Kindle Fire starts its evolution

The smooth and sexy back of the Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire has received mixed reviews since it’s debut and certainly has not been without its problems and annoyances. However the device is sill very promising and has lots to offer. The basic specs of the Fire are nothing too special when compared to other Android based tablets but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The specs are actually closer to that of an iPad2. Mainly here I am talking about the 1GHz dual core processor with 512MB of RAM – when most new tablets are coming out with 1GB or more of RAM and the Tegra 2 processor. The slightly slower processor and less RAM means a little more battery life!

The Physical device and its feel:
The Fire fits very well in one hand but is not easy to use with a single hand for any application that needs input as the keyboard requires two hands for use. The device feels heavier in your hand than the 10in competitors even though it is several ounces lighter. The reason for this is that you use one hand to hold it as opposed to two. Once you start typing on it with two hands it feels like a feather. The back is VERY comfortable in your hands. It is not a metal feel or a cheap plastic feel, but a nice soft solid rubbery feel (For anyone that owns or had owned an HTC incredible the back feels very similar to that). The screen is beautiful. It has less pixels than an iPad 2 but since the screen is smaller it yields better looking images on its screen (169 PPI). The device only has 8GB of on board storage that is broken up into system, apps, and media. This is not that big of a deal since the whole idea behind the Fire is to have it be cloud based. Plus if you have a smart phone you can always tether on the go. You are allowed just over 1GB for apps, just over 5GB for media, and the rest is reserved for the system. The only button on the entire device is the power/wake/sleep button located on the bottom just to the right of the micro USB port.

Headphones, micro USB, and power button

For any native android user you will miss having dedicated soft home, back, menu, and search buttons. You will also miss having dedicated hardware volume buttons. My last gripe about the physical device is the speaker placement. Both of the two speakers on located on the top of the device when held in portrait view, or on the left when held in landscape.

This is annoying when watching videos on the device (one of the selling points) because stereo sound is no longer stereo unless you are using headphones (3.5mm jack located to the left of the micro USB port). When playing one of the popular games such as Plants vs Zombies the sound does not bother me.

The Software on the device:
The Fire uses a forked version of Android Gingerbread (2.3) where they stripped down the unnecessary parts (such as GPS, camera, etc) since the Fire does not have those hardware features. Amazon added a custom launcher that works very well and is quite smooth, save the occasional blip while scrolling. On the main home screen, called the newsstand, you are presented with recently accessed apps, web pages, books, and videos with any pinned favorites below. At the top of the home screen you have tabs for your Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web.

The home screen

The books tab is quite similar to the normal Kindle app on any android device. Likewise, the music tab is also very similar to the Amazon MP3 app on Android. The video tab is new and brings all the instant streaming Amazon has available to the Fire. With the Fire comes a one month free prime membership so you can stream any prime movie or TV show. The quality of them is amazing and buffered very quickly over my home WiFi. There is a Docs section which I have only been able to get documents in by emailing them to username@kindle.com (which you get when you register the kindle). Apps is the next tab, which gives you access to all your Fire ready apps from the Amazon App store (and any apps you side loaded). There is also a link to the Store in the upper right corner. The final tab is the web tab which opens the web browser. This uses Amazon Silk – where all the content is processed on Amazons EC2 cloud and optimized for viewing on the Fire. I found that loading is not quite as fast as Amazon originally boasted, but once the content is ready it seems like the whole page loads as once instead of bits at a time. I should also mention that the Books, Music, and Apps tab have an option to view items on the cloud vs on the device.

The settings menu is located on the top right of the notification bar. You tap it and it will give you some quick options like volume, WiFi, brightness, etc. You can click a ‘more’ link to get the rest of the system menu options.

The hardware soft navigation buttons from old android devices have been replaced with on screen buttons. The Fire keeps the a little bar on the bottom of the screen that will appear with a back and home button.

The only problem here is that it will “pause” the current running app. Most of the time this is not a big deal but in apps that require loading (like Peggle or PvZ) anytime you want to change the volume it will pause and the reload the app.

The touchscreen:
When I first got the device, it seemed like the touch response was not as good as it is on the iPad or any other capacitive Android device. I was not sure if this was due to hardware or software. Yesterday an update came down that seemed to have given the system a little more speed and has made the touchscreen work a little better. Since the update, I have not had to tap twice on anything to make it work.

Cons:

  • What!? No linked google account – no gmail, no gtalk, no gapps!!? The good news is you can side load some apps. I have successfully done that with apps like Dropbox. I am quite annoyed that you can’t link your google account to the device (yet – give it time).
  • Hardware Soft buttons? where are they? Now they take up screen space!? No hardware volume buttons.
  • New update broke root and market (for now).
  • Stereo audio sounds funny when holding the device in landscape.

Pros:

  • This device is pretty snappy – especially with the new update.
  • Links with all your Amazon MP3s.
  • Has a great feel and fantastic screen for watching video.
  • Its only $200
  • Has a HUGE user base so it will be constantly up to date and has a large community working on modifications to make it better and give it full functionality as an Android tablet.
  • Did I mention it is only $200?

Conclusions (yes there are several):

Should this replace my current e-ink based Kindle?
In my opinion absolutely not. If you want a kindle to read books the Fire is NOT for you. The e-ink screen is much nicer on your eyes and has a MUCH longer battery life. The Fire could make a nice supplement if you want a nice piece of technology to play with or watch videos.

Should I get this if I want an Android Tablet?
At the moment you can put a custom version of Cyanogen Mod 7 on the Fire from XDA that makes it more like a normal android tablet. This is a great option for anyone who loves android but for those looking to have a very functional Android tablet I would wait for a finished port of Ice Cream Sandwich. Cyanogen mod 7 is Gingerbread based and not designed or intended for tablet use.

Should I get one just because?
If you love technology, Android, Amazon, or just the next big thing – then yes you should. At a price point of $200, you really can’t go wrong with the Fire – even with the few minor annoyances.