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?


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...

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