Quick review: Kindle Fire, a market creator

The Kindle Fire and an iPad, for size comparison.
The Kindle Fire and an iPad, for size comparison.

I've had a Kindle Fire for just a few hours, so I won't pretend to write a definitive hardware review, but here are some observations:

The Kindle Fire will create its own market. It's not a matter of competing with Apple. At $199, the Fire is exactly $300 cheaper than the cheapest iPad tablet. Amazon is first and foremost a retailer, and is very smart about analyzing price-demand curves. The Christmas timing is right, and it's in local stores (Target, Best Buy, even Walmart) so you can touch it before buying.

It's rock-solid and worth every penny. Forget any fanboi FUD you've read about it being slow; it's absolutely not. The UI is smooth and the Web browser is snappy. The capacitive touchscreen is responsive. It's physically impressive, if a touch heavy (big battery).

The media store integration really works. Amazon's Web UI for video browsing is pretty poor, and its Roku app is lame when compared with Netflix. The Fire seems to have gone to college and has a few things to teach the rest of the Amazon family. It's focused on Amazon Prime videos (the "free" ones) and very well organized. General Amazon shopping is just as slick. Amazon is said to be losing a few dollars on every Fire in order to make it back on commerce. My only fear is that they'll make it all back from my family alone.

So let's say there will be five million of these in US homes by the end of the year (a number predicted by analysts who monitor component shipments). What does that mean for media producers?

I found the pinch-and-zoom Silk browser to be very pleasant when reading full-size websites. Zoom is important not so much for legibility (the display is very sharp) but for clicking on links. Websites generally aren't designed for fingers; they're designed for mouse pointing. Steve Jobs famously claimed 7-inch tablets would fail because fingers aren't pointed like pencils. Zoom fixes that and feels natural.

As publishers, we're going to have to decide what content to aim at these tablets. Right now some news sites detect the Silk browser as a mobile device and flip the user over to m.example.com. Generally I found myself preferring the full website, which is definitely not the case when I'm browsing on my Galaxy S phone.

I'm coming away much less concerned about small-tablet optimization and much more optimistic that fairly simple responsive-layout techniques will serve us well.

The browser is Webkit-based, like Chrome and Safari. It seems to be based on the Android browser with UI enhancements including tabs. The more interesting changes are under the hood.

By default, it uses caching implemented in an Amazon EC2 cloud proxy to accelerate performance. There's been a lot of misinformation about it that should be cleared up: it doesn't spy on secured sessions and it doesn't steal personal information. Most of the speedup apparently comes from SPDY, a Google innovation that gets rid of HTTP connection latency. There also is supposedly some predictive downloading but I did not see evidence of that.

All this is actually good news for publishers, because it in effect gives us the benefits of a free CDN, at least for Fire traffic, without molesting the content or interfering with analytics and ad networks.

It's best not to think of the Fire as a mobile device (like your phone) but rather as a portable device, like a netbook. There's no 3G or 4G connection. There's no GPS and the browser doesn't even support HTML5 geolocation. It does fit in a jacket side pocket and I can use my Android phone as a portable wifi hot spot, but the overwhelming use case for the Fire will be in-home media and Web browsing.

I encountered just a few bugs. The Netflix app has a problem with excessive scrolling through movie lists (nearly twice as far as you moved your finger). The email app seems to be checking mail automatically even though I told it do only check manually. The third ... well, I'm having a Rick Perry.

There are shortcomings. The hardware includes no microphone or webcam or SD slot. There's a photo gallery, but I have no idea how to get photos into it. There's a contacts list, but it doesn't sync with Google, so it's sort of useless to me.

Clayton Christensen's disruptive-innovation theory says we should watch the low end of the marketplace closely. The first wave of products may be junk, but they quickly evolve to a level of "good enough" for most purposes and surprise the incumbents. Over a year ago I reviewed a cheap Chinese Android tablet, which had a lot of shortcomings. Last Christmas I bought my daughter Paige a Nook Color, which was "good enough" for a lot of things but had some performance annoyances. The "good enough" line is clearly crossed by the Kindle Fire (and the new Nook Tablet, which is similar with slightly better specs and features).

Stand by for a huge spike in at-home tablet traffic to the Web.


I've had the Kindle Fire now for a couple of weeks.

Amazon has updated the system to version 6.2 (I have no idea why it began with version 6). The updates are automatic and users may not even notice they've happened. The Netflix tablet app has been replaced by the Netflix phone app, which is actually a bit easier to browse and doesn't look out of place on the larger screen. Both the Web browser and the Kindle launcher UI, which weren't bad before, seem faster.

Under the hood, the Kindle Fire is just an Android Honeycomb Gingerbread device with a few common pieces missing (GPS, phone functionality, physical buttons). The Android project would not call it Android-compatible because it hasn't been submitted for testing and might not pass anyway because of the omitted functionality. But at heart it's still Android.

I hack on everything I touch, so I've rooted the device in order to install some Google functionality (Gmail app instead of the standard email app, and Google calendar sync).

Android lets you replace the launcher even without root access, so if you want something more tablet-like and less Amazon-focused, it's easy. I've tried a couple of alternatives the Kindle Fire experience -- Claystone and Go Launcher EX -- but I've gone back to the stock launcher. These tools aren't in the Amazon appstore, but are easily downloaded from sites like Getjar.com.

I downloaded the Dropbox app for Android from Dropbox.com. I've tried the Dolphin browser as well. Everything I've tried so far works as expected.

When I said the Kindle Fire will create its own market, I didn't fully appreciate the implications of that.

Browsing Amazon's forums, I see that it's being ordered by a lot of people who are at the opposite end of the technology-adoption curve from the the iPad world -- including people who don't even have Internet access at home and have no idea what wifi is, or how Netflix and Hulu work.

I don't expect those folks will be sideloading apps or rooting the system, but they'll be fine with the included functionality and the variety of apps and games in the Amazon appstore. The truth about tablets is the same truth that applies to laptops and desktop computers: Only a few apps really get used.

Updated my comment to change Honeycomb to Gingerbread. My brain must have been taking a walk. Honeycomb is the tablet-optimized version of Android that's available only on a few Google-certified devices.