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A Review of the Kindle Fire

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Review of the Kindle Fire

Not a picture of my
own Fire. I swear.
You are... my fire!  The one desire!  Believe when I say, I want it that way!  When I unwrapped my Kindle Fire on Christmas, that iconic Backstreet Boys song popped into my head.  I wondered if the device would live up to those words... would the Fire be 'nothin' but a heartache'?  The answer is no.  The Fire is not a heartache or a mistake.  Let me tell you why.

On first look, the Fire looks small and feels heavier than its looks belie, an electronic fruit cake if you will.  I thought the extra weight would be annoying, but like a nice pen, the weight gives it a sense of biblio-tangibility (made-up word!) that I often missed with my original Kindle.  Turn the device on (fully charged, by the way), and you'll be instantly greeted with vibrant colors and screen resolution that compares favorably to the iPad.  Unfortunately, that comparison falls apart pretty fast.

Where the iPad excels, with Apple's knack for intuitive and rock solid operating systems, the Fire falls a bit flat. The interface divides the 'home' screen into four regions -- settings across the top, categorical menu items below that, media carousel next, and favorites at the bottom.    The category menu is divided into 'content streams'  -- Apps, Docs, Web, Apps, Video, Music, etc.  Below the horizontal selection menu is what the Fire calls your carousel.  The carousel functions like a 'Recently Used' drop down menu with all the items you've interacted with, most recent on top.  It's a handy function for someone who bounces between different types of media, but frequently causes hiccups in the system that freeze the carousel, forcing you to enter into the deeper submenus anyway.  Below the carousel is a favorites section where the user can create a series of shortcuts to their favorite apps and media.  These work fine and function just like the app icons on an iDevice.

The rough edges in the OS, are reflected in many of apps.  Although running on an android platform, many of the apps available through the Fire app store are at best beta versions.  Even the ones that work well, seem clunky compared to their iDoppelganger.  Add in the fact that bringing in non-Amazon content can be difficult, those looking for a do-it-all small tablet should look elsewhere.

However, I'm not so sure Amazon had any intention of competing in that market.  The Fire is a media delivery system and from that perspective it's tremendous.  eReading on the Fire is a pleasure.  The page turns never lag, and the addition of the touch screen to look-up words, highlight passages, and take notes augments the reading experience from the previous generations of Kindle.  For current Kindle users the back lit screen will provide freedom from reading lights, but be aware that outdoor will become difficult as glare is a real issue.

From a video and music angle, the Fire also lands high marks.  The Amazon storefront works great to acquire content, and the Fire players do everything you want them to.  Be aware though that given the limited storage capacity on the device, downloading and storing media is difficult.  Sure, the Cloud provides a way to store it, but on a plane or a long car ride you'll have to make choices about what to bring with you.  Likewise, Amazon Prime has been billed as a big value added for the Fire.  In many ways the purchase price of $199 is somewhat inaccurate as to truly take advantage of the device it's almost necessary to pay the $79/year Prime membership.  Except, that 'advantage' is stunted.  While a ton of free media is available, it is only free to stream, not to download, making Prime useless when traveling.

Calibre is a powerful tool for eReaders
For those coming from an Apple or Nook platform and heavily invested in their media libraries, the transition to Amazon is going to be labor intensive at best and impossible for those without some technical savvy.  I'm not a big music listener, or video watcher, so for me the only difficulty lay in my non-Kindle books.  Calibre solved most of those problems, but it's not a completely simple process to strip DRM and convert to MOBI, something to consider for someone who reads in multiple formats.

Technically, the Fire lacks a few features that would have gone a long way toward making it more user friendly.  The first is tactile volume control.  Small enough to fit in a coat pocket, the Fire is absolutely a device that can be used to walk around and listen to, but volume control is impossible without opening the device, entering the settings menu, and touching the slider.  Second, the battery life isn't anything to write home about.  I'm forced to plug mine in every night without fail (side note: it charges fast).  And third, the external speaker sucks, so much so that cooking eggs is enough to drown it out.  Am I whining?  Probably.

Complaints aside, the Fire is an excellent reading device, a solid portal into Amazon's content stores, and a poor man's iPad.  I'm sure Amazon is happy with that arrangement and likely what they set out to build.  I've been eReading since 2008.  I own the original Kindle, a Kindle Dx, and a Kindle 2nd Generation.  I own an iPad and iPad2, and I've used all the major eReading apps at one time or another.  I've read over 200 books electronically and I've never had a better reading experience than I have on the Fire.  Am I disappointed it won't completely replace my iPad?  Maybe a little.  But, with some work on the OS and improved user driven app support, Apple may have a real competition on their hands.  And wouldn't a little market competition be nice?

Side note and rant:  The biggest problem with the iPad vs. Fire vs. Nook vs. Kobo vs. Whatever is the format war and DRM stubbornness.  As long as we continue to be forced into purchasing closed devices that lock us into formats, DRM, and content portals, we aren't masters of our own entertainment.  That needs to change and I hope that by bringing more competitive devices to market we'll start to see a shift to single format, no-DRM, open systems.  A guy can dream, right?



At January 19, 2012 at 10:44 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Electronic Fruit Cake is the name of my new ELO cover band ;)

So, Justin, would you say from a content-creation perspective, the Fire merits a pass, but for content consumption, especially Amazon content, its more worthwhile?

At January 19, 2012 at 10:53 AM , Blogger Justin said...


Nice! If by content-creation you mean, can I use it like a laptop for productivity, then yes, it's not worth your time.

For consumption, if you have a WiFi connection, and a Prime membership, like some fun little games, and you love to read, then absolutely. It's a powerful device.

If you're hoping to get a ton of video use out of it though, the lack of storage space and non-download of Prime content, limits you. As a married guy, with a kid, the only time I'm watching video via my Fire is while traveling, and it's just not great in that role (IMO).

At January 19, 2012 at 10:55 AM , Blogger Scott said...

Thanks for this Justin! I was wondering and since I like the eInk of my current Kindle 3, if I tablet-ify I think I'll grab the iPad instead. Much obliged sir!

At January 19, 2012 at 10:57 AM , Blogger Justin said...


I would agree, although at a cost difference of $300 from Kindle Fire to base iPad (16gb, WIFI only), you'd have to weigh the benefits.

At January 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM , Blogger Douglas Hulick said...

I'd be interested to see a detailed side-by-side w/ the Nook tablet. With expandable memory and the ability to read more platforms out of the box (or so I am told)and external vollume control, plus an equivalent, if not lower price point once you factor in the Prime membership, it might be the slightly better machine (tho still not a full tablet).

(I'll also note that, if the N tablet is anything like the Color, you should be able jail break it & turn it into an unrestricted Android OS tablet, which is an interesting expansion option :)

At January 19, 2012 at 12:23 PM , Blogger Clifton Hill said...

As pretty as the Fire looks, I would NOT want to read a book on it. My eyes get enough abuse as it is, I want the natural media appearance of the e-ink Kindle. Don't have it yet, but one day.

Won't it be nice one day when e-ink goes full color, with high refresh rates?

Problem solved for all.

Regarding your review, considering it is Amazon's first outing at this kind of spec, I would imagine they will certainly improve. Some competition (as you say) would be nice.

At January 19, 2012 at 1:47 PM , Anonymous Neil Clarke said...

Actually, you can move from Nook to Fire very easily. It takes less than five minutes for a novice to sideload the Nook app onto the Fire. Directions here:

At January 19, 2012 at 2:49 PM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

We've been debating going for the Fire over the iPad, just because we don't think we'll use either all that much but it will be super handy when traveling especially for the little guy.

Also, thanks for the Calibre linkage. It's great.

At January 20, 2012 at 7:06 AM , Blogger RobB said...

I received a Kindle Fire in November for my birthday and I'm pleased as punch with it. It is also my first eReader so I don't have a strong (or even existing) base of comparison. For the price point, the clarity of the 'pages' and the options you have for reading (font style, size, border, etc) the Fire is pretty much what I wanted when I first thought of acquiring an eReader.

Two other points:

This: However, I'm not so sure Amazon had any intention of competing in that market. The Fire is a media delivery system and from that perspective it's tremendous. eReading on the Fire is a pleasure.

and this:

Complaints aside, the Fire is an excellent reading device, a solid portal into Amazon's content stores, and a poor man's iPad. I'm sure Amazon is happy with that arrangement and likely what they set out to build.

I'm not an Apple guy (except for my iPod), so I just don't see the reason to pay 500 for an eReader like the iPad.

At January 20, 2012 at 10:12 AM , Blogger Neth said...

hmm...I've still not seen anything that convinces me to get into the ereader market. My basic objections are still present. The proprietary software of platforms like the Kindle are unexeceptable to me and all the DRM that publishers and middle-men like Amazon put on their products will continue to keep me away. I want an ereader to be universial (without having to find workarounds) and I want to actually own and control any content I purchase with my hard earned money (like I do when I buy a book).

At January 20, 2012 at 10:15 AM , Blogger Neth said...

oh, and Backstreet Boys. You just lost a lot of cool points.

At January 23, 2012 at 9:14 AM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

I think people that get an eReader really want an eReader and are willing to put up with all the crap that comes along with it. They can be really handy and if the handiness outweighs the things that drive you nuts, then it's worth it.

Plus Kindles now let you borrow ebooks from the library and that's pretty long as your library is in the know.

At March 12, 2012 at 6:28 AM , Blogger Diana Guess said...

What an interesting review about this great device. I have one and I absolutely love it. I can read my eBooks downloaded from All you can books plus other sites and have them in just one place - on my big online library. Thank you so much for this article... I've enjoyed it!


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