Amazon Kindle Fire

Is it a jumped-up e-reader, a cut-price iPad or nothing more than a portable shop window for Amazon’s endless shelves? The Kindle Fire blunders into the tablet wars with something to annoy everyone: an LCD screen to irritate E Ink fans; a GPS-less, camera-less, Bluetooth-less spec to infuriate the techies; and a closed, corporate retail interface that makes a mockery of Android’s open source roots.

And yet Jeff Bezos can’t seem to make enough of them: Amazon will ship several million Fires to cash-conscious consumers this Christmas. At 7-inches in size and under $200 in the US (no UK release plans yet), this top-of-the-range Kindle could be the perfect stocking filler for the mass market eager to embrace our tablety future. Or at the very least, the first in a new wave of tightly integrated devices that don’t need a second mortgage to buy in to.

Substance over style

Anyone hoping for a design as ground-breaking and eye-catching as the original Kindle should adjust their expectations. Whether or not the Fire was designed by Amazon’s ultra-secret “Lab 126” just up the road from Apple in Cupertino, it has all the charm and subtlety of Yorkie bar.

Its best angle is from the rear, where a hard rubberised case has nicely rounded corners and a Kindle logo etched into it. Around the front, it is at least clear and functional, with a small bezel and a tiny rubber seal between the glass and the glossy surround.

The power button, micro-USB port and headphone socket are on one short edge - the Fire’s lack of directionality means you can call it the bottom (if you want the Kindle logo to read the right way up to others) or the top (if you want the headphone cable out of the way). Despite its low price, build quality is very good. The Fire’s 413 grams and 11.4mm thickness are more than you’d want for extended reading with one hand but they do at least provide solidity and rigidity.

Lucky seven?

You can look at the 7-inch, 1024x600 display as either a serious step down from 10-inch tablets for viewing websites and videos, or a jump up from previous Kindles’ 6-inch screens for reading. Either way, it’s hard not to be impressed at the colour, clarity and viewing angle that Amazon squeezes from what must be a budget display.

Detail is excellent at 169ppi (same, in fact, as the luscious Galaxy Tab 8.9), there’s no blurring with motion, and the Fire’s dual-core processor keeps games and animations flowing freely. Touch sensitivity is fine, with a few exceptions. The navigation controls that pop up when you hit the Settings button in the top right corner can be very sluggish. More annoying is an over-sensitive page turn that kicks in the moment your thumb creeps over the slim bezel in the Kindle app, although perhaps this is a homage to the first Kindle, which suffered similar issues with its physical buttons?

Skin in the game

Amazon has done a superb job in skinning the Android 2.3 OS. Almost everything has been redesigned and rebranded, and yet it all remains intuitive to anyone who’s ever had a play with any Android device. Notifications are on the top left, settings on the top right – with a handy menu of features: rotation lock, volume, brightness and Wi-Fi.

In the absence of a volume rocker, this is also the only place you can adjust the volume. Until Amazon adds a mute button, an acceptable alternative when you need quiet in a hurry is just to smother the two small speakers on the top edge. Tapping the settings icon also calls up Android home, back and menu buttons along the bottom.

The main home screen is dominated by a Cover Flow-style carousel of recent books, apps, web pages and albums. It’s a great-looking way to hop between several active apps, but quickly gets long enough to become unwieldy for searching. Don’t expect much help from the search box above it, which only searches the titles of your media or launches a Google query. There’s no searching inside a book, an active web page or among your emails here.

Amazon apps

The home page also has tabs to jump straight to a newsstand, books, music, video, documents, apps or the web. Media links generally take you a bookshelf of your items, with cloud and device tags, and an arrow giving one-touch access to Amazon’s store, where you can purchase more stuff without any further sign-in.

The video experience is sure to be one of the Fire’s most popular features, and not just because the Fire comes with a month of Prime (Amazon’s £49/year free delivery service), including access to thousands of streaming videos. Buying a film or TV show is straightforward, with progress bars detailing progress for download and streams starting in a matter of seconds. Rentals are a generous 48 hours rather than Apple’s 24.

The Fire’s widescreen ratio means that Hollywood films are not actually that much smaller than super-letterboxed vids on the iPad, and speedy scrub and 10-second replay controls are a nice touch. Audio and video quality vary from stream to stream, of course, but generally we found them to be well encoded. However, there is no way to share content to a TV.

Sound and reading

The music player is a less exciting than videos, with a clunky transition from your library, to your cloud player, to the store, but sound quality through headphones (not supplied) was absolutely first class. It was also very easy to download cloud purchases to the device.

The Kindle app will not please bibliophiles. Not only is it essentially identical to the standard Android app, it lacks the much-touted X-ray feature to be found on the Kindle Touch and the swish page turn animations from the iPad.

If the Docs tab seems a little out of place on such a consumer-focused gadget, bear in mind this is a holdover from earlier Kindles, designed to give basic access to PDF, MOBI and text files. And it is just that – very basic.

Email, found under the Apps tab, is better. The app renders HTML messages extremely well and very quickly, there’s a fast search box, and good multiple mail move and delete options. The Android standard keyboard won’t excite anyone but it’s fast and offers to autocomplete spelling without any fuss.

Web and other apps

Amazon’s Silk browser was meant to offer cloud-accelerated smarts and near-instant downloads of popular websites. Don’t believe the hype. Browsing is much slower than the iPad, slower than the Samsung 8.9 and even slower than some 4G Android phones we've tested. Very busy sites also throw the Fire into a bit of tizzy, with pinch-to-zoom slowing or hanging momentarily.

The 7-inch screen is fine for browsing in landscape mode, but flip to portrait and pages start to look very cramped indeed. On the plus side, Flash elements loaded reliably and Flash games played OK, although not with the sleek liquidity of Samsung’s latest tablets.

Amazon’s dedicated market has around 10,000 apps. That sounds limiting but actually most of the big players are represented, and the company does offer a free paid app every day. All the more annoying then, that the pre-loaded Facebook ‘app’ is little more than a link to its website. Genuine apps and games installed and ran just fine – the 1GHz TI OMAP chip handles itself well.

Power and storage

With just 6GB of accessible storage on-board, Amazon is clearly angling for users to embrace its cloud offerings. Any songs or books you buy from Amazon are stored for free in its Cloud Drive, and you can also synch up to 5GB of other music before you have to start paying. There’s no Bluetooth, so you can’t connect a hardware keyboard or sound dock, no GPS and no camera.

On the power side, the Fire will play videoss or surf for around five and a half hours before starting to pop up with intrusive battery alerts. Amazon supplies a charger but, annoyingly, not a simple standalone micro USB cable for side-loading content.

Verdict

Despite what you might have read elsewhere, the Kindle Fire is not an ereader with attitude. It’s too heavy, the Kindle app is no better than any other Android tablet out there, and the LCD screen gets old quickly.

The Fire is not really a full tablet either, lacking both the web browsing prowess and techy extras (Bluetooth, GPS, camera) that make true tablets so much fun.

The Fire’s real benchmark is a media player like the iPod touch – and here’s where you see the value it represents. For the same price as an entry-level iPod touch, you get a bigger screen, a vastly improved video experience plus richer email and web browsing. Amazon’s retail services are nearly as smooth as Apple’s and, with Prime, offer better value for frequent consumers.

Only time will tell whether users will choose convenience and price over cutting edge spec, or whether the Fire will eventually follow the iPod range in its gradual decline.