Amazon's Kindle Fire misfires

The Kindle Fire will appeal to those who buy books, videos and music at Amazon, but it will frustrate those looking for more versatility.

All eyes are on Amazon's Kindle Fire to provide fresh competition for Apple's iPad 2, today's dominant tablet. Not so fast: Beneath Kindle Fire's slick veneer and unparalleled shopping integration lies a tablet that fails to impress as either a tablet or as an e-reader.

The Kindle Fire ($200, price as of 11/15/2011) is best considered a relatively inexpensive, hassle-free but flawed way to consume books, music and videos purchased at Amazon. As a tablet, though, the Fire can't hold a flame to the best tablets available today: It has subpar specs, a limited interface and a surprisingly messy app store.

Amazon's Kindle Fire
Amazon's Kindle Fire

When the Fire was first introduced, I immediately wondered where it would fit into the overall tablet universe. It runs a custom operating system based on Android 2.3, limits you to buying apps solely via the Amazon Appstore, and has just 8GB of storage, all red flags that made this tablet stand as a curiosity amidst the rest of the Android crowd. But at $200, and with the colossal weight of Amazon behind it, the Fire automatically becomes worth talking about.

Fire's integration with Amazon's media storefronts is, bar none, the best thing about this tablet. Rather than have one place to shop, and another to use your digital media, Amazon consolidates these experiences into one. The Newsstand, Books, Music and Apps tabs all take you to your personal library first, and then have a prominent (but not offensive) option to go to the store for that category. (The exception to this is the Video tab, which deposits you in the video storefront first, and then lets you hopscotch into your personal Library.)

The seamless interface makes acquiring content of any kind -- for ownership, or, in the case of movies and TV shows, streaming, or rental -- the best experience of any I've tried on a tablet.

In most other respects, Kindle Fire left me feeling tepid, at best. Let's walk through the device step-by-step to see which marks it hits and which it misses.

Kindle Fire: Simple Design

Physically, the Kindle Fire does little to distinguish itself. Contrary to some reports, it really doesn't resemble black tablets like the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, which was rumored to to be Amazon's starting point for the Kindle Fire. In fact, the Fire is smaller than the PlayBook, measuring 7.5 x 4.7 x 0.45 in., and weighing 0.91 lb. That's a hair heavier than Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet and T-Mobile's SpringBoard (each of which weighs 0.88 pounds), and noticeably heavier than Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, which weighs 0.77 lb.

While the Fire didn't feel especially heavy or tiresome to hold in one hand while reading, its weight is still less than ideal. In fact, a survey of five colleagues saw a clear preference for the weight and balance of the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. On the other hand, all preferred the Fire's velvety back, which has a smooth, rubberized texture that makes it easy to hold.

Overall, the Fire has a curious design. It has an asymmetrical black bezel surrounding the 7-in. display (it's thicker along the bottom, when held in portrait mode). The tablet takes simplicity to the extreme. It has just one button, a sleep/wake/power button placed along the bottom edge. I liked that the button was easy to press, and that it glows red when the device is charging, but it was also too easy to accidentally invoke. Next to the power button are the micro-USB port for charging and transferring data, and a headphone jack.

Both of the Fire's speakers are located along the same edge (the top, if held in portrait mode, the left edge in landscape). That means you'll lose the stereo effect no matter how you hold the Fire, and likely end up covering one of the speakers with your hand when holding it in landscape.

The only cabling included is a wall charger; you'll need your own USB cable (if you want to transfer data between your PC and Fire) and headphones. Volume control is handled entirely via software, and this proved problematic time and again, especially when in apps (more on this later).

Starting  the Fire 

When you first start up the tablet, the Fire walks you through a few simple setup points, and then deposits you into your home screen -- the same screen you land in when you swipe to the left to unlock the device.

The home screen has a search bar at top, with tabs for Newsstand (where you access various periodicals), Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps and Web beneath. At the center of the home screen is a central carousel that shows your most recent acquisitions or most recently accessed content of any sort -- books, periodicals, music, videos, web sites, apps -- in reverse order, with the latest on top. You can flip through these (and they go by surprisingly quickly), but I found it bothersome to find books I'd bought ages ago showing up in this carousel, even if I hadn't downloaded them from my cloud archive to the device (at least the same didn't happen with my sizable Amazon music collection).

At the bottom of the home screen is a Favorites shelf. Kindle Fire comes with Amazon's Appstore app, the Pulse reader app, the IMDB app and the Facebook app icons pinned there already. Temper your enthusiasm, though -- the Facebook "app" merely leads you off to the mobile version of the Facebook site.

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