on November 15, 2011
As a long-time Kindle fan I was eager to get my hands on a Fire. For the most part I've found that it does what I wanted it to, which is be the one device I can take with me anywhere. There are some great features; the reader app is excellent (though not without flaws), the app store experience is terrific, videos are fantastic, and the device is quick and for the most part dead-simple to use, all thanks to the services Amazon provides. And of course the extras that come with Prime membership really make it a real value - I won't be cancelling my Netflix streaming account just yet (watching Netflix on the Fire works very well) but I imagine within a year Amazon's free streaming video catalog will be just as good as Netflix. The free "lending library" book every month really is the icing on the cake though, and makes Prime membership a no-brainer. The hardware itself is solid and has a quality feel, it's just the right size for one-handed use, and the screen is fantastic (for an LCD screen) with good brightness and excellent color, and a very wide viewing angle. So as a reader, video player and music streaming device the Fire excels, and as an occasional browsing, emailing, game playing tablety thing it does pretty well.
But there are some downsides too; the small bezel size makes holding it without inadvertent page-turns difficult, the lack of buttons makes controls harder, the accessible storage memory is limited to just 5GB, which seems awfully small when carrying my own video content on a trip, and overall the interface of the system is just a little awkward and unfinished. Sometimes the back button doesn't work, buttons are hard to push accurately or launch the wrong function, navigation isn't exactly intuitive, etc. Particularly annoying are things like the way that almost half the screen is taken up by menu bars when browsing in landscape mode, the "momentum" of the browsing not stopping, menu bars that sometimes just pop up randomly while reading, and the navigation of Newsstand content like the New York Times is incredibly awkward. And then there's the jerkiness that happens when browsing or navigating other content; to me, this just shouldn't happen when reading a book. This is a Kindle, after all.
On the missing or unfinished side its disappointing that there isn't even a little bit of social media built in - no sharing clips of books or newsstand material via email, FB or twitter. Also missing is the "read out loud" found on other Kindles, and the new "X-Ray" feature found on the other new Kindles. There is no archiving or syncing personal documents - they have to be mailed individually to the Fire. And there's no page numbers in the books - c'mon, Amazon, this is even available for the old Kindles at this point. The browser lacks some basic functionality like being able to rearrange bookmarks, and other little annoyances. The email application is very basic, and doesn't always format text properly, and doesn't have simple things like a landscape mode to view a list of messages. But the biggest "unfinished" feature of the Fire is the Cloud integration; the Cloud doesn't work hand-in-glove with the Fire in the way you think it might. In order to access features like the video or the docs, you basically have to go through a browser the way you would from any other device. For the most part the Cloud acts only as a digital locker for items purchased from Amazon, not seamlessly as a repository for any kind of content you want to access from the Fire. The way the Cloud seems to be marketed, and the way it should work, is that the Fire and the Cloud should work seamlessly together for all kinds of content; if you upload your own movie from your PC to the Cloud, you should see it in your Video tab on the Fire, and be able to stream it or download it. If you upload folders of work documents to the Cloud, they should be available to browse and download from the Fire's Doc tab. But that's not the way it works. For whatever reason, the Fire's using a Frankenstein mix of the Cloud, Kindle digital library, the app store, and local storage to handle content needs. It just isn't quite ready for prime time, and it isn't what people are expecting when they pick up the Fire.
All of these little things add up to make what could be a great device merely adequate. Many will be able to overlook these problems and enjoy the Kindle Fire for what it is; an inexpensive all-in-one-entertainment device. I only point them out to remind people that they should not expect perfection from the Kindle Fire, at least not out of the box. Over the next few months it's possible (likely) that many of the problems I have could be fixed with software revisions - i.e. the bezel problem could be fixed by making the margins in the reader app non-active, for instance, and the problem with the menus taking up too much room could be fixed by making them accessible via swipe-up or swipe-down. Hopefully Amazon is already working on these things. Until then, I'm trying to learn to live with the Fire as best I can. Maybe I can learn to love it.
NOTE: This review has been edited slightly since it was originally posted for the purposes of clarity and to answer questions that have come up in the comments thread to this review. Please leave a comment if you need clarification or think that something has been missed.
UPDATE NOV 30: a recent software update seems to have fixed several of the above problems, specifically the system speed and page-turning speed are better, and the button response is much improved. Random menus no longer appear when reading, momentum in the browser doesn't seem to be a problem anymore, and the carousel is much easier to use as a result of it having slightly more "friction" in paging through the most recent items used.