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First Impressions of the Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire in handAmazon’s newly released Kindle Fire, a  7-inch full color tablet built for Amazon’s content, is the first in its popular Kindle hardware line to step out into the widening market of convergent devices. Ebook readers, once of the remaining single-purpose gadgets with a clear purpose in a tech-heavy briefcase, are now forced to compete for that space with the more nimble tablets. The first-generation Kindle Fire is a strange combination of both worlds, and while it fails to fully satisfy as either it does promise to leave its mark on our media consumption devices and perhaps even make an appearance in our classrooms or our own toolkits for travel and meetings.

The Kindle Fire has a few immediate selling points. It’s fairly light, and fits in a decent-sized purse or bag without any trouble. It’s the first time I’ve been convinced that there’s hope for this tablet size, perhaps even as a future replacement for smart phone sized devices. At $200, it’s also a better deal than most tablets on the market. The streaming video content and library-like elements of Amazon Prime membership also offer Netflix some competition.

The user experience of the Kindle Fire is less well-realized beyond these first impressions. The Kindle Fire eliminates interface buttons on the front surface entirely and finding the way back to the main screen can be difficult. The interface bar launcher that stays on-screen with many apps is an unattractive waste of a sliver of screen real estate. In my first hours with the device I was annoyed by several responsiveness problems and found typing to be extremely awkward. While some apps have good on-screen keyboards, the default Kindle Fire keyboard is cramped. For serious notetaking during meetings, it may not be your best bet. Kindle Fire’s much-touted web browser, Silk, also seems slow and clunky compared to the iPad or even Android’s standard smartphone browser.

The iPad has gotten a lot of attention in higher education—both good and bad—and left in its wake a new fascination with tablets. But even as the iPad has gone through a second generation and achieved even greater notoriety, Android tablets have not fared quite so well. And it isn’t just branding, though there’s plenty of beauty to Apple’s marketing and design. Android tablets have suffered from the same problems of interface and reliability as their Android-based smartphone kin, and a say this as someone in a love-hate relationship with my (Droid-based) HTC Thunderbolt. Android tablets are traditionally open platforms, but awkward, prone to crashes, inconsistencies and bugs that less frequently trouble the relatively closed platform of the iPad, which still touts its fluid responsiveness.

One of Profhacker’s early adopters, Kathleen, offered her impressions of the iPad after two months of use, some of which were addressed in the second generation of the iPad. Many of the same complaints hold true here, although Amazon has attempted to solve the “one e-book format to rule them all” problem by simply making their own format dominant. A proper file manager—and an easier way to manage content without being quite so reliant on Amazon’s cloud service—is also missing from the Kindle Fire’s core, and it can be hard to get beyond Amazon’s interface.

The iPad has rightly been criticized as a closed platform, as David Parry addressed in a guest post, with strict rules for production and a sleek design that deters most users from ever really getting beyond its surface.  Cory Doctorow criticized the iStore’s DRM and the infantilizing hardware, which doesn’t offer the user the possibility for radically transforming or controlling their experiences. None of this is any better with the Kindle Fire, and as Amazon tries to hold the user to their own app market and focuses the entire interface on the consumption of Amazon’s content, it might even be worse. (This is, of course, an amusing contradiction to the Android philosophy that allows others to build their own marketplace to begin with—Apple does not, using their app approval process to maintain their cut of all apps and in-app purchases on the device.)

And right now, the apps are still a problem for the Kindle Fire. The app marketplace is still limited, and the number of apps actually optimized for the Kindle Fire is even smaller. I tried a few ProfHacker favorites, such as Evernote, which worked as well as they do on a Android smartphone but not remarkably better. Unlike the difference between apps optimized for the iPad versus the iPhone, which often differ in resolution and interface, there are very few tablet optimized apps for Kindle Fire at this point. I tried a Kindle Fire optimized version of Plants vs. Zombies and happily wasted an hour or two, and the optimized app did look much better than many others. If the Kindle Fire gets enough market share, more apps will likely follow suit.

There’s ways to break the Kindle Fire free of its Amazon-dominated interface, but they require rooting the device and then installing the full Android market (not to be attempted lightly). After these transformations, much of Amazon’s proprietary elements are gone, and like the NOOK color it can be reduced to a more flexible baseline hardware. However, this also detracts from Amazon’s carefully constructed content-access based interface, the ease of which may be part of the appeal for users transitioning from single-purpose e-readers.

Ultimately, Amazon seems to be trying to make an Apple device to tame the Android world—complete with the same digital rights management and control concerns as the iPad. If this device is successful, and the future of Android points more towards systems like this one, it’s a bad sign for open platforms. At the same time, the Kindle Fire is a sleek media consumption device that makes better use of the cloud than its predecessors, with the potential for offering a highly portable gateway to a range of content.

Have you tried the Kindle Fire or another Android-based tablet? What are your favorite uses for these devices in your work?

[Edited on 23 November 2011 to change use of "Droid" to "Android." —GHW ]

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Flickr user Andrewchx]

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