Now that the Kindle Fire, Amazon's $200 tablet, is here, tech journalists and early adopters will try to answer the question that's been burning on everyone's minds since Amazon announced the Fire in October: will this device be an iPad killer, or even a competitor? Now that I have the device in my hands, I can say that the answer is no--on both counts. The iPad and Kindle Fire are not in the same category of device at all. The iPad is an evolution of the personal computer--it's a portable, multi-purpose device on which one can consume, but also create, all kinds of content. The Kindle Fire is really a distant relation of the handheld portable TV that was popular about 20 years ago--you can consume lots of things fairly effortlessly on the Fire--movies, music, magazines, some kinds of apps, and, more importantly for us, books; but the Fire's real innovation is how easy, and tempting, the device makes buying content--from Amazon.
The Kindle Fire is about the size of a paperback but feels as heavy as a hardcover. It's pleasing to hold--less awkward than the iPad--if a bit too heavy for its size. It feels more like a large smartphone than a small iPad (and the world of tablets really is iPad vs. everything else, with the Kindle Fire poised to become a very large percentage of "everything else"). The screen's fine to look at, but one feels the encroachment of its edges, the end of one's content and the beginning of real life, all the time, which is not ideal. The device has 8GB of onboard storage, not too much, but Amazon's cloud, where all the content that works with the Fire is stored, is ever accessible, assuming one has Wi-Fi (there's no 3G option).
The OS is Android with a thick, Amazon-built, skin on top, which reduces the device to specifically those activities Amazon thinks most people care about, represented by the seven menu items that are the main choices on the home screen--Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, Web (and Docs, which allows you to email Docs to the device for reading, feels like an afterthought, a placeholder). And in the upper right corner of all of those content areas is a link to the Amazon store where you can buy more of that kind of content. Inside each area is a button that toggles between content downloaded to the device and content in the cloud. One nice feature of the Fire is you really never need to connect the device to a computer (though you can, in order to manually transfer content, if you supply your own mini USB cable).
While Amazon's done a good job of making all the screens feel branded and nicely designed, the user interface itself is surprisingly awkward. There are no actual buttons on the device except the little on/ off button on the bottom, so all the navigation happens on the touch screen, and it's a bit fussy. You'll get a lot of fingerprints on the lower left corner of the screen, where the home icon is, which is the only way (except repeatedly tapping a "back" arrow) to get to the home screen, where your icons--not just for apps, but for particular albums, songs, Web sites, books or movies that you recently used--live. Amazon created a very simple metaphor for finding your stuff on the Fire--a carousel that puts the most recently used thing, be it app, book, or movie, at the top of an endlessly scrolling pile. You can also pin favorite pieces of content to a series of "favorite" shelves beneath the carousel. It works fine as long as you pretty much use the same few things every time you pick up your device.
I'll be brief here and then skip ahead to the e-reading experience. Basically, the content players/ viewers are fine--nothing special, but nothing really missing (except that the small screen size doesn't quite match the shape of the Web or a movie screen). The nicest feature, in all areas, is how easy it is to stream content right from Amazon--if you're a Prime member, you click on one of the 10,000 movies Amazon offers as one of the perks of Prime, and it starts playing pretty quickly. If you've got music uploaded to your Amazon Cloud Drive, you click into music, find the song you want, click it, and it starts playing. Video is probably the coolest and most effortless feature of the Fire.
You get apps from Amazon's curated Android app store; it's nothing like Apple's huge app ecosystem, but it's fine, and Amazon seems to have weeded out the crap apps.
The Web browser, Amazon Silk, which Amazon said would be super-fast due to the way it splits the work of browsing the Web between the device and Amazon's servers, isn't very fast at all. It's actually rather awkward and slow, and the screen isn't the right size for the Web. Harumph. The device comes with a basic email program, which is fine.
Despite Jeff Bezos' professed passion for books, the actual e-reading experience on the Fire is nothing to write home about. It's basically the same experience as the Kindle Web Reader, Amazon's browser-based e-reading solution. Meaning it's even less feature-filled than the Kindle app on iOS devices. Most surprising to me is the absence of those cute page-turning animations--pages just flick rapidly from one to the next without any book simulation. Perhaps page flips will be added in a future update.
The main reason to go to the Kindle store is the breadth of available books, and they're all there, ready to rain down onto your device. And Prime members get access to Amazon's controversial new Kindle Lending LIbrary, which lets them borrow one book a month for free.
I didn't get to try the much-touted DC graphic novels that Amazon said would be a big part of the Fire because the ones I wanted--like Alan Moore's Watchmen, aren't out yet.
But, again, the e-reading experience is fine. Not extraordinary in any way, but fine.
If you've used an iPad, using the Kindle Fire will most likely remind you how much attention Apple does pay to design, user experience, deep detail. Apple thought long and hard not just about the features almost everybody will want all the time, but which some people will want sometimes. Apple is passionate about its products, whatever else it is. The iPad is a pleasure, sometimes even a mystery, to hold, explore and use. The Kindle Fire is a black rectangle with a screen that let's you basically do seven things.
That said, it's about to become "the rest" of the tablet market, everything but the iPad. For users who don't want a sexy category-defying mini computer, this device will be the go-to tablet, easy to get, cheap to buy, filled with content.
Finally, despite its seeming passion for books, Amazon is not a device company; it's a company that has irrevocably changed, and innovated, retail, and that's what it's doing again with the Kindle Fire. Bezos has gotten customers to pay him (although the FIre is a loss leader) for the privilege of owning their own portable comprehensive Amazon shopping experience. What he is probably most excited to sell a lot of are Amazon Prime subscriptions, which come with, of course, the free video content and the lending library, but, most importantly, with free two-day shipping, meaning if you're feeling too lazy to walk over to the store to buy your toothbrush (or toaster, or boxer shorts or whatever), you'll just order it from Amazon. This device is all about buying stuff, and lots and lots of people are going to buy it, and the Amazon content and hard goods it sells, this holiday season.