If you already have a Kindle Fire and you want to get the most out of it, check out my comprehensive guide on the Kindle Fire. My Kindle Fire is my highly-rated guide on the Kindle Fire, and it's available now from Amazon.
Don't expect the fit and finish of an iPad for 200 bucks, but if your expectations are realistic, you'll find Amazon's Kindle Fire to be a great tablet for the price. It's also the best single device for consuming your Amazon music, videos, and eBooks.
The tech graveyard is littered with tablets that have come and gone. Most of these devices have attempted to go head to head with the tablet king; Apple's iPad. It took Amazon to figure out that you can't go up against the iPad and win. If you want to make any headway in the tablet market, you have to offer something different. Something unique. That's exactly what Amazon did with the Kindle Fire, and despite some minor problems (and some not so minor ones), Amazon appears to have succeeded where others failed terribly.
The Kindle Fire hardware is as basic as it gets. It's a black rectangular tablet with a rubberized back. On the bottom of the device, you'll find a power button, a micro-USB port, and a headphone jack. On the top of the device, you'll find a set of stereo speakers capable of producing enough volume to enjoy your music, but likely not enough volume when watching movies. (You'll want headphones for movies. Check out our review of some great ones.)
What you won't find are hard buttons for volume. This is one of the most common complaints about the Kindle Fire hardware, and it's a complaint that I definitely have as well. In Amazon's defense, they have designed the Kindle Fire's interface in such a way that volume controls are easily accessible, but hardware buttons for volume would be nice, especially when listening to music. When the device goes to sleep, your music will keep playing. If you want to adjust the volume, you have to press the power button to wake the device, unlock the device, tap the Settings icon, and then drag the volume slider. I know I sound like a whiney baby complaining about that, but it just bugs me.
The Kindle Fire's screen is on par with screens you'll find on many other tablets. Colors are vibrant and text is quite readable. Videos look wonderful, and because the Kindle Fire's screen uses a 16:9 aspect ratio, it closely matches the aspect ratio of most video sources. That means that black bars will be smaller in most movies than they are on an iPad, and television shows in widescreen will completely fill the display.
Amazon uses in-plane switching for the Kindle Fire's display. That means that even when viewed from an angle, the screen is bright and watchable. While this isn't so important when reading, it's quite important for watching movies if you're interested in allowing someone to enjoy the experience with you.
You won't find Bluetooth on the Kindle Fire, a 3G or 4G cellular radio, or a camera. While these omissions have generated some criticism, it's obviously a side-effect of Amazon's desire to cap the cost of the device, and the Kindle Fire's low cost is arguably one of its greatest features.
The Kindle Fire runs a version of Google's Android operating system called Gingerbread. However, Amazon has significantly customized the interface, so much so that you may not even notice that it's an Android device. While you may not care what operating system the Kindle Fire is running, Amazon's choice of Android opens up an app ecosystem that the Kindle Fire definitely benefits from. While not all Android apps are available for the Kindle Fire, many are. There are also many apps specifically developed for the Kindle Fire, all available in Amazon's Appstore for Android. Many of the essential apps are available, including Netflix, Hulu, Angry Birds, and more.
By the way, Amazon's Free App of the Day program gives you access to a free app every day, and we're not talking lame apps here. Well, some of them are lame, but you'll also find quality apps as well. The trick is that you need to check for the free app daily. Once the deal is over, it's over.
Where the Kindle Fire really shines is in consuming music, videos, and eBooks you've bought or rented from Amazon. As I mentioned before, vidoes look great on the Kindle Fire and you can choose from a huge collection right from the device itself. If you're an Amazon Prime member, you'll have access to thousands of videos at no extra charge. You'll need to remain connected to a WiFi network in order to watch them. However, if you rent a movie from Amazon's video store, you can download it to your Kindle Fire and watch it when you're on the go.
Note: Earlier versions of the Kindle Fire operating system would begin the rental clock as soon as a movie was downloaded to the device. The 6.3 update (available now) changes this behavior so that the rental clock begins once you start watching a movie. Good move, Amazon.
The Kindle Fire seamlessly provides access to all of your digital music. You can view all music stored on your Amazon Cloud Drive or all music stored in your Kindle Fire's memory. Unfortunately, there isn't a way to view both cloud and device music at the same time. Unlike some other devices (such as iOS devices from Apple), when you play music from your cloud drive, those tracks are only temporarily downloaded to the device. That's good news since memory on the Kindle Fire is limited.
You can create playlists on the Kindle Fire device, but you can also create playlists in the cloud. Why would you want to do that? So that you can use those playlists on up to eight devices that have access to your Amazon Cloud Drive. As of now, that includes your computer, your Android phone, or your Kindle Fire. Hopefully Amazon will add support for other devices in the future, but so far, they haven't seemed interested in doing so, likely because the maker of the most popular devices (yes, Apple) is a direct competitor with Amazon in this arena. (Tech kids don't play well together.)
Amazon gives you 5GB of Cloud Drive storage at no cost. That's enough to hold 1,000 songs (assuming you're using compressed MP3 files), and you can purchase more space at very affordable rates. I upgraded my Cloud Drive account to the 20GB plan for $20 per year, and with that plan, I get unlimited storage for music. That means that I can store all 60GB of my music on my Cloud Drive for $20 per year! It's hard to find fault with that, but it sure would be nice if I had access to that music from my iPhone and iPad. Alas, there is no app for that.
The Kindle Fire also provides access to all of your Kindle eBooks. Most of the features you'd expect from a Kindle are here. You can easily look up definitions, share passages, and more. Operating system updates have added "Book Extras" which is supposed to fill the void left by the absence of the X-Ray feature available on the latest E Ink Kindles, but it falls short. It doesn't include the same depth of information, nor does it provide any insight into where in the book characters are introduced or mentioned. The source of information is the same (it comes from Amazon's Shelfari), but the implementation just isn't as polished and complete. Why Amazon decided to implement this feature differently on the Kindle Fire is anyone's guess, but I suspect it's because the Kindle app on the Kindle Fire doesn't have as much in common with the E Ink Kindles as one might suspect. The Kindle app on the Kindle Fire is essentially the same Kindle app available on Android phones, and until the Kindle Fire, it wasn't a first-class citizen in the Kindle universe. Hopefully that will change in future updates.
Another glaring omission in the Kindle Fire is Amazon's text-to-speech (TTS) feature. E Ink Kindles have had this capability for a long time, but it's missing from the Kindle Fire. What's also missing is any comment from Amazon on the subject, despite complaints from accessibility groups. Truth be told, the Kindle Fire is not at all accessible for those with disabilities, and given that the iPad is suprisingly good in this area, it's a problem that Amazon needs to address sooner rather than later. I realize that the Kindle Fire isn't an iPad and isn't designed to go head-to-head with the iPad, but in some areas, comparisons are legitimate, and accessibility is certainly one of those areas.
Amazon designed the Kindle Fire to make it incredibly simple to purchase content from Amazon. It's convenient as it can be, but it's also quite easy for a child to bankrupt you within minutes. Purchases don't require a password, so a tap-happy youngster can easily rack up a hefty credit card charge in a flash. Because of this, you'd think that Amazon would have built some powerful parental controls into the Kindle Fire. You'd be wrong. In fact, when the Kindle Fire released, there was no way to lock down the device at all. In a recent update, Amazon introduced what it calls "parental controls", but in fact, all it does it disable WiFi unless you enter a passcode. That means that you can't allow your kids to stream a TV show or movie on the device without giving them full access to everything, including your financial future. A third-party app called Kids Place can fill the gap until Amazon decides to provide a real solution instead of the joke "parental controls" they now offer. (I have a full review and write-up of how you can use Kids Place on my book's companion website on the Kindle Fire.)
As someone who has owned a wide array of tech gadgets, I am well aware that any particular gadget is much more than the sum of its parts. The Kindle Fire is no exception. Specs don't tell the whole story. In order to really get a feel for the device, you need to hold it in your hand and experience it.
I was an early adopter of the Kindle Fire. (I had to be because I wrote a book on it!) The Kindle Fire feels great in your hands. It has a heft to it that makes it feel like a solid and well-built tablet, but without being too heavy, and the rubberized back makes it easy to keep a firm grip.
I really like the 7-inch screen. It's a great size for a tablet because you can hold it in one hand, but it's not too small to be readable, even with imperfect eyes like mine. In fact, the Kindle Fire is about the same size as a paperback book, a similarity that I suspect wasn't an accident. I do find that it's easy to accidentally press the power button when you're resting the Kindle Fire on your lap or on a table, but that problem is easily remedied by simply turning the device upside down so that the power button is at the top. (The screen will rotate automatically so that you're not reading upside down.) This also makes it possible to charge your Kindle Fire while you're using it.
Speaking of charging, I continue to be amazed at the battery life of this device. I can easily get 7-8 hours of life when using the device, a number that's not surprising. However, when the device is in standby, the battery can last a week or longer! Of course, you likely won't let it sit for that long without using it.
One area that I'd love to see improve is the performance of the device. The screen sometimes doesn't correctly register taps and swipes, and scrolling is often jerky. The Kindle Fire definitely has sufficient processing power to handle this kind of thing, so I have to believe that this is an operating system optimization issue that can be fixed with an update. In fact, Amazon has made responsiveness much better since the initial release, but they still have a long way to go in order to achieve the buttery smoothness that many of us crave.
The Kindle Fire is a game changer. Millions of Amazon customers have bought one, and a large majority love it. Why? Because Amazon figured out how to make an Android tablet device attractive to normal people, and they did it at a great price point. There are certainly pieces missing at this price, but most people won't miss them. Look at the Kindle Fire through the right lens, and you'll be pleasantly surprised at what it can do.