Monday, November 28, 2011

Carrying the Fire

I wanted to post my initial impressions of my new Amazon Kindle Fire. This isn't meant to be full review, but I did want to capture these while they were fresh and while people were thinking about Christmas gifts.
I've had my Kindle Keyboard with 3G for a little over a year now and I still love it. I have read a lot on it and take it with my often. I also play games (especially Every Word) on it and occasionally browse the web on it - courtesy of the free 3G connectivity. Most of all, I love the fact that I can just charge it about once a month. I mention all of this because these things actually make for a tough act to follow for it's new brother - the Kindle Fire. Maybe it is more of a half-brother, because other than the name they don't really have any relationship at all.
The Fire is a true tablet computer. It has a gorgeous IPS screen - the same type of screen as the iPad in fact. And it can do a lot more than the Kindle reader devices. You can read and edit Microsoft Office documents, you can play Angry Birds or a gazillion other games, you can browse the web in all its glory. And you can consume all sorts of media on it - especially if that media comes from Amazon. It does Facebook, you kids can do your Twittering on it, it does Pintrest, it has a servicable email app (and you can get others from the app market - including those that support Exchange sync, which is lacking in the included mail program).

When I first heard Jeff Bezos announce the Fire, I wasted no time placing my preorder that very morning. It wasn't perfect (more on that in a moment) but it looked like a solid device and seemed to be well integrated into the Amazon family of services. I waited for the release on November 15, scouring the interwebs a couple times a week looking for any scrap of information I could find.
Finally the glorious day arrived and my Kindle Fire arrived at my house - while I was on a cruise to Mexico. :-(One of my older kids was home from college soon after it arrived and I gave her the go ahead to unbox it and play around with it. When I got home I wasted no time in playing with it.
The very next day we headed out for a roadtrip to share
Thanksgiving with family out of state - and the Fire came along.

While it certainly won't win any beauty contests, I am impressed with the device itself. It is solidly constructed and not in the least "plasticy" or cheap feeling. The size and weight feels pretty good in the hand. The battery seems to deliver on the 6-8 hour lifetime Amazon claimed. For the most part, the device is very responsive to touch input, though not as silky smooth as the iPad. The soft keyboard is good and very usable. The automatic screen rotation is a bit too sensitive at times - particularly when the device is held more flat; certainly not unique to the Fire, but a little annoying. I found the speakers and volume really lacking - especially given the media-centric nature of the device. The memory - totaling only about 6GB of available space - has been completely usable so far and I've installed what feels like a lot of stuff without a problem. Obviously, more would be better if you intended to store pictures, music and video on-board. You wouldn't find a 6GB MP3 player very useful. Amazon seems to be relying on their "cloud" for unlimited storage of music, books, and videos you buy from Amazon. All well and good, but it won't help you on an airplane flight.

The biggest failings of the hardware are clearly the lack of even a low res camera and an SD card slot. To be clear, I'm not even looking to use the SD card to boost media storage, but I would like to be able to look at pictures from my camera on a bigger screen and use some kind of cool app to organize them. Another annoyance, though of less importance to me, is the exclusion of a microphone. No microphone and no camera mean no Skype or other web calling and conferencing. Not to mention no snazzy bar code price checking apps, and no Shazam to tell me what song is playing.
On the software side, almost the biggest complaints are the poor performance of the
much touted web browser (my phone is faster over 3G than this browser is over wifi) and the inconsistent availability of common gestures such as zooming in and out.
I know pretty well what this hardware is capable of, and I'm puzzled why Amazon is not using that potential to deliver better performance.

My absolute biggest software complaint, though, is that there is no notion of "users" or "profiles". So when I play Angry Birds, I see that my kid has already unlocked a gazillion levels and I have to remember where I left off. My browser faves are everyone's browser faves. My saved passwords are everyone's saved passwords. I get that this is not my PC, but my Xbox isn't a PC either and it has profiles. I just think this is super lame. (I would say "uber lame", but apparently that is uber lame now.) 

I've seen a lot of haters talking smack about the unique Fire user interface. I actually applaud what Amazon has done here. It is visually interesting and quite functional. I guess I'd call the home screen a "carousel-shelf" sort of effect. The upper part of the screen looks like a bookshelf that permits flicking quickly through your most recently used apps, books, and other media items. In the Fire world, a movie is an app, so is a book, so is a game. I think this matches closely to how people actually think of things. You don't think "I'm going to open the eBook reader and read 'Animal Farm'," you just tap the icon for the book.
Let's face it - the normal Android UI sucks. Kudos to Amazon for bringing their own innovations here. We'll see what people think about it.
Similarly, a lot of internet chatbots have complained that the device is based on Android 2.3 rather than a newer version. Here's the simple fact...none of the target customers of this device care what the OS is. It could be MSDOS 2.3 for all it matters. From most people's perspective, "Amazon" is the operating system.
There are lots of apps in the Fire app store and I had no problems installing and using them. Amazon's "free app of the day" program is very cool. In addition to a few games, I also picked up that aforementioned Documents To Go app, which normally retails for $14.95 and is really quite an impressive MS Office stand-in. The free Netflix app on the Fire is probably the best mobile Netflix experience on any device right now (yup, better than the iPad - but I'm sure they will bring that version up to par soon enough
When I wrote the original draft of this post, I had planned to end it with this ignoble conclusion:
So what am I planning to do next with my Fire? Well, unfortunately, the answer is "return it". The reason is really not related to the device itself. Most of its quirks could be fixed by a software update. The biggest proble is that I have just found nothing that I do on the Fire that I couldn't do as well or better on my ASUS netbook (link). In fact, when I'm traveling, I can connect my netbook to the internet by tethering to my phone. I can't do that on my Fire. Connectivity is the feature I want in a device.
Tablets in general just don't do much.
I was discussing this conclusion with an iPad devoted sister-in-law and she pointed out that her iPad was great for checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos, playing games and checking her email. I agree. But I already have a thing that does all those things in my netbook and does them faster and with fewer limits. She also pointed out that while the iPad keyboard isn't the greatest for writing a lot of text, she has a friend who bought a keyboard case for his iPad - creating in the process the world's most expensive and least capable netbook. :-)
Amazon has an interesting offering in the tablet scene - but it turns out that scene is just too lame.
But an interesting thing happened on the Fire's way back to its box to be sent back...  my wife loves it and has put the kibosh on sending it back. This makes a certain kind of sense. She is also out of the house a lot, but when she is out she is either actually doing something or is with someone. When she's with someone, she is much more curteous about not having her mind elsewhere (or her face in a screen) then, well, me, for example. When she's home, she is well covered by WiFi.
The Fire is an interesting device. It is easily, easily, the best tablet you can buy right now for $199. I say that not just because of the device itself but the whole app and content ecosystem and package of services that stand behind it. I've very interested to see the forthcoming 8.9 and 10 inch successors next year. It has been widely spoken of that this first iteration of the Fire was a stopgap that Amazon chose because the ones they really wanted to sell couldn't be built in quantity in time for Christmas this year. To meet that timeline, they went with an existing design - the Blackberry Playbook. I look forward to the next one.