By Daniel Rasmus on Wed, 12/12/2012
Hey, I know this blog is all about Apple iOS products, but part of understanding a product requires putting it in the context of its competitors. I recently received a Kindle Fire HD 7 for evaluation, and I have to say, I’ve been using it quite a bit lately, here’s why.
First, I’m not just a member of the Apple iTunes ecosystem; I’m also a member of the Amazon Prime ecosystem. I know that Amazon has extended its ecosystem to iOS with Cloud Player and Instant Video, but iTunes rules iOS. These services are delivered as apps and aren’t’ integrated into the experience. Unlike iOS, Amazon’s latest OS design doesn’t emphasize apps, it focuses very clearly on the Amazon relationship. The first menu item in Amazon’s stripped down Android implementation reads: “Shop.” There is little confusion about your relationship to Amazon. As your iOS devices find themselves tethered to your Apple account, the Fire is firmly tied to an Amazon account.
Over the years, though, Amazon has changed its content ownership strategy to compete with Apple, moving from physical assets like CDs and DVDs to virtual assets, like MP4 and MP3. And with the shift to virtual, Amazon actively pursued a cloud strategy that differs significantly from Apple’s.
I use iTunes match, but it has advantages and disadvantages. Advantage: all my stuff is in the cloud. Disadvantage: if I want to play something from Apple’s cloud I have to download it. Advantage: If I download something, I can play it offline. Amazon’s answer pushes music over Wifi as the first option, streaming without downloading. You can even have “Cloud only” playlists. If you find yourself headed for the rather tight confines of a WiFi challenges Boeing 737, you can download music from Amazon’s cloud (or copy it over from your hard drive via USB). Of course, any music you download to your personal collection on your PC is as equally available to the iPad or the Fire if they were downloaded without digital protection.
Following “Shop” comes menu selections for games, apps, books, music, videos, newsstand, audiobooks, web , photos and docs. I would have expected Amazon to put books second, but beyond that, this order reflects Amazon’s priorities and capabilities. Unlike most Android-based devices, Amazon has eliminated many of the confusing and unique features of the platform. No need to configure anything but content from the carrousel that prominently rotates as it tracks and recalls your actions. That however, is the sole home screen item. No place for widgets or permanent apps. If you want to keep something handy, use it often and it will always be on the carrousel.
The Kindle Fire HD’s user interface is designed for content consumption and shopping. It is as simple as that, and the interface reflects that simplify. This is not a nerd or hacker device, this is a sit-a-chair-and-read-a-book-or-watch-a-movie device. Pick a content source, browse your library, pick something. Don’t have what you want, then buy it. As simple as that.
Yes, the Fire has apps, and most of the ones you would like. The great app battle that determines dominance through quantity proposes a false metric. Most of the apps I want, from Dropbox to Twitter, Facebook to Skype, all run on the Kindle Fire HD — as does Quickoffice Pro, Pulse, Flixter, npr, The Weather Channel and Pandora—and various versions of Angry Birds. Some may have slightly different experiences, but the functionality is there. I’m not saying that a wealth of apps doesn’t broaden the market, but Amazon developed the Kindle Fire HD for a media consumption audience, and most of the apps needed for that audience are readily available. With the exception of magazine subscriptions bought via iTunes, all of my digital subscriptions we recognized by the newsstand feature. Mail, contacts and calendar all fall under the app menu, rather than being menus of their own. That said, apps can be a bit confusing as Amazon offers in its store a selected, honed down version of apps found in the Google Play store. Being a curated environment, however, some apps for content, like Zinio, don’t’ run on the Kindle Fire because they offer an alternative business model to Amazon’s magazine subscriptions.
Photo and docs end up on the end of the list because the Kindle Fire HD is not a content creation or capture device. If you use Amazon’s Cloud Drive, you get easy access to your images and documents. Web browsing, like docs and photos, finds itself relegated to the end of the menu stack. The browser, Silk, though serviceable, almost appears an afterthought.
Uniquely among tablets, again Amazon specific, is Amazon FreeTime, which lets parents create profiles for children that limit access to apps, movies and music. If you want to go all in, then you can upgrade to FreeTime Unlimited for $2.99 per child or $6.99 per month for a family (non-Prime members will pay $4.99 or $9.99). FreeTime Unlimited offers, as it says, unlimited access to children’s books, movies, apps and games.
I find the 7-inch form factor both empowering and constraining. A 7-inch tablet is much easier to carry around. At 13.9 ounces, the Kindle Fire HD may be a little over 3 ounces heavier than the iPad mini but when we start taking in ounces rather than pounds, actually experience differences start to become negligible. The device’s dual-core 1.2GHz Arm Cortext A9 offers snappy performance and good streaming for both music and video.
Apple has made the display the focus of the iPad, but so with the iPad mini. The Kindle Fire HD 7, the Barnes and Noble Nook HD and the Google Nexus 7 all sport higher resolution screens, with the Nook winning the contest at 243 ppi. Even the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 slightly outpaces the iPad mini screen. So for content consumption, I found the Kindle Fire’s 1,280-by-800 a better viewing experience than the iPad mini. The Fire sports a rich display with great color and solid viewing angles. Not Retina, but not bad. I wouldn’t use a Kindle Fire for writing anything very long, but for reading or viewing, the display is perfectly adequate.
For movies without headphones, no iPad is a match for the Dolby Stereo speakers of the Kindle Fire HD. I was impressed by the simulated Surround Sound lilting (or pounding) from the Fire. Unlike the Nook HD, the Fire’s speakers ease out from the left and right in horizontal orientation, making for a good sound when viewing a TV show or film, or when listening to music. The Nook’s speakers are place near the bottom and align with stereo in vertical orientation. When I place the Kindle Fire in its customized mEdge hampton case, it offers a good viewing experience for one (in a nice, safe case with good viewing angles).
The Fire also includes a headphone jack, Bluetooth, along with dual-band wireless.
I like most of the hardware choices on the Kindle Fire. All buttons align directly with the case, which makes them aesthetically pleasing if not always easy to find. The use of standard ports for USB and HDMI is fantastic. I can connect and charge the Kindle Fire HD with any mini-USB cable. And video can be output via a very inexpensive mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter. I think mine cost me around $6 and it works fine. This is a big advantage over Apple’s high-priced, proprietary adapters.
The Fire’s camera faces front. It is designed for video conferencing, not taking pictures. For some, that may be a drawback, but in reality, most images are taken with phones, not tablets. When you look at what Apple has done with the iPhone 5 camera, why would you want to whip out a tablet to take a subpar picture. When you get home, if you want an image on the Fire, copy it over to the Amazon Cloud for access and safe-keeping.
One choice I didn’t like was the failure to include a charger. You can buy the official Kindle charger, or use any other USB charger. People like me have collected a number of USB chargers over the years, so perhaps that is what Amazon bet on. I’d like to see how many people buy the charger with the device, or or just ask some techie friend for one.
At $199 the Kindle Fire HD is reasonably priced, and competitive with the Barnes and Noble Nook and the Google Nexus 7, and much less expensive than the iPad mini. It would be even better priced if it included a USB charger. The Fire may not be as thin as the iPad mini, nor as light, but it fits the hand well and its rubberized exterior has a good feel to it. And as I’ve already said, the speakers are very good. I would love to see Amazon, and for that matter, Apple, reduce memory premiums and put in a micro-SD slot. Memory is cheap and getting cheaper, I feel taken when way over market for increased memory.
If you are looking for a second screen for work, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD isn’t your device. If you are looking for a second screen for your life, and you are already a member of the Amazon ecosystem, then you’ll appreciate this Amazon-centric device when it delivers Amazon content to you with ease. As a member of the Amazon tribe, I’m enjoying my second, second screen experience. I know I’m spoiled but I think we are nearing a point where devices will get inexpensive enough to support various modes of life. One size fits all moments will end. I can tuck the Kindle Fire HD into pockets my new, new iPad won’t go— so for those moments, and many others, the Kindle Fire HD is a worthy companion.