Editors' note (September 6, 2012): The product reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced with updated models (Kindle Fire 2012, Kindle Fire HD) as of September 2012. Read Amazon's new Kindles: Everything you need to know for more information.
Editors' note (November 23, 2011): After additional testing, we have updated the reviews and ratings for the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet since their original publication. For additional information on which of these closely matched products is best for you, see Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet: How to choose.
Since the publication of this review, Amazon has released several free over-the-air software updates for the Kindle Fire, including OS version 6.2.2, released January 18, 2012. These updates provide some general enhancements, allow a degree of parental control, improve the rendering speed, display width and navigation performance of its Web browser, and allow you to selectively hide items in the home screen carousel. We recommend installing these updates.
In the world of tablets, there are great products and there are cheap products, but very few great, cheap products. Fortunately, for those of you unwilling to shell out $500 for an Apple iPad 2, and wary of buying a piece of junk, Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire tablet should be at the top of your wish list.
The Kindle Fire is not the best tablet I've seen this year, but I have to give credit to Amazon for seeing something that no other manufacturer--not even Apple--was able to grasp. When you look at the gap between what tablets are capable of doing, and what people actually use them for, you'll find that most people just want to be entertained.
The Kindle Fire is here to entertain us, and at $199, I suspect many will take Amazon up on the offer. If you need a tablet that can keep up with your jet-setting, spreadsheet-editing, video-chatting lifestyle, I can point you to a few dozen better options. For the rest of you, read on.
Design and features
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 watch videos using Amazon's video on-demand and download services. The common thread here is that Amazon's digital stores and services are all loaded and ready to go out of the box. In fact, there's no getting around them since they're baked into the home screen navigation.
Many basic features are covered, as well. You can browse the Web (more on that below), e-mail your friends, read common document files (including PDF, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and others), view photos, and listen to locally stored music files, without any hiccups. A common Micro-USB connection on the bottom of the Kindle Fire allows you to easily connect to any Mac or PC to transfer any content you want to take along. While you're down there, you'll find a headphone jack and the Kindle's power button. Flip it over and you'll find two adequately powered speakers sitting on the top edge. You'll have a tough time not covering up the speakers with your hand while watching videos in landscape view, but it's not impossible.
Software and services
For software, you're really limited to the Amazon way of doing things. You can download third-party apps, but they come by way of Amazon's app store. The underlying software may be Google's, but key Android features, such as Maps, Gmail, Calendar 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.
It's a benevolent dictatorship, though, and to be fair Apple runs its tablet the same way. Just like the iPad, Amazon seems open to the idea that offering competing services, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Rhapsody, Pandora, comiXology, and others. To see what apps are available, just head over to Amazon's online app store and poke around.
The other good news is that Amazon's services don't suck. Their music store is absolutely on par with iTunes in terms of selection, and their prices are cheaper in most cases. Amazon's e-book store is arguably the most popular in the industry and put the Kindle brand on the map. Their freshly unveiled Newsstand offers over 400 full-color magazines and newspapers at launch, which can be purchased as single issues or subscriptions. An overview of their selection can be seen on Amazon's site.
And then there's video. In my view, this is where Amazon's tablet really shines. If you're just looking for an e-reader, a low-cost e-ink reader is arguably a better value than the Kindle Fire. If you just want apps and games on a $199 device, an iPod Touch will deliver more content. But when it comes to watching video, the Kindle Fire's combination of 7-inch IPS screen and a one-click library of TV shows and movies (not to mention Flash-based Web content) is an unmatched proposition.
Under the browser's settings, Amazon includes the ability to force Web pages to either a mobile view or desktop view, which is handy if you abhor mobile-optimized sites, or if you're willing to sacrifice beauty for faster page loads. You'll also find a setting for disabling Amazon's accelerated page-loading technology, if you're creeped out by the idea of Amazon's computers predicting your browsing habits (they promise the collected data isn't linked to your account, but you can never be too safe, I suppose). On that same note, there's no private browsing mode on the Kindle Fire like the one found on both the iPad 2 and Google's Honeycomb browser.
I'm also a little surprised to see that Amazon hasn't included much in the way of parental controls on the Kindle Fire. Users are given a password option for the screen lock, and a password lockout option for the Wi-Fi connection, but there are no detailed controls for limiting playback of locally stored age-restricted material, or mature game content. Apple has done an exceptional job implementing these sorts of controls on its iOS products, and it's the sort of thing that would make the Kindle Fire much easier to recommend for children and teens.
To seal the deal, Amazon includes one free month of all-you-can-stream Instant Videos, including popular TV series such as "Lost" and "24," as well as popular movies, like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Last of the Mohicans." If you're already enrolled in Amazon's $79/year Amazon Prime program, this free instant video content sticks around and you can enjoy other perks such as free two-day shipping and Amazon's Kindle Lending Library. Nonmembers can still pay for content a la carte. TV shows are priced at $1.99 per episode. Movies can be rented for between $2.99 and $3.99, or purchased typically for around $14.99. Free apps for Netflix and Hulu Plus are also available if you want to venture beyond Amazon's offerings.
Amazon's cloud technology 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, leads 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.