Let's face it. The big appeal of the Kindle Fire is that it's a touch screen tablet for cheap. Yes, sure, it's a Kindle reader that uses color, and it plays movies, music, and apps, but that's all part of the same thing. It's a very cheap Android tablet.
The bad news is that those Android phone users hoping to see a lot of Android here will hardly see any of it at all. Amazon used the free portion of Android as the base for the Kindle, but they didn't license anything from Google - no Gmail app, no Google Maps, nothing. They also modified the Android to the point that all it really does is play Android apps - which you need to buy from Amazon's custom store, not the Android Market.
There are also no frills here. No camera, no 3G contracts, no extended battery life, no Bluetooth, and no memory expansion. It's a plain and simple Amazon product delivery system in tablet form. That said, it's still a great buy at $200, and it's probably making Apple lose a little more sleep than Google, although neither company is likely thrilled with the Fire.
How does it stack up?
The Kindle Fire has a similar sized display as the Nook Tablet and Galaxy 7 Plus, but it's slightly heavier and thicker than both of them. It's still light enough to hold in one hand, but the weight may make a difference while reading a long book. The Fire charges through a micro USB cable - the kind commonly found in cell phones, so you don't need to shop for a proprietary cable if you lose one or want a travel charger.
The power button was rather inconveniently located on the bottom of the device, although it did make the Fire appear to come to life when I accidentally tapped the switch as I unboxed it. The power button is the only button on the device itself. All other features are handled through software. There's a standard headphone jack and two speakers located on the top when the Fire is held vertically.
The battery life is around eight hours, which isn't that great compared to other tablets out there, but the good news is that it doesn't leach that battery power when the device is idle. You're still going to have to find chargers a lot more often than you do with e-Ink Kindles, which have power to last for weeks and weeks.
As I covered earlier, there's no Google on this thing. It's all through Amazon. If you purchased your Fire through Amazon, it already knows who you are. As soon as you give your Fire information about your Wi-Fi access, it downloads your personal settings from your Amazon account. This is both really cool and a little creepy. You have to de-register the device if your intent was to give it to someone as a gift.
The on-screen keyboard does some auto correcting and capitalization, but it's still much slower than entering things with Swype. As of yet, there's no Swype app in the Amazon Market, so Swype fans are out of luck. With no Swype and no Bluetooth, keyboard entry is definitely going to be something you'll use for entering passwords and searching for websites. Maybe pecking out very brief email messages. It still beats the original Kindle keyboard, so maybe Amazon will improve on this one with the Fire 2.0.
Rather than a series of apps, like most Android tablets, the Kindle views it's function as a series of activities, like Newstand, Books, Docs, Apps, Movies, Music, and Web. All of those activities, aside from the Web, involve some sort of store or shopping activity for Amazon. You can also easily return to a recent activity from any of those categories, since a carousel-like interface allows you to swipe through your most recent app, book, or other activity. You can also shop for physical goods. The Amazon shopping app is right there on the home screen unless you remove it.
The interface also tends to confusingly disappear. The bottom screen offers most navigation, but it disappears entirely in the middle of apps. There are plenty of times I've found myself alternating between taps and long-presses just to exit an app or book, and it's not always clear where settings and options get adjusted. Sometimes it's in the Settings menu at the top of the screen, and sometimes it's the Menu button at the bottom of the screen.
Amazon's parental controls are disappointing at best. You can add a lock screen with a password. You can enable parental controls for the app store only, and this just disables one-click app purchases and in-app purchases. You still have to disable one-click purchases on the entire device or children could potentially buy movies, books, and music without having to enter a password or pin code, so if you've lent your child a Kindle - as the pictures advertising the device clearly encourage you to do - that child could go on a shopping spree at your expense. Technically Amazon will refund accidental purchases within seven days, but the mechanism on doing so with movie rentals is unclear, and if your child starts watching the movie, the horse is already out of the barn. There's also no easy way to temporarily disable Wi-Fi access, disable the Web browser, etc. If you need these features, you're better off with an iPad or Nook.
App purchases are easy, although you do still get email notifications when you purchase a free app, which is annoying. Amazon guarantees that all apps in their market work on the Fire, but there are some disappointing no-shows in the list of available apps. There's no Dropbox or Google Music (or Google anything.) There are still plenty of apps for most novice users to choose from with a mix of games and productivity features.
You probably didn't buy a Kindle device to sit around and play Angry Birds all day. The Kindle reader on the Fire offers some viewing options, such as white on black text, tan pages, or different font sizes and styles. This makes reading a little easier, provided that your vision is good enough for print reading. If you're dyslexic or low vision and prefer to have machine-read text when you don't have the audiobook, forget about it. The option doesn't even display in public domain texts, and there don't appear to be any other accessibility options available at all. That's disappointing.
Furthermore, there seems to be a problem with scale. I've got a fair number of Kindle books in my library, but I anticipate my library growing exponentially. I've got a large wall of bookshelves filled with books in my home, and I don't see how that would be any different with eBooks. However, the two ways you can display books on your bookshelf are as a list or a series of book covers. That's great if you have fifty books. Not so much when you have thousands. Amazon needs to develop ways to sort those books into separate bookshelves, tag them by subject or genre, or otherwise sort them into reasonable collections. The beauty of an updateable device is that Amazon may well solve this problem before our e-libraries are huge enough to demand it.
The Amazon Cloud Player lets you download music to your Fire, and it lets you upload your non-DRM music from your desktop computer. You can also make in-app purchases for more music. It's pretty standard, and if you've already set up a Cloud Player account, you'll see your music here. The Fire's version of the Cloud Player interface is much easier to use than the Web-based version, although it also suffers from a lack of physical volume control. You can adjust the volume. It's just a learned process and not intuitively located. It's also sometimes a problem if your screen lock is enabled.
Movies and Video
The Fire works very well as a personal video player. It's easier to shop for free streaming Amazon Prime videos from the tablet than it is from the Web. You can also download videos you own for watching on long car trips or plane rides. You can't do that on other Android devices. Rentals are still overpriced at around $4 per movie, but that seems to be standard pricing. You also have the option of running the Netflix or Hulu+ app.
The Fire includes a combined email inbox that supports popular Web email services like Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! mail but does not support Exchange email. You can download the TouchDown app to handle that. Email service is adequate, but without a decent keyboard, you may want to tell everyone that you missed their message. The Fire supports Word and PDF documents, so you can review office documents in a handy book-sized format.
The Kindle Fire actually does allow you to install third-party apps, so you can get around some of the restrictions (at your own risk) of being limited to the Amazon App Store for purchases. You can use a USB cable and hook it to your computer to do so, or you can upload the files to Amazon Cloud Drive. You can also load your own .mobi or PDF formatted eBooks (there are programs that will convert other books to the proper format) although these books won't sync with your other Amazon devices.
One of the innovations of the Fire is that it uses a new Web browser that allows part of the data crunching to be done in advance through Amazon's server. It didn't make a huge difference for most websites, although it did make a huge difference when checking email. This means that Amazon will have data on every single website you visit, but you can disable this by unchecking the box next to "website acceleration."
This is a decent tablet for the Amazon customer that plans on mainly reading books and watching movies with their device. It's not a device for children or for sharing with children, no matter what the marketing materials may lead you to believe. It may be the iPod touch of the Android world, in that it plays Android apps, but it lacks robust features that you may or may not need. At $200, it's still a great deal as long as you understand what you're buying.