Amazon Kindle Fire: eReaders and Tablets Ignite

By Mike McPeek
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There's no denying the media attention that's been sparked by the announcement of Amazon's entry into the Android-based tablet market. However, don't think that the Kindle Fire is just another tablet in a parade of iPad-wannabe Android devices. The Fire is situated somewhere between its market-topping Kindle eReader progenitors and full-function Android tablets. Predictably, as with just about any hybrid device, there are advantages to being able to use a single platform but there are also compromises in features and performance.

The single most compelling advantage of the Kindle Fire is its low price. At just $199, the device costs fully $300 less than the entry-level models of most other tablets. That's pretty hard to ignore and a point that isn't likely to be missed by the large portion of the market that finds other products desirable but too expensive. The Kindle Fire is scheduled to be released to U.S. consumers on November 15, but Amazon is accepting pre-orders now.

Features

Though Amazon's Kindle Fire has a lot in common with other Android tablets, the features that it doesn't share are just as notable. That's not to say that this isn't the right device for you, just that you should be aware of what you'll get for the purchase price. A couple of absentees stand out. At a time when other tablets typically have two cameras of increasing quality, the Fire has none. Admittedly, tablets are a fairly odd form for photography and recording videos, but they're ideal for video chatting. So, if that's a reason you have for buying a tablet, there are better alternatives.

The Fire also can't access the internet via mobile broadband, which is another feature that is improving rapidly in the tablet market generally. Instead, you must have Wi-Fi access to go online. That's no problem unless you don't have such connectivity.

As far as the operating system goes, it's based on Android. That said, you're not likely to recognize the interface, especially if you have experience with the tablet-specific Honeycomb version of the OS. Though Amazon is tight-lipped about the actual software version, most indications are that it will be an adaptation of Android 2.3, known as Gingerbread, which was originally made for smartphones. That's significant because many new apps created specifically for tablets require at least version 3.0.

Speaking of apps, you'll have to get them from the Amazon Appstore for Android. There's no access to the Android Market, so the selection is not complete.

Hardware

The Kindle Fire offers some impressive computing power given its modest price point. Most importantly, a dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP processor clocking in at 1GHz per core powers it. That puts the device in good company with the most advanced of today's tablets.

Memory includes 512MB of RAM to run everything and 8GB of internal storage. There's no option for a memory expansion card, but greater capacity is available by cloud storage.

Display

The face of the Kindle Fire is dominated by a clear, bright, 7-inch touchscreen. It provides the typical 16 million colors in 1024 x 600 pixel high resolution. We were surprised to see a screen featuring IPS technology at this price point. IPS, or in-plane switching, is a high-quality monitor feature that allows for a notably wider viewing angle than other technologies.

The display is protected by Corning's Gorilla Glass, which is very strong and scratch resistant. Though the color LCD screen is great for watching movies and playing games, it isn't as well suited for reading books as the E Ink display that is offered on other Kindle devices.

Ease of Use

More than anything else, the Kindle Fire is a media-delivery device. Indeed, Amazon has created a whole entertainment ecosystem that provides access to millions of books, hundreds of thousands of movies and TV shows, and a vast selection of magazines and games. In addition to buying or renting content, you can stream it directly using the Amazon Prime service that is free for the first month but costs $79 annually if you choose to continue.

Web browsing is exceptionally smooth, intuitive and fast using Amazon's Silk browser. Silk takes advantage of Amazon's cloud web services to speed up the internet experience. Since it has a record of what you've already done online and the browser resides on both the Fire and Amazon Web Services, it can decide whether to execute commands locally or in the cloud. The architecture provides speed, but there's a security and privacy tradeoff given that your browsing history is recorded in the cloud.

The Amazon Kindle Fire stands out from the pack in its ability to deliver an enormous variety of entertainment media to customers. It also offers a fast and easy way to surf the web. Its low price compared to other tablets is very enticing. That said, there are performance shortfalls compared to the best tablets and some privacy concerns.

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