The Amazon Kindle Fire can't be judged on its hardware alone, and that works out in its favor, because the hardware is far from great and left me underwhelmed.
However, all the things you can do with the Fire, the cloud-based services that Amazon provides and the massive offering of e-books, music, movies, TV shows and apps that the Seattle online retail giant offers in its first tablet is currently matched only by Apple's iPad, iTunes and App Store.
So the combination of lackluster hardware with top-notch content and cloud services puts the Fire in the peculiar spot of changing the definition of what a low-price tablet can be, while still leaving me unfulfilled and waiting for the Kindle Fire 2.
If the Fire turns out to be the blockbuster seller that many are predicting it will be, that won't because of its design or hardware features.
No, if the Fire is a hit, it will be because it sells for $199, wears the trusted Amazon Kindle brand and serves as a direct and easy-to-use pipeline into Amazon's online storefronts of digital content.
Hardware and display
The first thing you may notice on the Fire is its glossy 7-inch screen. If you buy a Fire -- or any touchscreen device -- the screen is what you'll be interacting with the most. The Fire's display is nice but doesn't wow me in any way.
Colors are bright, text and textures are clear, and the 1024 x 600 pixel resolution provides a comfortable amount of screen real estate, though overall I still prefer larger-screen tablets. The smaller screen size is ideal for reading books. TV shows and movies looked good too, but -- as expected with the resolution -- video is far from HD quality.
Picking up the Fire, your hands meet a wonderful grippy rubberized plastic back which feels good to hold on to.
You then, as I did, may notice there isn't a whole lot going on style-wise here besides the screen and the matte back.
The design of the Fire is one of the most lackluster looks I've seen on a tablet.
Tablets as a whole are criticized for looking to similar to one another, with their glass touch screens of varying sizes, but the Fire is as plain as you can get. It's just a small black rectangle.
The only button to be found is the frustratingly placed power/sleep button on the bottom and center of the device (if you're holding it in a portrait orientation) near a headphone jack and micro USB port for charging the device. I found myself often hitting it by mistake when reading or navigating the device, causing me to turn the screen off when that's the last thing I wanted to do.
There are dual speakers on the Fire, located at the other end of the tablet from the power button, and they're not very loud. If you buy a Fire, buy a nice set of headphones too. There's no physical volume rocker on the Fire, so if you're watching a movie or listening to music, you have to shuffle through onscreen menus to turn the sound down.
The Fire comes packed with a wall charger that is too big to fit into most small carrying cases or smaller purses. If you've got a backpack or a messenger bag, the charger is no problem, but its feels off-the-shelf and not at all designed for the Fire, as it doesn't match the portability that the 7-inch tablet has. There is no micro USB cable included for connecting the Fire to a computer to side-load your non-Amazon purchased media, which seems like an obvious omission.
There are also no cameras, no Bluetooth, no port to connect the Fire to a TV and unfortunately no expansion slot for added storage memory.
Built-in storage and the cloud
With just 8 gigabytes storage built in, and only 6 gigabytes of that storage being made available for content, you shouldn't plan on loading the Fire with a large collection of music or movies for a long plane ride or road trip.
Honestly, 8 gigabytes of storage would seem like a joke if it weren't for the fact that Amazon offers Fire owners unlimited free cloud storage for all of their books, movies, music and apps purchased from its stores.
In my testing, streaming music, movies and TV shows from the cloud was easy and almost always fast (as long as I had a strong Wi-Fi signal), and downloading apps and e-books was fast too.
Amazon's online storefronts and cloud services are awesome. Together, they are the best features found on the Fire.
Buying on the Fire
It was in consuming content that the Fire showed its strength and, I believe, its true purpose.
Amazon is a retail company first and foremost. It isn't Google, it isn't Apple, it isn't Microsoft. Amazon is Amazon.com -- an online storefront.
And the Kindle Fire is a means to an end: It's a gateway to get Fire owners to buy more digital content from Amazon.
A one-month trial of Amazon's Prime subscriber service, which offers free two-day shipping from Amazon.com and thousands of movies and TV shows available for streaming at no added cost, is offered with the Fire, giving consumers a perk that other tablets can't quite match.
The Fire isn't great for creating content and it won't find its place as a business-minded machine the way the iPad has.
But this focus on consuming content isn't bad. It mirrors Amazon's winning approach with the Kindle and its eBookstore, and Apple's hugely successful tactic with the iPad and iTunes and later the iPhone, iPad and App Store.
The combination of the Fire's hardware and Amazon's content works because as soon as the device is turned on it is clear what you can do with it.
Yet, with so little storage on the Fire and so much in the cloud, the Fire is essentially dependent on a Wi-Fi Internet connection, which limits its usefulness. There are no 3G or 4G options available.
Operating system and software
The Fire's operating system, which is intuitive and very easy to use, is focused directly on consuming content from Amazon.
The Fire ships synced to your Amazon.com account, so you don't need to reenter any payment information to buy anything on the device. Buying things is unsurprisingly the easiest thing to do on it.
The Fire's OS, a radically altered version of Google's Android Gingerbread operating system designed for phones and not tablets, splits up the user interface into four sections.
At the top of the screen sits the name of your device (in my case, "Nathan's Kindle"), the time, a digital button for settings, and Wi-Fi signal strength and battery life indicators.
Below that is a search box, to find content on your Fire, and the digital buttons that read Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps and Web. Tap any of those words and you'll see what you have stored in the cloud and on the device. There's also an ever-present link at the top right that says "Store," which takes you quickly to a page where you can buy and stream or download more and more media.
On the Fire's home screen, the two lower partitions are made up of a carousel of recent content you've used -- which looks a lot like Apple's "cover flow" feature from iTunes. Below that are your favorite apps presented on what look like little bookshelves.
Interacting with the carousel and favorite apps shelves betrays the hardware limitations of the Fire.
If you spin through the carousel too fast, it fails to keep up and shows blank white boxes instead of the covers of your books, movies, music, app icons and other images. If you want to move a favorite app to a lower shelf, the app will drag behind your finger, failing to keep pace if you move too fast.
Because of this, and occasionally unresponsive scrolling in the Silk Web browser, the operating system felt incomplete and not nearly as polished as Apple's iOS on the iPad or many tablets that run Google's Android Honeycomb software (the first version of Android designed for tablets).
However, these complaints might also be due to a limitation of the Fire's hardware -- which runs on a dual-core 1-gigahertz processor from Texas Instruments and 512 megabytes of RAM.
Regardless of whether this is all the software's fault or the hardware's fault, the Fire's OS never matched the speed I've come to expect from other tablets.
The Silk browser, which was promised to be faster by serving Web pages from Amazon's own cloud servers, never felt faster than other Web browsers I've used on competing tablets. And even page turns while reading books weren't as fast or responsive as I would have liked and have seen on the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, Nook Tablet and iPad.
Since the Fire runs a modified version of Android Gingerbread, Amazon's Appstore for Android sells mostly phone apps. Using phone apps on tablets often noticeably shows that phone apps weren't built to run on devices such as the Fire, with awkwardly sized menus and buttons and graphics that look blown up and stretched out.
Amazon does offer some popular apps. Hulu, Netflix, Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Pulse, Comics and Urbanspoon look good and perform well on the Fire, so the potential can be seen but isn't fully realized.
Amazon has thousands of apps for sale in its Appstore and gives away a normally paid app for free each day. If the Fire ends up selling millions of units, developers may shift even more resources to Amazon's version of Android, which could give Fire users more apps that work like tablet apps.
For now, though, the overall experience of using apps on the Fire leaves a lot to be desired.
There is an app icon for Facebook pre-installed on the Fire, but it's not a native app. Instead, it launches you to Facebook's mobile website. It works nearly as well as native Facebook apps do; however, the icon feels to me like a bookmark posing as an app. Amazon also doesn't have an official Twitter app in its Appstore, though third-party apps such as Seesmic and Twitter's mobile website can be used as a workaround.
Battery life was solid on the Fire. Amazon promises up to eight hours of nonstop reading or 7.5 hours of video playback with Wi-Fi off. But turning off the Wi-Fi misses the best part of the Fire: streaming video and music, surfing the Web and even quickly checking email with the Fire's passable email app. I found myself having to charge the Fire about every other day with a few hours of use each day.
The bottom line
After testing out the Fire for about six days, I have to say, the device feels a bit rushed to market and incomplete. Yet despite hardware that didn't impress me, the Fire remains one of the nicer $199 tablets I've used.
There isn't a single thing the Fire does better than a number of tablets out there. But the hardware may be the least important part of the equation.
If you buy a Fire, you're not buying just the hardware, you're buying easy, convenient access to all the digital content you've bought from Amazon. If you're already spending a lot of money with Amazon, the transition to a Fire is seamless.
This isn't an iPad killer, but I don't think Amazon intends it to be. With such a low cost and user-friendly operating system, I think Amazon wants the Fire to be a tablet for everyone who doesn't have an iPad or those who might be looking to upgrade to an e-reader that plays some video and surfs the Web too.
Because of Amazon's online services and storefronts, the Fire has raised the expectations of what a tablet in the $200 price range should be and do. For that reason, I believe it has a shot at selling big. But if this tablet were put out by anybody not offering the same ecosystem of stuff to play, watch, listen and read, it'd probably never strike a sales spark.
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