If you could get almost all of the cool functions of Apple Inc.'s $500 (and up) iPad tablet for only $199, and in what may seem a handier size, would you take it?
If "yes" was your answer, roll up for the Amazon Kindle Fire, the online bookseller's tablet, shipped this week to customers, and this reviewer. You can also get one at your local Staples store. I've spent about 30 hours with it, and, well, this Fire is a mixed bag, as most first efforts are.
Amazon's premise is a solid one: Make it relatively easy to access a wealth of material stored in a "cloud" with enough space to store a few books, movies, songs, pictures or whatever on the device. The firm thinks 8 gigabytes of storage is enough, when coupled with its virtual, or "cloud," storage of your Amazon-purchased books, music, movies, TV shows, etc. You want something? Download it to the device, and you're good to go.
As much as I believe in the future of cloud computing, one big difference between the Kindle Fire and other Amazon Kindle devices is that the Fire lacks a 3G wireless capability. All your networking has to be done via Wi-Fi. That's great where Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, lousy where it isn't, as when you're riding the Metro or flying to Bora Bora. So having stuff in the cloud can get a bit dicey when you're trying to retrieve said stuff.
Contrast this with the iPad, which offers as much as 64 gigabytes of storage, eight times the Kindle Fire's amount at the high end, and you can see the difference. Yes, that higher-capacity iPad costs more than three (or even four) times the Kindle Fire, but having more storage is a plus.
In operation, the Kindle Fire is remarkably similar to the Apple iPad: Touching selects books or programs or songs or whatever; gestures move you through electronic books and documents. The 7-inch screen on the Kindle Fire can show videos in high definition; the sound from the two built-in stereo speakers is arguably a bit better than the iPad's solo speaker. Plug in some good headphones and you'll get even more stunning sound.
Reading an eBook is, well, what you'd expect from a Kindle-branded device. It's natural, the viewing options, including type size and font, are helpful, and your progress is synchronized among all your devices running a Kindle-reading application.
All this performance comes at a price, and it seems to be heaviest in terms of battery life. If you keep your Wi-Fi connection on, there will be a battery hit, Amazon says. With Wi-Fi off, you can read for eight hours or watch 7 1/2 hours of videos, they say. But without Wi-Fi, how are you going to stream said video to your device?
Then there's the question of add-on applications for the device. The Kindle Fire is built around the firm's implementation of Google's Android operating system, and the "AppStore" for the Kindle Fire lists all sorts of programs. As with the HTC JetStream tablet, it took me more than one try - many more, frankly - to get some applications onto the device, even after I took Amazon's advice and re-selected the proper credit card for "one-click" purchases online. I'm beginning to think this is an overall Android issue; if so, there's a looming problem here, in my opinion.
Once I got the apps on the device, not all ran properly. Pandora Radio, a streaming music service, ran just fine, but MOG's Android music app, a similar program, ran only once. The MOG people say their app isn't yet ready for the Kindle Fire, but runs on the new Barnes & Noble Nook tablet, which I've yet to try.
There's a built-in e-mail application, and it works very nicely. There's no camera of any sort on the Kindle Fire, and no microphone, so forget video chats with anyone using this device.
The bottom line, so far: This will be a good entry level tablet for many people. It delivers a lot of value but demands a lot of battery charging. And it's not as fully-orbed as the iPad, which means those wanting that experience won't want to accept any substitutes.
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