Amazon announced today that its Kindle Fire tablet, which was expected to launch tomorrow, will actually launch today. Surprise! According to Amazon exec Dave Limp, the Fire is already a hit: "Based on customer response," Limp wrote in a press release, "we’re building millions more than we’d planned." So how does the Kindle Fire stack up? Well, let's go to the reviews.
The opening shot
"The Kindle Fire is stuck between e-ink minimalism and gleaming iPad decadence," writes Sam Biddle of Gizmodo. "That could either make it the goofy middle child in the tablet family, or a singular wunderkind. But the Fire will not be overlooked. Apple: Be afraid."
"The Fire is a simple, black thing with nothing in the way of styling pretenses," writes Tim Stevens of Engadget. "In fact, one could say it has nothing in the way of styling whatsoever. Flip it over and you'll see the word 'Kindle' subtly embossed across the back, only really visible if you hold the tablet at an angle in some light. Otherwise the matte, rubberized back absorbs too much and you can't spot that one bit of styling indulgence the designers allowed themselves here. There's an extremely subtle 'Amazon' print below too and, beyond some scribbles from the FCC, that's it."
The hardware, part 2
"It's a 7-inch tablet, which means that it's half as big as an iPad, and way closer in size to a paperback book," writes Wilson Rothman of MSNBC. "It could be a little easier to grip, but Amazon went minimalist here, rather than opting for some weird-looking ergonomics. Because of the size, reading is easier than on an iPad, though kids' entertainment and other engrossing interactive content isn't as fun. And because the Fire is widescreen, unlike the more 4x3 iPad, videos look almost as big as they do on Apple's much larger device. As far as screen quality goes, it's on par with the iPad. In other words, as an opening move, hardware-wise, Amazon's getting it right."
"Amazon has done something very interesting with the Fire," writes Joshua Topolsky of the Washington Post. "The device uses a version of Google’s Android operating system that is forked from the main version that Google releases to partners. That means that the Fire ships without Gmail, Google Maps, or more importantly, the Android Market app store. It’s not always perfect, but generally the company has managed to create a wholly original version of Android." Meanwhile, Topolsky adds, "Amazon has obscured some of the navigational elements of Android, like the 'back' and 'home' buttons, which can sometimes make it hard to quickly move around the device."
The interface, part 2
"The colorful home screen depicts an attractive wood grain bookshelf," writes David Pogue of the New York Times. "Its scrolling contents consist of miniature posters of your e-books, music albums, TV shows, movies, PDF documents, apps and Web bookmarks. There is also a lower shelf where you can park the items you use most often. Your heart leaps. 'This is incredible!' you say, contemplating the prospects. 'It’s like an iPad — for $200!' But that’s a dangerous comparison. For one thing, the Fire is not nearly as versatile as a real tablet. It is designed almost exclusively for consuming stuff, particularly material you buy from Amazon, like books, newspapers and video. It has no camera, microphone, GPS function, Bluetooth or memory-card slot. There is a serviceable e-mail program, but no built-in calendar or note pad."
The interface, part 3
"To be honest, [the bookshelf is] a cute concept on the Fire, but with a somewhat clumsy execution," writes Lance Ulanoff of Mashable. "Whatever you looked at recently – books, a movie, apps, web pages, etc. – all sits on the top shelf. As a result, it’s a hodgepodge of icons. Some are movie boxes or posters, which look good. Book covers look great as well; giant icons for email, Facebook, Angry Birds, the Wired Magazine app – look ridiculous. The shelves use a carousel to let you swipe through your content. This is effective once you get used to the Fire’s tendency to let the moving icons run away with themselves – I constantly missed the item I wanted to access."
"In my experience, the telltale sign of any sub-$300 tablet is poor screen quality," notes Donald Bell of CNET. "On paper, Amazon's tablet seems to buck this trend. The Kindle Fire offers a 1,024x600-pixel resolution display using the same wide-angle IPS screen technology as in the iPad. Unfortunately, the screen's brightness doesn't live up to the iPad's, but it's in the same ballpark and is bright enough to look great indoors. If you want something that will look great in direct sunlight, I'm sure Amazon would be happy to add an e-ink Kindle to your order."
"Then there’s the presence of the Amazon Android App Store, which delivers 10,000 Android apps to the Fire," writes Andy Ihnatko of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Amazon made a great move in choosing to base the whole thing on Android. They made a second great decision in choosing to work exceptionally hard to bury every possible trace of Android from the user. Thus, the Kindle gets the best of Android (a free OS and a large, established developer community and app library) without inheriting the worst of it (namely, a user experience that’s often akin to simultaneously discovering the source of that awful smell and the answer to the mystery of what happened to that old raccoon that you used to see hanging around near the back porch."
The Fire, writes the team at FoxNews.com, "has 8 gigabytes of storage. That's enough for more books than you'll ever read, but ten movies will eat up the whole thing. The cheapest iPad, which costs $499, has twice as much memory. The Nook Color, which costs $199, also has 8 gigabytes, but it comes with a slot for memory expansion with cheap cards. I don't understand why the Fire doesn't have a slot like that. The very first Kindle did. There's no step-up model of the Fire with more memory. Amazon says the Fire doesn't need more memory because the company provides an online storage locker, where you can stuff all your music and other content. That works when you have Wi-Fi coverage, but not otherwise – the Fire doesn't have the ability to use cellular networks, as some of the monochrome models do."
"For every sin it commits as a reading device, the Fire atones with a good deed in video playback," writes Jon Phillips of Wired. "The Fire’s wide-aspect-ratio video content plays in a 7-inch window. While this window isn’t 720p (and therefore not true HD), it still holds up well to the 720p windows of the 9.7-inch iPad (9 inches at 720p) and all those 10.1-inch Android 3.0 tablets (9.75 inches at 720p)... Amazon has dug its hooks into sundry video content sources, and this is where the Fire shines brightest: For $200 you get a perfectly serviceable video player that can stream video from three key, big-name sources. Likewise, in terms of video noise and compression artifacts, the quality of all the content I streamed and downloaded from Amazon’s store was serviceable to good."
"Oh, and that much bandied browser, Silk? It works just as well as Amazon said – pages rendered fine and rapidly, thanks to the cloud-crunching, and can be bookmarked, emailed (via Amazon's capable little native client), Facebook shared – and yes, tabbed," writes Biddle of Gizmodo. "Silk is as real a browser as mobile Safari, and ultra legible thanks to that book-worthy display. Pinch it! Zoom it! It's great."
The final word
"[T]he Kindle Fire is great value and perhaps the best, tightest integration of digital content acquisition into a mobile device that we've yet seen," concludes Stevens of Engadget. "Instead of having a standalone shopping app the entire tablet is a store – a 7-inch window sold at a cut-rate price through which users can look onto a sea of premium content. It isn't a perfect experience, but if nothing else it's a promising look into the future of retail commerce."