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Friday, November 18, 2011

Kindle Fire: Impressive, but flawed

The Kindle Fire weighs in at 7 inches and packs a dual 1GHz punch.

You gotta give Amazon credit.

Since the original iPad hit the market, every tech company from Palo Alto to Timbuktu entered the handheld tablet race, trying to pass Apple and create the "iPad killer." There were some noble efforts and there were some clunkers, some hot rods and some lemons and some winners and some losers. And even with the few winners, such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab and the Motorola Xoom, they still couldn't do the one thing that Amazon has done with the Kindle Fire: Make it cheap.

Enter the Kindle Fire. Since the day it was announced, it was hyped as the iPad killer. The $199 Android-style tablet, released on Nov. 15 just in time for Christmas, is the perfect tablet for those who feel a little uneasy shelling out 500 to 800 bucks for a tablet computer. And while Amazon got the price right — at a cost that must be losing them money — the rush to market leaves us with a product not quite ready for prime time.

Don't get me wrong, I'm impressed with the Kindle Fire. Considering what you get for $199, it's a great value. Compare this with the iPod Touch, which is also $199, and it's easy to see why it's such a bargain. However, I do believe there are some kinks to work out before I can truly say the Fire lives up to all the hype.

The Fire fits nicely in your pocket.
The first thing I noticed when unboxing my Kindle Fire was the size. I knew it was going to have a 7-inch screen, but you really don't get an idea of just how small this is until you hold it in your hand. After using Apple's iPad for several months, the Fire looks and feels tiny in comparison. 

Although it is small, the size does have its advantages. First of all, the 1024 X 600 resolution looks very sharp on the tiny screen. The pixels are tightly packed and this makes for some impressive-looking graphics and video. Another advantage of the small size is convenience. The first time I slid the Kindle Fire in my pocket, I was amazed. Try sticking the iPad in your pocket and you'll be in the market for some new pants. By being able to slide it in and out of your pocket very easily, it makes it very convenient to take on trips, to a restaurant or to a friend's house.

The Kindle Fire also has built-in stereo speakers, which sound surprisingly nice for their compactness. Other than that, the Fire has a headphone jack and a small power switch on the bottom. The back of the Kindle Fire is made of a durable rubber, which helps you grip the device and also keeps the back from getting scratched up like the iPad.

It's what is missing from the Kindle Fire that is most noticeable. There is no 3G option available, which means you must be in a WiFi hot spot to get Internet access. And trust me, you can't do anything without Web access. When I first fired up the device, I was without WiFi, and all I could do was scroll through a few icons and turn the device off and on. A message kept popping up telling me to find a hot spot so that I could register the Fire with Amazon.

Another missing feature is a volume control. The Fire does not have a rocker or slider on the unit to control the volume, which forces you to use a software-based volume slider in every application you use. That may sound petty, but it took some of my co-workers and me several minutes to find a way to turn the volume down while watching a Hulu video.

On paper, the Kindle Fire looks rather impressive with its dual-core 1 GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM, which is on par with the iPad 2 and other Android tablets currently on the market. However, the performance didn't seem to match the specs: The system seemed sluggish to me, and the new Amazon Silk Web browser crashed twice in the first hour that I used it — something that never happened in the six-plus months that I've used Safari on the iPad.

The Fire also comes with 8 GB of built-in flash storage, which is closer to 6 or 7 GB once you actually start using it. There also is no place to expand your storage. A micro-SD slot would have been nice; however, Amazon is betting on users taking advantage of its cloud storage for music and video playback. But again, this forces you to stay within WiFi range to take full advantage of the device. And with the absence of 3G, the Fire starts becoming less of a portable tablet since you're really limited in what you can do without Web access.

In addition to the sluggish performance of the tablet and the Web browser crashing a few times, my Kindle Fire also froze while I was trying to play a song and I had to do a cold boot of the device by holding down the power switch for a few seconds and restarting it.

The app store has a long way to catch
up with Apple's App store.
When you fire up the Fire, you're immediately introduced to a hybrid operating system, based on Android, that features several levels of shelves on which your apps or shortcuts sit. There's also a file menu floating at the top of the screen for quick access to Web, video, music, apps, docs and e-books. I'm not sure why, but Amazon left photos off the list of shortcuts on the home screen. And its absence is disappointing. 

Getting documents on your system is not an easy chore. When you first disconnect the device from your PC or Mac, a message appears on the screen informing you that it's now possible to copy files onto the Fire. An icon then appears on your desktop, which allows you to drag and drop files into the Fire. Well, you know what happens when you drop something "in the Fire"? It disappears … which is exactly what happened to documents I tried to copy. They just weren't there. 

Another way to get documents into the tablet is by a convenient email address that is created based on the first part of your Amazon username. For example, if your Amazon username is, your new email address becomes With this new address, you can send documents and get them into the Fire. However, the first time I tried this, a message was sent back telling me it failed. Amazon requires you to set up a list of acceptable email addresses before you can successfully send documents in this way.

The one thing that really impressed me about the Kindle Fire is how it seamlessly integrates your cloud storage. I was amazed when the first time I logged onto the Web and went to my music, all of the artists and songs that I had copied over to Amazon's cloud storage months earlier magically appeared on my Kindle. Amazon provides 5GB of free cloud storage, and I had taken advantage of every bit of it months earlier. If you take advantage of the Amazon Cloud, your Kindle will automatically link up with all of your uploaded media files. You can also increase the amount of storage by paying an annual fee.
In addition to music and video, you can choose from a wide selection of newspapers and magazines.

Overall impressions
In a nutshell, the Kindle Fire is an impressive piece of machinery that has some kinks to work out. The specs don't quite match that of the iPad 2, but that is to be expected considering the price is $300 cheaper. And for what you do get for $199, it's very impressive. However, it's hard to stay impressed when your apps crash several times and run sluggishly overall. Still, these bugs can be — and I'm sure will be — worked out eventually. 

Amazon is a highly reputable corporation and one of my favorite companies to do business with. I'm sure some of the Kindle Fire's kinks will be worked out eventually; but in the meantime, we'll survive. And overall, I would have to say that I highly recommend the Kindle Fire to anyone looking to jump into the tablet market or looking to buy a gift for their youngster, but don't want to fork out the $500 for an iPad or Galaxy Tab. And if you take advantage of Amazon's Cloud service and have constant access to WiFi hot spots, then I'm sure the Fire will put a smile on your face as wide as the Amazon itself.