In the world of tablets, there are great products and there are cheap products, but very few great, cheap products. For those of you unwilling to shell out $500 for an Apple iPad 2, and are wary of buying a piece of junk, Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire tablet should be at the top of your wish list.
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What it is
The Kindle Fire is a tablet with a 7-inch screen, giving it a similar look and feel as the RIM BlackBerry Playbook or Samsung Galaxy Tab 7. It runs a heavily modified version of Google's operating system, includes 8GB of internal memory, and begins shipping to U.S. customers on November 15.
With it, you can read e-books using Amazon's popular Kindle software, download Android apps and games using Amazon's Appstore, purchase music using Amazon's MP3 store, and stream video using Amazon's video on-demand service. The common thread here is that Amazon's suite of digital stores and services are all loaded and ready to go out of the box.
Of course, many basic features are covered, as well. You can browse the Web (more on that below), e-mail your friends, read PDFs, and listen to locally stored music, without any trouble.
In terms of system performance, the Kindle Fire includes a dual-core processor, a Micro-USB 2.0 port, and an estimated 8 hours of battery life. It's also worth noting that unlike the iPad 2, the Kindle Fire supports Adobe Flash Web content.
What it isn't
You can't make a $199 tablet without cutting a few corners.
In terms of hardware, the Kindle Fire doesn't offer any sort of photo or video camera capability, memory expansion, video output, GPS, Bluetooth support, or cellular data connection.
For software, you're really limited to the Amazon way of doing things. The underlying software may be Google's, but key Android features, such as Maps, Gmail, Navigation, and the Google App Market, are all absent.
The unspoken deal you're making with Amazon here is that in exchange for an inexpensive tablet, you're agreeing to get your apps, your games, your books, your music, and your videos through its services. Amazon may be kind enough to allow for some competitive services to be downloaded through its Appstore, but there's no guarantees. To be fair, iPad users are under the same expectation to get their app and media content through Apple, without the added upfront savings.
Why it's hot
There are a few features that really make the Kindle Fire stand out from the herd of budget tablets out there.
Price is a big deal, of course. Amazon can afford to sell the Kindle Fire at a very small markup because they expect to make its profits by selling you digital content (apps, music, e-books, videos). Aside from Apple, no other tablet manufacturer has this advantage.
You also get Amazon's brand name standing behind the product. Just like the rest of the Kindle e-book readers, the Kindle Fire is going to sit on the front page of the largest U.S. online retailer, and people are bound to pick it up in droves. You just don't have the same brand power behind budget competitors, such as Vizio, Barnes & Noble, Archos, and Velocity Micro.
Amazon's cloud storage and cloud processing adds a key component to the Kindle Fire experience. Like Apple, Amazon will back up any digital media you purchase (e-books, apps, music) and serve it back down to you at your convenience. Being able to have instant access to your archived media content also makes up somewhat for the limited storage on the device (just 8GB). In addition to archiving your purchased content, Amazon's included Cloud Drive service offers another 5GB of storage any additional content you want to access (photos, music, documents, etc.).
Amazon's vast server farms are good for more than just storage. A unique Web browser called Silk is included on the Kindle Fire; it splits the work of loading Web pages between the device and Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) system. The result, in theory, will lead to faster page loads, as well as some predictive loading of content and sites you access often. No other tablet on the market has a feature like this--not even Apple.
Finally, we have to mention the screen. In our experience, the telltale sign of any sub-$300 tablet is poor screen quality. On paper, Amazon's tablet seems to buck this trend. The Kindle Fire promises a 1,024x600-pixel resolution display using the same wide-angle IPS screen technology as in the iPad. It sounds like a great-looking screen, and hopefully Amazon will deliver.
Buy it, or skip it?
Since the announcement of the Kindle Fire, I've been answering several reader questions about whether it's worth buying.
Ultimately, until we have one in our hands, we can't say for certain if the thing is any good. That said, given Amazon's reputation with the Kindle, and the solid suite of existing services it has built for Android, I'd bet that the $199 Kindle Fire is going to be one of the most successful iPad alternatives yet.
Now, it's not going to have a comparable selection of games and apps as an official Android tablet or iPad. Its 7-inch screen and limited storage will make it less appealing for document editing and word processing. But if you're mainly looking for a fun device for consuming media and catching up on daily news, the Kindle Fire would seem to be the best thing going at this price.
Is it an iPad replacement? No. Is it a way to get your kids off your iPad? Yes. Is it a low-risk, low-cost way to dip your toes into the brave new world of tablets? Absolutely.
Look for our full review of the Amazon Kindle Fire closer to its launch date on November 15.