I expected the Kindle Fire to be good for books, great for magazines and newspapers, great for video, and good for apps and games.
In practice, it’s none of these. Granted, I’ve only spent two days with it, so I can’t share any long-term impressions. But I’m honestly unlikely to have any, because this isn’t a device that makes me want to use it more. And that’s fatal.
A tablet is a tough sell. It’s too big for your pocket, so you won’t always have it available like a phone. It’s too small to have rich and precise input methods like keyboards and mice, and its power and size constraints prevent it from using advanced PC-class hardware, so it’s probably not going to replace your laptop. It’s just one more gadget to charge, encase, carry (sometimes), care for, and update. And it’s one more expenditure that can easily be cut and done without, especially in an economic depression.
“Tablets” weren’t a category that anyone needed to give a damn about until the iPad. It was a massive hit not because it managed to remove any of the problems inherent to tablets, but because it was so delightful, fun, and pleasant to use that anyone who tried their friend’s iPad for a few minutes needed to have one of their own.
I expected the Kindle Fire to be a compelling iPad alternative, but I can’t call it delightful, fun, or pleasant to use. Quite the opposite, actually: using the Fire is frustrating and unpleasant, and it feels like work.
For most people, every other computer in their life feels like work, and they don’t need another one.
It’s not an iPad competitor or alternative. It’s not the same kind of device at all. And, whatever it is, it’s a bad version of it.
That’s probably all you need to know about the Kindle Fire. Below is a detailed account of the issues I ran into, but I won’t take offense if you’re burnt out on long Kindle Fire reviews and stop here.
The big, boring part
This is about my experience using the Kindle Fire. And I’m going to try my best to make this about the Fire on its own merits, not about how it compares to the iPad, for the most part.
I’ve read part of a book, three magazines, and a newspaper. I’ve played two games and watched four TV shows from two sources. I’ve also taken far too long to set up my email, failed to find a good RSS reader, turned a lot of pages accidentally, repeated taps that did nothing the first time, and crashed a few apps and the Fire itself.
I’ve run into a lot of problems, actually:
- Almost the entire interface is sluggish, jerky, and unresponsive.
- Many touch targets throughout the interface are too small, and I miss a lot. It’s often hard to distinguish a miss from interface lag.
- The on-screen Back button often doesn’t respond, which is particularly frustrating since it’s essential to so much navigation.
- I keep performing small drags when I intend to tap, especially on the home screen. This makes the most common home-screen action — launching something — unnecessarily difficult and unreliable.
- The load-on-demand images in various lists and stacks in the interface significantly slow down browsing: I scroll to a screen full of empty placeholders, then I have to wait for the images to pop in, then I can look for the item I wanted. (And then I can move on to the next screenful when I don’t find it.)
- Amazon’s content-browsing apps don’t respond well if lost internet connectivity is regained — everything just sits there, empty, until you leave and re-enter that screen. This happens a lot when waking the Fire from sleep, when it has no connection for a few seconds before the Wi-Fi reconnects.
- Once, I woke the Fire from sleep after only a few minutes of non-use and it rebooted for some reason. (I’ve only had it for two days.)
- The backlight leaks significantly around the top edge (when held in portrait). This is distracting when viewing a white screen, like every reading screen.
- The headphone jack is on the bottom, so you can’t plug in headphones and rest it on anything while reading in portrait orientation. You can flip it upside down for the native reading interface, but many custom apps, like Conde Nast’s The New Yorker app, don’t support portrait-upside-down orientation.
- The asymmetric bezel’s “chin” is distracting in landscape orientation.
- It comes with a power cable, unlike the cheaper e-ink Kindles, but doesn’t come with a micro-USB cable to connect to a computer for media transfers. I expect more from a flagship product.
- I keep inadvertently turning pages when I intend to bring up the menu.
- All text is justified, and there’s no automatic hyphenation. So, especially on such a narrow screen, word spacing is often ridiculously wide, and it doesn’t look very good. (E-ink Kindles have this problem, too.)
- The page-turn animation, a simple full-screen slide, is distracting, too long, and jerky.
- Magazines are a special beast on the Fire. They can either be custom apps, like on the iPad, or they can provide their content in a split “Page View”/”Text View” interface provided by Amazon.
- The “Page View” is unusable. It’s literally just a big image of the magazine pages, like someone scanned them in. There’s nothing modern about it — the table of contents, being just an image, doesn’t even link to the articles. The Fire’s screen is so much smaller than a magazine that you need to zoom and pan constantly, and the zooming and panning is frustratingly sluggish, jerky, and clumsy. Even when zoomed in, my example issue of The Economist didn’t even have sharp text — each page’s image of text was too low-resolution to look good at a readable size. The entire Page View environment is so incredibly bad that I’m amazed Amazon shipped it.
- The “Text View” puts the magazine’s unformatted text and any important story images into the standard Kindle reading environment. It’s just as good as reading books, which is OK, but not great.
- The Conde Nast app that powers The New Yorker and their other Kindle magazines is similar to their iPad app, but very buggy. The text looks like it’s an image that’s been resampled and shrunk, so the text is blurry and almost impossible to read without eyestrain. Since this is an app and not a native magazine, the built-in “Text View” feature isn’t available to fix that problem. Bugs in the app have regularly prevented me from accessing the on-screen Home button, leaving me stuck. (The Fire really needs a hardware Home button.)
- The New York Times, a completely Fire-native newspaper, is sluggish and confusing to navigate. Page-turn animation stutters each time, even moreso than when reading books. The interface also actively interferes with reading: when the menus slide away after opening an article, the whole article shifts upward, so your eyes lose their place.
- It really needs hardware volume-control buttons.
- The free Prime video selection is very poor compared to Netflix’s streaming library. The TV selection is particularly misleading: they’ll list a show, but only one season, or some subset of its episodes, is actually free.
- The Netflix app is terrible:
- The video stutters and drops frames.
- The video quality is poor, with many visible artifacts. On the same internet connection, watching the same shows on my Apple TV, I reliably get crisp, high-bitrate streams.
- The little systemwide Home/Back button bar is collapsed to a skinny version along the bottom of the screen, but it’s always visible: there’s no true full-screen video playback. (Amazon’s video app has true full-screen playback. Presumably, no third-party app can.)
- It crashes a lot.
- Much of the browsing interface is cut off or works poorly in landscape orientation, so I need to keep flipping between orientations when navigating video.
- The bottom-left corner of the Fire, when held in portrait, gets noticeably warm during use. It’s almost uncomfortable to hold during long, moderately intensive tasks… such as video playback.
- MP3 playback isn’t gapless, which is distracting if you’re listening to an album or live performance.
- 6 GB is not a lot of space, and there’s no music-sync software, so you probably won’t be putting a lot of music on here from your computer. That’s for the best, though, since most people who want to listen to a lot of music carry around an iPod or iPhone, which can fit in many pockets and bags that the Fire can’t.
- Headphones sometimes “pop” loudly in your ears when you insert them in the jack and when you wake the Fire from sleep.
- The Fire-optimized version of Plants vs. Zombies, a great game I’m very familiar with on iPad, is extremely slow in every “Loading” screen. You can really feel with every interaction that the Fire is not fast enough to be a good game platform.
- I almost bought the “wrong” version of the game, since the regular one ranked higher than the “Kindle Fire” edition in the Appstore.
- I wanted to lower the volume while playing. Since there are no volume buttons, I had to go into the system menu, which blacked out the game screen. The game had to (slowly) reload afterward. A very common action that should be a simple button-press became an ordeal.
- The game selection is pretty poor. Sure, it has some of the big-name iOS hits like Angry Birds, but it’s missing almost all of games I searched for, and it’s hard to find anything in the Appstore that looks professional and trustworthy.
- The built-in Email app is pretty poor, with a limited, clunky, unintuitive interface that often got stuck in its own Settings screen for some reason.
- I was unable to find good apps for many common roles in the Amazon Appstore. This is partly because it’s smaller than the complete Android Marketplace, and partly because Android just has far fewer great apps than I expected.
- People say the best Android RSS reader is Google’s official Reader app, but that’s not available through the Amazon Appstore and probably never will be.
- What about other apps where Google makes the best version for Android, like Gmail or Maps? A lot of Android’s value is lost without Google’s apps.
And finally, I don’t like the “carousel” flip-card-style home screen interface. Like the Xbox 360 interface makeover from a couple of years ago, it makes browsing through more than a few items difficult and slow because you can’t really see the items if you skim through quickly. It’s a poor, unusable interface metaphor that our industry should retire.
The Fire is an Android version, sort of, of the iPod Touch. It’s the first device available that’s inexpensive and offers Android in a somewhat reasonable package without a cellular contract.
But that’s just about all I can say for it. It’s a bad game player, a bad app platform, a bad web browser, a bad video player, and, most disappointingly, a bad Kindle.
If I didn’t need the Fire for Instapaper testing, I’d return it.