Welcome to the world’s most expensive disposable razor. Amazon’s business model for its first all-streaming, all-dancing colour Kindle device is just like your triple-bladed shaver: sell the hardware at a loss, lock in your customer base and get rich on the consumables. Here, of course, the consumables are not aloe vera moisturising blades but a universe of digital content: millions of ebooks, videos and songs to download, plus one-click links to Amazon’s sprawling retail empire.
The Kindle Fire itself looks about as exciting as a blister pack of Gillettes. Its boxy black build is so anonymous that even experts have had trouble picking it out of a tablet line-up. It’s similar in style to BlackBerry’s PlayBook, although the Kindle Fire is actually a shade thicker, with a deeper surround. The Kindle Fire is surprisingly thick and heavy for its size, weighing just a third less than the iPad and with a crucial couple of extra millimetres on its 11.4mm waistline. It’s fine for one-handed use but anyone used to the featherweight Kindle 4 will really feel the difference. The flip side of all that bulk is a reassuring solidity, without a hint of flex or creak. The corners are nicely rounded and the soft touch back has a subtle embossed Kindle logo that adds a welcome hint of class.
Much has been made of Kindle’s single physical control – a small power button on the bottom end. While it’s easy to bump accidentally, a solution is simple. Just spin the Fire through 180 degrees and it’s safely out of the
way on the top – a manoeuvre that also aims the tinny stereo speakers at you. As ever, you’ll need to buy a pair of decent headphones to get the most from music and movies.
The lack of physical volume controls is annoying at first, but hitting the Settings icon in the top toolbar drops down an excellent menu with one-touch controls for volume, playback, brightness, screen rotation and Wi-Fi.
Amazon has taken other liberties with the Android 3.2 software too. Gone are multiple home screens cluttered with widgets, feeds and icons. Instead, a single home screen features a scrolling Cover Flow-style carousel of recently used items plus permanent tabbed links to magazines, books, videos, music, documents, apps and the web.
There’s also room for a handful of favourite icons locked to the bottom of the screen, but none have notifications or any live content. If you want to check Facebook, you’ll have to click through to the ‘app’ which is simply a shortcut to the site through the browser. The experience of flipping between web screen-grabs, email or app icons and book, song or video covers on the carousel is slightly jarring, but it does succeed in putting your most used items right at your fingertips. A recent over-the-air update also made the scrolling action much smoother. The bookshelf theme for displaying content in the tabs is also nicely done, with tabs to show either items on the Kindle Fire itself or those in the cloud and all of your Amazon-bought content is stored online for free. The one hangover from traditional Android is the lower menu bar, where you’ll find back, home and menu buttons, as well as app-specific options like bookmarks in the browser or a menu in email.
If there’s one standout reason to buy the Kindle Fire in the US, it’s the video app. Offering thousands of older TV shows and films to stream for free for Amazon Prime members, and thousands more at competitive prices, Amazon Instant Video is everything that iTunes isn’t – we can only hope the UK service is the same. For a start, paid content can be streamed or downloaded direct to the Kindle Fire, letting you start watching in seconds. Rentals are often for 48 hours rather than Apple’s 24 hours too which makes planning your viewing easier. The Kindle Fire’s widescreen format screen means that the long edge is actually only 1.5 inches shorter than the iPad’s boxy display, and has exactly the same number of pixels. That means that films and landscape web pages look impressively similar on the two devices.
Flip into portrait mode, though, and it’s a different story. With just 600 pixels and an anorexic 3.5-inch width, the Kindle Fire’s screen makes web pages feel cramped. It also does no favours to eBook reading. Magazines in the Newsstand app look distant and zoomed out, while eBooks end up with about as much reading area as the slim new £89 E-Ink Kindle. Strangely, the Books app lacks the latest X-Ray feature found on the standalone Kindle Touch, which gathers references and provides links to characters and themes. And whether or not you like reading long passages on a bright LCD screen instead of the comfy greyscale platter of the original, the Kindle Fire certainly lags its E-Ink siblings in battery life, portability and affordability. Like movies, music options are impressive with one-touch access to the a Cloud Drive offering free storage of up to 5000 songs and unlimited music storage for $20 per year – in the US that is, we’re still awaiting details of the service for UK users.
The new cloud-accelerated Silk browser was meant to deliver pages faster by leveraging Amazon’s massive fleet of online servers but where those apps deliver real speed savings, Silk proves a rougher ride. In our tests, Silk was much slower than both the iPad’s Safari browser and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, with a pinch-to-zoom action that was far less smooth but it can handle interactive Flash pages, including video and games.
On the plus side, the Kindle Fire comes with a few apps pre-loaded and is great for email. Email lacks design flourishes but is surprisingly powerful, with a unified inbox and some of the best HTML mail rendering seen on any tablet including the iPad. Audible lets you listen to audiobooks, Pulse gives a classy gloss to news reading and there’s the addictive Fruit Ninja game. Amazon’s Appstore is easy to navigate and does a fine job of cherry-picking apps from the Android Market. If its limited selection does prove restrictive for you, you can easily change settings to allow the Kindle Fire to install any Android 2.3 app out there.
The main drawback for UK buyers of the Kindle Fire is Amazon’s tardiness in rolling out key services overseas. At the time of writing, UK users do not have access to Amazon Instant Video for films and TV, Amazon Cloud Drive for music, or even the Amazon Appstore for Android apps. Amazon has already shown its willingness to launch ham-strung versions of other Kindle devices. The current UK Kindle, for instance, lacks the cut-price Special Offers, the Prime Lending Library and the interactive Active Content mini-apps found on US Kindles. Without the streaming media and curated app store, the Kindle Fire is really just another Android tablet with heavy Amazon branding and an average eBbook app. If Amazon is serious about giving Apple a run for its money, an international launch for the Kindle Fire and its impressive cloud services can’t come a moment too soon.
The Kindle Fire isn’t really a Kindle (choose an E-Ink model for reading) and is a unique iPad alternative – for a one-stop media powerhouse, the Kindle Fire is fun to use and is full of potential that needs to be realised.