The Kindle Fire is a poor man's iPad, in more ways than one.
Amazon's new tablet, released this November to much fanfare, has already earned a rare distinction: it's the first tablet not made by Apple to gain any market traction. Granted, other tablets have experienced a few buying spurts here and there – most notably, Hewlett-Packard's Touchpad, which only attracted customer attention after HP cut prices by 80 per cent while trying to unload an otherwise dead product line. But so far, anyone who wants a tablet and can afford an iPad is buying an iPad.
The Fire isn't going to change any of that. It is far more polished than the Vox, Kobo's e-reader-turned-tablet, which is currently on store shelves in Canada, and it also taps the user in to a far more comprehensive digital store (although the Vox has the slightly better screen). But the Fire isn't as polished, powerful or beautifully designed as the iPad. It also suffers from several minor drawbacks (and one major issue). Like the iPad, the Fire is also a sort of content-consumption gateway drug, something Amazon hopes will make you far more likely to buy your music, movies and books from the same place you bought your tablet.
What the Fire does have going for it is price. At $200, consumers are likely to forgive a lot of deficiencies, especially given that most other tablets at that price point range from rush jobs to outright failures. The Fire doesn't wow, but it delivers decent performance at a low price, and that's really the only remotely successful strategy anybody has employed to compete with the iPad.
The Fire isn't available yet in Canada, and there's no word on when it'll come north of the border. That's in large part because of licensing issues – Amazon's massive store of movies, music and books comes with all kinds of geographic strings attached.
But thanks to the Globe's industrious Washington bureau, we managed to snag a U.S. model.
In terms of design, the Fire looks a lot like a less sleek version of Research In Motion's PlayBook. Its front is a seven-inch touchscreen, and its back is a smooth rubbery cover. There's a micro-USB port and headphone jack at one end of the device, and a couple of terrible-sounding speakers on the other (side note: with the exception of the PlayBook, the on-board speakers on virtually every tablet are awful, so invest in a decent pair of headphones).There isn't a single physical button, with the exception of the one that turns the device on and off.
The Fire runs on a heavily modified version of Google's Android operating system, which means you'll get access to the myriad Android apps out there. But apps aren't really the tablet's strong suit. Some of them felt laggy, which is somewhat surprising, given that the Fire runs on a 1-gigahertz dual-core processor, which is pretty powerful for a $200 device.
Where the Fire shines is as a multimedia consumption device – or rather, as a multimedia collection device. Just as Apple's business strategy revolves around sucking you into their content-purchasing ecosystem via the iTunes store, Amazon intends the Fire to be a portal to its massive everything-store.
(In fact, it's almost too easy to purchase items through the Fire. Amazon has a one-click purchase system that basically lets anyone with access to an account-enabled tablet buy whatever they want with minimal confirmation. This is going to be a problem for anyone whose kids get a hold of this thing.)
The Fire's user interface, where all your content lives, is fairly clean. The home screen functions as a sort of "most-visited" collection of apps, videos, books and whatever else you've recently used on the device. Here, the processor hums along nicely, and touchscreen commands are quick. Flipping through various items also offers virtually no lag.
Its designed in the layout of a bookshelf, with subheadings for various types of content, such as books, music, video and the Web. And everywhere it's possible to buy content, Amazon ushers you to its various on-line stores. None of this is all that surprising, and in fact, Amazon's stores contain a huge amount of great audio/video/eBook content (much of which will be gutted by licensing restrictions in Canada, no doubt).
The company also gives you easy access, via the Fire, to your various purchases, which are stored in the cloud. You can then download them on the device. On one hand, that's a great way to access content from almost anywhere. On the other hand, you're out of luck if you end up in a spot with no wireless access.
The built-in Web browser is a bit of a let-down, and will usually take you to the slimmed-down mobile version of various sites. It also suffers from a kind of touchscreen claustrophobia, where there doesn't seem to be enough on-screen real estate for the device to accurately figure out where you're pressing your finger. Still, it's not that different from the browsing experience on most other $200 tablets.
Given its pedigree, it's not all that surprising that the Fire functions best as an eReader. The screen doesn't give off that much glare (although, in our testing, the Kobo Vox screen was a little easier on the eyes when reading). You're still going to have a less retina-straining time reading an entire book on a black-and-white e-ink screen, but if you're also looking to read illustrated titles, graphic novels or comic books, the Fire is obviously superior.
In the tech world, advertised battery life is usually a meaningless metric. But we did manage to get more on-time with the Fire than the Vox, by about an hour. On standby, it held its charge for more than a week. (For what it's worth, the Fire's advertised reading battery life is eight hours).
Almost everything about the Fire ranges from good to serviceable – remember, you're only paying $200. In our testing, perhaps its single biggest flaw was its weight. Listed at a perfectly reasonable 413 grams, the Fire just felt heavy. Normally, we don't care all that much about device weight, unless the thing is made of pure lead. But considering you'll likely be using this tablet to read books for hours at a time, that slightly heavy feel can start to get annoying.
Weight issues aside, what the Fire really has going for it – much like the iPad – is polish. After the initial iPad frenzy, a lot of manufacturers rushed to release competing tablets, and as a result, the products they put on store shelves felt that way: rushed. Last week, Kobo had to release a significant software update to its Vox tablet, because the initial product was riddled with minor annoying bugs. That's what happens when a company feels like it needs to take a product to market yesterday. Earlier this year, RIM's PlayBook was released to lacklustre reviews, in large part because it was littered with bugs. RIM has since fixed most of those bugs via software updates, but much of the damage has already been done.
(An aside: the low point of RIM's altogether miserable 2010 is the stunning failure of the PlayBook. Here's why: the PlayBook is an amazing piece of engineering. It does HD video better than the iPad, it has the best on-board speakers of any tablet, it has amazing battery life, it comes with a great Web browser, it doesn't try to lock you in to one virtual storefront. RIM took this neat little gadget and brought it to market way too early, littered with bugs and supported by an absolutely dismal apps environment. As a result, it was doomed from the start. If you're looking for a great multimedia tablet and you don't care about apps, get yourself a discounted $200 PlayBook).
If and when the Fire comes to Canada, it will almost certainly outsell the Kobo Vox, which is probably its prime competition in this country for the demographic of eReader users who are looking to upgrade to a full tablet. Nothing about the Fire will blow you away, but everything will work, which is more than can be said for most tablets out there. Especially the cheap ones.