I’ve owned a Kindle Fire now for three days (ish). I have some observations that might help others decide whether or not this is the device for them. I will say that, initially, I love this device. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I’ve used it pretty extensively these past few days. It is far from perfect, but at $199, it has been well worth the price. That said, there are some caveats and a few oddities that might preclude you from purchasing this device.

Overview

Overall, I’ve found the device a joy to use. It’s responsive, has adequate battery life, comfortable to hold for extended periods, and the screen is easy to read at any comfortable viewing distance. While I do find myself wishing the screen resolution were a bit higher, I have to remind myself that I only spent $200 on this and the pixel density (number of pixels per physical inch) is actually higher than what you find on the iPad (or any current Android tablet). While I’ve read some reviews that have complained about sluggishness, I have yet to experience this (except for the browser – which is pathetic, but I’ll get to that in a little bit).

I do want to make one thing clear… I am an Amazon consumer. If I’m looking for something to buy, I will always search Amazon first. If I’m looking for reviews, I will always search Amazon first. I am an Amazon Prime member (though that will likely not continue – maybe I’ll explain this later). I own a number of Kindle books because, frankly, as much as I’m opposed to DRM in principle, Amazon’s execution for ebooks is almost flawless. They have fairly aggressive pricing (when they’re allowed to) and they’re responsive to customer needs. More and more indie books appear in Kindle format every day at very good prices. Their ability to synchronize your reading experience across multiple devices is unparalleled. They just make everything easy. Their suggestion engine (far from perfect) actually does cause me to look at items I wouldn’t have normally looked at. It will take a lot for another seller to pull me from Amazon. Barnes & Noble’s website is far more difficult to navigate, far slower, and it’s organization is poor in comparison to Amazon. Due to this, I will never buy a Nook.

I love to read, but I hate reading one thing all the way through. I have any number of books in progress at any given moment that I pick up and read depending upon my mood and the situation I’m in. Kindle allows me to do this easily. I’ve used the tablet to read a number of book types: a chapter book for my kids (Samantha loses the box turtle), a number of theology texts, a picture book for my toddler, and an interactive ebook (Charlie Brown’s Christmas – which is truly amazing on this tablet). I’ve played Monopoly (specifically targeted to the Fire), used a number of applications (most of which I’ve “sideloaded” – something I’ll explain in detail a little later): Dropbox (sideloaded), ES File Explorer, Dolphin Browser (sideloaded – a MUST), Netflix (awesome), Evernote (wow – totally great for the Fire), and the YouVersion Bible app. All of these apps have worked flawlessly, even the sideloaded ones.

Things That I Love

Incredibly Responsive Reading Experience

The Kindle Fire is a Kindle – first and foremost. It’s built around reading and it shows. The resolution, though not super high res, is more than adequate for reading at a natural distance. The type size is just right. The contrast at the default brightness has been just fine and I haven’t gotten tired of reading (though I haven’t read for more than an hour at a time with it). The book navigation is perfectly responsive and I honestly prefer this to e-ink. (The weird flashing thing between pages always drove me nuts on e-ink devices.)

The beauty of this being a color device is that I have children. Picture books display with vibrant colors and great animation. It’s a fabulous thing. Plus, bookcovers look right. I know that should be minor… but I really like it. I feel like you’re getting closer to experience of owning the physical book with a color bookcover. Yeah, yeah – silly, but this is my review.

Web Browsing (with Dolphin HD)

The stock Silk browser is crazy bad (see my more complete explanation later), but browsing in Dolphin HD is incredible. I set Dolphin to use the Desktop agent string and everything works flawlessly. I primarily purchased this to study for my IT certifications and my video courses run beautifully in Dolphin. Beyond this, I can browse to any site and perform all functions as if I were on my computer (barring any crazy keyboard combination needs that some idiot developer decided made their site cool). It’s now my browser of choice when seated on my couch (it was my phone up until this point).

Apps – OH MY the Apps!

I have a few apps installed already and besides the weird carousel home page (reviewed later), the app experience has been amazing. Documents to Go Pro works flawlessly. I have created and edited spreadsheets (including creating spreadsheet formulas), started and edited documents – pretty much anything you need to do on a daily basis with an app like this… it’s awesome. Evernote… wow, just wow. The tablet version of this app is incredible. That is all. Games designed for tablets work without issue for me. Pretty much every app I’ve tried (except those that require the Google Android Ecosystem) have worked without fail.

Hardware Love

The Fire is fast. I have a rooted G2X running Cyanogen Mod 7 and my Fire is more responsive than my phone… because it’s not running a crap load of apps in the background along with a dozen system processes that go along with being a phone. The Fire is only running the system and a few background processes. If you start loading it down with a bunch of system crap ware… it will slow down and it will be your fault.

  • Screen: responsive, easy on the eyes, screen is sensitive to the touch (almost too sensitive – hovering my finger above an area for too long will select that area even if I’m not in physical contact with the screen).
  • Battery Life: two days at over 20 hours on a full charge. That may change as I use it more, but it’s more than adequate. I only need it to last about 12 hours as I’m always near a USB charger if need be (though I will tell you, the Kindle charger is an amped up charger, so using anything but the charger that came with your Kindle will take forever to actually charge the device).
  • Weight: just the right heft in my opinion. It feels substantial in your hand, but not heavy. You won’t get tired of holding it, but you’ll know you have something in your hand.
  • Construction: it doesn’t seem cheaply made (probably partly due to the aforementioned heft). It’s not a metal body, but everything feels seamless. My only complaint is this weird little matte lip near the edge of the device… not sure why that’s there. Feels like it would be easily dented or marred.

Things That Annoy Me

Amazon Silk… more like double-knit polyester

I’m going to start with what gave me the worst experience out of box – the Amazon Silk browser. I’ve seen reviews that praise the Silk browser (which makes me wonder what Amazon is paying them) and those that pan it. I cannot imagine how anyone can think this is a good browser. My experience has been terrible. It’s unresponsive, it has little to no feedback when clicking on a link, it takes forever to load a new page, and worst of all – it often doesn’t even register that you’ve clicked anything. When first using it, I thought maybe I had a defective touch screen… but every other app and game was responsive, so it had to be the browser. Now, I am incredibly picky about browsers – I know this. But, honestly, I am having a hard time understanding how anyone could like this thing.

If you get or have a Kindle Fire, you simply must sideload the Dolphin browser. You will thank me for it because browsing will suddenly become less frustrating and waaaay faster. Dolphin and Amazon need to get on the stick and actually put the Dolphin browser in the Amazon app store. Silk truly sucks – there’s just no two ways about it. So, how do you sideload? There are a few ways to do it (only one of them is somewhat simple):

  1. Use another Android device and download Dolphin HD and Astro File Manager from the Android Market
  2. Find a friend with an Android device who can get you the APK for this
  3. Search for the APK online (this is not recommended as it can very easily be infected with malware)

No matter which option you choose, you’ll need to download “ES File Explorer” from the Amazon App Store onto your Fire so that you can install the APK easily. If you are able to use option 1, the simplest method is to use Astro File Manager to perform a backup of the Dolphin HD application and then mail it to an email account you can check on your Fire. Otherwise, you’ll have to use USB data cables and copy files from your Android device to your computer and then to your Kindle Fire. Emailing is simplest. I’m not going into much detail, I know, but just do a Google search and there are plenty of places that provide detailed instructions on how to sideload apps onto your Kindle Fire.

Seriously, find a way to get Dolphin HD on your Fire, it will change your entire browsing experience.

Seriously? No way to replace the keyboard?

Yes, that’s true. You are stuck with the Kindle Fire’s native virtual keyboard. Don’t get me wrong – the keyboard doesn’t suck. It’s responsive, it’s autocorrection is adequate, and the keys are pretty well spaced (though it’s easy to accidentally type a period when you intended to type a space), and I don’t really find the experience all that frustrating. I just prefer other keyboards. Amazon has offered at least two different keyboards via the Amazon App Store. None of those can be used on the Fire. In fact, even if you were to attempt to sideload a keyboard onto the Fire, there is no way to activate that keyboard (well, not without rooting your Fire, which completely defeats the reason I have one).

I don’t understand the logic here. But, then again, I don’t understand why Amazon insists on forcing you to use that thing they call a browser.

Bookshelves are for books!

I’m sure someone at Amazon thought they were clever with this neato little bookshelf design. They weren’t. It’s ridiculous. Having to flick through a carousel of items is not at all intuitive. While it’s nice to see the latest books I was reading… it doesn’t make sense to see the apps in this way. Also, due to the way the affordance works in this carousel, it’s easy to launch the wrong thing. Also, there are times when you try to select the item but you end up moving your finger just slightly and it moves the carousel. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

But it doesn’t suck. No, really, I know it sounds like my hatred for this feature is great – it’s not. I don’t understand it. I don’t think it makes sense. I think it’s a stupid implementation of what could be a great idea… for books. Apps need to be more easily arranged – there’s no need to see a ginormous app icon – it’s an icon for goodness sake! While icons can be amazing little works of art… they’re little works of art. LITTLE. Enlarging them to 10 times their natural size just makes them look ridiculous (not to mention that sideloaded apps don’t have larger versions of themselves and are just crazy ugly, but I digress as those are “unsupported.”)

I’ve gotten used to the carousel and the usability of the tablet in general is not greatly hampered by its nonsensically ridiculous existence.

Hardware Oddities

Much has been written about the ridiculous placement of the power button. It’s on the bottom of the Fire. That’s beyond stupid. The only thing I can figure is that somehow due to the innards, they had no easy way of stretching a power cable to a more sensible location… but still, the bottom? Thankfully, I found a case that puts a clamp right next to that button, so I don’t suffer from the same problem many have written about (which is that holding it in portrait orientation, it will keep asking you if you want to shut down because you’re applying pressure to the power button.) The case I have is a Targus Vuscape case – love it – just what I wanted (believe it or not – can’t find an Amazon link to it – weird).

No expansion… well, yeah, I get the whole “cloud” thingy… but this is 2011 (almost 2012), expandability… would that have been so hard? Well, Apple thinks it unnecessary, so I guess… nope, still think it’s ridiculous.

Should You Get a Kindle Fire?

The answer to this question is multi-faceted. It really depends on who you are. If you are an Amazon consumer (such as myself) and want more than just a standard Kindle for reading and would like your device to do more than just display books, then it’s a no-brainer. Some people will tell you that since the Kindle app is available to almost every device, then just get a “real” tablet and install the Kindle reader. Let me tell you – it’s not the same. Amazon doesn’t treat their apps the same way they treat actual Kindles. There are things they only make available to Kindle owners (hence why I didn’t buy this device to root it – I’m not interested in making this a non-Kindle).

If you’re already a member of Amazon Prime (or are planning to be) and you already use the Kindle reader for books… the Fire is a great choice. But do not purchase Amazon Prime simply because you’re going to get a Fire. The value of Amazon Prime is not easily realized. There are very few things that you can say will actually save you money by using Prime. Prime is a value-added service that you pay for to get things you wouldn’t ordinarily use (in my humble opinion). Let me explain:

  • Free two-day shipping. I would rarely use two-day shipping because I wouldn’t want to pay for it. As a prime member, I always use two-day shipping, but it doesn’t actually save me anything since I would have never paid the extra for two-day. But, by paying for this service, I do get something – I get my products faster.
  • Amazon Prime Videos. If you already have a Netflix streaming account – this is useless. Really. The core business of Netflix is video. They’re better at organizing it, categorizing it, suggesting it… anythinging it. Video is not Amazon’s prime business (though they’re trying) – they do not hold a candle to Netflix. Browsing the video library is difficult and with one-click buying, it’s dangerous because it’s easy to find yourself browsing PAY videos rather than the free ones. Also, I have not found one video available on Prime that isn’t available on Netflix Instant… and I’ve found plenty on Netflix Instant that isn’t available on Prime.
  • MP3s. Amazon has a decent MP3 offering – it’s no iTunes, but you gain some advantages in the free Cloud storage for any and all MP3s you purchase through them. But I don’t buy MP3s through them. I have a ZunePass (yes, it’s true – and it’s awesome). But Amazon suffers here as well – digital music is not their core business and they’re just not as good at it as others are.
  • Kindle Checkout Library. Sounds great, right? Choose from tons of titles for free checkout! Except wait – you only get one checkout per month. That’s twelve per year… not worth $79 no matter how you slice it because you don’t own the book.

So… Prime actually doesn’t save me any money at all. It costs me $79 per year… but I gain access to the above features. You have to decide whether it’s worth that cost to you. Every year I struggle with this decision. I tend to let it drop each year and end up picking it up again later because I’ve become spoiled. That said… it’s expensive, so be sure you know why you’re doing it. Owning a Fire really doesn’t gain you anything more except that you now have a device to make better use of the Amazon ecosystem.

Personally, I love my Fire. If I have any other tidbits to throw in as I journey along with my little 7″ multi-function Amazon tablet… I’ll be sure to pass it along.