too, have had the power button on the top of the unit, and so it is a strange and unintuitive choice for Amazon to now locate the power button on the bottom rather than the top of the Fire.

Other Kindles have a 6" diagonal screen which measures approx 3.55" wide and 4.8" high (ie a classic 4:3 aspect ratio).  The Fire's 7" diagonal screen is actually very little wider, but much taller.  It measures 3.6" wide by 6.1" tall - a classic widescreen 16:9 ratio.

An iPad measures 5.9" x 7.8" - the same 4:3 aspect ratio as the earlier Kindles.  As such, there are twice as many square inches of screen space on an iPad as on a Fire (and 2.7 times as much as on a regular Kindle).

The widescreen format of the Fire is well suited for watching movies, but if you're going to watch a movie, you probably will want to plug a set of headphones into the headphone socket on the Fire.  It has a couple of miniature speakers on the opposite short side (to the short side with the power switch, USB port and headphone socket) but they are woefully inadequate in all but the quietest of environments.

Although well suited for watching a movie (when held horizontally) it felt a bit strange reading a book with a long and narrow screen, even though most paperback books have a similar type of aspect ratio.  This is doubtless something one will quickly get used to.

Using the Fire

When I first turned it on and connected to my Wi-Fi, the screen then prompted me to enter my Amazon account details, then paused for a second and greyed out before I could put anything in.  It then said 'successfully registered to David Rowell' - I guess Amazon had pre-registered it in advance.

That was a nice touch and saved me trying to work out what my password is!

It next progressed to automatically downloading a firmware update.  A brand new Fire, only on sale for a day, and already there is a firmware update!  I guess one can see that glass as half full rather than half empty - good for Amazon to keep on top of the latest tweaks to its operating system and interface.

This update proceeded easily and required no further intervention on my part, and at its conclusion I was then taken to a series of 'first time user' pages telling me a little bit about the Fire's capabilities.

And then, all of a sudden, I was on its home page.

The Fire will automatically turn itself off if not used for a while and turns back on again instantly when you push the power button.  The timeout defaults to a five minute value, and I decided I'd prefer to shorten it down to perhaps two minutes, but the only shorter value is a quick one minute.  So you have a choice between perhaps too short and perhaps too long.

The text on the screen is clear and easy to read, and in bright sunlight one could turn the brightness up further.  Colors are bright and vibrant.

But when watching movies, a lot of detail disappeared in the darker shades in most lighting conditions, and got swallowed up in an impenetrable black.  Furthermore, the screen is very reflective, so if one does not have the best viewing angle, one will end up getting the sun or area lights or something reflected in one's face, obscuring the image that one would otherwise hope to see.

These issues are similarly present on an iPad screen too, and the reflectivity is an issue on the e-Ink screen of earlier model Kindles too, so this is not offered as a criticism unique to the Fire, merely an observation that one needs to have a lighting controlled environment on which to watch movies on pretty much any sort of screen.

Like an iPad or iPhone, if one rotates the Fire 90 degrees, the information on the screen usually rotates too, switching from landscape to portrait orientation (or vice versa).

An Astonishing Fire Limitation

I went to view one of the new state of the art 'multi-media' books that are being released.  These include video clips as well as regular text and pictures, and can't be displayed on regular Kindles.

The only such book example I have is George W Bush' autobiography.  The video clips play perfectly if I view it on a PC or iPad using the Kindle software on these devices.

But - get this.  Amazon's own state of the art Fire tablet won't play the video.  It works fine on the competing Apple iPad, but not on Amazon's own Kindle Fire.

That is, to put it politely, very surprising.  If you want the best Kindle eBook reading experience, you should go out and buy an Apple iPad!

The Underlying Android Operating System and Available Apps

The Kindle Fire uses a customized version of the public domain Android operating system.  While the 'under the hood' details are doubtless much the same as other versions of Android (thought to be version 2.3, which is far from the latest/greatest version 4.0 recently released) the interface that we see as users is very different.

A different interface doubtless helps Amazon create its own unique look and feel, and to channel Fire users into the prime purposes of the device (ie buying and displaying digital content from Amazon), but it means that unlike the relatively seamless interface commonality between eg an iPhone and an iPad, there is no similar common ground between an Android phone and the Android powered Fire tablet.

The Fire does not have some capabilities that many apps might expect to find - it doesn't have many of the sensors or GPS receivers or cameras or microphone that most mid-level and above Android phones have.

This means that, right from the get-go, many regular Android applications that require such enhancements will not work.  Furthermore, Amazon has chosen to restrict access only to Android apps that are sold through its own Amazon branded app store, rather than ones available through the more generic Android marketplace.

It has been suggested that Amazon might be making an upfront small loss on each Fire it sells.  This is acceptable if the 'razor/razor blade' principle works - ie, more or less giving away the razor (Fire) so as to sell the razor blades (ie apps, books, videos and music).

For that reason it is understandable that Amazon seeks to funnel all future purchases through its own storefront, but it is regrettable that the only way it can do this is by limiting the broader capabilities of Android devices that the Fire could otherwise offer.

At present it seems that slightly more than 10,000 apps might be available in the Amazon app store, compared to more than ten times as many in the regular Android marketplace.

But, of course, few of us need either 10,000 or 100,000 apps.  We just need a few dozen of the more useful (and/or more fun) apps, and there are certainly plenty of those to go around.

Within hours of the Fire being released, a hacker came up with a workaround to enable the Fire to access the general Android marketplace, potentially opening it up to many more devices.  But for most of us, who are buying the Fire primarily as a convenient portable device to read books, watch video, and perhaps surf the internet and check email, the current constraints on what apps can run on the Fire are very minimal.

Some Open Architecture Too

Interestingly, Amazon is not restricting its Fire to only play video downloaded from Amazon's own storefront.  It also allows Netflix and Hulu streaming too, albeit not in quite as integrated a manner as its own video streaming service.

This would seem to give both Amazon and the people who purchase a Fire the best of both worlds, and shows the delicate balancing act Amazon must do between keeping the Fire as it surely would prefer - a completely closed system, and allowing it to become completely open at the other extreme, something that Amazon of course would not wish.

(In)Security Issues

If you start storing any personal data, you would be well advised to set a password to protect your data from unauthorized access.  Unlike regular Android based devices which allow for a clumsy motion sequence to act as a password, the Fire simply requests a four or more character password without the need for gestures.

It is unclear what happens if a person tries unsuccessfully to unlock a password protected device, and Amazon's rather undetailed manual fails to explain this either.  I experiment and it seems that if you can't remember your password (or if you stole the Fire from someone else) you can simply reset the unit back to factory defaults.

So the password protects your data, but doesn't prevent someone from stealing and taking over the unit, making it there own.  There is no mention of any remote disabling capabilities such as Apple is bringing out for its iOS devices.

This apathetic lack of interest on the part of Amazon (and other companies) in terms of refusing to create anti-theft controls is reprehensible and inexcusable in terms of today's technologies.  Here is a device that has a unique electronic serial number that is constantly 'talking' to Amazon's servers; it would be the easiest thing in the world for Amazon to remotely disable a device reported as stolen by its currently registered owner.

Why don't they have this ability?

There is also a puzzling option for 'credentials storage' in the security section of the phone.  I've no idea what that is, and their manual is also totally silent.

Come on, Amazon.  We're not mind readers.  The whole idea of a manual is to explain things to the users of the device.

Continued in Part 2

This is the first part of a two part review of the new Amazon Kindle Fire.  Please click on to read the second part and final conclusions and recommendations as to if you should buy a Kindle Fire or not.

Please also see our earlier three part series introducing the new Kindle Fire and other Amazon Kindle devices.

 

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Originally published 18 Nov 2011, last update 15 Oct 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

 

 


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