Amazon Kindle Fire review: first look
When Amazon launched the Kindle Fire last year, it made the rather irritating decision not to bring it to the UK at the same time. The rotters didn’t even let us have the Kindle Touch, leaving us with the (admittedly excellent) fourth generation Kindle. If the rumours are to be believed, however, changes are afoot, and with the UK braced to receive Amazon’s latest baby, we’ve managed to get our hands on an import to see what’s what.
Probably the most important thing about the Fire isn’t the hardware, the software or content offering, but the price. With no official confirmation of the launch, we can’t say for sure how much it will be, but in the US it’s $199, and given Amazon’s track record on its E Ink Kindles, we can’t see it costing much more than £200. In fact, it could be less. That’s significant. Where most other manufacturers are using the iPad as a yardstick when it comes to pricing, with 10in tablets costing around £350 to £400, and smaller tablets at around £300 to £350, Amazon is setting out all on its own, with a price more akin to no-brand Chinese knockoffs. The big question is, would you buy one?
The first thing to get straight is that this isn’t a tablet in the traditional sense. Yes, it runs Android (version 2.3), but the user interface is heavily customised. There are none of the ugly smartphone-esque graphics normally associated with cheap tablets – it actually looks attractive – and it works in an entirely different way.
Gone is the usual widget- and icon-littered Android desktop, to be replaced with a bookshelf-themed front-end. Along the top of the screen runs a bar with links to different content categories: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps and Web. Below it is a horizontally scrolling carousel of recent items, and this covers not only books and other content, but also apps and web pages. At the very bottom on the screen – on the bottom shelves – is a list of customisable favourites, to which any number of items can be added.
It’s a design that makes sense, and the reason it works so well is that it’s driven by Amazon’s content offering. You’ll doubtless be familiar with the company’s ebook and periodical library, but the Fire also provides the opportunity to rent or buy movies and TV shows, and purchase music, with users also able to borrow books using the Kindle library lending service. And with the Fire, that content doesn’t even have to be downloaded and stored locally. As with books on the Kindle, Amazon keeps copies of all purchased content in the cloud, and files can be streamed or downloaded as needed. Files can even be removed and downloaded again later.
We weren’t able to test the whole process of downloading videos and music, unfortunately, as the service isn’t yet live in the UK, but we were able to stream track previews and movie trailers smoothly, and the Kindle eBooks service worked beautifully.
Clearly Amazon has put a lot of thought into the integration of content, but to hit such a low price it’s abundantly clear that cutbacks have been made. The first casualty is the design. The Fire is a real slab of a tablet, measuring 11.5mm thick and weighing 404g – that may seem fine, but this is a 7in tablet designed for reading books on, and held in one hand it feels unwieldy compared to the best small Android tablets.
There’s also very little in the way of design nicety. There isn’t much a manufacturer can do with the glass touchscreen of a tablet, admittedly, but the rear and edges give it a chance to shine. Amazon has turned down that opportunity. The rear of the Fire is plain black, slightly rubbery plastic, with the word “kindle” etched in counter-relief, while the edges are straight up and down – not a contour nor a chamfered edge in sight.
If the looks are disappointing, the specifications are doubly so. The dual-core Texas Instruments CPU looks fine on paper, but with only 512MB of RAM to back it up, the tablet frequently feels a little ragged and jittery. The user interface isn’t affected too badly, but scrolling up and down, zooming and panning around some web pages (the BBC or YouTube homepages, for instance) is hardly smooth. Here, Amazon’s lauded Silk browser, which loads some page elements server side and attempts to predict what you’ll click on next in a bid to speed up, cannot help. The slight performance lag also affects ebooks, pages of which seem to catch slightly as they’re swiped aside.
Other disappointments include a lack of Bluetooth, no front or rear camera, single-band wireless, no GPS, and limited storage space of 8GB, with no microSD for expansion. There’s no 3G version either, which seems odd, and the resolution of the screen – 1,024 x 600 – lends a slightly grainy look to affairs.
Other aspects of performance are more impressive. The screen is a bright IPS model – we measured it at a maximum 414cd/m2, with a contrast ratio of 796:1 – so movies do look punchy and colourful, notwithstanding the low resolution. With the brightness turned down, reading text is easy on the eye too, and with more options for tweaking text than the standard Kindle, the Fire makes a decent ebook reader.
Finally, in our looped video battery test we found the Fire lasted a total of 8hrs 43mins, which is pretty good compared to other Android touchscreen devices of a similar size and with similar specifications. It’s clearly nowhere near the E Ink-based Kindle that can last weeks on a single charge, though.
That Kindle Fire, then, is tricky to assess in light of established genres. In the context of other Android-based tablets it looks light in several areas; things we’d normally come down heavily on a normal tablet for. Although the screen is bright, and battery life acceptable, other tablets offer far more power and features, better responsiveness and more attractive design. On the other hand, it won’t satisfy fans of the E Ink Kindles, with their huge battery life and paper-like displays.
Consider it on its own merits, however, and the Fire begins to make more sense. Its inextricable links with Amazon’s services, and its focus on content, in fact, make it more of an iPad-lite than a budget Android knockoff. The cloud-based approach is ingenious, too, and adds an extra dimension.
The key thing, as mentioned at the very beginning of this preview, is the price. If Amazon does bring this tablet to the UK, and it’s around the same cost as it is in the US, it will almost certainly have a winner on its hands. It’s clearly far from perfect, but the low price, coupled with the Kindle name and Amazon’s content services, should be enough to ensure it’s a force to be reckoned with in 2012.