, , , , , , , , ,

I’ve been using the Kindle Fire for a week and I’ve decided I like it. But that’s just border line “like” – and to be honest if something happened to it I’m not sure I would replace it with another Fire. I’ll get into the reasons why in a bit, but first let’s do the traditional thing and look at the device objectively.

The Fire is an Android 2.x device featuring a 7-inch LCD display, a 1 GHz dual-core nVidia processor, 8 GB of storage, and 512 MB of RAM. The Android operating system is submerged under a proprietary Amazon interface designed to focus on Amazon-supplied content.  The device has wi-fi connectivity only, offers a single USB micro-port, a stereo mini-plug for sound output, and a pushbutton on/off/sleep switch.

The only accessory that ships with the Fire is a wall wart charging adapter that plugs into the USB micro-port.  Battery life can vary from 4 to 8 hours depending on what you do with it: as a straight document reader you will get maximum charge life; as a video player you can run about 4 hours of video content; the Web browser and audio player will get you something in-between. The Fire takes approximately 4 hours to fully charge from “dead”.

The Kindle Fire is definitely a Kindle – this is not a general purpose Android tablet and makes no pretense to being so. The Fire does what it is designed to do very well, and that is to deliver Amazon content in a fairly painless fashion.

The interface is as simple as possible. The home screen is a virtual bookshelf. The top shelf displays all recently used books, magazines, videos, songs, and apps in a cover flow style of flipping icons. The shelves below display “favorites” that you specifically place there to be always available. There seems to be no facility for organizing items into groups or collections as on the other Kindles. There are individual screens for books, magazines and newspapers, music, video, and apps. Content can be stored on the device or in Amazon’s “cloud” – and it is here we encounter the first problem.

When I first turned the Fire on I found all my previously purchased Kindle books right there on the top shelf – stored in the cloud and accessible with a finger tap – well, maybe. First of all the touch response is a bit wonky, and getting the icon you want situated at the left-end of the top shelf can be tricky. You quickly learn to move at the Fire’s speed and not your own. It can take a few taps to get a document to open.

The second problem reared its head the second time I started the Fire: all my cloud content was gone. Just gone.  A quick Google search revealed I was not alone here, and most people seemed to overcome this problem by doing a complete factory reset of the device. As this rather extreme measure wipes all of your account info from the device, necessitating entry of all your information and resync to Amazon’s servers, I opted for a different route. I instead went into my Amazon account via my computer, and used the Kindle management facilities to send items to the Fire that I wanted stored on it. This amounted to a few dozen books I’m currently reading or going to read in the near future, plus some reference works I like to have on hand. Now the only stuff to show up in the cloud is new content I purchase specifically for the Fire. At least until the next time it decides to dump it all.

Many of the Fire’s benefits are at the same time failings. The 7-inch screen makes the device small enough to hold in one hand, but it also makes some content difficult to use. Magazines especially are blessed and damned here: the formatting and illustrations appear clear, bright, and crisp – but the type is generally much too small to actually read. This forces you into the cycle of “unpinch” to zoom in and read, then “pinch” to zoom down and look at a whole page. You get used to it, but you don’t like it. The 10-inch tablets are definitely winning here.

The touch system makes navigating documents much quicker and easier than the iInk Kindle’s cursor and paging buttons. But it also makes holding the Fire something of a pain because you can no longer place your thumb on the glass – if you do you will inadvertently turn the page or highlight text and call-up the dictionary or copy/paste functions. A cover will probably make holding the Fire easier, but will also make it bulkier – and it’s plenty thick on its own.

As an app platform the Fire is hindered by its limited RAM and “mass” storage. Sure “Angry Birds” plays great, but anything more involved or that provides real productivity is going to suffer. And since there is no camera, no microphone, no Bluetooth, and no GPS any apps that use those features are worthless here. And on top of all that, you can’t use anyone but Amazon’s app store – unless you are prepared to hack the device, and rather than do that why not just spend another hundred bucks and get a real 7-inch Android tablet?

Video is one place the Fire really shines, rather surprisingly. The player is simple and effective. You can place video content in storage via USB and of course access Amazon’s quite extensive store. You get a free month of Amazon’s Prime service – and there are some worthwhile things to watch, although the “free” movie selection is limited to the same things you might get on basic cable. I have been having a great time watching old “Dr. Who” episodes I haven’t seen in thirty years, and overall the TV offerings on Prime are superior to the movies. Without Prime, or to rent/buy things not offered by Prime, you’ll pay anywhere from 99 cents to $4 rental, or $7.99 and up to buy movies and shows. A Prime subscription costs $79 per year, and also entitles you to free 2-day shipping on anything you buy from Amazon that needs to be shipped. Netflix is also available out of the box if you are so inclined – but so far I haven’t been.

The music player is very basic and has few bells and whistles, and I must admit I’ve hardly touched it because I have an iPod, a wireless music/radio player, and a network file server at home. So I’m fairly over-stocked with audio choices that kick the Fire’s butt already. The Fire’s speakers are not going to win any awards: they are tiny, tinny, and produce very low volume. Headphones or at least ear buds are required, although I’ve had great success plugging into the Aux-In on my wireless player.

And then there is the much-touted Silk Web browser. It actually is a nice if somewhat basic browser. It has tabs, favorites, pinch-zoom, etc. and is pretty speedy.  Amazon obviously put some work into this feature and it makes the Fire a nice on-the-go Web browsing device. Just don’t expect an Internet Explorer or Firefox here – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this age of bloated browsers. Also take comfort in the fact that Flash works.

The bottom line with the Fire is for $199 you get a content platform for Amazon services. You do not get a general purpose tablet. The lack of some basics like camera and even SD card slot really limit the device. It’s a good LCD Kindle that plays movies for those who don’t want anything more. But for myself it has mainly shown me how much more I could do with a real tablet, and as soon as I decide to spend some real money I’m sure I’ll move up.

Also the Fire is not about to replace my iInk Kindle DX or Kindle 3: the LCD screen can get to be a strain when reading for long periods, and the lighter, thinner, and easier to hold Kindle 3 will be my reading device of choice for some time yet. Still there are some documents that just look better on the Fire, like National Geographic and books with involved formatting – so it has its place. But I think another generation will make that a better place, and I suggest Kindle users wait until the next generation Fire is available to light one up.