That’s the bottom line.
The new Amazon Kindle Fire is no iPad but it is a slick little gadget that is frequently delightful and worth $199.
Sure, the Fire has a smaller screen, slower processor and less storage than Apple’s cheapest iPad. But most people won’t care. The Fire also has a nice sharp screen, comfortable grippy sides and sufficient processing power and applications to make a device that’s great for watching movies and TV shows, reading books, listening to music, catching up on email and doing light web browsing.
Surely, Amazon made compromises but it feels like they made all the right compromises. No camera? The camera on the iPad is terrible and I have my phone’s camera with me all the time. Less memory? Lots of free online storage and streaming media services. It is a bit on the chunky and heavy side — you wouldn’t want to hold it in one hand for very long — but it still has a nice feel.
The Fire is at its core an Android device — a very important part of its appeal because it runs thousands of Android apps. So there are plenty of games and diversions available. It doesn’t run most Android apps directly (those which haven’t been approved by Amazon), however, so there are also many holes. My daughter was pleased to find all the gaming biggies here like Angry Birds, Cut the rope, Fruit Ninja and so on. Among the missing are lots of nerdier fare
like super useful 1Password. UPDATE: 1Password is available now. Over time, I’d expect the gap to narrow, especially as the Fire becomes more and more popular. You can also install apps not in the Amazon app store through a somewhat complicated process called “sideloading.” The Fire also does without Google’s native apps for Gmail, mapping and other useful services, which is a shame.
The software has typical version 1.0 hiccups, as many reviewers have pointed out. Sometimes you have to tap just so on the screen to register a click and the Photo Gallery app automatically downsizes your pictures without giving you any other options, for example. But I didn’t find any show stoppers and the bugs are mainly the kind of thing you get used to so quickly that they all but disappear from conscious view.
Some pundits have waved off the Fire as a vending machine for buying stuff Amazon sells. It’s one of those nerdy, in-the-know put downs that is irrelevant to real life customers. It’s very easy to watch free, rented or for-sale videos from Amazon on the Fire but it’s also easy to use the Netflix or Hulu apps to watch non-Amazon video. And the Fire’s video player is compatible with a couple of different formats including H264, MPEG 4 and VP8. You can hook the Fire up to your computer and drag and drop in any compatible videos you’d like.
It’s much the same for music. Music you already own elsewhere can also be loaded via the Internet and Amazon’s free cloud player. I bought Adele’s album on iTunes, had Amazon upload to its cloud server one night, and downloaded to the Fire today. The Fire also has its own email address so you can email documents and other files right to it, as well.
I really prefer the Fire’s organizational metaphor, which is much like Apple’s cover flow. I’ve complained many times about how frustrating and useless I find Apple’s iPhone and iPad method of organizing apps — the endless sea of rounded corners. On the Fire, everything is mixed together in a scrollable display of pictures which are larger and more detailed than typical app icons. The scrollable display includes not just apps but also ebooks, music albums, magazines, movies, personal documents and TV shows. For some apps, like the browser, the picture shows a mini version of what you were doing last. At the top of the screen, you can choose to filter instantly the scrollable list to include just books, songs, videos, documents or apps. There’s also an easy to reach spot for stashing favorites.
The Fire’s considerable appeal is lessened when you’re out of range of a Wifi signal, however. There’s only limited storage for offline viewing and the super-convenience of having everything stored out on the Internet on Amazon’s servers is eliminated.
One thing struck me as odd but nice. While Apple, Amazon and others are hoping that putting everything in their particular cloud storage will make it harder for you to jump ship, at this moment there’s a funny confluence of services between the competitors. If you buy all your music on iTunes, you can use Amazon’s Cloud Music uploader to sync it to all your non-Apple devices for free. And if you buy a lot of music from Amazon’s MP3 store, where it’s often cheaper, you can now use Apple’s $25/year iTunes Match service to propagate it across all your iPhones, iPads and Macs.
It’s highly unlikely Amazon is planning to sit still with its Fire line-up, a point some pundits seem to have missed. Even if this initial version is way behind the iPad, the next version will close some of the gap. Apple will be improving the iPad as well.
But the nature of computer-powered gadgets is that the gap from cheapest to most expensive in any category shrinks over time because of Moore’s Law and all its corollaries. Many times a “good enough” level is reach that eventually renders more expensive models unnecessary. Apple has done a great job over the past decade side-stepping the “good enough” level through its innovations. Whether that will continue in hotly contested markets like tablets remains to be seen.