Review by Michael Oryl on Friday November 18, 2011.
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Amazon sent a wave crashing through the mobile industry when it announced that its Android based tablet, the Kindle Fire, would land with a price of $199. Its custom UI looked good, Amazon promised tons of available apps and media content, and it seemed poised to steal some thunder from even Apple's vaunted iPad 2, which costs more than twice as much.
And now it's here. Do the expectations mesh with the reality of the device, now that we've been using it? Yes and no. It's still likely the best value in a tablet on the market, and will make tablet computing accessible to many people that either couldn't afford Apple's iPads or couldn't tolerate Android Honeycomb based tablets. While somewhat restricted compared to other Android tablets when it comes to apps and content providers, nobody can argue that Amazon doesn't provide a great self-contained ecosystem. Amazon's streaming services, books and other "print" media offerings, and Appstore - all backed by its cloud storage - give users plenty of opportunities to find stuff to purchase and pass the hours with.
In what appears to be an obvious attempt to keep manufacturing costs down, the Amazon Kindle Fire sports one of the most basic hardware designs ever seen on a tablet. Not only are the typical Android home, back, and menu buttons missing (replaced by on-screen controls), but you will also find a lack of volume controls and cameras. The only interesting bits on the Fire's exterior are a very poorly placed power button, a micro-USB charging/data port, and the 3.5mm headphone jack - all of which sit in a cluster on the bottom edge of the tablet.
The rear of the device is covered in a soft-touch black paint that hides prints well enough, but offers nothing at all in terms of style. Powering the Kindle Fire is a dual-core 1GHz processor, 512MB of application RAM, and 8GB of internal storage. There's only 6.5MB of storage available to the user, and there's no microSD expansion slot, but Amazon's cloud-based storage for apps and media softens that blow since things can be deleted and re-downloaded from the cloud as needed.
The 1024 x 600 pixel resolution, 7-inch touchscreen display works well, and is both bright and adequately sharp, though it is perhaps somewhat lacking in the viewing angle department. The Fire's 190mm x 120mm x 11.4mm (7.5in x 4.7in x .4in) and 413g (14.6oz) weight make it easy to hold for extended periods, too.
Amazon's cost saving design could drive some consumers to consider the Barnes and Noble NOOK Tablet instead, as the NOOK offers a more interesting look, real hardware controls, and microSD storage expansion for only a little more money.
Though the Kindle Fire runs the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, it shares nothing with Android smartphones and tablets when it comes to the user interface. Amazon has gone completely custom in that regard, and the results are a mixed bag of cool and confounding.
The main screen of the device features a book shelf look that is dominated by a scrolling carousel of recently accessed content that has a row of links to content sections above it (web, books, music, video, etc) and shelves for favorite items below it. Anything you do on the tablet results in a large icon showing up on the recently accessed shelf. This seems like a decent idea at first, but you'll quickly find that the shelf gets cluttered with things that you really don't need to go back to, or simply don't want visible.
Instead, I found that I was always scrolling down the home page to access the smaller Favorites shelves, where you can place icons for things that matter to you most. You can add as many items as you like (more shelves will be added), and you can rearrange them as needed. What Amazon will need to do in the future is allow users to rearrange and resize the actual shelves to what suits them best, because this default layout certainly won't suit everybody.
I like the notification area at the very top edge of the display, and the quick access to the most used settings that it provides. I also like the links to the main sections of the tablet's software that are at the top of the home screen. They make it easy to get to the right section from the home screen. What's not so easy, however, is getting from one section to another. There's no quick-switch gesture or control, so all navigation requires that you go back to the home page and start from there. This reminds me of how we had to navigate on older iPhones, using the home key to basically start over from the home screen every time you wanted to do something new. An additional problem here, though, is that you don't always have access to that home button.
As I mentioned earlier, there are no hardware buttons for home, back, or search. Instead you must use on-screen controls that appear at the bottom of the display. Except when they don't, of course. Sometimes you have to close the on-screen keyboard first. Other times you have to tap on a thin bar at the bottom of the display (a bar that interferes with some full screen games). Other times, such as within the Wired Magazine app, you have to tap the screen, hit the home button that appears at the top of the page to get to the main Wired Magazine screen, and then find and tap the home button at the bottom of the screen. That's way too obtuse for my liking.
Beyond that, I found the the scrolling on the Kindle Fire to be a bit out of control. Web pages scroll too quickly, the recent content carousel and the home screen itself seems to bounce around a bit if you don't move your finger just the right distance. There were also plenty of lags in the software, and just general kinks in the system. It's not awful, but it certainly has enough room for improvement to keep Amazon developers working for some time.