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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 14, 2011 at 11:15 AM

Kindle Fire: First take on Amazon’s tablet (updated)

After months of hype and anticipation since its September unveiling, the Kindle Fire has arrived.

The $199, color Web tablet appearing in stores today is the boldest leap yet by Amazon.com into the world of consumer electronics, where people are expanding the range of devices they use to access the Internet and digital media.

The Fire broadens the potential reach of the Kindle line far beyond the core market of avid readers who have embraced Amazon’s hardware since it debuted in 2007.

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It’s a more ambitious business, but Amazon played it safe with the design of the Fire. Gone are the quirky design features that made the original Kindle stand out.

The Fire is a simple black slab, a tight, attractive tablet with a velvety backside that’s nice to hold and looks better than most any $199 tablet you’ll find.

It’s surprisingly dense for something so slim — under a half-inch thick, and about 5 inches wide by 7 inches tall, but weighs nearly a pound.

I think it’s an exciting option for those looking for a digital accessory and who want something bigger than a smartphone and smaller than a 10-inch tablet or laptop.

The vivid color display, video capability and browser will be welcomed by Kindle users who want more out of their e-reading devices.

But the Fire’s small size and fixation on shopping and other Amazon.com services may limit its ability to lure consumers already obsessed with Apple’s iPad.

Then again, Amazon’s not really trying to displace the iPad, just as the iPad isn’t really intended to replace PCs. They’re additional screens that give people more options to stay connected, access digital media and buy digital content.

They represent the fourth screen you’ll spend time with, in addition to your computer, smartphone and TV.

The relatively low price of the Kindle Fire — it’s 60 percent less than the $499 entry-level iPad — makes it an appealing option to people looking to add a fourth screen.

In affluent homes that already have four or more screens — and competition over who gets to use the Web tablet — a Kindle Fire is an intriguing addition to the mix.

In that situation, you’d grab the largest, most convenient screen for browsing the Web or watching a video. The Fire’s screen is better than a smartphone for those activities, but I found it small for browsing Web pages, especially ones with small buttons that are hard to target on a 7-inch touch screen.

I’d suggest holding one before buying — the Fire will be at major retailers everywhere soon — because you can’t really gauge the size from photos. Size-wise, it feels closer to some of the recent jumbo smartphones than to the iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab and other 10-inch tablets.

Until a larger version comes out, perhaps next year, the Fire’s appeal may be limited for people who don’t want to squint when viewing Web pages and don’t care about watching videos on a waffle-sized screen. For books and periodicals, the size is fine.

I haven’t had time to read a full book and decide whether the screen is better than the original Kindle’s non-flickering display, but the color is, of course, a big improvement for illustrated books, magazines and newspapers with photos.

Amazon has touted the Silk browser as one of the Fire’s killer features. The browser runs partly on Amazon servers, which predict pages you’re likely to visit and fetch page components to speed load times.

I didn’t notice the speed difference during my brief testing period, but the browser has a clean design, with tabbed windows, and it worked fine.

I haven’t tested the music player features yet. To load music onto the Fire, you have to set up an account with Amazon’s Cloud Player service, which stores your music files on

Amazon servers and streams them to connected devices. It’s free for 5 gigabytes of storage; additional storage plans range from $20 to $1,000 CQ per year.

That’s one of several media stores and services connected to the Fire, which can also be seen as a console to access Amazon.com. These services are needed to get the most value out of the Fire, and their cost will push its price beyond $199 over time.

Another highlight is Amazon’s streaming-video service. It provides a collection of videos — comparable to what’s available for Netflix streaming — that are free if you have a $79 per year Amazon Prime membership.

The best deal I found on the Fire was books from the public library using the new Kindle lending program. It took a few steps — and some zooming in and out in the browser — but in a few minutes I was able to reserve and download Seattle Public Library books over a Starbucks Wi-Fi connection. The Web buttons needed to complete the checkout process are hard to view on the small screen, but the capability makes the Kindle much more attractive.

There’s no 3G or 4G wireless service with the Fire, only Wi-Fi, which limits its capability somewhat. But most Web tablet usage is in the home, office or other locations where Wi-Fi service should be available.

The software interface is so crisp, clear and intuitive, you’d never guess it’s based on the same operating system as the last generation of Google Android tablets.

I had a few hiccups with the device. I was unable today to download several free apps until I had updated my credit-card information with Amazon, and there were places where I couldn’t get to the touch-screen controls.

Still, the device is an interesting alternative to the Barnes & Noble Nook Color and the BlackBerry PlayBook, both of which have about the same sized screens.

The Fire has a slightly smaller case than those; it fits in a parka pocket and the back pocket of my khaki pants, but it’s too heavy to carry there comfortably.

The industrial designers prevailed over the usability team that designed the “airplane flap” buttons on the first Kindle. There are no buttons other than the tiny one for power, giving the case a clean, elegant look.

I accidentally hit the power button a few times when holding the Fire. Perhaps the next version should be a slider switch or recessed, instead of a slightly protruding push-button.

All the controls are on the touch screen, where you call them up with a tap near the bottom of the display. That’s fine, unless you frantically need to turn down the music and you can’t get to the volume control.

That happened in my office when I played the trial sample of albums for sale at Amazon’s MP3 store. When the samples were playing, I couldn’t get the volume controls to surface. When I touched the lower half of the screen, it would only launch songs farther down the list.

Here are some images, including one of the cool screensavers on the Fire:

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The friendly walk-through the device provides when you Fire it up – the white annotations are on the touchscreen:

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There’s a welcome note from Jeff, just like on other Kindles:

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Hey, what’s he doing in there!

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To play music on the device, you’ve got to move into Amazon’s cloud:

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The music store:

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A selection of the streaming movies available to people with $79 per year Prime subscriptions:

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A newspaper story on the Fire, shown with fire-starter:

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The Fire next to a BlackBerry PlayBook:

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The Fire next to an iPad:

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Comments | Topics: Amazon.com, amazon.com, galaxy tab

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