Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fired Up About the Kindle Fire

A couple of months ago, I wondered whether I had any use for a Kindle Fire, and concluded that while it was an intriguing device, I probably didn't need another tablet in my life. Well, it turns out I was wrong. A few days ago, Santa came early with an Amazon "smiley box" containing a brand new Fire. Within ten minutes of ripping open the box, I was hooked.

I've owned an original iPad for over a year now, and use it mainly for watching movies on planes, reading eBooks on the Kindle app, playing Angry Birds when I need to take out my frustration on defenseless cartoon piglets, watching streaming media on Netflix, Hulu and SlingPlayer while on the road, and taking notes in meetings. The iPad hasn't quite replaced the need for a laptop yet, but I've certainly made good use of it. So it never occurred to me that there was room in my gadget-filled life for another tablet. That was, until I opened the smiley box.

Like the iPad, the Fire "just works" out of the box. No instructions are needed, there are no complicated setup procedures; you just turn it on and go. If you don't know what the Kindle Fire is for, the simple home screen menu says it all (Music, Video, Apps, Books, Newsstand, Docs, Web). No ambiguity there. Simply go through a simple Wi-Fi configuration screen, enter your Amazon ID to register the device, and you immediately have a wealth of media at your fingertips.

Make no mistake, media consumption is what the Kindle Fire is all about; specifically, consumption of media from the Amazon ecosystem. The first thing that impressed me was that every streaming movie I have ever purchased from Amazon (usually through my TiVo box) was immediately available in my Video library. I'd forgotten that on a cold, rainy day about five years ago, I'd paid ten bucks to stream Love Actually from Amazon (don't say a word!), but there it was, sitting right in the library.

Needless to say, every eBook I'd ever purchased on my iPad Kindle app was also there. And I quickly discovered that by connecting the Kindle Fire to the USB port on my laptop, I could transfer MP4 movies to the device for subsequent viewing. Yes, I know the iPad also allows you to do that, but the Fire doesn't require a clumsy, heavyweight app like iTunes to synchronize files; it operates just like a flash drive, so transferring media is simply a matter of copy and paste. Gotta love that!

The OS is based on a custom implementation of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. While it is heavily "Amazonized", there is no hiding the fact that an Android kernel lurks under the hood, and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way. No matter how much you try to put lipstick on that Angry Birds character, Android lacks the polish, elegance and responsiveness of iOS. Functionally, it works great, but if you have been spoiled by iOS, the jerky scrolling and occasionally erratic keyboard can get a little tiresome.

Perhaps the weakest feature of the Fire is the Silk web browser, which I found to be painfully slow, especially when loading Javascript-intensive webpages. Granted, the iOS implementation of Safari is no speed demon, but compared to Silk, it is like putting a Formula 1 car up against a 1987 Chevy Nova. I'm not sure whether this is due to the Silk application itself or the Fire's low-end hardware spec, but considering that the Fire packs a not-too-shabby dual-core OMAP 4 1GhZ processor, I suspect it has more to do with the former.

I found it strange that the home screen menu does not contain a link for email; instead, the email client is buried under Apps. The email client offers a basic set of functionality but does what it is designed to do and worked fine with my work and personal GMail accounts, aggregating all of my mail into a "Unified Inbox". In many ways, I prefer it to the iOS mail client.

Speaking of apps, the Amazon App Store offers a surprisingly large and growing range of them. Within minutes of opening the device, I had installed Netflix, Pandora, Facebook and Hulu Plus. There wasn't a Kindle version of SlingPlayer yet, but I was able to obtain the generic SlingPlayer app for Android and then install the package using the ES File Explorer app. Simple. And yes, Angry Birds is available too.

So what of the device itself? Given that my tablet experience so far has been limited to the 9.7" iPad, I found the 7" form factor of the Kindle Fire refreshing. There is something nice about being able to comfortably hold a tablet in one hand, particularly when reading an eBook or magazine. Strangely, the smaller form factor isn't as constraining as I expected it to be; writing emails using the onscreen keyboard is no more cumbersome on the Fire than on the iPad. If anything, it is slightly easier, since the 7" form factor allows you to thumb-type in much the same way as one would on a smartphone.

The most pleasant surprise was the display, which I expected to be slightly below par given the Fire's price point. Colors are rich and vivid, contrast is outstanding, and videos are razor sharp. Some may disagree, but the Fire's display is more than a match for the iPad. And the embedded speakers are, if anything, superior to those on the iPad with a slightly broader volume range and less tinniness.

That is not to say the Kindle Fire is perfect, by any means. The omission of volume buttons is extremely puzzling, given that the device was clearly designed for media consumption. To compound matters, the onscreen volume slider is always in a different place depending on the app you are using. As for capacity, the miniscule 8Gb storage doesn't offer much room to store music or videos. Yes, I know that Amazon's cloud infrastructure theoretically reduces the need to "store" media, which is fine if you always have a Wi-Fi connection. But for a road warrior like me, Wi-Fi isn't always an option. Not all planes are Wi-Fi enabled, and have you ever tried streaming media using a hotel Wi-Fi connection? Still, the lack of storage isn't a dealbreaker, given how easy it is to transfer files back and forth over USB.

If the Kindle Fire were priced similarly to the iPad, any of these shortcomings would be enormous. But it isn't, not by a long shot, and that is the point. Given the Kindle Fire's $199 price tag, what might be fatal shortcomings for an iPad or similarly priced tablet are trivial gripes in this case.

But the real test for me is how frequently will I use the Fire compared to the iPad. Well, after two weeks with the Fire, I've learned that it depends on the use case. If you read a lot of eBooks and eMagazines, then the Kindle Fire is a superior option given its weight and form factor. For movies, there isn't much to choose between the two; the Fire is great if you don't mind a slightly smaller screen, and it compensates for this with superior sound quality. Given those two factors alone, I have found myself more inclined to use the Fire when on a plane, grabbing a latte at Starbucks, or just catching up on some late night reading.

But the Fire isn't a productivity device like the iPad. I could not imagine myself using it to take meeting notes, fire up a quick spreadsheet, edit a slide deck or even act as an RDP thin client to access my remote servers. Then again, Amazon didn't design the Kindle Fire to be a productivity device. They clearly built it to provide a portal into the Amazon media ecosystem. The device ships with a free 30-day subscription to Amazon Prime, which in addition to free two-day shipping, provides access to a range of free streaming movies and TV shows. While this library isn't as extensive as that of Netflix, it seems to be growing rapidly and you also have the option of renting or purchasing more recent movies directly from the device.

So just when I thought I had all the gadgets and devices in my life that I could handle, the Kindle Fire has found a niche that I didn't even know existed. I may not have needed one, but iPad or not, I will certainly make good use of it. Even had it not been a Christmas present, the $199 price tag is a bargain. For consumers who want a tablet but cannot justify the $499 entry point for an iPad, the Kindle Fire offers a compelling alternative. It may be less than half the price of an entry-level iPad 2, but certainly offers more than half the functionality and features.