Amazon marks their entry into the crowded tablet space with a 7” custom Android OS device — a tablet that is at the bottom of the price for a tablet from any company most people are likely to recognize.
The long and short of the Fire is that it does quite a few things, but doesn’t do any of them very well. It does many of these things really poorly.
It was about a year ago that I reviewed the original Samsung Galaxy Tab — one of the first Android tablets, also seven inches. The main problems with that tablet were: hardware, lack of software, the OS and the price. Amazon only fixes the price and the hardware (mostly) on the Fire, otherwise the device feels very similar — though more closed — than the Tab did a year ago.
That’s probably not something you want someone to ever say about a new tablet: “feels like one I used a year ago.” Tablets aren’t cars, they don’t get better with age, they just get sad with age.
First Run Experience
Right from the get go the Fire’s first run experience is pretty poor. I am a big believer that I should never have to be shown how to use a device, good devices should be intuitive, and if it isn’t good I don’t want to use it. The Fire walks you through every little tap — a clear sign that the OS is just not that intuitive — before you get going and even with that tutorial I was a bit lost once I was let loose in the OS.
Right away you are presented with a dialog that you need to update the Fire software, something that took about 5-8 minutes on my very fast Internet connection. Normally I would be fine with this, but I couldn’t even use the device until it updated — there was no option to wait until later, and I really think that is needed before you block a user for running the device.
Once you finally get into the OS you see a carousel view that isn’t exactly clear on telling you what it is showing. In fact nothing about the UI on the Fire is very straightforward. It seems like I am constantly scanning the interface to see what I want to do and where I need to tap.
Your recent items are most prominent and then you have some favorite apps along the bottom. Music, movies, web browsing are shown in a small line of text along the top. Seriously I had to stop and pause to figure out where the web browser was at first.
I did get over these issues with use, but it still struck me as uncomfortable.
What’s most interesting to me about the Fire is that, unlike iOS, it is very context unaware. With the iPad there is very clear modes delineated by the fact that each app is different and maintains it’s place in the grid. The main grid simply cannot show you the last file you worked on, only the last app. That is central to iOS.
On the Fire the main carousel is your most recently opened items, but not by context or app, instead by individual items like videos, web pages or books. That is a very different concept.
So maybe you see the email app icon, and a few other app icons — that is all familiar and logical. Then you see the cover of a book, the screenshot of the last webpage you looked at, the artwork for the movie you last watched. These are things that on iOS would be represented by their app icons, instead of the media itself.
So on iOS where I would see the ‘Safari’ app icon, on the Fire I see the screenshot of the actual webpage.
I don’t point this out because it is better or worse, but because it is very different. It like storing all the papers on your desk by project in folders and no other way — the Fire then would ditch the folders and just keep stacks of papers by project, with the last viewed paper on top of each stack.
I like the way the Fire handles this because it makes it easy to jump right back into the movie or webpage that I want — that’s great. I don’t like how prominent this carousel is on the “home” screen of the device, I’d much rather it be treated as secondary in the same way that the “favorite” apps on the home screen currently are. It seems too over powering, but I think with use this is something that you would get very used to.
Closed or Protected?
The Fire maybe built on top of Android, but it isn’t open to customization the same way that Android is. I can’t change the look of the OS at all. I can’t change the image that is used for the lock screen (it actually rotates through some, which makes it potentially very easy to get your Fire mixed up with another) and I can’t change how long before the device requires a passcode.
There’s quite a few stupid little things that I have come to expect to be able to do on a tablet, that I simply cannot do on the Fire. I would say this is a sign of a closed system, much as Apple has created with iOS, but perhaps it is better to use the word ‘Protected’ so that we don’t get mixed up with the open source debate.
Here are some things I expect to be able to do, but currently cannot — or don’t know how to — do:
- Change the lock screen wallpaper.
- Change the passcode timeout.
- Change the time to display in 24-hour format, or even put up the AM/PM symbols.
- Change the device name that is displayed in the top left corner.
- Delete apps completely from the device that came with it (like the web icon link to Facebook, WTF).
There’s more, but I think you get the point, little things are missing.
The Fire is surprisingly nice feeling in your hand. The device feels thick, but it is hard to make such a smaller footprint feel thin. It is heavy, and feels just as dense as my iPhone.1 The weight actually gets in the way of making the device as comfortable to hold for long periods as my Kindle 2 is — thus reducing the reading-in-bed experience.
The screen feels like any iOS screen. The back has a rubberized coating that isn’t grippy enough to keep it “stuck” on fabric, but does have a nice tactile feel. However, the tradeoff is that the back is prone to many greasy finger prints — ones that don’t wipe off as they do on the screen.
The digitizer is actually visible under bright lighting and reveals that it is spaced wider than on the iPad. Thus, I would assume, explaining most of the poor touch interaction on the device.
The power button is small, but easily pressed, at the bottom of the device. Of note the power button actually lights up which is quite off putting for iOS users.
Overall the Fire is a well built, sleek looking, little tablet. However for $199 you can’t expect perfection as these bumps in the rubber between the chassis and screen show:
I talked to a few other Fire owners and this seems to be hit and miss whether these ripples are on the device.
As was the case with the Samsung Galaxy Tab the apps available for the Fire are both limited and universally subpar. I don’t say that to deride Android and hold iOS up on some pedestal, but the App selection and quality truly is worse than on iOS. This is actually a really big deal for me, and I suspect most users, because Apps are what make these devices so useful.
Apps that are missing, or lack any useable version:
- Instapaper (by the developers choice). I did try out Read It Later Pro, but found that the experience was not up to the level of Instapaper — though it is a passable alternative if I was forced into it.
- An RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader. I liked EasyRSS (an pure Reeder clone) the best, but it crashed every time I tried to scroll a list view. Every time. I didn’t find any other RSS readers that worked with Google Reader that are worth even mentioning.
- A Twitter client (Seesmic is slightly better than the web portal).
- Notes app. Again here I didn’t find a Dropbox syncing note app, leading me to Evernote as the best solution — though it doesn’t come close to fitting in my “normal” workflow.
- Dropbox, I am told I could side load one. That’s a lame solution, side loading is something a very small percentage of Fire users will ever do, let alone know what it means.
- Weather (there are many, many crap ones). The best I found was AccuWeather.
And then you get to the worst part about the Apps on the Fire: they all have different icon sizes. So when you do see your apps listed in a grid, very few icons are the same size. I don’t even understand the logic on this one and quite frankly don’t think it is possible to logically explain this choice. Even scaling the icons to the same size, at risk of pixelation, would be better than the jumble of sizes.
Overall I was left very disappointed about the variety of apps and the quality of the apps. (For the record the best app I found was Angry Birds. It actually managed to play smoothly on the device — it may be the only smooth thing on the Fire.)
A lot has been said about the Fire by other reviewers, but one thing that I kept seeing is that it makes for a good device for viewing video. I don’t get that, it sounds like something reviewers decided that they would like so their entire review wasn’t negative — because in the world of tablets the Fire is just average, at best, when it comes to video.
Selection wise, it’s pretty great. Playback wise? Not so much.
Every video I played (Netflix and Prime streaming) played back smoothly, but the layout of the hardware got in the way of my enjoyment of the video. The light sensor for the dimming on the screen is in the top left corner of the device when held in portrait. That’s fine, but when you switch to landscape view it is in the bottom right corner, a spot likely to be covered by your hand — dumb.
Now it is true that I could spin the device around so that the sensor was back at the top, however that introduces another problem: the UI rotates but not the video. So in order to play back a video in another orientation you need to stop the video, exit the playback, and then enter back in, but you must make sure you are holding the tablet the way you want the video oriented.
This seems like a bug that should be fixed, but until then it is pretty crappy. (I do want to note that the Netflix app works as expected, just not Amazon’s built-in player.)
What can’t be solved by a software update is the lack of hardware volume buttons. In order to adjust the volume (something that I apparently do frequently when I watch videos) I have to go back into the software to change the volume. This is just bad design.
What’s more is that the power button is smack in the middle of the bottom (when held in portrait) and so when you watch a movie it is smack in the middle of the side. I can’t tell you how many times I hit that button while I was holding the device — in any orientation. This is a problem that I have only had on very rare occasions with the iPad.
One of the biggest features of the Fire is the web browser: Silk. This browser is the primary reason that I wanted a Fire. Amazon designed Silk to work with its servers in order to help “instantly” load web pages — or at the very least make them much quicker.
At home I have a 60mbps internet connection on the download and 12-20mbps on the upload. I have an ample connection speed.
Having said that Silk is not nearly as fast as I would expect for a browser being “assisted” by faster servers. In fact in my very unscientific testing web pages actually load faster when this “acceleration” is not enabled. Go figure.2
Silk also doesn’t work very well when you double tap a column of text so that it will zoom in. The text often reflows when you zoom in on it, something that I find very odd and doesn’t usually zoom in accurately as one would see in Mobile Safari.
Any Typekit site renders very slowly. The text looks less than stellar on it.
Overall, the browser is better than the standard Android browser, but no where near as good as Mobile Safari on iOS — not even close.
So the Fire is branded under the Kindle name and Kindles are some of the best reading devices on the market (excluding paper). Unfortunately the Fire fails the Kindle brand in the reading segment.
Oh the text looks fine, comparable to the iPad screen, but the experience of actually reading a book is pretty terrible. I’d take the iBooks design any day over this, because with iBooks at least everything works smoothly.
My preferred book reading app on my iPad is the Kindle app and so I was excited to give ebooks a go on Amazon’s own device. The design and layout is much the same, with one big caveat.
There is an odd animation displayed when you change pages — wait no, actually it is just a jittery animation of the pages sliding from one to the next. Page turning is incredibly jittery and given that turning a page is something you frequently do when you read — well this is pretty important.
Other than that, standard Kindle app fare.
I purchased two Newspapers (single issues) the local Seattle Times and The New York Times on the Fire to give each a go. Both are laid out very similar, you are presented with a list of articles with the first couple of lines of text for that article. You can also jump to specific sections of the paper. Tapping a headline brings you into article view where you can actually read the paper from front to back if you wanted by just sliding to the next page. There is no hard stop once you finish an article, you just move on to the next in the list.
There are still jittery page turns here and over all a pretty uninspiring layout and UI. I don’t hate the newspapers on the Fire, but I find them less appealing than their iPad counterparts — more like you’re reading an ebook than reading a newspaper.
So here’s the deal: I hate magazines on the Fire with such a passion that I very much regret every penny and moment I spent buying and testing Forbes — I even hate the fact that this sentence about it has run so long.
Until a major overhaul is done you are far better served downloading the 500mb magazine issues that are common to the iPad.
- The keyboard works in much the same way as on every other Android device and like on iOS the keys “pop up” when pressed. What’s odd is that the spacebar also pops up when pressed, this seems a bit unnecessary.
- The packaging is dead simple. Charger, device, getting started card. No knife was needed to open any part of the packaging from the time I picked it up off my stoop, till the time I started using the device. This is Amazon at its best.
- I don’t think the screen has the olephobic coating that Apple uses, because it is slightly more resistant than my iPad and iPhone. However it still wipes clean with relative ease.
- To indicate when you have reached the top or bottom of a list the OS put a white glow emanating from the top or bottom. It took me about an hour to realize why that was there. The elastic bounce that iOS uses is just a far better indicator, but I believe this is a patent issue for Android devices.
- Amazon sends you an email every time you buy or download something, for each item, every time. Whereas iTunes waits a bit and sends multiple transactions in one email — every transaction is emailed from Amazon. Again, every one — even for free apps.
- The time it takes to “rotate” the screen is far too long. Overall I don’t find the device to be very responsive when switching orientations.
- This device was really made to be used in portrait and with a 16:9 resolution it feels very silly to do anything but watch videos in landscape.
- The ability for Apps to integrate with the browser is incredibly useful. For example once you install Read It Later you can send articles directly to the app from the browser in just a couple of taps. No need to figure out how to install a bookmarklet, that’s actually really nice.
- When entering a passcode you must tap a small OK button after you have entered your passcode. I see no point to this.
The Helping Sell Things Argument
I have seen many people talk about how great the Fire is for selling Amazon items. I largely agree with that statement because the Fire does have a very nice Amazon store on it. Here’s the “but”: a device that you never want to use, isn’t a device that is likely to compel you to buy anything for, or with, it.
So while the buying experience is very good, I doubt it is going to help pad Amazon’s bottom line, because I doubt people will be clamoring to use the Fire.
Bottom Lining It
Here’s the thing about the Fire, as it currently exists I pretty much find the device useless. Not one person would be better served buying the Fire over an iPad, OR an iPod touch. There’s no reason for it.
Since getting the Fire I have left my iPad as far from me as possible and taken the Fire every where I have gone. Time and time again I found myself walking to where ever my iPad was so that I could use it, because I simply couldn’t, or didn’t want to, do what I needed to do on the Fire.
But that is as the Fire currently exists. If you give it a touch more horsepower, rework the Magazines, add in a few “normal” customization features — then I think you have a pretty slick little device. Oh, and make some nifty way for a cover to attach like the Smart Cover does on the iPad.
I don’t know how much Amazon can fix with software updates, but I am more curious to see if they even try to fix things with it. I strongly suspect they will just release a newer model, with better software.
At the end of the day I would have loved to have taken more time with the Fire before reviewing it, but I honestly didn’t want to have to use the device anymore.
And that pretty much sums it up.
UPDATED: You can rename the device by going into your Amazon account online and navigating to the ‘Manage My Kindle’ page. Thanks to those that wrote in on that one.
I don’t mean that it is the same weight, just that if my iPhone were blown up to the same size as the Fire, I would assume it would be the same weight. ↩
I tested the speed by clearing the cache, loading the page with acceleration on. Then clearing the cache and loading the same page with acceleration off. I did this with a sampling of 5 site, ranging from complex to simple. ↩