Amazon Kindle Fire Misfires

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I can't help but wonder how much of what I saw on the Fire was a design decision that sacrificed one thing for another. My streaming and downloaded Amazon Instant Videos always looked soft, and often pixelated. Text was soft, too, in the Newsstand and in books at some font and text combinations. (I liked the Lucida font best, and even then it wasn't as smooth as I've seen on the most-capable Android tablets, including models with similar resolution and screen size.) Even audio playback was wonky: Audio reached a reasonable volume and body for music, but sounded downright anemic on videos played through the Amazon video player, and via the Hulu Plus app (other apps had fairly low volume, too).

For me, those trade-offs are simply not worthwhile, even to save a few bucks. What's the point of being able to procure video easily, if my videos are going to be soft, have artifacts, and not sound great?

Modest Specs and Performance

Tablets are more about usability than specs. That said, the Kindle Fire's skimpy specs clearly reflect the compromises that Amazon made to achieve its $200 price.

Amazon employs a Texas Instruments OMAP 4 dual-core processor; in use, however, the Fire didn't feel like a dual-core tablet. It lagged on transitions, even simple ones such as turning book pages or rotating orientation; it also produced jerky animations and repeatedly generated pixelated video playback. It's unclear whether all of the blame lies solely with the 512MB of RAM--half what's standard on 7-inch tablets from companies like Acer and Samsung. Software optimization could also be part of the issue here; after all, Amazon's custom build of the Android 2.3 operating system could have some kinks, too. But in my trials, I became all too familiar with the spinning-ball wait indicator that appeared as something loaded, and I felt as if I paid with my time what I saved in money on the Fire’s modest price.

Some missing elements weren't obvious immediately, though. For example, the Kindle Fire has neither a front-facing camera nor a rear-facing one, and it lacks GPS. None of these felt like onerous omissions on their own, but they are standard amenities in the pricier top-tier competitive set, and their absence here means you're making a choice not to use your tablet for conducting video chat, scanning an image, or navigating your way around town--all of which are practical uses that you may miss having in the long run. At $200, you’re getting what you pay for.

If you plan to pack this tablet with apps, music, books, and movies, you'll be disappointed: The Fire has only 8GB of storage space, and only 6.54GB is user-accessible. I found that it took little to blast through a couple of gigabytes of space, and even Amazon admits in its specs that the on-board storage can hold only ten movies at a time, for example. And unlike Barnes & Noble's $200 Nook Color and $250 Nook Tablet, the Kindle Fire has no MicroSD card slot, so you can't add more space as needed.

We ran some of the PCWorld Labs' tablet tests on the Fire, and found decidedly mixed results. It was the second-slowest tablet (of more than two dozen we've tested) at transferring files from a PC. On the SunSpider JavaScript test, the Fire was slower than the HTC Flyer (Wi-Fi) and every Honeycomb tablet we've tested, but faster than last year's original 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab and a slew of tablets with single-core, sub-1GHz processors and Android 2.2 operating systems.

Amazon bills the battery life as lasting for up to 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback, but those estimates are based on Wi-Fi being turned off. With Wi-Fi on, I found that my casual use of the tablet drained the battery surprisingly quickly. In about 3 hours, 45 minutes, the battery dropped from 56 percent to zilch; I had brightness set to the default of three-quarters maximum, and I used the tablet just for browsing the Web a bit, reading email, downloading several apps, and streaming a handful of tunes and a few minutes of video. Stay tuned for our full battery-life tests, which remain in progress.

The 7-inch IPS LCD screen carries a 1024-by-600-pixel resolution, and bears an antireflective coating. The Fire also has a fairly obvious air gap between the screen's glass surface and the LCD panel itself. The Kindle Fire's screen was noticeably more reflective than the display of the Barnes & Noble Nook Color when I compared the two side by side.

The Kindle Fire: Bottom Line

The Amazon Kindle Fire makes trade-offs to achieve a $200 price. It's easy to dismiss some of the compromises and weaknesses of the Kindle Fire as the sacrifices necessary to achieve a price point, but the reality is that the Fire may not meet your expectations if you're looking for an Apple iPad 2-like tablet.

For those people who go in knowing what they're getting, and who want an inexpensive tablet that capably--though not spectacularly--handles their Amazon books, music, and video, the Kindle Fire's limitations may be acceptable. However, the Fire falls far short of providing a full and satisfying tablet experience.

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At a Glance
  • The 7-inch, Android-based Amazon Fire will appeal to those who buy books, videos, and music at Amazon, but it will frustrate those looking for a more versatile slate.


    • Smooth integration of cloud and local storage
    • Easy shopping for Amazon books, music, videos


    • Interface still has some bugs
    • Sluggish performance
    • Not as flexible and versatile as other tablets
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