Friday, December 23, 2011

Kindle Fire

Got this as a present from my mother and step-father (ironically right after I got my step-father one!) Here's my report on it!


1. When is Android not Android?

While much has been made of the fact that the Fire's operating system is Android based, the entire environment is extremely different to that you'd find on a phone or regular tablet. In many cases, the issues go to the core of the system, resulting in a high degree of incompatibility with existing apps. Twitter, for example, isn't available, and won't be until their app is ported properly (infuriatingly, a "bookmark" is being offered as an Android app on the Amazon app store.)

Because the Fire doesn't support "ordinary" Android, you're not going to be able to download the apps you bought from the Android Market to it. You may be able to download some of the apps you bought from Amazon's App Store on it, however.


2. It's a media tablet

It's important to understand what the Fire is and what it isn't. The iPad and the various Honeycomb tablets are essentially amorphous "next generation" portable computers - I put "next generation" in quotes because that's the intention, but I don't think they're there yet.

That's not what the Fire is. The Fire is a media tablet. It's intended to:
  • Let you buy and watch movies
  • Let you buy and listen to music
  • Let you buy and read colour magazines, and to a lesser extent newspapers and books (the regular Kindle's eInk screen is much more optimal for this.)
  • Let you buy and play games
Now, the Fire has a few features outside of that core functionality, such as a web browser, but it would be inaccurate to suggest those define the Fire's function. The Fire lacks some very basic features you'd expect in an Internet device, which Internet tablets since the Nokia N770 have seen as critical:
  • There's no microphone, so you can't use it to talk to people
  • There's no camera, so you can't take pictures and share them, and you can't do video conferencing.
  • There's no GPS, so maps, searches for local businesses, and social networking systems are restricted. (There wasn't a GPS on the first Nokia tablets either, but that was in large part due to the lack of applications using it, but social networking and search tools have embraced the concept and run with it.)
Other features common to tablets that see themselves in part as communication devices, such as Bluetooth and USB hosting (the Fire can be a USB device, but it can't be connected to USB devices like keyboards) are also notably missing.

These features aren't missing because of poor design decisions, they're missing because those are features that just aren't relevant to the Kindle. There may be one or two features missing from the Fire, like an HDMI port, that would make it better, but for the most part, nothing missing described above hampers its intended use, and in some ways adding those functions - in addition to increasing the cost - would merely distract from the Fire's intended function. If you need them, you're looking for a device that isn't the Fire.


3. It's the right size, it really is

I've heard some complaints that the Kindle doesn't work well for fat fingered typists, and that it's too small. With respect, I didn't have either problem at all. Indeed, I found it easier to type on than either my smartphone or my Lenovo K1. And it's way more portable than the latter.

The entire point of a "tablet" - media, Internet, whatever - is that it's supposed to be an ultraportable device, something that you can carry around with you almost as second nature. This is one of my criticisms of the current set of 10" tablets - they're too big for that function. Carrying around a 10" tablet is like carrying around an oversized hardback book where ever you go. The Kindle Fire is about the size - maybe smaller, actually,  or a reporter's notebook.

And despite that, the screen is large enough to comfortably render a web page (if shown landscape) without the text being too small or the buttons too difficult to press. The screen is high quality and perfectly acceptable for movies, PDFs, and other similar content.


4. It's not locked down

A depressing trend in consumer electronics is to "secure" a system by preventing user's from loading their own operating systems. While Amazon has locked down the Fire's version of Android itself - to some extent anyway, you can still sideload your own apps, it's just you can't get root - Amazon has made a point not to prevent users from loading their own operating systems. One hacker has already ported Icecream Sandwich, albeit not in a usable state right now, and CyanogenMod 7 is reportedly already available. I feel a lot more comfortable knowing that I can have a "real" version of Android installed in the near future if the Fire's environment doesn't work for me.


5. The user interface gets a big thumbs up from me

Despite being an Android device, there's only one button on the entire machine, a power button used to turn on or off the screen, or to turn on or off the device. And that's it. Everything else, from volume controls to menu buttons, are implemented on the touchscreen. So Amazon spent a lot of time designing a user interface that's essentially pure - reportedly Google did something similar with Icecream Sandwich.

So, how does it work? Well:
  • At the top of the screen is a status bar with buttons on the left and right for notifications and system controls respectively. You don't have to drag anything down, it's a simple "Tab and go" system.
  • When you're "in" an application, at the very button are the controls for the app, if necessary, and below those a toolbar with "Home", "Back", and "Menu" buttons. The latter toolbar is sometimes semi-hidden if the app controls are present, but it's obvious how to get it to appear when it's semi-hidden. More often, a single toolbar with both app specific controls, and the buttons above, appears. Either way, it's consistent enough to be obvious and easy to use.
  • The one confusion I had was with apps that are full screen, like the book reader for the user manual. In that case, all you have to do is tap the screen to get the toolbars and status bars to appear. But it wasn't immediately obvious. Still, it's something you learn early on, once, and then it's done.
  • Rather than a Desktop analogy, the Fire uses a "bookshelf" analogy, literally drawing bookshelves on screen with any objects you might want to access sitting upon the shelves.
The home screen consists of panels you slide across representing your media and recently accessed apps and web browser tabs (the panels are often screenshots, making the UI familiar to users of the recently discontinued HP Touchpad), together with two bars, one for large icons of favourite apps, the other for quick access to various features of the device.

All in all, it's very easy to use. Still, I had one or two reservations. Apps you've never used before, even built-in apps like email, are often hidden until you search for them for some reason. And on that note, I don't care for the email app - once set up it's pretty crude, and it ignored my telling it that my Google Apps email address was a gmail account and invented some pretty stupid defaults for the IMAP settings. How hard would it have been to base its rejection of a GMail address on, well, whether the address and password actually work on the GMail servers?

Still, if you're using the Fire for email for any serious use, you're doing it wrong.


6. Things I think they should add

The Fire is a great device but I think there are some features that should be added, either because they'd cost little to implement and would be increadibly useful, or because they'd enhance the device considerably.
  1. I'd like to see an HDMI port
  2. Bluetooth would be useful, for a variety of reasons. Many car stereos support Bluetooth now, for example.
  3. I'd like to see some cooperation with Google.
  4. If you're going to put in an email app, make it a good one, or don't do it at all.
  5. The device only has about 6G of storage. I know Amazon likes that whole cloud thingie, but sometimes having large files available offline is good. And what about an SD card slot?

Finally

My ideal "portable computing device" would probably start with something similar to the Fire. I'd add the following (note: I don't expect anyone to do this, I'm just saying this would suit me...)
  • An eInk screen on the other side of the device. I'd gladly give up color from time to time in exchange for better clarity and less eye strain.
  • More input devices including a microphone and front-facing camera
  • Expandable storage
  • A docking station similar to that implemented by the Atrix - allowing you to add a full sized screen, keyboard, and pointing device.
  • A bluetooth link that allows the device and a phone to transparently share an Internet connection.
But... that's just me...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Amazon Fire

Haven't spent a lot of time with this, as the Fire I bought was actually for my step-father, but I wanted to make a few comments having used one.

1. It's the right size

The iPad may have pioneered the ten inch tablet, but the fact is the form factor is just too large to qualify as easily portable. 7" is a decent size, it'll fit in a larger pocket, although you're pushing it if you do that, but it's big enough (and high resolution enough) to show a web page with very little difference between it and the desktop rendition. The Fire is the size of a paperback book. The iPad (and my Lenovo K1) is the size of large pad of paper. No contest, the Fire wins here.

The fact the screen was large enough actually surprised me somewhat. The first site I visited was Amazon.com, and it looked perfect. No sign of scaling or anything that would make it unusable. Of course, I have pretty good eyesight, so it's possible that someone with poorer eyesight may need to zoom the screen a little.


2. Web browser felt slow

Amazon has been promoting the browser technology they're using, whereby significant amounts of each site are rendered by their servers. The result seemed to be heavy latency, whereby the page itself might appear in a flash, but the flash occurred quite a few seconds after the request. Supposedly you can turn this off, so this fact is more of a "This isn't a feature" than a "The device is flawed" type criticism.


3. Standard ports

USB charging, with a regular micro-USB port. Yay! Should I be happy about this, or just expect it? Well, the K1 experience hasn't enamoured me to proprietary connectors.


4. The keyboard: not as bad as claimed

I had no problems whatsoever setting up my step father to access my wireless network, which required the usual password entry etc. There's been criticisms that the keyboard is too pokey and prone to fat finger problems. I didn't come across any - and I was using the device in portrait mode.


5. Very easy to use and clean

I was fairly impressed with the user interface. Looked nice right out of the box and everything was easy to find.


Conclusion?

There are a couple of features missing from the Fire that prevent it from being a full tablet, but it's a really nice media device and it might push tablet makers to make something around the same price point with the same form factor.

Professionally, I need to be familiar with tablets. The experience of the Fire means I have some idea of what I'd buy for my own use. Nice work Amazon.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tablets, Netbooks, and the next big thing

As my regular readers know, I'm somewhat of a tablet skeptic. For the most part I enjoy being a part of this industry, but I actually resented, to a certain extent, the fact that I had to buy a tablet to keep my skills honed. I don't see mine as being something that's going to do much except be a test bed for my own work.

And having owned a tablet now for a week, and bringing it into work every day, buying apps for it, trying my best to make it work, I don't see any reason to change my mind at this point. What's my overall verdict?

A tablet, in 2011 at least, is a device that does a subset of what a full computer does, and doesn't do any of them well, but looks cool doing it.

Now, to be fair, there are some minor advantages a tablet has over, say, a Netbook, but they're not exactly enough - for me - to overcome the disadvantages in general use. A tablet doesn't need to be opened up to be used, which means you can, in theory, carry it around with you while you work, making it always available. In practice, however, a 10" tablet is simply too large to be comfortably carried around all the time, and a smaller tablet is too small to be significantly more useful than a phone.

This portability makes tablets useful for some applications, but not many. I mentioned in an earlier post that I think they'd be great to replace the clumsy PCs in most doctors offices. Doctors and nurses usually, these days, spend a while with a patient entering symptoms into a PC using a user interface that looks like something out of the 1990s and certainly has no flow to it. A tablet would be something a nurse or doctor could carry around with them, entering information in a fairly smooth fashion.  And there are plenty of other industries where I can see this working.

What I don't see as working is the intended audience of the iPad and Honeycomb devices, essentially ordinary people who want to use the web, write emails, and play games, without carrying around a laptop. These are people who would clearly find a Netbook a more versatile and friendly device. A Netbook can run any applications that a desktop can, but the device is much more portable. And most modern applications require more than a finger to operate usefully. You want to be able to type, for example, if you're writing an email. Why would a keyboardless touchscreen be anything but a liability in the modern world?

So why are tablets taking off? And why are Netbook sales falling?

Well, I think the latter is misleading. Netbook sales may be falling, but they're still extremely high. People like Netbooks. And outside of Apple, I don't think many people see tablets as a replacement for Netbooks.

Tablets are selling well because they look awesome. They may not do anything well, but there's a slickness to what they do that's extremely enticing. I'm not finding many people who heavily use tablets after they buy them, but I see a lot of people who generally like the things, especially if they don't have one yet.

That said...

The tablet isn't the first time this concept has been tried. The iPad can trace its lineage, albeit indirectly, to the Apple Newton. The Newton was the first PDA. Newton begat the Palm Pilot which was arguably the first useful PDA. Microsoft, meanwhile, came up with the Tablet PC, and the modern "Tablet" is, in many ways, a hybrid of the two concepts, with the benefits of technologies taken from modern touchscreen phones.

Now, there are some things to note about all of the above. The first is that it's clear that the tablet is simply the latest incarnation of an evolving platform. It's not the first time that platform has been successful, but the temporary success of a platform doesn't mean it's going to last. People want a more portable, personal, computer, while arguably the PC has been going in the other direction over the years with PCs becoming more like the minicomputers and mainframes of old, multiuser behemoths designed to be administered by people who aren't the users of the machines themselves.

The second is to note Microsoft's interest in the platform. Microsoft really wants to produce a successful tablet platform, and my experience of Windows 8 suggests that they may be extremely close to that. One thing is absolutely true: Windows 8 will be installed on many, many, tablets, and users of those tablets are going to want to be able to plug the device into a proper screen and keyboard because that's what "legacy" Windows apps need. By rejecting the concept of supporting existing apps, the Android and iOS based tablets don't force manufacturers to think in terms of a "dockable tablet", and while some - notably ASUS - have tried to do this, the docks essentially run tablet applications rather than apps that would make use of the environment.

While at first glance, the notion of a dual facing tablet, one that has a touchscreen user-interface for "on the road" access to data, and a keyboard interface for productivity, may seem like a kludge, the reality is such an environment may be ideal.

As such, I think Windows 8 will have a massive impact, and may create a generation of touchscreen computers that actually do bring us into a post PC world.

I'd like to hope that Google and other groups such as Canonical (the makers of Ubuntu) will also be a part of this post PC world, but thus far neither have really shown they're looking forward to it. Google, I think, is still orienting itself towards the cloud, and hoping that people see tablets, phones, and PCs as interfaces to the cloud rather than devices that run applications and store data in their own right. The cloud has a major problem with it, which is the requirement to be hooked up to the Internet, and I think as such Google's plans may simply not fit reality for the next decade.

Canonical wants to create a post-desktop Ubuntu, but is having severe problems designing a UI that works. Their latest incarnations of "Unity", the next generation Ubuntu user interface, have thus far been unpopular, working poorly on the desktop and being completely unsuitable for tablet use. I'm sure the problems will be fixed in time, but it's still a shame we're at this point.

The industry is going to be very interesting in the next few years. But unless you have a pressing need to understand the technology, I would not recommend you buy a tablet today.