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A Few Tablet Thoughts After A Day With The Kindle Fire

Nov 17, 2011

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Linda Holmes

First, a little background.

I was never tempted by iPads, for a variety of reasons. Just a few of them:

1. It's a very awkward size for my stubby little hands, given the weight.

2. I would never use a touchscreen keyboard for any significant typing, so for me, it would never be like a computer — it would be more like a Kindle that could consume a lot of other stuff besides books and had a browser.

3. For that set of functions in a device I couldn't fit in a purse the way I could with the regular old e-ink Kindle I'd had for a long time, the price was much too high.

I've handled iPads; they're absolutely lovely. They are as cool and pretty as advertised, and if someone gave me one for nothing and paid for the data plan, I'm sure I'd get plenty of use out of it. I think they're a fine, fine thing for people whose routines fit them better than mine. But there was never any serious possibility I was going to drop five or six or eight hundred dollars to get myself one.

I did (and do), however, love my old Kindle, complete with its notoriously plain design, black and white e-ink screen, and speedy access to books, which basically brought me back to reading for pleasure.

So I was pretty much the target audience for the Kindle Fire, the new 7-inch Amazon tablet that shipped this week. Mine came yesterday. We ran down the Fire basics when Amazon first unveiled it, so if you're not familiar with them, check them out first.

Reviews have been mixed, with the general consensus being that Amazon has made some noticeable compromises to get the Fire under $200, but it also does a lot of things well. That's about what I'd say, as well. As with anything — particularly new things — there are the good things, and then there are the bad things.

Bad: No volume button. There's no hardware volume button on the Fire. That means you change the volume using touch controls on the screen. That's not especially burdensome, but boy, it's not ideal. (I discovered the function this morning that makes the Fire read the document you are writing out loud, and since I happened to discover it inadvertently while in a meeting at work with a lot of people whose jobs are more serious than mine, I was immediately really, really, really wishing the volume were easier to adjust quickly.)

Good: Video streaming. I've heard some mixed things about the online streaming, but for me, it's been fine. Netflix is a little spotty, but Netflix streaming is often a little temperamental on my laptop as well. Streaming from my Hulu Plus account and streaming video I bought from Amazon both look good, so I'm not sure the Netflix thing is the device's fault. And the dimensions of the screen fit HD-width stuff very well. Widescreen movies are even wider than that and do indeed leave black bars top and bottom (which I discovered while watching Speed free through Amazon Prime yesterday), but a widescreen video of How I Met Your Mother looked just right.

Bad: Carousel issues. Like Apple, Amazon has adopted the carousel idea, where you use your finger to scroll along a carousel of your recent items. Unfortunately, the touchscreen on the Fire is so sensitive that I actually find it a bit tricky to get it to land on the thing I actually want. Fortunately, I don't use the carousel as my primary way of getting content — I'm more likely to put the stuff I use most on the little Favorites shelves under the carousel or get them from a menu. And I'm getting better at it. But it's definitely imperfect, and that doesn't seem like a trade-off for price (as many of the other things here are), but just a flaw in the engineering.

Good: Web browsing. Amazon made a great big deal about the Silk browser that the Fire uses. With the exception of browsers with obvious flaws or a tendency to crash or freeze, I don't tend to get excited about browsers. Silk is no exception. But if you're used to doing a bit of web browsing on your phone, as I am, it's certainly nice to have a 7-inch screen that works well and gives you a much better browsing experience.

Bad: Magazines. Overall, the 7-inch screen is a feature for me, not a bug. By being just bigger than a paperback book, it becomes something easier for me to carry, hold in my hands, pack in a bag, and so forth. I don't want it to be a great big thing like an iPad.

But the trade-off is that magazines that are presented in full form so that you're just genuinely looking at full magazine pages don't work very well. You can zoom, but when you to to the next page, you pop back out to seeing the full page, and to read anything, you have to zoom again. It's not a great experience. On the other hand, there are some magazines — like Wired and The New Yorker, which both are available as gorgeous apps rather than as clumsier magazines. (I know; it's confusing.) They still have photos and charts and stuff and look like magazines, but they work much better, since they're designed to help you navigate without all the zooming in and out. Now, I didn't buy my Fire to read magazines, but if that's your primary purpose in having a tablet, make sure you try one out before you buy to make sure you're going to like it, and see whether the magazines you like are sold as apps or as something more like books. Apps are better. If I had to guess, I'd say that for small tablets, the future lies in the app approach and not in the full-page approach.

Good: Books. The Fire is a Kindle at heart, and as such, it's still a nice way to read books. The backlit screen isn't quite as easy on the eyes as my old e-ink screen (a purely subjective judgment, I think), but I still have my regular Kindle, so when I need to read in bright light or I'm going to read all day, I'm likely to fire that up instead. The books still work well, and there are books I bought for the plain e-ink screen — like cookbooks — that I can just download fresh onto the Fire and they look much, much better.

Bad: App limitations. While the Fire is built on a version of Android, it's incredibly important if you intend to buy one to know that you can't get any old Android application for it. There are some major apps missing from those available in the Amazon Appstore for the Fire, including Spotify and Tweetdeck, very popular apps for music and Twitter, respectively. Some of those holes will close over time, but again, if you're assuming something will be available for the Fire, make sure it actually is before you buy one.

Good: Amazon integration — if you like it. Bad: Amazon integration — if you don't like it. Some people don't buy from Amazon at all, either on principle or by habit. I happen to buy from them. I've been buying e-books since I got my Kindle, and I've been buying movies since I realized I could use Amazon rentals to fill in holes in Netflix streaming when I wanted instant gratification. As you might expect, if you want to buy stuff from Amazon, they make it extremely easy for you. Buying music, movies and books from their store is tantalizingly quick, and if you're a member of their Prime service (which costs $79 a year and gets you free two-day shipping on much of the stuff they ship to you), you get some free movies and books to choose from. They're not current, but there's decent stuff to be had — the videos include Speed, as I mentioned, along with Arrested Development, Lost, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and the books include the Hunger Games trilogy, Anthony Bourdain's nifty Kitchen Confidential, and the hit Water For Elephants.

But just like iTunes, Amazon is only good if you happen to want to buy from Amazon. If you don't, then this is probably not a device that's going to make you happy.

Good and bad: WiFi only. When I first heard about the Fire, it sounded insane to me that it didn't have 3G capability (the ability to get data over cellular networks like higher-end iPads can), but just WiFi, meaning if you're on the bus or just wherever, you won't be online. Why was I so surprised? Because my old Kindle has 3G, and I treasure it for the ability to spontaneously buy a book on the train or at the airport without having to fuss with WiFi. So in a way, that's a step backwards from what I already had.

But of course, I later realized that my 3G on my Kindle doesn't cost me anything, because I only use it to download a plain-text book now and then and they can just throw it in free. They would not, however, have offered free 3G connectivity for the Fire; it would have required a data plan, and the last thing I need in my life is another data plan. So for me, WiFi only is just as well, especially since I usually have my phone with me and if I desperately need to settle a bar bet and don't have WiFi connectivity, I can always use my phone — or, for that matter, turn my phone into a WiFi hotspot, though that's getting awfully complicated for places like the bus.

On the other hand, the usefulness of this device for other people is going to be severely limited by the fact that they don't have a way to use it with 3G. Obviously, that would cost more out of the box as well as requiring you to pay for data, but it seems inevitable that they'll launch one that gives you that option before too long.

Bad: Other missing features. Most of the rest of the downside doesn't matter a whole lot for me, but it might matter a great deal to other people, because there's a bunch of stuff that has been skimped on to keep the price down. It only has 8 GB of on-board memory and it doesn't have a memory card slot, meaning it's pushing you hard toward storing things in the cloud and downloading them to your device as needed. There's no camera and no microphone. There's no Bluetooth (which means, among other things, that you can't hook up a Bluetooth keyboard to make it more functional for serious writing). The screen is minimally customizable; it's not like an Android phone that you can deck out with widgets and themes.

The bottom line. The nice thing about the very imperfect Fire, which will hopefully be improved over the next few months, let alone the next few years, is that it helps to sketch out the place in between iPads and phones, just like iPads sketched out a place between phones and laptops. This isn't an iPad killer; that's like asking whether a Holiday Inn is a Four Seasons killer and putting it down if it isn't. It's a new piece of real estate entirely. There are people — particularly people who really love their iPads — who would look at this little thing and say, "Are you kidding?" And they'd list all the things it can't do that their iPad can do, and that list would be long, and they'd be right.

But there are other people who were not candidates for the tablet market and now might be. And with Barnes & Noble in this same space with the new Nook Color tablet, and other competitors yet to come, it may be that the issue isn't so much whether anyone can wrest the iPad space away from Apple, but who winds up with control of the small tablet space.

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