Review: Kindle Fire

on Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Review Time, Sucka

So as stated earlier, both my wife and I got Kindle Fires for Christmas from our employer. Since then I've spent a good deal of time working with the device, messing with the Amazon App store, and even rooted the device and made it basically an Android tablet. Before I get to the meat of this review, I'll simply give you a "TL;DR" version in case you don't like my rambling. Which will consists of a Pros/Con list.

Pros


- Relatively inexpensive ($199) for a tablet.
- Small, looks nice, has fairly good battery life. 
- Screen is high resolution. HD movies look great.
- Decent assortment of apps from the Amazon store.
- Uses the Amazon cloud for pretty much everything. Extremely easy to get to your purchased Kindle books, mp3s, and more. 
- Can upload your own MP3s to the free Amazon Cloud and stream them to your Kindle so long as you have internet. 
- Interface/Skin over Android does what it needs to while keeping it simple. 
- Web browser is fast, runs flash, and supports tabbed browsing. 
- Amazon Prime members get loads of streaming videos that are integrated right into the device. 


Cons


- Touch screen isn't very good. Compared to an iPad or iPhone, it can be either too sensitive or not sensitive enough. I had to mash my finger on some buttons for it to take, while when I used the keyboard it kept adding letters if I just brushed past them. 
- Underpowered, especially compared to other tablets and even phones. Has difficulty running high-profile apps. 
- No physical buttons. Other android devices have a back, tab, and home button on the device. All these are touch integrated on the Kindle, which is a massive pain. The lack of a volume control other then going all the way to an options menu is extremely obnoxious.
- Speakers are very weak. 
- Limited to the Amazon App store. Can't install the full Android app store without rooting the device. 
- Amazon deletes your roots with its automated updates. Which it updates whenever it wants, without warning. 
- Too small to be a proper tablet, too big to be very portable. 
- Extremely fragile (much like the iPhone 4S). Drop it and it's done. 
- Reflective/color screen is much harder on the eyes than eInk, or even a traditional LCD monitor. (author's note: I am sensitive to this and prone to headaches; many people aren't. This is just personal taste)
- All the best apps are on the Android Store. Amazon's is extremely gimped, and they keep removing Apps like GoLauncher that would make the device more accessible. They also don't have any dedicated social networking apps, which is one of the main reasons I would use a tablet. 
- No 3G like all the eInk Kindles. And since it's heavy on the Cloud integration, you have to have a WiFi connection in order to get the full benefit. 
- Only 8 GB of space. So if you aren't in a WiFi range, you are extremely limited. 
- Doesn't come with a USB cord to connect to a computer, unlike every other Kindle they sell. Why is this? 




Blurb Opinion: If you want an eReader, get an eInk Kindle and a nice case. If you want a Tablet, get an iPad (or if you absolutely hate iOS/Apple, an Android Tablet). The Kindle Fire fits somewhere inbetween these two products, and suffers for it. Yes, it's a super-cheap tablet, but it's subpar on too many levels to recommend.

Long Review


Let me get something out of the way first: I might not be the ideal market for this device. I already own an eInk Kindle, an iPhone 4S, and a decent laptop computer. Pretty much I've got all my needs set, and this was before I was given the Fire. For the record, I LOVE my eInk Kindle, love the Amazon Kindle store, and think everybody should own one of these things. That being said, even though my expectations for the Kindle Fire weren't very high, I was really disappointed by it.

To better illustrate this point, I have made a high quality graphic using MS Paint, google image search, and bad copy/paste. You're welcome.

Here's how I figure technology works. You have your desktop. This sucker can do everything. Browse the internet, play games, edit movies, etc. It's basically, to use a lack of a better term, a computer
Next you have your laptop. This thing isn't as powerful as your desktop, but it can still do the internet, play games at the "medium" graphics quality (vs the "ultra" for your gaming desktop rig), edit movies, do your social networking stuff, etc. It's basically a slightly less good desktop computer.
I'd put netbooks here but the iPad basically killed that market, so RIP and all that.
So then we have iPads/Tablets. These devices really have taken off, probably because they provide the most wanted features of a Laptop computer in a more compact and convenient package. They do the internet really well, have all your social networking covered, and even have quite a few good games on it (though not nearly as good or powerful as a laptop or desktop).
Then you have Smartphones, which are a lot like the tablets only more compact. The internet browsing isn't as good, but it's convenient because it doubles as a phone. It has all your social stuff, and has a good bit of games too. They are considerably more portable than any of the above products, which is a big selling point.
Then we have eInk Readers, which are devices dedicated solely for reading. Which, as you might guess, means they do it really well. They do it better than your phones, your iPads (if you don't like screens), and certainly your computers. That's about all they do, but they do it well.

And then we have this thing. 

So you can see how, if you go down the line, we have features slowly being stripped until we get to the bare necessities. The problem with the Kindle Fire is that it tries to sit squarely somewhere between dedicated eReaders and Tablets, without really doing each very well. As an eBook reader, the glass screen an glare makes it impossible to read in bright sunlight, and can cause some people eye strain (read: me). On the flip side, it isn't a very good tablet. It's underpowered, which means apps load just slow enough to be annoying. Since the screen is small it's in that sort of lukewarm area with regard to web browsing: it's better than on my phone, but not nearly as good as it would be on an iPad. Locking the Fire into the Amazon Android store rather than the full Android Market is a massive mistake; there are no social networking apps, and pulling them up on the browser is inconvenient. The interface is also pretty bad if you try to do stuff other than what they want you to: you have a sort of "cover flow" of all your apps, books, and movies, which sounds great in theory except the touch recognition on it is completely horrible. You can favorite apps so they are always there (much like putting stuff on the "dock" bottom portion on an iPad or a real Android tablet), but even that is cumbersome.

The lack of physical buttons is a big bummer. The home and back buttons are touch-only, and they have a knack of receding right when you need them. There is no easy way to quickly change your music tracks without going to the upper menu, and the same goes for volume (which is the biggest bummer; not being able to change the volume with physical buttons is a massive oversight). This is only exacerbated by the fact the touch screen is not very responsive: it's hard to know when it's picking up your touch commands, often times it just seems to ignore them, and since everything depends on the touch screen interface, just navigating the UI is a chore.

I don't hate everything about the device, however, because I'm still a huge gadget nerd and love playing with new tech. When it comes to Netflix, streaming videos, and doing something simple on the internet like reading webcomics, the thing works like a dream. I've found it to be very useful for watching movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or GiantBomb while I'm in bed (when a laptop would be inconvenient). It's too bad that the built-in speaker is really quiet; my wife and I were watching A Bit of Fry and Laurie on Amazon Prime streaming at full volume, and we could hardly hear it over the house's air conditioning (which wasn't really that loud).

I was really hoping the .docx reader would be better (or at least include the Dropbox App which has a good built-in reader) so I could open up my own works and do basic editing on it, but considering how poor the touch keyboard is I don't see that happening. Also, if you do manage to get some non-Amazon store apps on it (through some back door ways, but luckily it doesn't require a full root) you can do some pretty cool things. This thing is the perfect size for playing emulated SNES games, with the touch controls working really well (though not so great for platformers, it is fantastic for RPGs). And, since Android is more open than iOS, once you figure that out you have boatloads of apps you can just throw on there (emulators, ho!). I haven't yet tested the PS1 emulator on it (which would be my benchmark with regard to how powerful this thing actually is), but the thing is just the right size to conveniently hold it like a controller and play. A phone would have been too small, and an iPad/Tablet would have been much too large. So hey, if you want to play pirated games by using a back-door method to load your emulator apps on it, it's a great device for that.

(Editor's Note: I don't download ROMs of games that I don't own the actual, physical cartridge of. A glance at my retro game collection should put whatever fears you have of that to rest)

Check out that awesome glare. Imagine trying to read off that. 
A few more minor niggles. When you are reading a book, it is very limited in it's options with regard to text backgrounds. You can either have black text on BLASTINGLY BRIGHT WHITE, black text on a too-dark tan, or white text on black. Since the brightness options on the device are extremely limited (it's too bright, all the time), reading in the dark is eye-strain city. Come on, Amazon, you have a device that's way more powerful than your eInk reader, and you want people to use this thing like an eReader. Give me more options with my books. Why can't I have a really pale tan or gray background, so that the contrast doesn't burn my retinas from my brain? I read about 4-5% of Reaper Man on the Kindle Fire, then switched back to my eInk Kindle, and I couldn't believe how much better it was. I was going to read a whole book on the Fire before giving this review, but I keep having to either put the Kindle Fire a distance away so as to minimize the glare/headaches, or only read in really short bursts. I eventually just gave up and went back to my eInk Kindle which, for those who are curious, I have read about 8 Pratchett books on, most in 4-5 hour bursts in the middle of the night.

Amazon seems to hate rooting, because every update so far disables it. Also, if your kindle is rooted, it completely locks you out of the Amazon Prime Streaming Video, meaning you aren't getting your money's worth. The updates are completely mandatory and happen the minute Amazon detects it on WiFi, forcing you to update regardless of what you are doing. I've complained about Windows' super-intrusive method of forcing updates, but this is a whole new level of awfulness.

Thanks a lot. I didn't want a choice with this or anything. 
Speaking of WiFi, that brings me to another problem: the storage size. Amazon only put 8 GB of space on this (6 useable), which is ample if you were just putting books on it, but if you want to use it as a music player, to store videos, or load it up with apps it's extremely limiting. Amazon's way around this is their whole "cloud" thing: you can easily (and always) get your books, mp3s, and videos you've purchased (from Amazon) from their cloud. It's worth pointing out that while Apple does this same thing, it also allows a Kindle app (and hopefully soon a Google Music app) which lets you get ALL your stuff. Amazon is shutting everybody else out except themselves, probably because this thing is like a massive cash register for them. Anyway, this sounds totally awesome on paper. I mean, the cloud is awesome, right? Having access to everything, everywhere? That's rad!

Only 1.17 GB for Apps? Great. That's one copy of Infinity Blade, and that's it.  Not like this thing could run it, anyway. 
Yeah, except it isn't everywhere. Because it doesn't have 3g/4g. Only Wifi. Which means you'll probably only use it at home, or at free wifi spots, assuming you can get on (the wifi can be spotty). The second you are out of a wifi spot, you are done. 8 GB of space, sucker. Hope that's enough (hint: it really isn't. My phone has 16 GB and it's a constant fight for me to try to have everything I want on there). The lack of 3G really kills this thing, because hey...if I'm at home and I want to watch a movie/listen to music, wouldn't I just, you know, use my laptop (which has way better speakers)? Or my phone? Or...anything else that has a better UI with regard to music?

Lastly, put a password on your Kindle Fire. Because the second you buy it, it auto-registers to your amazon account. Conveniently, they pre-loaded the thing with an Amazon App store, which has one-click purchasing enabled. Which means if you lose it, someone steals it from the "KINDLE FIRE INSIDE" box in shipping, or your two-year-old gets his hands on it, you could find yourself buying stuff you don't want (or know about). There are currently no security options to disable this, no way to delete the Amazon store app, and the only protection you have is the usual screen-lock password. There are no parental controls of any kind, either to block material on Prime Video or purchases made on their app store. It's clear Amazon wants you to BUY BUY BUY on this thing, to the point of it being a security risk. Huge, huge oversight.

Turn this thing on. 

So, after reading this massive post of me complaining (sorry about that), I'm pretty sure I don't need to say whether I recommend one of these, right? However, I do have one positive thing to say about this: It'll force more competitive prices from other (better) tablets. It sold like hotcakes over the holiday, quickly becoming the second best selling tablet of all time (iPad still being #1). Already other tablet makers like Sony (and soon Apple) have begun to consider slashing prices of their tablets by $100 (to $299ish) to compete. So hey, I'm all fine for getting a better tablet for a lot cheaper.

As it stands, however, hold off. I'm hoping that, like the massive jumps the eInk Kindle has made, the second generation of the Kindle Fires will be much better. For now, though, if you really want an eBook reader, get an eInk Kindle. If you have to have a tablet, try either an iPad or one of the many Android Tablets.

I really wanted to like the Kindle Fire. I got it for free, after all, and I love free stuff. I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth here, I'm just giving my honest opinion. I really, really wish I could find stuff to do with this thing. So far I mostly use it to read Order of the Stick, and watch GiantBomb play Chrono Trigger. I still use my iPhone for all my music and portable gaming/social networking needs, and I use my eInk reader to read all of my books. Amazon took a risk trying to put a product in a spot that nobody knew they wanted (sort of like how Apple did the same thing with the iPad), and their sales I guess prove they weren't wrong. It just really isn't a quality device, and I cannot recommend it while there are better options on the market.
Moral of the story: Buy this instead. 


6 comments:

James Decker said...

Alright, you've convinced me to hold off... for now. I think a tablet would be awesome for media, but then again I don't need one and we're in a recession.

Dan said...

Just curious, were you ever able to install a custom ROM (a Honeycomb variant, for example) onto your Fire? I wonder if it would make an acceptable tablet if you stripped off the Amazon skin. I've wanted one of these since they were first teased, but the few times I've played with them in person have left me unimpressed.

Nathan Major said...

@Dan

I haven't tried, mostly because to the best of my knowledge they only work moderately well (like, they'll run, but without WiFi or sound or something). Honestly, based on the "power" in these things, I don't think it would ever make a very good tablet.

And I'm all for tablets (be they iPads or Android, whatever). This just isn't a very good one, even for the price-conscious consumer.

Alex Carver said...

The competition in the tablet market is going to get fierce this year. Already on eBay you see huge sales for Android based tablets for 69 dollars to 150 dollars when their normal price is 200 to 400 dollars. iPad's are always going to be more expensive because of the product, but there is a big advantage to some of the cheaper Android tablets given the custom stuff you can do to them and how fast the Android Apps marketplace is catching up.

Alex Carver said...

One thing with "jailbreaking" or "hacking" the tablets/iPhones. Once you've done that there really isn't any safety measures that you can put on the phone. When I jailbreaked my iPhone 3g I remember that I could always bypass the restrictions and still use safari. This is a big problem for families or anyone that is questionable. There are some awful stuff being designed for the mobile community now and it's going to get really bad.

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