Amazon’s New Kindle Fire Tablet: the How-To Geek Review

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We got our Kindle Fire a few days ago, and since then we’ve been poking, prodding, and generally trying to figure out how to break it. Before you go out and buy your own, check out our in-depth review.

Note: This review is extremely long, so we’ve split it up between multiple pages. You can use the navigation links or buttons at the bottom to flip between pages.

The Hardware

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Once you pick up the tablet, you’ll find that it’s a little heavier than you’d think for the size, though by no means too heavy. The back feels grippy, like it’s rubbery or something, and it overall has a good feel in your hand. The screen has a 1024×600 resolution at 169 pixels per inch, which means text on the screen is very crisp and easy to read, even when it’s very small. The IPS (in-plane switching) tech for the display works well, and you can generally see the screen clearly from an angle.

In comparison to the iPad, the Kindle Fire is a little thicker on the edges, though because of the dimensions you can fit the device in a decent-sized coat pocket, or even the back pocket of my Gap jeans… though I felt ridiculous walking around with the tablet sticking out of my pants like that. Being able to put the tablet in my coat pocket definitely makes it more likely that I’d carry it outside the house with me—there’s something annoying about having to walk into a coffee shop with the iPad in hand.

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Left to right: iPad, Kindle Fire, Kindle (3) Keyboard, Kindle Touch

There’s only a single button, oddly placed at the bottom… even though all the other Kindle devices have their power button at the bottom, it just feels wrong for a power button on a tablet to be placed there instead of on the upper right like almost every other device out there. The other problem with the button in that position is that you can’t lean the tablet standing up without the case, you have to flip it upside down. It’s a (very) minor problem that is likely remedied by putting the Kindle in the leather case, but we didn’t have one while testing.

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The speakers are at the top of the device, and they are pathetic. Even at maximum you can’t hear them very well—this device was clearly designed to be used with earphones. There’s no hardware volume controls, which sometimes feels wrong, but since you won’t be getting unexpected (loud) phone calls on the Fire, it’s probably not a big deal. The volume controls are only a tap away most of the time, hidden behind the settings.

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The touch technology is where the device breaks down a bit—as you’re going through the menus, it feels very slightly off somehow, like it hasn’t been calibrated properly. It’s not a problem everywhere, but the carousel navigation that looks so pretty is where you’ll notice it right away: it never seems to stop where you want it to. We’re hoping that Amazon can fix this in a future update, but even if not, it’s not a deal-breaker, just an annoyance.

Perhaps the most important factor when considering a tablet is battery life, and the Fire isn’t terrible, but you’ll definitely notice that you’re not getting the iPad’s solid 10 hours either. It’s rated at 8 hours of reading or 7.5 hours of video playback with wireless off. The problem with keeping wireless off, of course, is that the device is designed to stream video and other content rather than play it locally, given the fairly small internal 8 GB of memory (6 GB usable) and lack of expansion slots. In our testing, after 4 hours of streaming movies off the free Prime section, the battery life was at 38%. With the Wi-Fi off the battery life is a little better, and you might get a little over 7 hours. In realistic use, you’ll probably be able to use it normally (on/off) throughout the day without a problem.

A few other notes: There’s no hardware home button. You can mount the Kindle Fire as a drive, and copy any files you want to it easily. It’s also already been rooted.

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Specifications

Since all geeks love specs, here’s the Kindle Fire specs, directly from Amazon:

  • Display: 7″ multi-touch display with IPS (in-plane switching) technology and anti-reflective treatment, 1024 x 600 pixel resolution at 169 ppi, 16 million colors.
  • Size: 7.5″ x 4.7″ x 0.45″ (190 mm x 120 mm x 11.4 mm).
  • Weight: 14.6 ounces (413 grams).
  • Storage: 8GB internal (approximately 6GB available for user content). That’s enough for 80 apps, plus 10 movies or 800 songs or 6,000 books.
  • Battery Life: Up to 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback, with wireless off.
  • Charge Time: Fully charges in approximately 4 hours.
  • Wi-Fi: 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, WEP, WPA, WPA2. Does not support ad-hoc networks.
  • USB: USB 2.0 (micro-B connector)
  • Audio: 3.5 mm stereo audio jack, top-mounted stereo speakers.
  • Content Formats Supported: Kindle (AZW), TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)), DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, non-DRM AAC, MP3, MIDI, OGG, WAV, MP4, VP8.

Notes: Compared to the iPad, which has a 1024×768 resolution screen, there’s a lot more pixels per inch. There’s no microphone, camera, bluetooth, or GPS, and no option for 3G. The storage seems really small, but when you consider that the device is meant primarily for streaming content, it isn’t that big of a deal.

The Good, the Bad, and the Whatever

We’ve written up a very full-featured review of just about every feature, so you should keep reading the next few pages. If you don’t want to do that, here’s our overall summary for you:

Good

  • Price: It’s only $199, less than half of the cheapest iPad.
  • It’s completely integrated with Amazon’s content: music, videos, etc.
  • Book reading is great indoors.
  • The form factor is really nice, it fits in a coat pocket.
  • Does have lots of apps and games.
  • It’s already been rooted, and you can install unsanctioned apps manually without rooting.

Bad

  • It’s slower, smaller, and the battery life does not equal the iPad.
  • There’s no Google Maps, Gmail, Google Voice, or any Google apps.
  • It’s US only at the moment.
  • There’s no camera, no home button, very small internal storage.
  • Way less apps than the iPad.
  • If you like reading outside, it won’t be fun.

Should You Buy It?

It depends. If the form factor is not important to you, you don’t hate Apple, and you have plenty of money, the iPad 2 is a better choice. If you want to read anywhere, including sunlight, you should get yourself the e-ink Kindle Touch.

Otherwise, the Kindle Fire is a very nice, capable tablet that can do most everything you’d want.

Note: we just got our hands on the Nook Tablet, and we’re going to be posting our thoughts on that in the coming days.

Starting It Up

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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<- Previous page: Starting it up and First Impressions

Using the Kindle for Reading

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Just like every other Kindle, the Fire has a solid reading experience. Head to the Books section, and you’ll see a fairly standard bookshelf view with all of your purchased books. You can quickly download any of the books to the device, and start reading them right away. If you’ve got a large number of books in your collection, it’s definitely a lot easier to navigate with touch rather than using buttons or the e-ink display on the previous devices.

When you get to the actual reading view, it’s presented full-screen with a flick to switch pages, which works pretty well unless you’re very quickly going through the pages, where you’ll notice a little bit of a stutter, but it works well overall. Tapping the screen will show you the controls view, which lets you quickly page through the book, search, change the font size, or access the menu.

The navigation menu is one area where the Fire definitely is a big improvement over the e-ink Kindles—you can easily get to anywhere in the book, including all of your bookmarks and notes, which show up right there on the screen. Extremely useful for non-fiction books you might have marked up with a ton of notes. Which brings us to a good point—the Fire is a lot better for non-fiction in general, since you might want to quickly flip through to a section, or re-open them on a regular basis.

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Playing Music on the Kindle

If you’ve used Amazon’s Cloud Player on the web or any other device, you’ll be familiar with the experience on the Kindle Fire. You can access your entire music collection, stream it off their servers, download to cache on the device, or buy new music in the store. The player works well in either landscape or portrait mode, and you can play music in the background.

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Purchasing music is almost too simple—once you search the store for what you’re looking for, click buy, and it’ll be delivered to your cloud drive instantly. You can head to one of the albums and start playing right away, or download it to the device.

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Being able to listen to music on the same device you’re reading a book is really pretty useful, especially if you’re taking the Fire on a plane.

Streaming (and Downloading) Video

Head to the Video section, and if you’re a Prime member you’ll immediately have access to a large collection of free video that can be streamed to the device. This includes shows like Lost and The Wonder Years along with many others. If that doesn’t fit the bill, there’s also a much larger number of videos that can be rented or purchased, though it’s a little inconsistent—some titles can only be rented, some are 24 hours, and some are 48 hours.

The Fire can’t play real HD video, at least not according to Amazon’s specifications—what’s interesting is that if you click to see compatible devices, the Fire is listed there. The standard video, however, looks great on the screen, and is presented in widescreen format. If you rent something in HD, you can watch on the Fire in standard def, or watch it on your computer or TV in high def instead.

Downloading

If you rent or purchase a movie or TV episode, you can download it to the device for later viewing. Once you download a video, you have either 24 or 48 hours to watch it before it expires, which makes it a little inconvenient to load up your tablet with movies before a trip, since you won’t be able to watch them on the way back, assuming you want to vacation for more than a day. It’s definitely good enough for a long plane flight, and you could reload it again before heading back, though your hotel’s Wi-Fi will probably take forever to download the movie. Since there’s not a ton of internal storage, you’re only going to be able to download about 10 movies on an otherwise empty Kindle—if you’ve got lots of apps, magazines, and music downloaded, it might be 5 or less movies.

Your best bet, as a geek, is to rip your own movies and copy them over through the USB cable. The one oddity is that they won’t show up in the Videos section, you’ll have to access them through the Gallery application instead. This way you could also control the bitrate and size of the files if you wanted, so you can fit more on the drive.

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Browsing with the Kindle Fire’s “Silk” Browser

Much has been made of the Silk browser on the Kindle Fire, starting with a lot of hype about how fast it’s going to be. The main benefit to the browser, according to the marketing documentation, is that it uses the power of Amazon’s cloud to compress and optimize pages so that everything is much faster.

Update: be sure to read our followup post, where we explain how to make the browser *actually* fast.

In the testing that we’ve done over the last day or two since getting our Fire, the browsing experience is not quite as fast as one would hope. Amazon claims this is because their caching algorithm has yet to be primed, but we’re testing this on a 35/35 Mb FIOS network here, so it shouldn’t matter. Scrolling pages is a little jittery, and the screen seems to be just the wrong size for a lot of sites—like ours, which is clearly going to need to default to the mobile theme for Kindle readers. The tabbed browsing just feels like a waste of screen space, especially in landscape mode.

All the complaining aside, the Fire’s browser is pretty much exactly what you’d hope for if you ignored all the hype. It works well, displays pages about as well as a small tablet is going to, and has all the standard Android features like the Share Page option, which quickly lets you share the page via email, Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, or whatever applications you’ve installed that support the feature.

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When you scroll down the page, it does hide the address bar, but it’s still a lot of wasted pixels on the screen.

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Email on the Kindle Fire

This device was not designed for email. There’s a built-in application that supports Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, IMAP, but it’s not the greatest application—especially if you’re used to the excellent Gmail application on every Android phone. You won’t have access to your contacts unless you manually export them from Gmail and copy them over to the device using the USB cable, it creates weird labels in Gmail, and it doesn’t natively know how to handle custom domains in Gmail without a tweak.

It is functional, however, and it supports Push for email delivery, so you’ll get notifications in the top bar whenever email comes in. You can switch this off, of course, in the settings. If you’re using an Exchange server you’ll have to grab a different application from the app market.

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<- Previous page: Actually Using the Kindle (Reading, Video, Music, Browsing, Email)

Reading Newspapers and Magazines

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One of the unique features of the Kindle Fire is the ability to read magazines, in all their glorious full-color originality. There’s loads of magazines already onboard, with old favorites like Popular Science, Wired, Car and Driver, and loads of newspapers like New York Times and the Washington Post. Most of these are designed as a subscription model—you can buy single issues, but it isn’t cheap. Instead, you need to sign up for a monthly fee and the magazine or newspaper will be automatically delivered to the Kindle. You can see all your current magazines by heading the Newsstand, or you can shop in the store for anything else you want.

For some things, this works pretty well, like the New York Times, which is mostly text content. For other magazines, like Popular Science and Car and Driver, there are still some formatting problems. The default view is the image view, which doesn’t work quite right. The 7” screen is not big enough to clearly read most of the content, and zooming in works tolerably until you flip to the next page. Then it zooms back out again. You can use the menus to switch from Page view into Text view, where you can much more easily read the content, but a lot of the visual awesomeness is gone. It’s definitely something that needs to be solved.

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Then there’s magazines like Wired and GQ, which are not delivered using the Amazon content system—instead, they are implemented as apps, and you have to subscribe and sign in separately. They are a bit more of a hassle, but the end result is a really beautiful magazine that’s designed for the Kindle. These magazines are gorgeous, and really a testament to what a tablet magazine can be. You can swipe up and down on some pages to read the entire article, or flip left and right to navigate between articles. There’s also a way to zoom backwards and see all the pages of the magazine in a view where you can more easily scan the entire magazine. It’s impressive.

There’s just one odd thing: if you go straight to the web site you can subscribe to the print version for $12/year, and then you can get the Kindle Fire version for free. If you subscribe directly to the Kindle Fire version, it’s $20/year.

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Kindle Fire App Store

And now, the part that loads of people have been wondering about: the Apps. There’s a very large library of applications you can install on your Kindle, including things like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Seesmic, Angry Birds, Evernote, and a lot more. We tested Netflix, and it works fairly well, although it’s a little jumpy—but we’re guessing part of that is on Netflix, since their navigation is laggy on our Roku box as well.

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There’s a ton of applications in the market, including a daily free (otherwise paid) app, but you can also allow installing unsanctioned apps by heading into Settings –> Device and turning on the option. You’ll have to manually install them, but it’s a way to get your favorite apps on the device even if Amazon doesn’t have them in your store. For instance, you can even install the Nook app this way.

Note: you can’t go to the regular Android market in the browser, it simply will redirect you to Amazon’s app store . You’d have to get your hands on the install file otherwise in order to install the applications.

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Our guess is that in the very near future, almost every Android app that you can want will show up in the market. The only exception will be system tweakers and very low-level applications.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be testing out whether you can get Google apps on the device, and whether there’s any great hacks that you can do.

Final thoughts: It’s a rather nice tablet.  Got any questions that we didn’t cover? Ask them in the comments.

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.