Great for books and media, bad for magazines and newspapers

November 17, 2011
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Amazon’s Kindle Fire is a remarkable achievement, and an important device for the tablet industry for three reasons.

  • As a reading device, it’s excellent.
  • It immediately establishes the 7-inch tablet form-factor as viable and functional for tablets.
  • Given the low price, it’s almost certain to single-handedly jumpstart the Android ecosystem by injecting millions of users into the marketplace.

This third point is important. An increased flow of dollars to app developers will be a huge boost to the Android platform however distinct Amazon's use of it is. 

The Kindle Fire is not perfect, though. It is a bit cumbersome compared to a standard Kindle and other 7-inch tablets, and its fenced-off articulation of Android 2.3 will frustrate some users. But when viewed as a pure media consumption—and shopping—device, it’s great. This could finally be the big counterpoint to the iPad we've been waiting for. And by we, I mean everyone—consumers, Android developers, Google. And of course, Amazon. A lot of dollars are going to circulate because of this device.

Unfortunately, there is one glaring weak spot. Amazon and its publishing partners have left a lot on the table in terms of the Kindle Fire's presentation of magazine and newspaper content. It's so mediocre, it's shocking, particularly in contrast to Apple's Newsstand. I can't help but think it's a major setback for an industry that desperately needs more readers.

Initial impressions are favorable
The first thing almost everyone has remarked upon is how heavy the Kindle Fire is. At just under a pound, it feels surprisingly heavy. Granted, we’re only talking about 0.9 pounds total, but still. Previous Kindle owners will be surprised – it’s almost twice as heavy as the third-generation e-ink Kindle. It still only weighs 66% of the iPad 2, and you get used to it pretty fast.

Set up is a snap: like most tablets, you connect to your network, enter your Amazon log-in, and you are off and running. Well for the most part. I was disappointed to see that the Kindle Fire never prompted me to set up email. Isn’t that one of the big selling points of having this thing in the first place?

Top-notch display
The Kindle Fire’s display impresses upon startup. The 1024×600 resolution feels appropriate for the 7-inch screen, and with 169 pixels per inch, it feels more vibrant than most tablets while watching movies or playing games, or even reading. (The iPad 2, in comparison, only has 132 pixels per inch, but has a higher resolution).

The real win here is the screen’s brightness. At the highest setting, it is possible to read the display in direct sunlight. A slight natural sepia tint in the Kindle reader makes reading books a little easier versus the harsh white glare the iPad and other tablets use for text.

The downside to this brightness unfortunately is that even at the lowest brightness setting, the Kindle Fire feels too bright. To some degree this is subjective, but when reading at night in a room with no lights on (granted, not the healthiest reading environment for your eyes), it takes a while to get used to the brightness level.

Snappy (but limited) interface
Although Amazon has been criticized for creating such a contained custom Android environment, the decision to use Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) as the base for the Kindle Fire’s OS was clearly the right move. Navigating between screens and pages and categories and apps is a snappy experience. All too often, this is not the case with Android 3.x Honeycomb tablets. The only slowdown I experienced was an occasional stutter when transitioning from my media library back to the home screen.

The other aspect of this custom Android implementation that’s hard to criticize is the interface itself. The wide-open Android desktop does not exist here. In its place, is a very simple and elegant browsing mechanic. The home page displays icons for all of your books, magazines, newspapers, websites, and more in the chronological order you’ve accessed them. In landscape view, this and the top level nav (Search, Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, Web) are all there for you to see. In portrait mode, you also see a quick-launch “Favorites” bar that is one of the only customizable elements of the interface.

If Amazon’s messaging didn’t make it clear enough, this interface makes it crystal clear that for Amazon, the Kindle Fire is a pure media consumption play vs. a productivity one. Nothing wrong with that. In some ways, this clarity of intent helps the Kindle Fire. Building an interface for consumption is far easier than building a general interface. With this in mind, Amazon has created distinct media categories (detailed above), and has placed every standalone app into a separate category.

If you have already purchased videos or music or magazine/newspaper subscriptions through Amazon, or sent documents to your Kindle account, this media will all be waiting for you in the appropriate section.

The Kindle Fire comes bundled with a handful of apps, including Netflix, QuickOffice (the basic reader version, not the editable pro version), and the Pulse news reader, which is also situated front and center in the Favorites bar. Numerous games are available through Amazon's proprietary app store. Wise to the coming surge of purchasers, many game and app developers are already slashing their prices in order to rise to the top of the charts. (ProTip: If you're a developer, you should do the same.)

But there are no widgets, no multiple home screens you can scroll through, and none of the power-user features that Android users have grown accustomed to. There is, however, an option that allows you to lock the device and to unlock it with a PIN code.

I’ve heard a few complaints about the power/standby button being awkwardly situated on the bottom of the device (which also houses the audio jack and micro USB port), but the truth is that we’ll all get used to it in time. The lack of Bluetooth is a much bigger deal for people (like me) who own Bluetooth stereo receivers.

Web browsing = a mixed bag
I have mixed feelings about the Kindle Fire’s web browser. Speed certainly isn’t an issue—pulling up web pages takes less time than it does on most other tablet browsers, including the iPad. More importantly, you don’t get busted down to the mobile versions of websites like you do with so many Android browsers.

The problem is that while web pages look great in landscape mode, they look too small and crowded in portrait mode. The bigger problem is the notion that your browsing experience and data aren’t private because the Fire’s Silk browser uses Amazon’s Compute cloud to produce a faster browsing experience. Amazon has stated that all this browsing data is collected anonymously. Still, there's no question personal browsing history is being collected and that's the kind of thing that sets privacy advocates — I think legitimately — on edge. If you’re really concerned, you can always shut this feature and surf the web in a normal, non-cloud fashion. At the very least, this will make you appreciate the technology behind Silk.

Books are good, magazines are not
Not surprisingly, the Kindle Fire excels in the book-reading experience, but it’s surprisingly inadequate in the magazine-reading experience.

One of the Kindle’s best attributes has always been its ability to automatically sync your library and your place in books between devices. This still exists, and works as great as it ever did. Similarly, the process of buying and reading books is as seamless as it could be. The competitors have poked holes at Amazon’s locked-down, proprietary eBook format, but between the massive library and the ability to access these eBooks on multiple devices, this will be an irrelevant real-world concern for most people.

Unfortunately, the Kindle Fire’s magazine and newspaper newsstand won’t be the game-changer for traditional print media that I had hoped for and anticipated. Not until the print guys start building more sophisticated front-ends for their content.

Here’s an example. I expected the Kindle version of the San Francisco Chronicle to look like the iPad version. Instead, it looks like a slightly-colorized version of the original Kindle’s black and white version, with few images (that are color at least), no up/down scrolling, and no dynamic updates. Ditto the Washington Post and New York Times (pictured above). In the land of magazines, at least we get full-color spreads, but most magazines are simply PDF conversions. Some publications, like the New Yorker and Sports Illustrated, have abandoned the newsstand entirely and instead offer apps for existing print/digital subscribers.

Given the success of Apple’s Newsstand, this is a big problem, both for Amazon and for publishers. How many Kindle Fire users are going to open a magazine and be disappointed? The answer is: tens of thousands. Amazon needs to address this immediately by reaching out to its top-selling magazine and newspaper partners and finding ways to enhance their presentation.

It’s worth noting that aside from the PIN lock, as of now there is no real privacy on this device. If you’ve bought books that you’re embarrassed by or want to hide, you’re going to have to delete them from your account via Amazon.com’s Kindle Management area, because there is no way to hide or cordon media.

Productivity is…okay
As you might have guessed by now, the Kindle Fire is not ideally suited for work. For starters, Amazon has locked us out of the general Android Marketplace in an effort to create a more controlled environment. In its place, you’ll find Amazon’s proprietary app store, which has some noticeable omissions—like Dropbox and Business Calendar.

Custom keyboards like Swiftkey Tablet X are also missing. Again, no surprise—and the truth is that at 7 inches, the default keyboard works pretty well for most tasks.

In defense of the Kindle Fire, there are lots of productivity apps available, including MS Office compatible suites, remote desktop apps, and more, making it nice upgrade for road warriors who already own black and white Kindles. Plus, until Blackberry completes its integration with Android, it will have far more productivity apps than the PlayBook.

Final thoughts
Ultimately, it all boils down to this: Is the Kindle Fire going to replace my iPad, which pretty much already replaced my e-ink Kindle? The answer is…not really.

But will I be using my Kindle Fire more than my Kindle? Absolutely. I have scores of unread books already on my Kindle, and reading on a 7-inch tablet at night is far easier than a 10-inch iPad. The ability to check in with email in the morning and at night is also valuable. Plus, I have music saved into Amazon’s music service. Finally, I use Amazon quite frequently for shopping.

If you’re already an Amazon user, this feels like a steal at $199. If you’re not and already own an iPad or some other tablet, it’s still worth considering. Do you really think you’re going to be a one-tablet household forever?  

 

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