It’s a brand new year, and I am proud to be part of something brand new here at MakeUseOf: An independent hardware review followed by a giveaway. We’ve done plenty of giveaways before, mostly for software, but also for very cool hardware such as the dSLR. Today we’ll be giving away an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet to one lucky reader, but we took the time to test it first, and we have a complete review of what it’s like. We actually bought this Kindle Fire – this giveaway is not sponsored by Amazon or anyone else, so the review is not biased. Just because we’re giving one away doesn’t mean it’s a perfect device (otherwise we’d just keep it all for ourselves!).
Oh, and the Kindle Fire is originally a US-only device – so if you’re outside of the States, this may be your best chance to get one. Let’s get started, shall we?
The Kindle Fire is a 7-inch multi-touch tablet. It has a dual-core processor, a resolution of 1024×600 pixels, and 8GB of internal memory. It runs a custom build of the Android operating system – so heavily customized, you won’t feel it’s Android most of the time (more on that later). At $200, the Kindle Fire costs less than half of an iPad 2.
As noted above, Amazon has opted to make the Kindle Fire available only within the US. This means that if you’re outside of the US, many parts of the Kindle experience will not be accessible for you (for example, the App Store and movies). I tested the device in Israel, and this review reflects that user experience. There are ways to circumvent Amazon’s regional protections, but they tend to be convoluted, and since I wanted to keep the device in a pristine state for a lucky reader, I did not try them. So, this review is mainly about the hardware, and what you could expect from the Kindle as a hardware platform.
The Kindle Fire arrives in a sturdy no-frills box. In the spirit of the times, Amazon clearly made an effort to use as little packaging material as possible. If you’ve ever bought a “regular” Kindle, the Fire’s packaging should be familiar. Within the cardboard box you’ll find a molded “holder” for the Kindle. Under the Kindle you’ll find a power adaptor, and that’s about it:
Above you can see the Kindle Fire sitting on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. While the Fire has a smaller screen, it is significantly thicker than the Galaxy Tab:
This is a side-by-side view of the Kindle Fire and Galaxy Tab. The Tab is tapered so it feels even thinner along the edges, but even when you compare the base thickness, the Kindle is noticeably thicker.
For another size comparison, here’s the Kindle Fire next to a Kindle 3:
This is much more similar – in fact, the Kindle Fire is almost exactly the same size as the Kindle 3, only much thicker. Unlike the Kindle 3, the top of the Kindle Fire is completely unadorned – not even an Amazon logo in sight. No buttons, either. It’s just a bezel with a screen. You can find the Kindle logo embossed on the heavily rubberized back of the device:
The rubberized back, combined with the device’s compact width, make it easy to hold. But at 413 grams (14.6 ounces), the Kindle Fire is not a lightweight device, especially not when held with just one hand. So while size isn’t an issue when trying to grip it with just one hand, for prolonged use you will probably find yourself using both hands to hold the device, or propping it up against something.
Controls are bunched up at the bottom of the device, much like on “regular” Kindles:
There’s a headphone jack on the left, a Micro USB port, and a power button. Let’s compare that with the control layout on a Kindle 3:
Above is the Kindle 3, and below is the Kindle Fire. As you can see, Amazon has done away with the volume button on the Kindle Fire: It’s not located anywhere else – it’s just gone. Another significant change: The power button isn’t activated by sliding, but by a simple push. Both of these are actually big steps backwards for the Kindle. Changing the volume requires fiddling with the touch screen, and I’ve turned the screen off by accident many times just by holding the device. I hope Amazon improves the control layout on future revisions of the Fire, and makes it more similar to the Kindle’s proven layout.
The Kindle Fire also includes two speakers:
As you can see above, the speakers are lined up on the device’s “top” side – i.e, opposite of the controls. This is a very strange place for the speakers, given the fact that videos must be watched in landscape mode. When you turn the device over to watch a video, both speakers are on the same side. It’s also very easy to muffle the sound accidentally when holding the device. A much better position for the speakers would have been on the wide side of the device, for actual stereo when watching videos.
Using The Kindle Fire
This is what the Kindle’s main interface looks like in landscape orientation. At the very top is a heavily modified Android status bar. Directly underneath is the list of content types the device can display, and under that is a display of your recently viewed items. You can swipe between them in a CoverFlow-like display:
Under the recently used items you will find wooden “shelves” containing your favorite apps, books, and other content:
To place something on the shelf, simply grab it from the “recently viewed” display and drag it onto the shelf. Couldn’t be simpler, really. Now let’s look at the video store:
The Kindle Fire comes with a 1-month free Amazon Prime membership, which entitles you to view lots of content for free (if you’re in the US). If you’re outside of the States, you’ll have to make do with trailers:
My screenshot tool won’t show the video, but you can see the control interface. When you don’t touch the screen, the interface disappears, leaving nothing but the video you’re watching. The top-left button lets you rewind ten seconds back; on the top-right you can see the volume slider, and at the bottom is a scrubber. Very simple, really.
Now let’s look at reading a book with the Kindle Fire:
Amazon WhisperSync works pretty well, and the Kindle Fire usually syncs to the last page I’ve read in the book. The reading app interface looks like this:
This is in landscape mode. The app is virtually identical to the Kindle Android app, except that controls are laid across the bottom bar because the Kindle Fire doesn’t have a Menu hardware button. Tapping the screen’s right side flips to the next page, tapping its left side flips to the previous page. This is nice in theory, but it’s very easy to tap the screen edges by mistake when holding the device. Tapping the middle of the screen pops up the control interface you can see in the screenshot above. When you’re just reading, the app looks like this:
You can pick one of three different background colors and several fonts, and also change the font size. Pretty much what you would expect from a Kindle Android app, really.
Next, let’s look at reading a magazine on the Kindle Fire:
This is the January 2012 issue of Popular Science (you can buy magazines internationally in the Kindle Store). There’s a strip along the bottom for quickly scrubbing through the magazine. A spread looks like this:
This particular magazine is a perfect copy of its paper counterpart. If you were expecting crazy interactivity, embedded videos and other cool stuff, you won’t find it here. To be able to read anything, you’ll need to pinch to zoom and then pan around with your finger. The maximum zoom level isn’t very high, either. So while magazines can display well on the Kindle Fire, the small screen size makes them difficult to read.
Some magazines are offered in a “Kindle native” format, which looks more like an eBook than a magazine. Take Fantasy & Science Fiction for example:
As you can see, this is much like reading a Kindle book. This format works very well for text-heavy magazines, and is perfectly readable.
The Silk Browser
One of the Kindle’s main selling points is Amazon Silk, a “revolutionary cloud-accelerated” browser (Amazon’s words, not mine). The Silk browser uses Amazon’s cloud to make browsing faster. Amazon says: With each page request, Silk dynamically determines a division of labor between the mobile hardware and Amazon EC2 (i.e. which browser sub-components run where) that takes into consideration factors like network conditions, page complexity and the location of any cached content.
That sounds slick, and should translate to blazing-fast browsing times. Unfortunately, in regular use, I would be hard pressed to say that Silk made any noticeable difference. Gizmodo took around 15 seconds to fully render, and MakeUseOf took around 20-25 seconds. The page was usable before it completed rendering, but it didn’t feel blazing fast.
On a positive note, page rendering was spot-on perfect:
Flash content works silky-smooth, and the whole thing feels very solid. Pinch-to-zoom is highly responsive, too. All in all, browsing with the Kindle Fire is a lovely experience.
Living With the Kindle Fire
In my day-to-day life, I usually spend quality time with my Kindle in bed, right before I go to sleep. With a regular Kindle, this means I have my reading lamp on, and I read it like a book. When using the Fire, I didn’t need a reading lamp, which was nice. The downside was that after a couple of hours reading in the dark, my eyes hurt. This happened even when I used a black background.
Another annoyance was software-related. As I mentioned, there are no hardware buttons for controlling the sound volume. You can turn the volume down using the top control bar, which looks like this:
However, even with the volume muted, the Kindle sounded an audible alert when battery dropped below 15%. This was late at night, with my significant other lying in bed next to me, trying to sleep. Pretty irritating.
Due to the Kindle’s heft, I had to adapt a new reading posture. I couldn’t really lie on my back and hold the Kindle over my head; I also couldn’t hold it vertically because I kept turning it off by mistake. Eventually I was able to read by moving to landscape mode and gripping the Kindle with both hands.
Should You Buy It?
If you’re in the US, my answer would be an unequivocal YES. For $200, the Kindle Fire is a lot of tablet. The UI is very responsive, and with Amazon’s tempting content options (Kindle lending library, videos, etc.), the Kindle Fire would probably be a joy to use. I would not, however, buy it instead of an e-ink Kindle. For just reading books, the regular Kindle still wins.
If you’re outside of the US, the answer becomes more complicated. On its own, with its default Amazon firmware, the Kindle Fire is not such a great choice. The Amazon App Market doesn’t work outside the US, which means you won’t be able to install any apps (that’s why I didn’t review that part). You also won’t be able to watch videos. However, if you are interested in the Kindle strictly as a hardware platform, it is a lovely device. Alternative Android distribution CyanogenMod is available for the Kindle Fire, which means you can reflash your Kindle Fire, utterly void any sort of warranty, and have fun with a slick 7” tablet. Whether or not you choose to go down that path is up to you, of course.
We’re giving this Kindle Fire review unit away to one very lucky MakeUseOf reader. Here’s how to join the giveaway.
How do I win the Kindle Fire?
It’s simple, just follow the instructions.
Step 1: Fill in the giveaway form
Please fill in the form with your real name and email address so that we can get in touch if you are chosen as a winner.
The giveaway code required to activate the form is available from our Facebook page.
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This giveaway begins now and ends January 31st. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email.
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