Amazon's Kindle Fire is a snappy tablet that hides Android's warts, serves up the e-commerce giant's various services and is built for consumption. And oh by the way, it's highly likely that you'll buy more stuff from Amazon while you're at it.
This review is about Amazon's strategy as much as it is about the device. The Kindle Fire is boiled down to seven tabs---newsstand, books, music, video, docs, apps and Web. Like Amazon's approach with its Kindle franchise---notably the new Kindle Touch, which is also well done---the goal is to relegate the hardware to the background. When the Fire is unboxed it's already set up to your Amazon account.
It's worth noting that there's only one button on the Kindle Fire, an on-off switch. The Kindle Fire was separated at birth---actually the contract equipment manufacturer---from Research in Motion's PlayBook. The PlayBook is bulkier, but the screen and profile is almost identical to the Kindle Fire.
Kindle Fire: Separated at birth from RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook. Credit: Larry Dignan
Where everything changes is the software. Amazon's user interface hides Android well. In fact, if I didn't click on settings you'd have no idea there was an Android 2.3 OS at all. You really can't find the Androidness on the Fire. The Kindle Fire just works and felt snappy for the most part (there were a few kids' books that seemed to cause some latency). Magazines are likely to be a killer app as well as comic books, video is handy for kids but adults may find the 7-inch screen small, apps work well as does the Web browser and the music player is well integrated. The Fire is built to entertain you. This fact hit me over the head when someone asked about email on the Fire---I didn't even think about it. On email, Amazon is including an email client.
With that email note, it's worth noting what the Kindle Fire can't do:
It can't take pictures.
It's not a device to create content.
If you go to Android Market on the browser you wind up on Amazon's App Store. Why? Amazon uses its App Store as a redirect because it wants to ensure app quality.
The only port you'll get is to charge. Credit: Larry Dignan
But like the e-ink Kindle, I'm good with those tradeoffs. In fact, Amazon appears to be going for the two and three Kindle households with its pricing. An e-ink Kindle can ride shotgun with the Kindle Fire and not break the bank. If the price point is right I don't need a do-it-all device. I can live in Amazon's world and for the most part already do. More importantly, the Kindle Fire passed my daughter test. Let's face it a big part of tablet return on investment is handing it to your kids---8 and 5 year olds in my case---and keeping them occupied. Apps, video and kids books did the job nicely.
What Amazon's Kindle Fire really excels at is blending the cloud with local storage. Barnes & Noble made a lot of noise about its tablet and 16GB of memory (Fire has 8GB), but for many of us this comparison will be a non-issue. My music was uploaded to Amazon's Cloud Player and I haven't stored much of anything locally. Cloud and local storage blends together well. That equation changes when disconnected, but 8GB can get you through cross-country flight without any issues.
Every category on the Fire has a store button on the right. I called the Fire a consumption device earlier, but on further review it's really an impulse purchase device. Want the free video? Become a Prime subscriber. Want all your music from iTunes in Amazon's cloud? Get the 20GB of storage for $20. Need that new song? Click. Ditto for movies. And oh yeah physical goods are there from the home button and I ordered some tea. Amazon isn't annoying with the shopping pitches, but the ecosystem is all about e-commerce. With the Kindle Fire you're in Amazon's world. That world happens to be about commerce and services.
I couldn't help but play with the Kindle Fire and chuckle at Wall Street analysts who have been fretting about margins. Amazon will get its returns---probably within a month from the time the Fire is purchased. It's hard not to buy something. At $199, Amazon doesn't need much to break even. And if you buy the lifetime value of a customer argument, carrying the Kindle Fire is really like toting an e-commerce kiosk.
Amazon's price points will lead to two Kindle households. Credit: Larry Dignan
The other big theme with the Kindle Fire is that it's also a platform play. By making it easier to suck out iTunes library to Amazon's cloud---I uploaded my library in 2 hours---the company is making it easier to switch allegiance and hedge your entertainment bets. I argue that's highly likely that there will be folks that own an iPad, a Kindle Fire and maybe a Kindle Touch. No matter how you slice it Amazon will garner more of your time. It's a store that's quickly becoming a hangout for entertainment services. However, the Fire isn't necessarily an iPad killer. If anything the Amazon and Apple approaches will occupy the low and high ends of the tablet equation, respectively, and crush everything caught in the middle.
Overall, the Kindle Fire is worth the $199 and integrated well. The differentiation with the Nook will be its integrated music and video stores combined with cloud services.
Clarification: An earlier version noted there was no USB. There is a charger that can be used to turn the Kindle into a storage device to load content.