The Kindle Fire is stuck between e-ink minimalism and gleaming iPad decadence. That could either make it the goofy middle child in the tablet family, or a singular wunderkind. But the Fire will not be overlooked. Apple: Be afraid.
Why it matters
Amazon isn't just a bookstore. Nor is it a music store, shoe store, video streaming service, or newsstand. Amazon has wrapped all of these things together into a rich, easy way to suck down almost every conceivable form of media with one key: Prime. But Prime has been stuck behind the tangled butterface of Amazon.com—the site is a mess, a cage. This Kindle is meant to change all that, to not only be a Better Kindle, but a direct conduit to all of Prime's awesomeness: the missing piece.
And what a piece it is, right? It's hard to believe it sprung from the same hatchery as the Kindles of yore, with its dual-core processor, 512 MB of RAM, and a gorgeous 7-inch, 16-million color display beaming a custom Amazonian Android build, made specifically for Kindle's essence.
If the Fire succeeds, everything changes for Amazon. And for Apple as well.
The Fire doesn't feel like any other Android tablet—and that's a very, very good thing. From the minute you turn it on, the device is puzzlingly simple. Where's the home screen?, someone might ask you. All you see is a shelf, stacked with whatever you've looked at recently: novels, magazines, apps, TV episodes—everything. The emphasis is squarely on picking out stuff to stimulate your eyeballs (and ears) with—all else is secondary. This makes for a UI that's not only simple, but intuitive. You don't have to think about how to use the Fire, because unlike Apple's dodgy attempts at interface metaphors, Amazon's works perfectly: here's my shelf of things. Which thing will I choose?
Of course, there's more than the shelf. A search bar at up top does the obvious across everything you own, and small organizational tabs inconspicuously span the upper boundary of the screen: newspapers and magazines, books, music, video, docs, apps, and a web browser. Need more to consume? The Store is always at most two clicks away. Tap Books. Tap Store. Here's the entirety of Amazon's catalog, neatly organized, easily downloaded.
Amazon's controversially branched-off app store is all part of the package, of course, offering a somewhat slimmed down menu from the general software smorgasbord of the Android Market. All of the requisites are or will be there presently: Facebook, simple-ish games, Twitter, Netflix, and, of course, tablet-formatted mags. Here lies Fire's claim to being a real life Android tablet computer, just like all its inbred kin—and the capability that comes with app diversity is there, mostly. But Amazon has absolutely made app usage secondary to media consumption, and the Fire wears this on its UI's sleeve. Instead of Apple's HERE ARE THE APPS, ALL OF THE APPS! approach with iOS, the Fire's are relegated to a small button and separate screen, of equal weight as "Docs" and "Music." They're just not meant to be as significant as your novels and newspapers. And that's fine—it's a variance of principles, of what each machine is meant to do for your life. But apps on the shelf don't quite fit. The metaphor's sloppy—the shelf is absolutely perfect for picking up where you left off with your long haul content, but app ephemera looks out of place on the home screen. Amazon needs to sweep them elsewhere.
Reading, watching, browsing, and listening on the Fire are all tremendous, easy fun. Books, even very long ones, spring open quickly; page turning is, most of the time, very responsive. Typeface settings allow a variety of visual tweaks to set each page the way you like it, and whether in landscape or portrait mode, books look great on the dense, 1024x600 screen. It's neither Retina Display nor e-ink, no. But for a conventional LCD, it looks about as great as you can expect—after hours of reading on a dark train, my eyes felt fine. Graphics-rich magazines look lush, even when their pages don't quite fill the screen. If you don't care so much about glossy layout, the Fire bakes in a stripped-down text mode, a la Instapaper. Clever and convenient.
But it's not just about reading, you big nerd. This is a media machine, not a mere e-reader. You'll be able to switch between your novel, an episode of Archer, or the latest issue of the Washington Post with only a few taps. And that's where the rich lather of Prime really starts to work. Your membership yields you unlimited streaming flicks and TV episodes, making casual watching as fun as television couch surfing. Watch the beginning of Bridesmaids. Get bored. Watch that scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that you love so much. Want to spend a few bucks to buy a movie or episode? It'll be stored in Amazon's cloud, so you can watch it anywhere you've got a wireless connection, and never have to sweat storage. Or, download it straight to the Fire before you hit the road. Up to you.
Oh, and that much bandied browser, Silk? It works just as well as Amazon said—pages rendered fine and rapidly, thanks to the cloud-crunching, and can be bookmarked, emailed (via Amazon's capable little native client), Facebook shared—and yes, tabbed. Silk is as real a browser as mobile Safari, and ultra legible thanks to that book-worthy display. Pinch it! Zoom it! It's great. The best part is it'll only become faster as more beings start caching their online journeys for the rest of us. Thanks, fellow Kindle Fire owners! We're in it together!
It sounds horribly corny, but you'll feel a little powerful using the Fire, in a consumer couch potato kind of way The volume of stuff that's available for your brain to munch on is so immense and easy to grab that the Fire feels massive beyond its small-ish frame—which, by the way, is sturdy and satisfying to hold, like a good paperback.
A paperback filled with internet magic and delectable liquid crystal. The Kindle Fire is a spigot, and Prime tastes delicious.
I said the Fire is very responsive, most of the time. Most of the time, yes. But when it's not, it's awful. There's absolutely no excuse for a machine with these guts to be unable to turn pages with zero lag. It has two cores, for Chrissake. What are they being used for? Lag is, other than using your tablet to bludgeon someone to death, the worst possible sin of portable computing. Unfortunately, the Fire is probably cursed with the same blood as every other Android device that can't manage to run a mile without tripping over its laces. Luckily for Amazon, its tablet is among the peppier around—but it's pretty pathetic that it can't match the iPad at this point. Paper doesn't lag. Your Kindle shouldn't either. A pity.
Figure. This. Out. And fix it.
Aside from the occasional chop, your main beef will likely be with the Fire's sole—but quite glaring—interface hole. There's no dedicated home button. To return to your content shelf HQ, you have to tap squarely in the middle of the screen, which brings up a soft home button. This would be fine, except most of the time you'll turn a page by mistake, rather than trigger the navigation bar. It's dunce cap design, made all the more glaring by the great design surrounding it.
Should you buy it
If you like what Amazon Prime has going on in the kitchen, the Fire is a terrific seat. It's not as powerful or capable as an iPad, but it's also a sliver of the price—and that $200 will let you jack into the Prime catalog (and the rest of your media collection) easily and comfortably. Simply, the Fire is a wonderful IRL compliment to Amazon's digital abundance. It's a terrific, compact little friend, and—is this even saying anything?—the best Android tablet to date.
Amazon Kindle Fire
Screen: 7-inch IPS, 1024x600
Processor: 1 GHz dual-core
Storage: 8 GB internal, 5 GB of free Amazon cloud storage (expandable)
RAM: 512 MB
Weight: 14.6 Ounces
Dimensions: 7.5" x 4.7" x 0.45"
Battery: 8 hours reading/7.5 video (advertised)