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Amazon Kindle Fire Review

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this review, let me state what should be plainly obvious at this point but some seem reluctant to believe.

The Kindle Fire is not an iPad killer. It didn’t kill the iPad 2 and the new iPad? Forget about it. But here’s the point. It was never intended to kill the iPad. In fact, it was never really meant to compete with the iPad either. Does it realistically compete in the same market with the iPad? Definitely. But the Kindle Fire is an entirely different beast when compared to the iPad 2 and pretty much every Android Tablet on the market, and that’s what makes it so special.

What you have here is a media consumption device that’s designed to allow users quick and easy access to apps, videos, music and books straight from Amazon’s cloud. You’re not going to load your entire music and video libraries onto this thing because you can’t (the meager 8GB of onboard storage sort of kills that idea) and you’re not going to be jetting off to the middle of nowhere and still have access to the internet (because this doesn’t include 3G support).

But that’s why I love the idea of the Kindle Fire. It’s cheap, it works and it delivers the kind of experience one should expect out of a $200 “tablet”.

Hardware

In the hand, the Kindle Fire feels very solid and well-built. Featuring incredibly similar hardware to Blackberry’s Playbook tablet, the Kindle Fire has a soft-touch backing which makes it easy to hold, a 7” screen with a thin bezel and only one hard button on the device in the form of the sleep/wake switch on the bottom next to the (thankfully) nonproprietary micro-USB charging port and you can have it in whatever color you like…as long as it’s black.

I prefer simple, black electronics anyway.

The Spartan design of the Kindle Fire is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, like the iPad, it’s easy to pick up and use with little in the way of a learning curve. On the other, there are some things that keep making me wish there was at least a dedicated home button on the front of some kind. Instead, everything is controlled via Amazon’s built-in softkeys and settings interface and it’s a bit frustrating to have to go into a menu to do something as simple as adjusting the volume.

Nonetheless, the simplicity of the Fire wins out in the end and its design simplicity makes it easily approachable but belies the issue that it’s not the most user-friendly once you get there.

The Screen

The front of the Kindle Fire is dominated by its 7” IPS display, surrounded by a black, asymmetrical bezel (the bezel is slightly larger along the bottom of the device). The screen sports a 1024 x 600 resolution and great color depth and reproduction. Images and videos look quite nice on the Kindle Fire’s screen and reading on the Kindle Fire is a perfectly good way to experience your books but, the screen size does have a few inherent drawbacks when it comes to things like web browsing, which is better on the larger 10 inch tablets.

Performance

Powering the Fire is a TI OMAP4430 dual core processor clocking in at 1 GHz, which is decent but places it slightly below yesterday’s Android tablets, running Nvidia’s Tegra 2. Nice for its day but old hat now in this rapidly changing and evolving technological landscape.

Benchmarks

Quadrant – 1738

AnTuTu – 4482

Real World Performance

Synthetic benchmarks can only tell you so much and one of the best measures of real world performance in my view is playing games. Shadowgun, a graphically intense third person shooter, runs very well on the Kindle Fire. There are a few frameskips and a bit of slowdown at times but overall, it runs pretty well.

Temple Run, strangely enough, has some issues. In my playtime, I’ve seen more slowdown than I would like and these issues are certainly jarring. This is a strange little inconsistency in performance that highlights the experience of using the Kindle Fire. Some apps, like Shadowgun and Asphalt 6 HD will run smoothly. Others, like Temple Run, will not.

The result is a machine that runs well enough, but won’t be blazing fast in any respect. And, let’s be fair here, it shouldn’t be expected to. There are a few performance hiccups here and there that come with the territory. This isn’t an ASUS Transformer Prime or an iPad and its performance reflects that. Know what you’re getting into here.

Using It

The Kindle Fire runs a forked version of Android OS 2.3 (Gingerbread) which is outdated next to the likes of Honeycomb and Google’s latest OS revision, Ice Cream Sandwich. If this were meant to be a traditional Android tablet, I would be more miffed by the lack of a more modern OS but it isn’t, so I’m not.

What this is is probably one of the best examples of a wholly connected and integrated portal for consuming media. Each section of the OS features a link to the respective section of Amazon’s digital offerings. For example, if you load up the books app, you’re treated to a selection of books stored on the device and another section for those archived in the cloud to be downloaded at your leisure and a link to the e-book store.

Speaking of, reading ebooks on the Kindle Fire is about as good of an experience as one can ask for on a backlit LCD display. Text won’t be as sharp as it will be on the new iPad but it’s still rendered rather nicely. Of course, reading on an e-ink display is easier on the eyes over a long period of time but honestly, I don’t prefer reading books on e-ink displays versus the Kindle Fire.

In terms of Kindle optimized magazines, however, I’m not sold and not just because of the smaller screen. I have digital editions of Sports Illustrated and TIME magazine on my Kindle and I can’t say that the digital editions offer any inherent advantage aside from the occasional embedded media content and the ability to carry an entire back catalog with you. Aside from that, I’d rather just pick up the physical magazines than try to read them on the Kindle Fire.

The level of integration with Amazon’s digital ecosystem is really unprecedented here. Whereas Apple and Google keep their services (for the most part) self-contained within the individual apps such as Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store (formerly the Android Market). Amazon, on the other hand, places everything at the forefront of the user experience which makes accessing content both on the device and in the cloud pretty much seamless, which is very impressive.

But there are some software niggles that give me a bit of pause when using the device. The software layer of Amazon’s operating system atop the stock Android OS seems to bog down performance at times. Sometimes taps take a second to register and moving around between apps can get a bit sluggish and lacks smoothness and, perhaps polish. Even after a few updates which have apparently improved performance, I still get the sense that this won’t ever have the kind of buttery smoothness I’d like, which is partly due to the innate “Android lag” and also due to the comparatively weak processor at the heart of the device. But, the trade off is that the Kindle Fire has pretty impressive battery life and I’ve gone days of light to moderate usage without needing to look for my charger.

The Cloud: You’d better Get Acquainted with it

The completely interconnected nature of the Kindle Fire is both its biggest asset and its greatest weakness. The problem with living in the cloud is one that’s been at the root of the cloud experience from the start. To get the most out of it and, conversely, the Kindle Fire, you have to be connected to it constantly. Of course, the Kindle Fire includes built-in Wi-Fi but no support for Cellular data be it 3G or 4G.

Of course, there’s onboard storage, but only a paltry 8GB, of which only roughly 6GB is available to the end user. Those expecting to load this with apps, games, movies and music are going to be disappointed. But then again, that’s not what this is for. I’d imagine you could squeeze on a couple hundred songs and a movie or two to keep you entertained when you’re away from a Wi-Fi hotspot such as on a plane and then re-connecting to the cloud when you arrive at your destination but the lack of a Micro SD card slot really stings in the long run.

Personally, I don’t love the idea of living in the cloud, at least not completely. I like being able to stream content at my leisure, in case I don’t have it on my device but on the same token, I prefer having the content I really want with me and accessible whenever I want, near a Wi-Fi hotspot or not. With the Kindle Fire, you can’t really do that if you have a massive digital media library, like I do.

So, to get the most out of the Kindle Fire, you’ll need to embrace the cloud. And to get the most out of Amazon’s cloud, you need a $79 a year Amazon Prime subscription. With that comes the ability to access Amazon’s instant video streaming library as well as the Lending Library service, which allows you to borrow a book a month from a pretty decent selection of eBooks from Amazon’s catalog. Personally, I think the Amazon Prime service is worth it outside of its benefits for Kindle Fire owners and having it is definitely a plus.

Wrap-Up

By this point, I’ll bet you’re wondering whether or not I actually like the Kindle Fire. I do. Why? Because I accept that it’s not a speed demon. I knew what I was getting into when I bought the Fire and my expectations were met. Simple as that. Caveat emptor. If you’re looking into getting the Kindle Fire, do the research first and assess your options and then you’ll be able to decide whether or not this will suit your needs.

It’s not the kind of thing you should buy if you want a tablet to serve as your laptop replacement productivity device. That’s not what this is made for (I wouldn’t argue that any tablet is a good productivity device but I digress). What it does well is giving you access to media stored in the cloud. If you embrace the cloud and have access to Wi-Fi wherever you go, this is a pretty good value.

Let me say this again. This is not an iPad killer. This is not the kind of thing you buy to replace an iPad. It’s an iPad supplement or something you’d buy if you’re not really in the market for a full-fledged tablet but want something that does more than your basic e-reader. In that capacity, it works very well. The Amazon AppStore can’t compete with Google Play in any way but it does have a decent selection of popular media apps such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, productivity apps like OfficeSuite Professional 6 and games like Angry Birds Space, Temple Run and Cut the Rope that work well on the Kindle Fire and incentivize the purchase.

As I’ve said before though, you have to know what you’re getting here. This isn’t a speed demon. It lags, it hangs and can be “cludgy” and slow but these experiences don’t define the experience of using the Kindle fire, rather, they shape it. It’s a part of life but thankfully, the lag isn’t a constant and the Fire usually trucks along at a pace reasonable for a $200 device. There’s no doubting the fact that it’s underpowered and lacking in features when compared to the big boys but that’s to be expected of a tablet so inexpensive.

But, in this tablet market, there are a few compelling competitors that tip the scales just a bit pricier than the Kindle Fire and will give you a better overall experience like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7. The Kindle Fire’s biggest asset is Amazon’s cloud media library and you can bet Amazon will continue to improve it and leverage it against its closest rivals in Samsung and Barnes and Noble so that’s also something to consider.

This is a classic case of “you get what you pay for”. The Kindle Fire isn’t a spectacular device, it’s an adequate one. It does what it needs to do and not much more because Amazon made it that way. Compromises had to be made to sell this for $200 and that shows in the user experience. That’s fine for now but what happens if Nvidia’s dream of a $200 quad-core tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich comes true? Apparently, it’s coming.

Amazon? Start taking notes.

About Justin McBride

My name is Justin McBride and I’m a guy who enjoys writing, playing games and writing about playing games. Sound lame enough yet? Well, I have other interests as well such as hanging out with friends, watching TV, going to the movies from time to time, surfing the internet, listen to good music, drive at speeds I shouldn’t be driving at and so on. The problem is, that’s all stuff everyone likes to do, so why write about it? Oh wait, seems I just did. Oops.

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