Amazon’s Kindle Fire: A Tweener Worth Your (And Apple’s) Serious Consideration | iLounge Backstage

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Amazon’s Kindle Fire: A Tweener Worth Your (And Apple’s) Serious Consideration

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Wednesday, November 16, 2011
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Love him or not, Steve Jobs was truly a visionary with an amazing big picture track record—the sort of person whose enlightened words often predicted or shaped reality, much to his competitors’ dismay. So when Jobs unexpectedly appeared on an Apple quarterly conference call to attack 7” Android tablets, we paid attention. He called the devices “tweeners,” dismissing them as kludges that were too big to be phones and too small to run worthwhile tablet applications. At the time, we disagreed with his suggestion and believed it to be self-serving, much like his earlier downplaying of the value of video-screened iPods until he was ready to release them. Similarly small iPad tablets were confirmed by reliable sources to be in near-final testing stages. But looking at the array of 7” tablets that were then and subsequently available, it was obvious that software was more the issue than hardware—the iPad had launched with a third- (nearly fourth-) generation operating system that had worked well from version one, while Android devices were still trying to work out early and subsequent major kinks.

This isn’t a review, but just a collection of observations about Amazon’s Kindle Fire ($199)—a new device that demonstrates that the seven-inch form factor is more than viable; it’s actually a great size, particularly if you’re looking for a “media player” rather than a “tablet.” While it’s fair for the time being to say that some full-fledged iPad “tablet” apps might be ill-suited to seven-inch displays, the Kindle Fire works so well as an alternative to the media- and game-focused iPod touch that Apple would be hard-pressed to explain why it’s not competing in this category. If you like watching videos, you’ll find that they look bigger and better on the Fire’s screen. Web pages are at least as easy to read on Amazon’s color display, as are traditional text-formatted books. Streaming music, cheap games and apps all work well on the Kindle Fire, too.

You can nitpick elements of the device’s performance—some amplifier hiss in the headphone port, the absence of cameras or hardware volume buttons, a hint less speed here or there—but then you get two built-in speakers, a much more usable on-screen keyboard, generally smooth UI performance, and quite possibly the simplest setup process we’ve ever seen on a device of this kind. Kindle Fire arrives in a box pre-customized for your Amazon account. We powered it on, let it update its software over our Wi-Fi network, and then started to use it. The interface is surprisingly intuitive, too; under some conditions, it makes even the iPad seem complicated, and streaming videos are every bit as impressive on the Kindle Fire as on Apple’s best devices. Yes, Apple’s done a great job with iOS, but Amazon has pulled off some impressive feats here, and to underplay them would be unfair.

And if you’re really worried about having to sand down your fingers to tap on app icons, arguably the most facially ridiculous thing Steve Jobs said about 7” devices, don’t worry—Amazon can fit five rows and columns of them on screen with plenty of space to spare. Each icon is larger than an iPhone’s or iPod touch’s, and only a little smaller than an iPad’s, without the gaping holes between icons you’ll see on an iPad’s Home Screens. But then, most of the Kindle Fire’s UI isn’t icon-dependent. A fluidly animated carousel of your most recently accessed content provides a Cover Flow-like way to page through whatever’s on the device, each item substantially larger than any Apple device’s icons. Underscore at this point that Kindle Fire directs you towards content, rather than apps, a very appealing change of focus. If you’re coming to Kindle Fire as a user who revisits the same content again and again, you’ll find it very easy to do on this device.

There are, of course, counterbalancing considerations. Kindle Fire has fewer apps and virtually no accessories on its side; it also manages its very limited 8GB of storage space with cloud-dependent features akin to iTunes in the Cloud. Its 1024x600 screen has as many pixels as an iPhone/iPod touch Retina Display, but they’re in a 10:6 aspect ratio that’s optimized for widescreen videos and games rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad and iPad 2. Whereas the iPads put up huge black bars when displaying wide videos, the Kindle Fire’s screen has more of a negative impact on web pages, which are better viewed in portrait mode. Fire’s body has a soft touch rubber back and more obviously grid-dotted glass front touch surface, both steps down from the iPad, but still better-looking than HP’s TouchPad. And of course, there’s the issue of the software and hardware inside; much (too much) has been made of Amazon’s decision to use similar hardware to the RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook and a modified version of Google’s Android operating system inside. Some Apple die-hards scoffed at these decisions, but trust us when we say that these things will not matter in any negative way to most users. If anything, these decisions gave Amazon the advantages it needed to quickly bring a powerful little $199 device to market, and rapidly offer key apps/games to its customers.

Following reports that Amazon pre-sold tons of Kindle Fires, it wasn’t surprising that Apple attempted to downplay the new device’s apparent success by claiming that Kindle Fire sales will only further fragment the Android tablet world—a suggestion that’s pure spin, and not particularly effective, either. Kindle Fire is a viable device with its own unique interface, regardless of whether it’s built on top of Google’s Android or something else. Every Kindle Fire sold represents a potential iPod touch or iPad sale lost, and quite possibly another person satisfied by a product with a bigger screen and similar capabilities to an iPod touch for the same price. Given the opportunity to do something new or better this year with the iPod touch, Apple merely dropped the price and added a white-bezeled version, giving Amazon the opportunity to swoop in and steal customers. Several of our editors have purchased or are seriously contemplating purchasing the Kindle Fire. Our strong belief is that it’s time for Apple to embrace this form factor; regardless of whether it calls the device an iPod or an iPad, the iOS ecosystem will be much better for having the option available.

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Comments

1

seems like “ipad nano” would make sense…

Posted by Big Bad Burley on November 16, 2011 at 3:30 PM (PDT)

2

The catch for Apple wil likely be the price point, given that most will like to see the same features available on both the Touch and the iPad (camera, bluetooth, iCloud, Facetime, etc). The Touch is currently running $200-400, and a larger tablet will likely need to run somewhere between the Touch and the iPad, making it non-competitive with the Fire.

Posted by vick_a on November 16, 2011 at 4:28 PM (PDT)

3

Interesting analysis.  It seems like with the 7” size you would be constantly zooming in and out of web pages (and especially magazines) whereas on the iPad I rarely need to zoom.  Is this the case?

Posted by BrennerM on November 16, 2011 at 10:20 PM (PDT)

4

At $199 also, an iPod Touch is more capable than a Kindle right now.  Based on iSuppli cost breakdowns of the iPad and iPod Touch I’m guessing it wold cost about $10 more in battery and $20 more in screen to “size-up” the iPod Touch to the size of a Kindle-Fire.

As a parent of two grade-school age children, I’m currently unwilling to buy them each a $500+ iPad.  They run a high risk of losing or destroying them within a year.

However, because of the price point I’m tempted to get them each a Kindle Fire.  They primarily read books and watch video on our (single) Gen 1 iPad at home.

If apple came out with an iPad Nano (iPod Touch XL) for $199 to $250 I’d pre-order one for each of my kids on the day it was announced (but not if I’ve succumb to buying them each a Kindle-Fire first).

Posted by Mike P on November 21, 2011 at 6:24 AM (PDT)

5

Certainly the prospect of “new” customer interest is the focus here. But the simple fact is that each of these devices are sold in large part on content. And not just available content. Rather “owned” content comes in to play. I have had years to amass quite an iTunes library of music, videos, apps and books. That means quite a loss if I were to switch platforms now. And the same can be said for the Amazon digital customers.

I too strongly considered this for my teen and pre-teen daughters. They each have iPod Touches and I believe they would each enjoy a slighly larger device (they like my iPad). But They would not have access to the plethora of movies we currently own. They would lose almost all of their music. They would, at best, have a few books that I have gotten from the Amazon/Kindle app. That is a huge loss. I would just as soon bite the bullet on a couple of Gen 1 or refurbished iPads. The cost of rebuilding a second media library for the Kindle would easily exceed the iPad cost.

Posted by Mitch on November 21, 2011 at 8:29 AM (PDT)

6

Getting really sick of this nonsense:

The form you submitted contained the following errors
Computer says your input might be spam, so it will be moderated first.

If you’re going to lie to us, at least actually “moderate” things instead of just blocking half of what I write.

Posted by Code Monkey in Midstate New York on November 21, 2011 at 9:02 AM (PDT)

7

The price, or more accurately, profit margin is Apple’s chief hurdle to meeting the competition, but one which Apple is going to have to grapple with given Amazon and B&N’s aggressive entries into the market place with these very capable media consumption devices. Amazon is up front with disambiguating Apple’s big lie: they don’t make much off of content, which is nonsense. Taking 30% of the sale price, at a cost of mere pennies in bandwidth, server space, and transactional fees, for billions in sales annually is not “not much”. Apple is making more off of app, book, music, and movie & television content sales than the GNP of numerous countries combined. Maybe it doesn’t add up to what they’re making with their exceptional profit margins on their hardware, but there comes a time you have to make choices about which is more viable in the long term: “one time” large net profits or repeating small net profits, and history has often favored the latter over the former.

Case in point: Although we looked at the Fire, considering our investment in Apple’s iOS ecosystem, the first gen Kindle didn’t have enough going for it but, and it’s not a little “but”, the reason why the Fire got passed on was not that we had so much Apple hardware, it’s that we have so much invested in content locked to the Apple devices. Multiple television seasons and hundreds of paid apps, that’s stuff that creates an investment in a platform, not the hardware itself, and that’s the real strength of a $200 consumption tablet like the Fire. Amazon is going to net customers brand new to these devices by the millions and Apple has nothing at all to offer them as an alternative. Amazon offers them, for less than $300, a full color device and the reasonably robust Prime service of TV, movies, and books, plus the original deal of fast, free shipping on physical good orders. Meanwhile, Apple can’t even hand you a comparable device for less than $500, and movies and television are all a-la-carte and NOT priced competitively (not necessarily Apple’s fault, but the consumer doesn’t care about that).

As a post script: I did, however, buy my first dedicated e-Reader, the new Kindle Touch, and I am very happy with it. Again, Apple offers nothing remotely comparable for the purpose or the price, and their eBook service is, to the best of my knowledge, the most restrictive in the world.

Posted by Code Monkey in Midstate New York on November 22, 2011 at 11:44 AM (PDT)

8

Why no mention of the Fire’s great Achilles’ heel: storage? 8 GB (only 6 of which is user accessible) of non-upgradeable storage fills up mighty quick on a device destined to be filled with media and apps. Amazon’s exclusion of a SD slot, while probably a cost-cutting measure, is what is driving some of my friends to get a Nook instead.

Posted by Xeem on November 23, 2011 at 10:21 AM (PDT)

9

@8: Because it’s not an Achille’s heel. Neither the Kindle Fire nor the analogous B&N Nook Tablet (even with it’s so-called 16GB and SD slot) are meant as personal media players in the way you’re accustomed to. Both are intended to primarily stream content. Never mind that the number one capacity touch sold is 8GB, and until Apple stopped offering it, same for the iPhone. Most people just don’t have that much media no matter how inconceivable that may seem.

And your friends are going to be thrilled when they realize they can only put 1GB of their content on the main storage for the Nook Tablet. Hope they plan on taking advantage of that SD slot on day 1.

Posted by Code Monkey in Midstate New York on November 26, 2011 at 7:00 PM (PDT)

10

FTFA: “arguably the most facially ridiculous thing Steve Jobs said about 7” devices”

Since the Fire has no “chin,” I’m guessing this was meant to read “arguably the most *farcically* ridiculous thing Steve Jobs said about 7” devices” wink

Posted by S2_Mac on December 5, 2011 at 7:25 AM (PDT)

11

The Kindle Fire is certainly an attractive option as a cheap iPad alternative. But I think the Nook Tablet is an even better choice since you can have all the benefits of a Fire but with better hardware. That is, you can get the Kindle eReader app, Prime Streaming app, and Amazon App Store app all on a Nook Tab pretty easily. At that point, the only thing the Fire has going for it is the $50 price difference.

Anyway, both are viable options. I have an iPhone and love it; I want an iPad but can’t afford it. I got a Nook Tab since it’s basically better than the Fire in every way as long as you’re willing to expend a little effort.

Posted by TheJoshdude on December 7, 2011 at 1:36 PM (PDT)

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