Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet: Some important perspective

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)  

Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet

Amazon's new Kindle Fire tablet is grabbing a lot of attention for its low price and streamlined media integration. While the tablet has a lot to offer, however, you should be sure you know what you are -- and aren't -- actually buying.

Put simply, Amazon's Kindle Fire may be based on Android, but it is not an "Android tablet" in the way we normally think of the term. If you're expecting the full-fledged tablet experience, you may be in for a disappointment.

Here's why: Amazon's Kindle Fire, available for $199 starting November 15, runs on a highly reworked version of Android. You won't even recognize the interface -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, depending on what you want. But along with Amazon's changes come some significant differences in what the device can and cannot do.

Some things to consider:

  • Amazon Kindle Fire Email

    Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet does not include the standard suite of Google applications. That slick Gmail Honeycomb app you've heard about on most Android tablets? Not gonna have it. Amazon offers its own all-purpose email client instead.

  • Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet doesn't include access to the main Android Market. Instead, all app purchases go through Amazon's own Android app store, which has a far more limited selection. Amazon's app store does have many big-name applications available, but plenty of popular items are absent, including most items tied to Google services. A quick search of the store, for example, turns up no results for Google Voice, Google+, Google Docs, Google Maps, or YouTube. Also missing are popular third-party programs like Skype, CNN, and Pandora, though it sounds like the last one could come preloaded on the device. (It may be possible to "sideload" apps onto the Kindle Fire using APK files, by the way, but we won't know for sure until the tablet is made available for closer inspection. Even if it is possible, that's not something a typical user would do; for most folks, the Amazon store will serve as the sole source of applications.)

    [UPDATE: Amazon's Kindle Fire may have a hidden 'app tax']

  • Amazon is keeping the focus away from what version of Android its tablet is based on, but numerous reports suggest it's a version of Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread. That could create additional limitations in app availability, as all Android tablet apps -- the ones actually designed to take advantage of the larger screen size by utilizing panes and on-screen menus -- require Android 3.0 or higher.

  • Speaking of the operating system, remember that although Amazon is using an Android base for its product, the company has effectively created its own platform. That means you won't have the customizable home screen with widgets, live wallpapers, and all that sort of stuff. That also means Google software updates like the upcoming Android Ice Cream Sandwich likely won't be relevant to this device; Amazon may or may not update its OS as time goes on, but the company seems to have created its own fork, so to speak, that'll branch out independently of the main Android road.

    (A footnote: It's possible the Android hacking community will come up with a way to root the tablet and install a more stock-like Android OS onto it -- Amazon has reportedly said it won't try to stop the process -- so we could conceivably see custom ROMs start to appear at some point. That would obviously change things and expand the device's potential for the power-user crowd.)

In terms of hardware, the Kindle Fire doesn't have a camera or microphone -- so no video chat -- and doesn't have 3G connectivity or GPS functionality, either. It also lacks the eye-friendly E Ink screen made popular with Amazon's regular Kindle products.

Amazon Kindle Fire: A Different Kind of Device

Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet Media

Now, all of this isn't to say the Amazon Kindle Fire is a bad device; it's just a different kind of device than what most of us envision when we hear the term "tablet." Ultimately, it's a media consumption slate that also runs some apps and has a Web browser -- a gadget that falls somewhere between an e-reader/media player and a fully functional Android tablet.

The Kindle Fire does have some pretty cool features along the lines of media consumption, like Amazon's Whispersync bookmarking service for books and movies, and seamless integration with all kinds of media, ranging from books and magazines to music, movies, and TV shows. You can even use the device to stream directly from the Amazon Prime library of content -- if you pay Amazon's $79 annual membership fee for that service. (The Kindle Fire comes with a free one-month trial.) 

The Kindle Fire also features Amazon's new "Silk" Web browser, which uses Amazon's EC2 cloud service to speed up page loading (and yes, it does run Flash). It boasts complete integration with Amazon's Cloud Drive, too, for cloud-based storage of all Amazon-bought content.

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All considered, if you're looking for a simple slate with an intuitive, easy-to-use interface -- and affordable price -- Amazon's Kindle Fire may be an interesting new option. But if you want the kind of experience and versatility you see on other tablets, you're probably looking in the wrong place. Make no mistake about it: For all practical purposes, the Kindle Fire is an Amazon media device, not a Google Android tablet. We're talking about a whole new platform. 

Amazon's own Jeff Bezos said it best: The Kindle Fire shouldn't be thought of as a tablet, but rather as a "service." In that regard, the device has a lot to offer, especially for its $200 price tag. Just be sure the Amazon experience is what you want before you plunk down the cash.

SEE ALSO: Amazon's Kindle Fire may have a hidden 'app tax'

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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