A family member just bought the Kindle Fire for their kids and so I got an opportunity to feed my insatiable curiosity and test the device while setting it up for them. I haven’t put CyanogenMod on it (yet) but I’m about to recommend it. If it happens, I’ll write about it in another post. Until then, here’s my review showing quirks that tick me off and things that impress me.
To set the record straight, I should mention that most of the missing features were Amazon’s calculated sacrifices made to get the price as attractive, so these were not omitted by mistake. Still, some of them make the device subpar to its competition, which would make me think twice before buying this instead of the Nook Tablet or the still accessible HP TouchPad (even on Amazon.com) with a ton of more features and options. Here are my pros and cons:
– Quite responsive performance. I experienced almost no lag that some people complained about, perhaps because the OS was updated to the latest version immediately after we booted up and connected to WiFi.
– Good for most Android games (all we installed work just fine) and reading Kindle books.
– The device feels mighty and the very smooth plastic on its back still makes you grip it securely and feels better than any tablet I’ve ever had in my hands so far, including the iPad.
– Being quite smaller than the iPad and similar 10″ tablets, the Fire easily fits into a large pocket. Doctors may love it, provided there’s software they can utilize on it (and it doesn’t require a camera or microphone for taking snapshots of notes, or for recording voice memos).
– Being small and light, it is also easily held in one hand.
– But of course, most of all, low price. Still, those of you considering this as a gift for a child for gaming, provided there’s an accessible TV that won’t cause any competition in the family, an Xbox 360 or a PS3 gaming console is just a bit more expensive and provides a much richer gaming experience.
– No microphone = no audio chat, no VOIP telephony, no voice memos, no speech recognition that works so well on most Android phones and tablets.
– No camera = no photos, no scanning, no convenient snapshots of any notes, bills, or receipts.
– No camera + no microphone = no Tango, Skype, or any other Internet audio or video chat. (At least not for now. Read more about possible Skype audio functionality on the Kindle Fire in my related post.)
– Only 8GB of internal storage (6 GB for user content) makes this a bad choice if you prefer to carry a lot of your music and movies with you and not rely on the cloud. This is even less storage than new smartphones offer nowadays. $50 up the tablet totem pole, Nook Tablet is a much better choice for this purpose with both double the internal space of 16 GB and a microSD port that brings the possible max total to 48 GB (still without a camera, but with a built-in microphone).
– No external storage ports. Again, together with my previous point about low internal storage, this makes the device a bad choice for those without high speed internet access or without music in the cloud.
– No 5 GHz range WiFi radio, so there’s no 802.11a suport. The Kindle Fire supports 802.11 b/g/n standard on 2.4 GHz band only. While this is not a big deal for most consumers, those of us who are city dwellers with way too many visible WiFi access points around us prefer to use the far less crowded 5 GHz range.
– No Bluetooth. I don’t care much about Bluetooth for reasons stated in my related article, but some people find it quite convenient.
– The Software solution is too far apart from the standard Android environment I’m used to. No shortcuts, just carousel like in iTunes. Only several shortcuts can be put on the screen under the carousel, less than what the standard Android home screen allows. Still, those who don’t know Android yet won’t have any problems with this.
– No hardware volume rocker. This is big for those of us who like to use the device at night when others are asleep. Lack of any hardware buttons beside the power button make setting the volume and brightness level an exploration trip for new users. In some cases I had to exit the app, do this and then go back. If your device was left with volume up high, by the time you get to the volume bar, everybody is awake.
– Poor (lack of) multitasking. If you exit an app to do something else, once you go back to it you will find yourself at its opening screen instead of where you left it.
– Software and books can be bought and downloaded only in the USA, so if you want to buy this tablet and fly it to your cousins abroad, they’re out of luck except for the internet browsing and using the stuff you installed on the device in the USA. The best bet for those taking the device out of the country may be to install CyanogenMod and use the Android Market instead of the Amazon App store, but then you will lose some default Amazon options, like the Kindle book reading software.
– The screen is too small for quality movies viewing (ask any movie industry professional if you don’t believe me).
– Limited screen real estate with less than half screen surface of a 10″ tablet. After several hour long browsing sessions I find the screen too small for comfortable and legible internet browsing. I thought a 10″ tablet screen is small for viewing movies and browsing serious websites, but after using the 7″ screen a regular 10″ tablet looks like a giant.
– The screen proportions seem close to 16:9 instead of the usual 4:3 shaped 10 inch tablets. This is bad for internet browsing in portrait mode, but it doesn’t affect Kindle book reading because I get best reading experience with narrow newspaper column type width. The Kindle Fire’s screen looks like a shrunk legal size document and I can tell why – in standard 4:3 shape this device would be cumbersome for browsing in both portrait and landscape mode, while this way it allows a bit better user experience when in landscape mode, closer to viewing desktop style pages, although still crammed up.
– Bad for bright light environments. The glossy (reflective) screen makes this tablet unworthy of the great Kindle name. Other Amazon Kindle book readers perform excellent in bright light, including direct sunlight. This tablet, however, just like the iPad and the rest of the tablet pack, fails miserably as a book reader on the beach or anywhere outside during daytime.
– Price/quality ratio: With less than half the screen real estate of the 10″ tablets, no microphone, no camera, no volume rocker, no home, and no back button (power button only), no Bluetooth, no compass, no gyroscope, only 8 GB of internal storage, no external storage card options, only 512 MB of RAM (Nook Tablet has 1 GB) and the glossy screen, the seemingly low price of $200 doesn’t look as low any more. It’s just barely right.
The Kindle Fire is a very good cheap tablet for those who want to read books, play games or to listen to the music and watch movies from the cloud in low light environments. It is also a good starter tablet for a child. Just like most other tablets including the best and most expensive ones, it’s bad in bright light. Also, anybody without a high speed internet connection used to carrying their music or movies with them should consider the Nook Tablet for $50 more, with double the amount of RAM (1 GB vs 512 MB), double the internal storage (16 GB vs 8 GB), a built-in microphone for IP telephony and voice commands and memos, and a micro SD port for extra up to 32 GB of external storage.
However, right now I’d choose neither the Kindle Fire nor tne Nook Tablet. Instead I’d opt for the still barely available HP TouchPad (currently available on Amazon.com, but not for long because it’s been discontinued) because of all the extras that come with it for very little extra money: microphone, camera, Bluetooth, 802.11a support, compass, gyroscope, excellent Android port (CyanogenMod) available for installation on top of the original webOS operating system, great multitasking, dual core 1.2 GHz underclocked CPU (very easily brought to normal 1.5 GHz and even overclocked to 1.7 GHz or higher in both webOS and Android) and most of all, its enormously larger screen. I know that 10″ vs 7″ looks like only 30 % difference but trust me, the amount of screen surface at 7″ is less than one half of the 10″ tablet. I did the math for my Kindle Fire can’t beat the iPad post (and it turns out to be about 21 vs. 45 square inches or 135 vs. 291 cm² for the Kindle Fire vs. the iPad/TouchPad/Galaxy). If you ever get a chance to compare these devices next to each other and hold them in your hands, you’ll see the difference.