The wraps are finally off Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet. Its splashy entry into the tablet firestorm was hard to miss, Amazon made quite a statement with its $199 price, and yet I'm underwhelmed.
Although reporters were not allowed to touch the Kindle Fire during the demonstrations following Amazon's launch event, I spent considerable time observing the tablet in action, and grilling Amazon executives about different features. My gut reaction to what I saw today: This is not the Amazon tablet we've all been looking for.
The rumor mill had been rife with talk of an Amazon Android tablet for months. And no wonder: Amazon is the only company whose shopping services could create an integrated tablet experience that gives Apple a run for its money. What Amazon announced today with the Fire is less of a ready-to-use tablet and more of a targeted companion for Amazon's content and cloud services.
Where Amazon Stumbles
The Kindle Fire is limited in several meaningful ways. For starters, it ships with just 8GB of memory. That isn't a lot of space for the kind of content I can easily envision consumers clamouring to use with the tablet.
Surprisingly I got multiple different answers from Amazon execs when I asked them how much space a typical 2 hour movie takes up: The most intelligible of the answers suggested that up to 20 movies could reside on the device at once, but the reply clearly means that, as you amass your digital media collection, you'll need to make hard decisions about what you want to have on your Kindle Fire and when you should have it, not unlike the quandary over what should stay on your DVR.
Forget taking the whole five seasons of Babylon 5 with you wherever you go, let alone carrying lots of video if your device is also packed with music. Yes, device media management has the potential to become quite tiresome over time, though just how tiresome is impossible to say until we have working devices in our hands.
You can sideload content of your own, but you'll also have to shop for your own apps to play that content. The video player is solely for Amazon purchased or streamed content, and the device has no image gallery for showcasing your favourite snaps.
Another limitation may be apps. The Kindle Fire uses a variation of Android 2.3, with its own mostly unique interface. I say "mostly" because every so often, in the web browser or in messages that popped up, I saw hints of the Kindle Fire's Android roots. Apps for the device will come from the Amazon Appstore, but Amazon stocks a fraction of the total number of Android apps available now, just 10,000 of the 200,000 in the Android Market.
Still another issue beyond the comparatively limited app selection: Amazon again gave mixed answers regarding compatibility between the Kindle Fire and the greater universe of Android apps. One spokesperson said that apps that called for features that aren't on the tablet (such as a camera) wouldn't work, another said outright that the company would be curating apps and still another, when asked about app compatibility, mentioned that apps would have to be qualified to work, and that some might not work with the Kindle Fire.
Furthermore, when asked about the coming Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich operating system, and how apps designed for it or Honeycomb will work on the Kindle Fire, the Amazon rep couldn't field an answer beyond noting that if Ice Cream Sandwich requires Amazon to do something to maintain compatibility, “we'll do our best” to do so.
As a potential buyer, I would have liked more reassurance that come mid-2012, the hot Android apps will work on my Kindle Fire tablet, because the changes made to the operating system are minimal enough that Amazon expects to be able to work around any situations that may arise. Yes, I understand that Amazon hasn't seen Ice Cream Sandwich yet, but the company's developers should be aware of the direction the OS is heading in, and how that might impact Amazon's ecosystem.
I also was surprised by Amazon's lack of emphasis on the quality of the reading experience on an LCD screen. I've seen the lengths to which some tablet makers go in an effort to minimise glare (applying coatings, for instance, or closing or eliminating the air gap between the glass and LCD), and to optimise the tablet for reading.
Again, I received mixed answers from Kindle Fire representatives when I asked this question. One couldn't point to anything in particular that the company had done. The other noted that Amazon had optimised its fonts, though you could have fooled me judging from the pixelated text I saw in today's demos.
Maybe the Amazon Silk web browser and Kindle book reader were still too early to be fully optimised, but let's just say that I was less than encouraged by the text I saw. In fact, I was startled to see how visible the touchscreen grid was at certain angles. Some things we just shouldn't be able to notice.
Amazon made a point of noting that the Kindle Fire carries a resolution of 1024x600 pixels, with 169 pixels per inch. That's not so terrific that they earn any bragging rights, however. The RIM PlayBook had 169 pixels per inch in a display of the same resolution, the original Samsung Galaxy Tab from a year ago had 149, and the Apple iPad 2 has 132. Acer's Iconia Tab A100 is at about 170 ppi, and the just announced Toshiba Thrive 7”, due in December, is at 225 ppi with its 1280 by 800 display.
And yes, the dots on the Kindle Fire were visible, more so than I recall being the case on the RIM PlayBook. Whether that's because of the operating system's font rendering or it has to do with the display itself is difficult to tell at this point.
One more nit to pick: Although the interface seemed visually appealing overall, the music player looked surprisingly rough. When playing a track, the interface appeared to pay some attention to detail, but I can't say the same about the album and track listings, for example.
What Amazon Did Right
Amazon succeeds with the Kindle Fire in several respects. First and foremost is the price. At $199, the Kindle Fire falls into territory that won't make a huge dent in consumers' pocketbooks, and it's almost, but not quite, an impulse buy.
Another win: Its onboard storefronts for Kindle books, Android apps, and movies and TV shows are visually appealing. The device's tight ties to the various storefronts, coupled with the company's vast selection of movies, TV episodes, books, and music, set the Kindle Fire apart from the crowded pack of generic Android tablets, which can play content but have no direct hooks to stores (beyond the books and movie rentals in Google's Market).
With the Kindle Fire, acquiring content and using it on your tablet looks to be seamless. More critically, seeing what's in the cloud for you to download should be simple, too, as simple as tapping on the content and tapping Download. Of course, it's difficult to say just how deep and smooth the integration is given the limited bits on display at the launch.
The Kindle Fire's reasonable price, together with the potential of widespread Android app support, makes the device an enticing option, especially for families who want to give a tablet to the kids without having to blast through five bills.
The Kindle Fire is clearly first and foremost an entertainment-consumption companion to Amazon's services. The ability to install apps and do anything more with the tablet, handling email, sharing photos and the like, really feels like a secondary operation. At that point it makes me wonder whether the Kindle Fire is truly a “tablet” or just a content playback machine with some extra smarts.
In many ways, the Kindle Fire isn't trying to beat the iPad or the Android-tablet masses at their own game. The Kindle Fire is doing its own thing, and going after a totally different audience.