review Would you still pirate content if it was easier just to buy it? That’s the question that Amazon’s posing with the new Kindle Fire tablet, the company’s first mobile device to offer integrated access to all of its digital content stores.
The affordable US$199 pricetag distinguishes it from the Apple iPad as a significantly cheaper alternative, and while it isn’t actually available in Australia, it’s not that hard to get your hands on one either through a friend or using a third party shipping company like ComGateway. We had the pleasure of putting one through its paces and came away mightily impressed.
The first thing that struck us about the Kindle Fire was just how much it looked like the BlackBerry PlayBook. It’s a little shorter and a little narrower, but otherwise it’s a dead ringer, down to the 7” display, buttonless face, glossy black bezel, and soft touch rear. And it’s not poorly put together either – the Kindle Fire feels just as well-constructed as the PlayBook, which is an impressive feat considering how dodgy most of the other tablets in this price range are.
Its footprint is almost identical to that of the Kindle 3G, which in our opinion is the perfect size for reading eBooks and about the minimum size we’d be happy with for comfortable web browsing and watching movies. At 413g, it’s surprisingly heavy for a 7” tablet – 13g heavier than the PlayBook and only 180g short of the iPad 2’s weight – but it doesn’t feel too heavy. In fact, its density only adds to the perception of quality.
Amazon has gone for a completely minimal look, with an absence of buttons or branding on the face, and only a headphone jack and micro-USB port on the bottom next to a power/sleep button. Just as noteworthy is what isn’t included, namely physical volume buttons and front- and rear-facing cameras. Nor is there a memory card slot or a HDMI output.
The Kindle Fire uses the Android 2.3 operating system, but you really wouldn’t know it by looking at it. The user interface has been completely skinned to remove any traces of Android, and none of the stock Google apps like Gmail, YouTube and Android Market are on board. Amazon has also removed many of the power user functions like multi-tasking and fast-app switching (although some apps, like the web browser, will preserve its state from when you last used it, and you can still play music in the background), multiple homescreens and widgets, Exchange support and many of the advanced settings like VPN functionality, account syncing and portable hotspot.
In other words, the Kindle Fire really doesn’t look or act like any other Android device we’ve used, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you aren’t a tech-savvy user. Amazon makes it extremely clear from the get-go what you’re meant to do with the Kindle Fire, which is a lot more than we can say about most other tablets. Clearly labelled at the top of the screen are links to newsstand, books, music, video, docs, apps and web, and there’s a bookshelf graphic taking up most of the homescreen that houses a slick 3D carousel of all the apps, webpages, music, books and movies you’ve recently opened (basically like iOS’ Cover Art feature, but extended to all forms of content), as well as any apps or content that you’ve marked as favourites.
Only the Kindle bookstore works in Australia – everything else is restricted to US users only, and since access is dependent on having a US credit card rather than geographic location, this rules out working around it with a US-based VPN. Still, we were able to browse through the content stores to get an idea of what’s on offer, and both the selection and layout of each store is impressive. Amazon has made it even easier to purchase content than Apple has by separating each type of content into separate stores rather than dumping everything into a single portal.
The good news for Aussie users that have imported the Kindle Fire is that you can sideload music and movies over USB. Amazon doesn’t exactly encourage this – there’s no USB cable included in the box, only a charger – but it’s easy to do as the Kindle Fire mounts as a USB mass storage device and it uses the common micro-USB connector. The trick with playing movies on the Kindle Fire is that you have to use the Gallery app rather than the Videos app, but other than that it works just like any other tablet, with native support for H.264 MPEG4 videos. There are workarounds for getting access to the geo-restricted content stores, and if you’re really keen, it’s possible to root the Kindle Fire, install the Android Market and missing Google apps and replace the custom interface with a standard Android launcher.
Unlike other Android tablets, the Kindle Fire isn’t driven by feeds and speeds, but the specs are better than you’d expect for a two-hundred-dollar tablet. It has a dual-core 1GHz TI Core A9 OMAP 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage (around 6GB available for user storage), a 7” 1024 x 600 IPS display and 802.11n Wi-Fi. What it doesn’t have is built-in 3G (not that we were expecting it), Bluetooth or GPS.
As well as the aforementioned content stores, the Kindle Fire’s preloaded apps (which is what you’ll be limited to if you don’t employ one of the workarounds) include a web browser, email client, photo gallery, contacts, IMDB, Words with Friends, Pulse (a news aggregation app) and Quickoffice.
Since we couldn’t download any apps to the Kindle Fire, we weren’t able to run our usual Android benchmarks to test system and graphics performance. For day-to-day use, performance was good rather than great. Simple things like unlocking the device, flicking through the carousel of content on the homescreen and moving between the different content sections is reasonably quick, but we noticed quite a bit of lag when rendering complex web pages in the browser (although pinch to zoom works smoothly), and Flash videos in particular play poorly.
There were also lots of occasions where the touchscreen failed to respond to input for up to five seconds at a time. We also frequently had difficulty selecting particular items on the display, as the touchscreen would register input as slightly above or below what we were trying to tap on.
Speaking of web browsing, Amazon has tweaked the usual Gingerbread web browser to display all of the open tabs above the address bar – a much quicker way to navigate between pages than the usual thumbnail views in Gingerbread that are displayed in a separate screen. Thumbnails of all of the last pages you’ve opened in the browser are also displayed whenever you open a new tab, similar to what Safari and Chrome does on the desktop. But the piece de resistance is Amazon’s “Silk” technology, which takes advantage of the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) to accelerate page loads. But it’s a feature that needs time to develop – loading the SMH website, the Kindle Fire wasn’t exceptionally faster than other Android devices, rendering the page completely in 14 seconds (the Samsung Galaxy S II and Asus Eee Pad Transformer did the same in 10 seconds and 15 seconds respectively).
The quality of the Kindle Fire’s screen was a lovely surprise. With most cheap tablets, the screen quality (or lack thereof) is one of the dead giveaways, with poor viewing angles, limited contrast and crappy black levels. But the Kindle Fire’s display is very similar in quality to the BlackBerry PlayBook’s. The colours are rich, you can make out lots of detail on the screen, and while the blacks don’t quite match the bezel around the screen, they’re only one or two shades off. The IPS display means viewing angles are good as well, although it’s a little more reflective than the PlayBook, resulting in more glare on the screen when you’re looking at it from different angles. As far as media playback goes, the stereo speakers are a little weak, but it’ll happily play movies up to 720p with no lag or stuttering.
We got another pleasant surprise with the Kindle Fire’s battery life. Amazon claims it’s good for up to 7.5 hours of video, but we were able to get an hour more than that with Wi-Fi off and screen brightness set to 50%. This is the sort of battery life we expect as standard on high-end tablets, but for a sub-$200 tablet to offer this as well is fantastic.
The fact that you need to hack the Kindle Fire to get the most out of it in Australia means this device doesn’t suit the same first-time tablet user demographic as it does in the United States. For Aussies, the Kindle Fire is best suited for users that are a little more tech-savvy and are comfortable with rooting and sourcing the requisite APK installers over the Internet.
If you are prepared to do a little hacking, then the Kindle Fire is the best-value tablet on the market even if you can’t buy or rent any of the Amazon content. It’s a compact, affordable and high-quality option for web browsing, email, multimedia playback, reading eBooks, and running any of the hundreds of thousands of Android apps. No, you can’t simply walk into your local JB Hi-Fi or Harvey Norman to buy one, but the fact that it isn’t officially available in Australia just adds to its geek cachet.
The Kindle Fire is available from Amazon.com to customers located in the US.
Jenneth Orantia turned her back on a lucrative career in law to pursue her unhealthy obsession with consumer technology. She’s known for having at least half a dozen of the latest gadgets on her person at a time, and once won a bottle of Dom Perignon for typing 78WPM on a Pocket PC with a stylus.
Image credit: Amazon. Disclosure: This article contains affiliate marketing links; if you click though to Amazon and buy a Kindle Fire or other products Delimiter will receive a small payment.