Review: Amazon Kindle Fire

Amazon expands Kindle into tablet market (December 9th, 2011)

After ignoring the tablet market for several years and dismissing color screens as improper for e-book readers, Amazon has finally decided to expand its Kindle lineup to include a proper tablet. The Fire is aimed directly at Barnes & Noble's new Nook Tablet, though both devices are attempting to pull a bit of market share away from Apple's dominant iPad. In our full review, we compare Amazon's tablet to its direct rival and more expensive alternatives.

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Product Manufacturer: Amazon

Price: $199

The Good

  • Inexpensive Android tablet
  • Decent display
  • Works as media player
  • Customized UI for reader functionality

The Bad

  • Limited Android features
  • No GPS, cameras
  • Dim display
  • No SD slot, limited onboard storage

After ignoring the tablet market for several years, Amazon has finally decided to expand its range of Kindle readers to include a proper tablet. The Fire is aimed directly at Barnes & Noble's new Nook Tablet, though both devices are attempting to pull a bit of market share away from Apple's dominant iPad. In our full review, we compare Amazon's tablet to its direct rival and more expensive alternatives.





Design

Anyone who has handled or seen RIM's PlayBook tablet already will be familiar with the Kindle Fire design. Both devices share the same overall shape, with similar rubberized housings behind seven-inch displays with gloss-black bezels. Though unimpressive and lackluster, the design has a solid feel that appears to be more rigid than some of the other small Android tablets currently on the market.

The Fire weighs 14.6 ounces, slightly heavier than the Nook Tablet and two ounces above the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. We did not like the Tab's plastic construction, however the lighter weight made the device a better option for extended reading sessions. The differences between tablets are slight, as most devices with seven-inch LCDs are much heavier than dedicated readers equipped with E-Ink displays.

Considering the similarities between the Fire and the PlayBook, both hardware designs provide a balance between various tablet functions. What we would have preferred from Amazon's tablet, however, is a bit more focus on the e-reader functionality. The Nook Tablet appears to be a better fit for someone who actually plans on spending significant time using the device to read, as its display bezel is easier to confidently grip with one hand.





Display

The Kindle Fire integrates a seven-inch display with 1024x600 resolution, matching the pixel density of Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, the Nook Tablet and several other competitors. Like the latest Nook and Apple's iPad, the Fire takes advantage of IPS technology for extremely wide viewing angles.

We found the display to be vibrant and bright enough for most situations, while the IPS panel is a welcome feature for such an inexpensive device. Barnes & Noble suggests its Nook Tablet offers a superior display, but the technical differences are not significant enough to make a noticeable difference in content presentation.

IPS panels, despite their advantages over TFT alternatives, are still quite different than the E Ink displays that adorn typical e-book readers. The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet have yet to bridge the gap between both technologies. The IPS options offer color presentation, backlighting and quick refresh rates, while the E Ink variants provide greyscale text and images, excellent sunlight readability and months of battery life.





Storage and battery

Amazon chose to offer its latest tablet with 8GB of integrated storage, enabling users to load the device with music, videos and other content appropriate for a tablet. When the operating system and other limitations are pulled from the storage total, the device still leaves approximately 6GB for content storage.

When we attended the Nook Tablet unveiling, we were impressed by Barnes & Noble's commitment to higher storage capacity for what is construed as a media device. It was not immediately clear that users are limited to just a single gigabyte of content that hasn't been purchased through Barnes & Noble.

Storage is yet another trade-off between both devices; users can choose from 6GB on the Fire to load their own content, without the option to expand the capacity, or opt for 1GB of truly free space on the Nook that can be easily upgraded with a microSD card.

Aside from space for files, Amazon suggests the Fire is capable of running for 7.5 hours when the Wi-Fi radio is disengaged. Our tests achieved approximately one hour less than promised, falling a few hours short of the time other users are said to be reaching with the Nook Tablet.

Software

Although the Fire is based on Android 2.3, Amazon has implemented extensive customizations that effectively mask the underlying OS. A few details--the notification bar and swipe unlock--make the relationship clear, however the primary interface is completely dedicated to Amazon's range of services.

Rather than requiring users to dig through the interface to reach their books or other content, the Fire UI provides a home screen with quick shortcuts to the newsstand, books, music, video, documents, apps and the browser. Various categories and groups of items are organized on bookshelves, which we did not find to be a troublesome approach.

Amazon preloads the Fire with a variety of apps, including Pandora, The Weather Channel, Words With Friends, Facebook, Pulse, Quickoffice and IMDb, among others. This seems like a straightforward group of common essentials, though we would have preferred if the retailing giant also would have provided access to Google's own Android Market.

We found the integrated browser to lag behind the performance that we have come to expect from Android tablets. Page load times seemed to be relatively slow, falling behind the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus and even the similarly-designed PlayBook. The browsing experience was not terrible, however, particularly when compared to the 'experimental' browser on the E Ink Kindles.





Final thoughts

The Kindle Fire has arrived as a latecomer to the tablet arena, offered by the biggest name in online retail. Amazon is undoubtedly targeting customers who are also considering the iPad and other high-end tablets, however the Fire is clearly attempting to compete through price rather than features. For $200, we feel the device is a bargain in the same way that the discounted PlayBook is a good deal--bringing most of the essential tablet features at less than half the cost of its competitors.

The Fire, as an e-reader, is unlikely to woo most Kindle owners who are already content with the E Ink models, which offer a superior reading experience for most books. The device does make sense as a first tablet, with a price tag that serves as a closer fit for many holiday gift budgets.





by Justin King


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