All eyes are on Amazon's Kindle Fire to provide fresh competition for Apple's iPad 2, today's dominant tablet. Not so fast: Beneath Kindle Fire's slick veneer and unparalleled shopping integration lies a tablet that fails to impress as either a tablet or as an e-reader. The Kindle Fire ($200, price as of 11/15/2011) is best considered a relatively inexpensive, hassle-free but flawed way to consume books, music, and videos purchased at Amazon. As a tablet, though, the Fire can't hold a flame to the best tablets available today: It has subpar specs, a limited interface, and a surprisingly messy app store.
When the Fire was first introduced, I immediately wondered where it would fit into the overall tablet universe. It runs a custom operating system based on Android 2.3, limits you to buying apps solely via the Amazon Appstore, and has just 8GB of storage, all red flags that made this tablet stand as a curiosity amidst the rest of the Android crowd. But at $200, and with the colossal weight of Amazon behind it, the Fire automatically becomes worth talking about.
Fire's integration with Amazon's media storefronts is, bar none, the best thing about this tablet. Rather than have one place to shop, and another to use your digital media, Amazon consolidates these experiences into one. The Newsstand, Books, Music, and Apps tabs all take you to your personal library first, and then have a prominent but not offensive option to go to the store for that category. (The exception to this is the Video tab, which deposits you in the video storefront first, and then lets you hopscotch into your personal Library.) The seamless interface makes acquiring content of any kind--be it for ownership, or, in the case of movies and TV shows, streaming, or rental--the best experience of any I've tried on a tablet.
In most other respects, Kindle Fire left me feeling tepid, at best. Let's walk through the device step-by-step to see which marks it hits, and which it misses.
Kindle Fire: Simple Design
Physically, the Kindle Fire does little to distinguish itself. Contrary to some reports, it really doesn't resemble black tablets like the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, which was rumored to to be Amazon's starting point for the Kindle Fire. In fact, the Fire is smaller than the PlayBook, measuring 7.5 by 4.7 by 0.45 inches, and weighing 0.91 pounds. That's a hair heavier than Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet and T-Mobile's SpringBoard (each of which weighs 0.88 pounds), and noticeably heavier than Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, which weighs 0.77 pounds.
While the Fire didn't feel especially heavy or tiresome to hold in one hand while reading, its weight is still less than ideal. In fact, a survey of five colleagues saw a clear preference for the weight and balance of the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. All preferred the Fire's velvety back, which has a smooth, rubberized texture that makes it easy to hold.
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