The Kindle Fire. Take two.

As co-host of two iOS podcasts and a mobile design podcast and as an iOS user, when I mentioned I took the plunge, people on Twitter asked me to write up my thoughts. As such, I’ve decided to try and approach this as pragmatically as possible, so I’ll be looking at this from the perspective of a technically proficient and critical nerd, and also as much as possible like a regular person might.

I say take two not because I’m the second person to write a review (btw, read Marco’s exhaustive and very specific review as well – he covers the super minutiae better than I could hope to) but rather because the first take for me was a less-than-stellar experience in a brick-and-mortar store with the Fire immediately after it launched that left me feeling less-than-impressed. But as I have some time until the next iPad arrives, and I’m feeling experimental, I decided to give it another shot. I had heard that the software update improved the interface a bit, and was curious to see it for myself.

As Marvin would say: let’s get it on.

In keeping with fashion these days, I offer you this:

tl;dr

Though needing some definite love in a few areas, the Kindle Fire is not nearly as bad as I’d felt in my initial experience. There are some questionable decisions that Amazon’s made regarding both hardware and software, but for a content experience (following the intentions that Amazon has set for use of the device), the size and UI are functional and easy enough to use for most people. Nerds will likely continue to find fault in a few key areas.


In The Hand

I’ve gone on record saying that while I don’t think the iPad would work as a 7″ tablet, I do see a place for smaller devices in the market. I stick by that. Whereas the 10″ Android tablets I’ve tried feel cartoonishly long or tall depending on the direction in which you’re holding it, the dimensions of the Fire, while similar, don’t feel as strange. I’ve read paperback books that were oddly shaped, and it’s not too foreign a feeling, despite my preference for 4:3 devices like the iPad and TouchPad.

It is, however, a bit heavier than you’d expect. If you’re holding it up – and you’re likely to do it based on its overall size – you may feel fatigued. I noticed my hands becoming sore when reading in certain positions for extended amounts of time. Granted, they got sore with the iPad too, but I was more inclined to rest that larger device on something, so I avoided the experience without realizing it. The build quality of the Fire is, as a result of this weight, significant. It feels very sturdy and relatively high-end given its price point. It feels good.


Hardware

The most distinctive thing about the Fire’s hardware is probably that there are no exterior buttons, save for the awkwardly-placed power button on the bottom of the device. It’s tiny, and I can see how it’d be hard for some people to find it to activate or turn off the device, but I didn’t have too much trouble. My hands are smaller than some, and I’m used to manipulating smaller controls like that on other devices, so take that for what it is.

Not having exterior volume controls is a little strange, though, especially while watching a movie or listening to music. When watching video, it’s distracting to have to tap the screen, then tap the settings gear, then adjust the volume (Amazon seems to default to having the volume icon pre-selected when you do this, almost as though they’re trying to mitigate the annoyance) – but it’s not horrible. It’s definitely not ideal, though. During music playback, if you have the screen off, then you’ve got a slightly awkward power button press (since there’s no home button to quickly tap to wake the device), then a swipe, then the taps I just described. Not terrific. [EDIT: I discovered a setting in the music player that enables lock screen controls for playback; it’s a little odd, but it works fairly well.] Will it slowly drive me mad over time? Possibly. But then again, I’ll probably do more text-based consumption on the Fire than I will audio/video media, despite its prevalence at the top level of menu navigation and Amazon’s content availability.

Speaking of media, the speakers are ok, not great. A little thin, and not loud enough. Well, they’re sort of loud enough if you crank the volume, but the controls are sensitive, so you’ll probably spend a lot of time between not loud enough and damn it why can’t I just get this a tiny bit louder.

Battery life is definitely solid; not iPad solid (and definitely not e-ink Kindle solid, which is otherworldly), but very good. More than I expected. But that was a lot of app browsing and reading; throw video streaming in the mix and you’ll likely watch it drop a lot faster. It also gets a bit warm during video playback which never leaves me feeling great about a device.


Software

As we all know by now, the Fire runs a highly customized version of Android, forked from Google’s path down a questionable road of Amazon’s choosing. They’ve made some good choices and some strange ones with this decision.

First, the overall interface to a regular user is pretty good. You start up and you see a text bar of all the things you can do, and it’s pretty clear what those things are. Jump to an area and you’ll have (in most cases) two options: what’s in the cloud and what’s on your Fire. And you can usually hop over to a storefront for that area to get more stuff quickly. While not exactly what I would call intuitive, the Fire’s UI is obvious, and that’s very important too and not to be diminished.

The other thing I noticed is that given Amazon’s customizations, the typical things you might think to do with an Android device (widgets, changing launchers, theming, etc.) are missing. And in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not only has Amazon removed the fiddly nature of Android to make a more simplified device that more people can understand, they’ve made a stand as to how they want to shape the presentation of their content (and yours). It’s a very Apple-like move, that goes against the tweaky lineage Android has forged up to this point, but it’s actually a bit refreshing, because you don’t spend the time you normally would playing and trying a million different visual and functional configurations. You just use the device.

Having said that, I immediately tried treating it like a regular Android tablet and began browsing for apps. The on-device store for Android apps that work with the Fire is fairly limited – for people like us [“What do you mean YOU PEOPLE?!”]. For regular people, it’s probably more than enough. There are some confusing elements, though, as Marco pointed out. The appearance of multiple versions of apps – one of which may be labeled “Kindle Fire Edition” or something of that nature – could definitely be confusing to people. It sort of confused me for a second. Fire-optimized apps that I tested generally have a more natural feel on the device, whereas the other apps you can install from the store may just look stretched, which is a complaint of many Android tablet users.

If you try to browse the Amazon Appstore from your computer, prepare to see a lot of apps that are not compatible with your Fire. Amazon clearly calls this out when you view the app page, and while you’ll be allowed to purchase the apps, they won’t sync down to your device and install. There is a way around this and I’ll mention it here, but keep in mind, this is a perfect example of the problems with software on a customized device like this.

What I did to get a few other apps onto the Fire:

  • downloaded app to a separate phone via Android Market
  • used Astro File Explorer’s backup feature to drop the .apk onto the SD card
  • plugged phone into my computer
  • copied the .apk I wanted to the desktop
  • disconnected the phone
  • plugged in the Fire
  • added the .apk to the SD card
  • disconnected the Fire
  • used AndroXplorer file browser on the Fire
  • navigated to SD card
  • tapped .apk
  • installed app (which only worked some of the time, some app installs failed)

No normal person is going to do this.

But like I said, most normal people won’t care. What they get through the Amazon Appstore will be good enough. But it’s still indicative of a different way of using this device. It’s not really an Android tablet – it’s an Amazon content delivery mechanism. If you adopt this viewpoint, you’ll make out all right.


Content

Obviously Amazon has plenty of content for you to browse, buy, download, stream, and consume. In fact, I’ve said in the past that the only way Amazon had a chance with this was due to the fact that the content was in place already, and it will certainly be a success of some measure if only for that alone.

Books: Amazon’s got bunches. If you prefer the e-ink Kindle experience, then you won’t like reading here. I’m used to reading on the iPad and iPhone, so it’s actually nice to have a slightly smaller/larger view (depending on which device you’re talking about) to read text. Marco made some very good points about smaller details, most of which won’t bother me and most people, I would wager, but if you’re very specific about your reading experience, they might.

Magazines: I haven’t had a chance to explore the magazine subscription content yet, but the magazine viewing is a little odd. You either get a full-page view you can barely see, or you get a stuttery zoom that’s not wonderful. However, you can also apply a simpler text view very much like Instapaper that is pretty readable. Of course, you’re giving up the magazine layout at this point, so you might just say forget it and not bother if that’s why you like magazines in the first place (and there’s a good chance that it is).

Music: Tons of mp3s to download, and Amazon’s got the cloud player system in place. Haven’t used it because I’ve got a Subsonic server set up at home and I use that for all my streaming. The Fire audio player itself is a little spartan though, and not having external volume keys is fairly annoying, and could become more so over time.

Videos: As a Prime member, I’ve got a lot of content I can view for free, both TV and movies, but it’s still not a mind-blowing selection. You can forget about using Netflix on the Fire; it’s a hot mess. Constant stuttering, dropped frames, audio out of sync, the works. Even the Amazon video did some crackling and stuttering in certain parts of my house where I have no problem with other streaming devices (and I have FiOS, so bandwidth is not the issue either). I’m going to continue experimenting with video stuff and see what I find. There’s an app that I found which appears to be like Air Video for iOS, which is a longtime favorite of mine, and would allow my Mac mini to stream video around the house over wi-fi.

But you can side-load content: Sure, you can, but there’s not a ton of room. You have about 6 GB actually available to you on the device, and that’ll get eaten up fast. I’m wondering if I can hack it to add more storage, but that’s not a normal person thought, that’s a nerd thought. And my gut tells me no. I tried to load some comics I had in PDF form and they weren’t detected by the Fire in any capacity (even as “Docs”) so I installed Adobe Reader to view them. I loaded some books as epubs and dropped them into the “Books” directory of the SD card to find that they were completely ignored, unsurprisingly, by the Fire. In fact, I could only find one epub reader on the Kindle Fire store at all, and it’s a complete piece of crap. Even the TouchPad could read my epubs, including the ones I downloaded through iBooks. So there’s that. On second thought, I think that was only the epubs I may have downloaded and placed into iBooks. Apologies for misstating that.

The bottom line is that you better like streaming everything (with the exception of books) because you’re going to be doing a lot of it. And you better like Amazon’s content, because a lot of other things just won’t quite fit in as nicely as you’d hope.


Summary

As a nerd, the Fire is a waste of time for the most part. You’re limited by the choices Amazon’s made in the hardware and software, and getting stuff done around those choices is possible, but probably not worth your time unless you really feel like poking around. People have been hinting at how great a CyanogenMod build would be for the Fire, so you may want to go that route eventually, but then again, why not just buy another Android tablet if that’s what you want it for? Surely if you’re willing to hack to that end, you can save yourself some time with other hardware. But I guess there’s the challenge too.

As a normal person, the Fire is pretty good. Seriously. The software update (which auto-installed minutes after I unboxed the Fire) made a big difference in responsiveness. Prior to that, half my button presses didn’t even register and scrolling was pretty lame. If you’re comfy with Amazon’s selections, and you don’t mind a few weird moments (like always tapping the screen to do everything), you probably won’t mind it too much. There’s plenty to do and it’s laid out clearly for you. If you use the device in the manner Amazon has envisioned, you’ll be fine. It’s when you stray outside of that use case that you face some resistance. My guess is that most Fire owners won’t make that choice.

Regarding the sales numbers: well, a lot of people probably got them as holiday gifts, and haven’t really begun using them yet. And Amazon’s always been a little reticent about sharing that stuff. Who cares anyway? Actual, regular people don’t care about this stuff. They only care about what they’re doing with the device.

I know I didn’t cover everything, I probably couldn’t if I wanted to. But as I said, Marco’s review is worth reading – it’s much more specific on a technical level about the things I touched on. I just think that most people won’t care about a lot of them, because they’ll either see it as a Kindle that does a few extra things, or as an ancillary device along with their iPad – which is exactly how I choose to view it. It’ll never replace an iPad, and Amazon is bat shit crazy to even suggest such a thing. I thought they’d have approached the device a little differently among consumers, but that page shows clearly what the intent of the marketing is.

Takeaways?

  • It feels well-made and decent in your hands, but a little heavy
  • If you use it how it’s meant to be used and don’t bolt on your own expectations about what the device should be able to do, it’ll probably be fine
  • If you watch a lot of video, I wouldn’t recommend it unless there’s a software fix to make it better overall
  • If you currently like to read on your non e-ink devices and want something that’s more of a dedicated reader with a few other things, you might like it
  • If you’re a serious app hound, you’ll probably be disappointed as the app selection (at least the ones easily available and compatible) seems limited
  • If you focus on the little things, it’ll drive you crazy, but you can probably get over them and still enjoy it for the most part
  • It’s a decent secondary device, but you wouldn’t want to do “work” on it, the way we’ve gotten used to doing some things with the iPad
  • It is $199, after all
  • It’s not an iPad and never will be

The last one is the sticker.

I do still like it, though, and plan to keep it. I’m reading more, and I like the size a lot. I also plan to get the next iPad when it arrives and have an entirely different plan for how I think I’d like to use it (it involves taking my laptop fewer places for starters). If I change my feelings significantly or something happens in the future to the Fire, I’ll possibly revisit this post and write an update. If you were on the fence about it, I hope this at least sheds a little light on the decision for you. Consider me your guinea pig.