Taking Amazon's Kindle Fire on vacation

While on vacation in Florida, I've found the Kindle Fire to be a nearly ideal portable digital convergence device, despite a few minor shortcomings.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

For the last week, I've been in Florida visiting family and doing a bit of house hunting. But let's face it, you don't come to the Sunshine State without doing a bit of R&R as well.

After surviving Turkey Day and having seen some 30+ homes with our realtor, my wife and I will be mostly be vegging out in the swimming pool and hot tub, catching up on some reading, and finding good places to eat in Palm Beach County while we rest up here on Singer Island.

Like many other vacations in the past, I like to bring along mobile technology to see how it can assist with our travel experience. Last year, when we visited Florida's Gold Coast,I brought along Google's CR-48 to see if it could replace a full-blown laptop.

This year, I brought the Amazon Kindle Fire, in addition to my Motorola XOOM and Lenovo X200 laptop.

In the last week or so since the Kindle Fire's introduction, there's been a lot of reviews by both the mainstream press and the new media which outline the device's strengths and shortcomings.

For the most part, I happen to agree that the first generation Kindle Fire is a better content consumption device than a full blown tablet, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

At this stage in the product's development cycle, the Kindle Fire is somewhat of an early adoption compromise tablet, but at the entry price, it's a very low risk investment to buy one.

Why? Because it's virtually guaranteed to be a huge success for Amazon and tons of Android applications are going to be ported over to it and a huge amount of content is going to be made available on the platform.

Even with the rough edges, I happen to think the product is a bargain for the $199, particularly if you are an Amazon Prime member.

But you know all this stuff already because everyone who has reviewed the device has pretty much said all of this. Most of these reviewers, however, have not yet taken it on the road and used it extensively, particularly in a travel/vacation setting.

Let's start with how the device works as a web browsing platform.

A lot of reviewers have said that the Silk web browser -- which uses Amazon's EC2 cloud to pre-fetch/pre-process pages before sending it down to the device -- has not proven to be significantly faster than conventional tablet browsers (such as the iPad's Mobile Safari or Android's native browser) which use direct HTTP connections.

From my experience, I would say that is not necessarily true. Certainly, when I've had the Kindle Fire connected to Wi-Fi broadband at a hotel or an access point that is giving me better than 10Mbps, Amazon's pre-fetch doesn't seem to make a bit of a difference.

However, I suggest you try using a Kindle Fire's browser versus the iPad or a Honeycomb tablet on an aircraft using Gogoor in an airport lounge where all the business travelers are competing for the same free connection.

In a heavily bandwidth constrained environment such as this, the Silk browser and the brute force of Amazon's cloud really shines.

Similarly, if you have to Wi-Fi tether the Kindle Fire on a 3G or 4G connection from your cell phone, I also find Silk to be extremely responsive and as smooth as its namesake.

And that resort hotel Wi-Fi broadband connection that's blazing fast during the daytime when everyone's at the pool and hitting happy hour? Try it on an iPad when the storm clouds start rolling in and everyone wants to check their Facebook or stream Netflix. Kindle Fire doesn't skip a beat.

Besides the advantages of the cloud enabled web browser, I really want to emphasize the convenience of having a handheld versus a full-size tablet like an iPad or a XOOM.

It's a much more comfortable device to use while lying in bed than a full-sized device (particularly when you are sharing sleeping... uh, surface area with your spouse) and I found it to be ideal for reading the morning news/emails/tweets while sipping my coffee on my parents' breakfast table or on a shaded patio.

You can hold the device with one hand while sipping coffee or eating with another, and it's easy to pick up and put down.

With a larger device, in the same usage scenario, you'd need to use some sort of a case/stand combo, such as one of the newer generation OtterBox cases. With a 7" device like the Kindle Fire, you don't.

It's also worth stating that the Kindle Fire is durable enough that you really don't need a carrying case for it for added protection, you can pretty much toss it in your wife's pocketbook (or your own "murse") without fear of it getting damaged.

While I feel enhanced protection cases for iPads and full-size Android tablets like the XOOM and Galaxy Tab are worth the investment and are a necessity (which also should factor into the overall weight and bulk considerations for carrying such a device with you on vacation) I think a $49 leather case for a Kindle Fire is probably a waste of money.

I'm more likely to look for some kind of inexpensive waterproof or water resistant sheath or cover if they become available.

So, what's the downside to using the Kindle Fire on vacation as your exclusive tablet or computing device?

About the only thing I would really like to see in the next-generation Kindle Fire is GPS with integrated mapping services. Case in point being Urbanspoon, which is our go-to application for finding restaurants when on we are on vacation.

Urbanspoon does run on a Kindle Fire, and Amazon offers it in their Appstore, but it can't auto-detect your location as a GPS-enabled smartphone can, so you have to program in your city or map location manually.

Since my wife and I both have Android smartphones with GPS integrated it's not that big a tragedy as we'd be bringing them along anyway and the Urbanspoon application runs on them just fine. But it would be a nice thing to add to the next generation product.

If Amazon doesn't want to substantially increase the cost of the unit, they may wish to consider developing some sort of Kindle Fire "helper" app that could be installed on a Wi-Fi tether capable smartphone which would allow it to use a remote device's GPS location.

Such a "helper" might also be useful in communicating with native Google APIs on the handset. While this sort of strategy has failed for Research in Motion on their PlayBook, I see this as more of a utility or value add rather than a functionality requirement like BlackBerry Bridge is.

Bluetooth in the next-generation model might be a good compromise since in theory the GPS services on the smartphone could be made platform agnostic via an app for iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Have you brought your Kindle Fire on Vacation yet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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