I was originally thinking of skipping Kindle Fire because I'm happy with the original iPad, but when I visited my parents back in October, Dad said he was considering of buying an Android tablet. I thought it was a terrible idea, given the lineup of available options of shitty Android tablets in the market. I offered to give him my original iPad, but he wanted something lighter, like 7 inch. That made me buy this Kindle Fire, hoping this could be an actually "usable" Android tablet for him.
The gadget arrived earlier today, and I played with it for 2 hours now. Here's my review.
(tl;dr - go to the Conclusion in the bottom :D)
As a 7 inch tablet, I was expecting something light. It is definitely lighter than iPad, but it is yet over 400g, and it feels heavy. I can carry it in one hand with no issues, but reading or watching something on the device with holding in one hand is definitely a torture.
It comes with a wall-to-micro-USB plug, and no standard USB-microUSB, which I can't understand why.
There's only one button - power button. And there's no volume up/down or an orientation lock hardware button. It is easy to access them from any apps using the power widget on the right top navigation bar (or some video/music apps display them inside the app), but hardware keys for these functions would be greatly missed.
The power button itself is hard to locate and touch. Actually, it is hard to push when I need to wake up the device, yet is easy enough to accidentally push when reading a book.
The size is a bit wide for my one hand to hold, yet narrow for two hands to hold. I know I'm a bit biased and unfair when the original iPad I use always wears the Apple soft case.
Unboxing experience is pretty smooth. Like other Kindle devices, Fire is already pre-configured with your account. I just selected Wi-Fi SSID and entered WiFi password, and then it recognizes as my account, and started downloading the software update. Once it is done, it's preloaded with bunch of books I purchased on Kindle, and some apps I purchased through Amazon appstore and Amazon MP3 (see below). The whole out of the box experience is pretty good.
Kindle Fire is based on Android OS. As a heavy Android user (using 2.3 Gingerbread OS with MIUI custom ROM on a rooted phone), it gives a mixed feeling from "Yeah this is how Android works" to "Where is the screen for this and that?".
It feels clever that notifications bar now has two modes, one for notifications (left top) and power widget (right top), but could take a while to get used to.
The usual Android's Home/Search/Menu/Back capacitive buttons are gone, and they show up depending on the app's state, and for some fullscreen apps you have to tap the bottom key (the shape of "^") to pop up the menu.
Some Android apps tend to "hide" advanced menus under the menu key, which this new button UI would be really confusing for, though I guess that's common for the stock Android OS as well once they remove these capacitive buttons and go software button only in ICS 4.0.
There are some tweaks in the OS itself - for example, the configuration to turn off WiFi when screen goes off is enabled by default, and I can't yet find a screen to disable it. Amazon probably doesn't want to give users a control on this, and for the most use case of this device, such as Video, Music, Games and Books, the screen should be always on, and yet Amazon wants to give this device a better battery life when not used. Otherwise, Android's battery won't get as long as iPad when WiFi is on.
While charging, there's no actual sign of percentage of the battery. You have to go to the power notification, click "More", and then "Device" to see the battery percentage. It is ridiculous.
The OS crashed once for me, once I applied the software update and tried to remove "IMDB" from favorites tab. It was a sudden death, and screen went black, fiddling with power button did not do anything. The solution was to long hold the power key for so long, like 20 seconds, and then leave it and push again. First, the crash was bad, but second, this recovery process was really confusing.
I haven't much experienced the lag or slowness that I usually have with Android phones or tablets. The screen scrolls pretty fast and rendering on reading apps and videos are really smooth. With the help of server side rendering with Silk (see below), i see almost no issues with performance on this device.
I am a Amazon Prime customer and now can access lots of streaming video content. It works really well, the streaming quality is pretty good and the screen is beautiful. Yet, without a stand it would be a torture to watch a 2 hour movie on this device.
Other video apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus can be downloaded from Amazon appstore for free, and they work really well as well.
Reading books on Kindle Fire is exactly like reading on iPad. It is not e-Ink, so it might not be the best for your eyes, but the reading app is snappy and dictionary works pretty well.
When I compare the original iPad and Fire side by side, Fire's screen and resolution looks slightly better.
I buy music from time to time on iTunes and Amazon MP3 but these days almost converted to use Rdio for streaming. I only briefly tested Amazon MP3 Cloud Drive thing when it was out, and have almost no music in there. Google Music and iTunes match aren't perfect either, but Amazon MP3 uploader still leaves a lot to improve, including its complicated checkout process and confusing pricing model.
Pandora and Rdio music app are available on Appstore for free again, and they work really well. It is interesting though that the built-in Music app has a play/pause button in the power notification bar (right top) but other music app tends to have "Ongoing" notifications in the notifications area (left top).
As requested by my Japanese friends, I tried to copy some scanned PDF files, one for manga and another for paperback novel scans. Manga PDF file looked okay, while a novel PDF looked really horrible. It may probably be because the file was just scanned in a low-res format, and I haven't applied any optimization for Kindle.
Later I found out that Adobe Reader app on appstore can display the same PDF in much more readable way. Adobe probably has a much better PDF browsing functionality than Kindle's own software.
Remembering that my dad wanted to use the tablet to browse his photos, Kindle Fire's pictures functionality is so poor. It has the same-old Android stock Gallery app, which can only see photos stored in the device. Given that the device doesn't have a camera, it sounds like a joke. It also doesn't support Amazon Cloud Drive's Pictures folder - I uploaded some jpeg files to the folder via web browser(!), and nothing shows up.
There may be third party apps that supports viewing Picasa or Flickr albums.
"Contacts" app looks like a joke.
"Facebook" app is just a bookmark for the website, and opens in Silk browser.
Obviously the device can display Japanese web pages, but because it uses the Android's stock CJK fonts, some characters are unified with Chinese version of the glyph, and it looks weird.
You can't input Japanese texts with the stock Kindle keyboard. You have to install third party IME from the market. I haven't even tried it yet, and am not sure how the OS allows it.
Third party apps
Third party apps are available through Amazon appstore. It allows side-loading applications (.apks), so if you're geek enough to root your phone and extract .apks out there, you can probably install more apps that are not available on Amazon store.
Because this is an Android software that isn't authorized by Google, it doesn't come with Google Auth Framework. It means most apps that requires the framework doesn't just work, even if you install the APKs.
Just as this device is designed, Kindle Fire is best to consume media provided by Amazon, especially on demand videos, books and music through Amazon app store. the 16-9 screen makes a perfect fit for video apps including netflix and Hulu.
In my opinion the device is still better than most of Android tablets out there in the market, and $199 price tag can't be beaten so easily - yet, it is far, far behind iPad, even the original iPad.
I will see if my Dad still likes to try it out, but given the lack of integrated Photo browsing experience and Japanese input support, he will probably not like it, in which case I will return it.
Kindle Touch, just for reading books, will arrive tomorrow :)