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 1024×600 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.