Pros: Nice size, screen, price.
Cons: Clunky fit & finish on everything else equals unwanted frustration
I got one of these bad boys for my birthday. On day one I pulled the Kindle Fire out of its box and fell in love. By day seven I was actively hating the device and cleaning it up to be returned. If the devil is in the details than the Kindle Fire needs an exorcism because it has lots and lots and lots of little, itty-bitty, teeeny weeny details that have been shrugged off throughout the design process that all add up to one big mountain of user heartache. Here are my notes on the things that sunk it for me; Your mileage may vary.
OUT OF THE BOX it feels good; a comfortable size and the rubberized back is nice. Although lighter than the iPad but due to its smaller screen, it feels heavier because the weight is distributed differently. I found the Kindle Fire too heavy in my hands after awhile and that required I leaned it against my leg or a chair arm or whatever else was handy. The screen is nice, bright, and has beautiful color. Photos look great, but text is a little grainy. The ‘stereo’ speakers are pretty useless even at the loudest volume. If you’re not indoors and someplace on the quiet side I’m afraid they won’t be much use. The headphone jacks on the opposite side work well, and are pretty much required for most audio due to the insufficient nature of the onboard speakers. Right next to the jack is the Micro-USB port and the power button (more about both further on). But I like the size, if not the weight, and it felt easier to pick up, put down, or leave about the house. You also get a Micro-USB B power cord and a slip of card stock explaining how to turn on and swipe the lock screen to begin your Kindle Fire adventure.
Let’s start with problem one: The Micro-USB B connection cord. It doesn’t come with one. So if you thought you were going to add your music or photos or ebooks after ripping your Kindle Fire out of the box, well, you got another thing comin’. In a seriously misguided effort to maximize profit/minimize loss on these devices, Amazon has chosen not to include the cord. And don’t believe anyone who tells you this cord is a ‘common usb cord.’ It ain’t. It’s designated the B cord for a reason. The A cord you probably have; it’s the mini cord now almost the standard for USB cords now, used for hard drives, cameras, blah, blah, blah. The B cord is a non-common cord used for some phones and little else. Why Amazon chose this instead of the more common mini is beyond me. The Kindle Fire looks to be thick enough to accommodate it the Mini-USB. So, yeah, you’re gonna have to go down to Best Buy or Fry’s or wherever and buy one. And yeah, that’s what you’re gonna do cause it’s cheaper to get in your car and drive across town than buy the thing off Amazon and pay for shipping. And if you do want to stare at your Kindle Fire for a week you can order it online for about $2, although, strangely enough, not from Amazon. This will be, I’m afraid, your first ominous sign in the failure of Amazon’s corporate synergy regarding the Kindle Fire.
Oh, and the packaging is nice… though strangely over-sized. I’m pretty sure you could cut this packaging by at least half and double your transport costs. Just saying.
THE BATTERY is disappointing. My kids drain it in about two hours of Angry Birds. I end up recharging the thing almost twice daily. That’s a lot of cycles. I don’t know what that means in terms of battery life and usefulness, but it can’t be good for device longevity. When I can keep the kids off the games and just read, email, or web cruise, I can get about five hours. I’m sorry to say that makes it not really useful for traveling.
WI-FI: I don’t know what chip they used in the Kindle Fire but, frankly, it’s not very good. Or maybe it is and the implementation by Amazon isn’t. I can’t tell. But the end result is the same--Poky, slow connections that aren’t reliable. The Kindle Fire tries to prolong battery life by switching off the WiFi every time you power down. Unfortunately, that means that every time you swipe the device back on it has to reconnect and reestablish the connection, which usually takes anywhere from five to fifteen seconds (!), depending on a number of variables. More often than not that means you’ll already have clicked your way into the mail program only to stand by as the device tries to reconnect to your wireless connection before you can actually check your mail. In the year we’ve owned an iPad we’ve never been faced with this. And believe me, it’s annoying discovering that you’re faster than your computer. Oh, and strangely enough, it has this weird little measuring feature in the WiFi icon that I’ve never seen before. Basically, the WiFi icon doesn’t seem to measure signal strength, but rather, pipeline availability. So the four bar radar icon doesn’t show me how strong my signal is but how much of my internet pipe is open. In a house with multiple WiFi computers, phones, and tablets that means I almost never see full bars. And even when I turn those all off I have to be standing RIGHT NEXT to my router to get full bars. What the hell’s that all about? I dunno. It’s… depressing.
THE TOUCHSCREEN is either unbelievably over-sensitive or unbelievably unresponsive, take your pick. This is particularly bothersome with the main menu carousel which sometimes flows underhand without issue and other times has your finger dancing like a organ grinder’s monkey trying to isolate and click on the desired icon. At one point I actually became aware of being happy when the damned thing worked on my first finger tap. And the aiming alignment is pitiful. There are dozens of times where you’d put your finger on a link and the link below would click. And don’t think you can out-think the Fire by click the link above the link you want…. yeah, it doesn’t work that way.
MENUS: Speaking of the Carousel, the menu system on the Kindle Fire is hit and miss. I like the main screen carousel and favorites shelves. But the inability to remove preinstalled items, or even icons from web pages or movies watched already, creates a cluttered menu pretty damned quick. And forget any privacy because everything you’ve visited is right there on the splash screen. So you’re probably gonna avoid handing the device over to anybody else unless you want to be embarrassed. I did a little web cruising for an anniversary gift and that left a huge icon of the web page on my splash screen. You think I want my girl seeing that? Uh… no. That’s just bad design.
The GALLERY… Ugh, what a mess. I can’t even figure out how to sort my photos. Is it by date? Is it by name? It doesn’t seem to be either and it seems to spontaneously change all the time. What the hell is going on? I don’t know. I have about 500 pictures from a recent trip to Turkey, and even though the filenames are fairly sequential, it still won’t display them in order making it frustrating to use as a slideshow for somebody to swipe through. And swiping between pictures is just a parade of coding nonsense that’d probably get you fired at other developer shop. Let’s see, there’s the heavily pixellated proxy that takes two seconds or more to resolve, the weird zoom out/in between photos with different aspect ratios, and my favorite, the lack of photographic “kerning” where the picture displayed onscreen is presented in its proper aspect ratio which leaves thin bars of the previous and upcoming pictures on the sides. That means if you’re looking at a low light photo and the ones before and after were taken in the daylight… well, trust me, it’s annoying. Oh yeah, and for some reason it’s the only app that leaves the Android menu bar at the bottom. So you never get a nice blank screen to present you picture on.
The SILK BROWSER is slooooooow. No, really. It’s, like, 56K modem slow. You think I’m joking. I’ve got a nimble DSL line and every other browser on every other device in our house works just fine. And there’s no alternative available for download in the Amazon App Store. Supposedly Amazon preloads the pages on their servers to speed up the download… but I’m not seeing it. AT&T has been doing the same for my phone for years and it isn’t anywhere near a poky as the Kindle Fire’s browser. Also, I got the same inconsistent aiming issues on the bookmarks menu where you’d click a bookmark and the once below, and in some cases, completely randomly, go to a different website. I’d write more but, basically, it’s… well, let’s just say it needs a whole lot more developer love.
The POWER BUTTON is torturous. Whoever designed this and whoever decided its placement (It could be two different people) really need to be fired. At the very least left cowering in the corner after being beaten mercilessly with the buckle end of a belt. Located at the bottom of the device in portrait mode, I guarantee you will not be able to do ANYTHING without accidentally turning the device off. And off. And off. And off. Aaaaaargh!!! My solution was to hold the device “upside down” putting the power button at the top. Hey, stop laughing; it works. But not for streaming movies. You’re pretty much gonna power off any movie you’re watching a few times. There doesn’t seem to be any comfortable way to cradle the device without your hand or leg or blanket or coat or anything without clicking the power button. Which brings us to...
AMAZON VIDEO is a mess. Either Amazon’s servers aren’t up to the task or the WiFi chip sucks or both or… I dunno. I watched, if you want to call it that, one and a quarter movies. Kinda. Sorta. Not really. The connection would time out constantly. Sometimes it would reengage, other times not. And you better hope it does because the dark secret of streaming movies on the Kindle Fire is this: Once it times out you will ALMOST NEVER be able to pick up where you left off. Almost never? What the hell does that mean? It means that if you turn off your Kindle Fire to go to the bathroom, answer the door, eat lunch, or more likely, accidentally hit the power switch and shut the thing off, you will not be able to resume playback. I got the resume feature to work, I don’t know, maybe 3 times in twenty. The overwhelming majority of the time the device would time out and dead end with a pop up telling me to ‘try again later.’ The workaround I found was to ignore the resume feature and always play the movie again from the start, and once playing, try skipping ahead to where I thought I left off. That would work maybe fifty percent of the time, which was still more reliable than tapping the resume button. How bad is it? I thought about video recording the first three minutes of the movie I tried to watch this morning and posting it here. I promise you if you watched how many times the movie skipped, paused and glitched in the OPENING CREDITS of a movie it’d kill your interest in the Kindle Fire immediately. It’s only because I don’t want to get sued for copyright infringement that I don’t. Oh, and I tried the Netflix app and it worked fine. No problems at all. So it seems to me that the problem is on Amazon’s server end and not mine.
BOOKS: You’ve probably read this in other reviews but, yeah, it ain’t all that for reading either. The screen is just a little too low-res for that. I found myself breaking from a short story several times to give my eyes a rest. That was unexpected and surprised me when I finally realized it.
I tried checking out an ebook from the Los Angeles Public Library website. Talk about heartache. Curiously, the LAPL uses Amazon (!) to download their online collection…. and it still doesn’t work! Let’s see, I checked out three books, two downloaded to my Kindle Fire the third dead ended on an Amazon page telling me the link to the book wasn’t valid. So, it’s checked out to me for 21 days, but I have no access to it at all. WTH? Anyway, I got the other two books, right? Wrong. Just cause I downloaded it doesn’t mean the Kindle Fire is designed to actually access the files. Anything non-Amazon you download will only exist in the downloads folder, accessible only after you hard connect the Kindle Fire to your computer by micro-USB B cable (You did remember to buy one, right?) and physically DRAG the file from the downloads folder to he books folder… or Docs…. doesn’t matter, it’s gonna show up in the Docs folder anyway. Curiously, Amazon has decided that any ebook not downloaded from the Amazon Store gets segregated to the Docs menu instead of the Books menu. Notice, I wrote ‘menu’ and not ‘folder.’ That’s because no matter which folder you stick it in the Kindle Fire will automatically display the device in docs. Whatever.
Think about that for a minute. If every time you download a free book you need to connect to a computer and digitally move the file into the proper folder than the Kindle Fire is basically useless for traveling.
Worse, in this case, the LAPL requires the Overdrive software to license its online collection. Unfortunately, Overdrive is not as of this writing available for the Kindle Fire from the Amazon App Store. You can go to Overdrive’s site and download their ‘Media Console’ directly but I’m warning you now that it’s for Android and doesn’t work yet for the forked code of the Kindle Fire. It won’t be able to find or open any ebook downloaded from my library. All of this begs the question: What the hell is Amazon thinking? Clearly, they didn’t put any effort into trying to get library DRM envelopes like Overdrive up to speed by the Kindle Fire’s release date? Did a room full of Amazon suits really sit around the conference table and arrogantly think, “Well, screw it. If they want to read a book they can buy it from us instead?” What is wrong with these people? Nothing makes me want to avoid a business than then they start acting shady. On the bright side, the icons alerting me after I ended the loans from the library downloaded to my computer flawlessly and are now a permanent reminder on my main menu Carousel. A golf clap for everyone on the Kindle Fire team!
THE CLOUD services leave a lot to be desired. You’re supposed to be able to access and playback anything you’ve purchased from Amazon right off their cloud services. But you have to download some silly software that scans your computer and ‘finds’ your music files. I could never get the services to recognize the overwhelming majority of my Amazon purchases. I’m talkin’, maybe, ten gigs of Amazon MP3 purchases, and it found, if I remember, about two and a half gigs. And even then I was required to UPLOAD THEM AGAIN to be able to access them. So… if I have this straight… I can access my Amazon purchases, but apparently, Amazon doesn’t have a record of it. Nor can they link to their preexisting master files based on my receipt database (that they don’t have!) and stream it to my Kindle Fire. Not to mention that the device already has dodgy WiFi so asking me to tie my my computer for God knows how long while I transfer gigabytes of mp3’s back up to the cloud… Ugh. That’s a LOT of steps and NOT intuitive. I gave up.
CONNECTING to your computer is actually more complicated than it seems it should be. Wait, I mean DISCONNECTING. You better remove the Kindle drive from your computer desktop BEFORE clicking that ‘Disconnect’ button otherwise you are in for a world of hurt watching your Kindle Fire flicker and spontaneously dance around its menu’s until you click through the the device’s settings and force stop all running apps. It’s not particularly clear whether you should click ‘disconnect’ on the Kindle or trash it from the computer first (I found computer first, then Kindle second worked best) so there’s a little mucking about until you figure it out for yourself. The Kindle Fire doesn’t come with a printed instruction book but an installed PDF in the Docs menu instead. Not that it’ll help you when you’re plugged into you computer. To be honest, it won’t really help you when you’re not plugged in. It’s a terrible manual that’s frustratingly incomplete and poorly written. It’s better if you just pretend it doesn’t have a manual at all.
Let me ask you a question: Does this sound like fun to you? Wait, let me rephrase that. I mean does this sound like Windows 95 to you? Cause, yeah, it’s like that. Remember when you would spend an hour trying to complete the simplest task and the stress would shorten your lifespan by two years? Yeah, good times. If you miss those days then the Kindle Fire is for you. Attempt to check out an ebook from your local public library website and once again feel the rage, stress and tears you once felt all the time in the nineties trying to get WordPerfect to batch a list of mail addresses.
Listen, I don’t buy into this BS defense that its not an iPad and shouldn’t be compared to one. The Kindles? Yeah, sure. They’re e-readers. But the Kindle Fire is clearly direct competition. And right now the iPad is the standard and its reasonable to grade it accordingly. Yeah, that’s right, the standard, because like it or not, with 90% market share, the iPad is the tablet market. And the sad part is that the Kindle Fire doesn’t fail because it’s not an iPad, it fails because it is so poorly executed. I don’t miss a camera, Facetime, whatever else Amazon has dropped to stay competitive. But the fit and finish on this device is utterly Microsoft, 1995. I cannot believe that someone on the Kindle Fire development team didn’t call out these obvious burps, bugs and drawbacks during the testing phase. But given the sad state of corporate America lately, I’m sure that person was immediately ostracized or fired or both.
The whole week I found myself thinking, “Oh, they’ll fix that in the next update.” Until finally I had an epiphany: What update? I mean, how the hell do I know Amazon is gonna update this thing? Apple would. Microsoft would. But Amazon… I have no idea. And since they forked the Android code, they own it. Google can’t help them out here. [I wrote this before Amazon released their v6.2 update the other night. Maybe things are better, I dunno. I already took it back.]
In the meantime you’ll find there’s a lot of the web that you can’t really access because the Kindle Fire coding team couldn’t seem to carry the ball across the field. No, really. Like, you know how you go to a website and click on a menu and it drops down to offer a sub-menu? On a computer with a mouse attached that’s a no brainer, but that doesn’t work on a touch tablet--There is no hovering, right? The iPad solves this by popping up a spinwheel that you finger to choose your sub-menu item. The Kindle Fire just leaves you in a no man’s land of unclickable links that you can’t necessarily back out of. So using, say, the moronically laid out Los Angeles Public Libraries website to check out an ebook to your Kindle becomes a singularity event of stupidity and hair pulling frustration. In the end I used my notebook computer to search and find and then went back to the Kindle Fire to search for and check out that specific title. So I used two computers to do one task. Ree. Diculous.
Listen, I’m big on Amazon. I’m a prime member and I buy a lot of stuff from them all the time. I’m a fan. But this is a case where they need a big kick in the keister. Because the Kindle Fire is this|close to being a great device. It’s ninety percent there. But that remaining ten percent is killing it. It’s the fit and finish that separates a good carpenter from a bad one. Look, The Kindle Fire will sell. At $200 there’s gonna be a ton of people gifting them for Christmas. Its price point can’t be beat. But talk to me in a year. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most people weren’t using theirs as frequently as you expect. It’s too clunky. How could such an inept power button be allowed to go into production? Why do I have to connect my computer to find all the music I’ve bought from Amazon? Is there some reason they couldn’t code a move command so every ebook downloaded so that it automatically went to the correct folder? Does Jeff Bezos have a watch? Cause I do and mine doesn’t say 1990. Maybe Amazon bit off more than they could chew. Maybe it’s all First Gen-itis and the Kindle Fire will be a remarkable device one day. I can believe that. But if that’s the case then I’m getting my money back now and I’ll check out the third Gen tablet down the road.
On the other hand, at half the price of the iPad, you won’t feel as bad when you frisbee the thing against the wall in frustration.