Starting It Up
The Fire is packaged simply, with nothing more than a power cord and the device. There’s no user manual to read, and you don’t have to plug it into your computer. All you really need to do is turn the thing on, and that’s where you’ll find a very pleasant startup experience. If you bought your Kindle Fire through your Amazon account (as opposed to a gift from somebody else), the setup experience is nearly instant—just connect to your Wi-Fi network, and you’re done. If your tablet was a gift, you’ll have to login instead, but that’s literally all there is to it.
The welcome screens walk you through the user interface and explain how to use the different basic features to get yourself started. It’s not that the interface is terribly confusing—but it’s definitely a nice touch and lends to the overall experience. We handed the device to a non-geek iPad user without showing them the welcome screens, and there was a minute or two of confusion while trying to understand how it all works, so these screens are a nice touch.
The top navigation bar allows you to access all of your Amazon cloud content very quickly—or access the Amazon store to purchase more content. Whether you head into Books, Music, Video, Newsstand, or Apps, the content is initially stored in your Amazon account, and can be either streamed or downloaded to the device. The Fire is, after all, a portal into Amazon’s content network.
The Carousel holds all your recent content, which is a little odd in some ways. You’ll see all the books you’ve purchased, even if they aren’t downloaded to the device. You won’t see all your music here, just the recent music that you’ve played, apps you’ve used, and it’ll show the last web site that you visited. You can pin any of these to the favorites bar at the bottom, which is pretty much how you’re going to access your frequently used icons—using the carousel is more of a novelty than anything else, and as you use the device more you’ll end up not even bothering with it most of the time.
Rather than a hardware button, the Fire gives you a software Home button that’s usually on the screen, but more often than not, it’s hidden behind a tap on the screen. This is one of those minor things that very quickly becomes irritating, especially when you get trapped behind a game or app that doesn’t present the home button to you. There’s a reason that button-hating Apple devices still have a home button—you need a way to get back to the start screen with a single press. It’s a huge oversight by Amazon, and hopefully their next tablet includes a button.
The settings can be accessed by pressing the top right-hand corner of the screen, where you can enable/disable Wi-Fi, adjust the brightness, or manage the volume, since there’s no hardware volume buttons. For the most part, this works out well, but if you’re using a game you’ll end up having to find the volume controls somewhere else. Like many of our gripes with the tablet, it’s a minor problem, but still, these little inconsistencies take away from the overall experience.
You can also use the settings menu to force the device to sync or lock the screen orientation. If you’ve got music playing, you’ll see the currently playing song as well as music controls, which is fairly convenient—assuming you’re using one of the standard Kindle apps that allow you to quickly get to the settings.
Once you’re past the welcome screens you’ll be immediately able to start using the device. The search box allows you to search through all of your library content—that means any books, music, or anything stored on the device, or even the content stored in the Amazon cloud. You’ll find yourself using this mostly to find music, since browsing through your book collection makes more sense by simply clicking Books at the top—that screen is organized by recent books, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll just pin your favorite books to the favorites bar.
The touch navigation on the device is decent, and often just fine, but sometimes we’ve found it irritating. The most annoying thing on the entire device is actually the carousel on the home screen, which is tuned wrong somehow—you flick it slightly, and it just keeps scrolling. Try and stop on a particular item, and you’ll find yourself on the next item almost every time.
The keyboard feels just slightly too slow, and while it’s decent in portrait mode (on the left), in landscape mode has a spacebar that’s offset even further to the left, so we found ourselves hitting the period key instead of the space key. It’s not unusable, it will just take some getting used to. You’ll also find that on certain screens, notably the search screen, it’s a little slow because of the page refreshing.
Unlike most Android devices, you don’t swipe down to get to the Notifications pane—instead, you’ll see a count in the upper left with the number of notifications you currently have, and you have to tap to bring down the pane. This works alright most of the time, though definitely makes it a bit less user-friendly. If you have a number of applications open and music playing, the count will include both ongoing tasks as well as notifications, making it confusing to understand whether that count means you have a new notification or not. Most Android devices get around this confusion by placing icons in the upper left, but you won’t see that here. And yes, just like any Kindle device, you can transfer files to the device by simply plugging it into a computer, where it’s mounted as a drive.
Kindle 3 owners will be thrilled to see that the lock screensavers are pleasant—there’s no more scary pictures of Emily Dickinson to be forced to look at. There’s one oddity: it doesn’t matter what orientation you’re holding the device, the lock screen will always be the same. So even if you’re using the Fire in landscape mode, you’ll have to unlock via portrait. It’s not really a problem, just interesting, since the device allows you to rotate it completely upside down, and it’ll flip the screen for you.