The Kindle Fire isn’t a spectacular device, but it may be a revolutionary one. This sounds contradictory. But as I argued in August, every iPad competitor to date has promised to do more than Apple’s tablet—they’ve touted better performance, better compatibility with PCs, and the ability to run Flash. All of them flamed out when they couldn’t deliver. Amazon is taking a smarter approach: At just $199, less than one-half the price of the iPad, the Kindle Fire doesn’t even promise to be in the same league as Apple’s device. After using it for a few days, I found that it delivers: Amazon set out to build an underachieving tablet, and that’s exactly what it got.
The Fire—which is both smaller and lighter than the iPad, but also chunkier and uglier—feels chintzy and ungainly in your hands. In portrait mode, it’s too narrow to hold with two hands but too wide for one. It has one of the worst speakers I’ve ever encountered on a mobile device. (If you want to do anything involving audio, you’ll need to use headphones.) The Fire also lacks important hardware features—like physical buttons to go back to the home screen and adjust the volume—which would be OK if its touch interface worked well. It doesn’t. You sometimes have to press on-screen buttons repeatedly to get them to register, and even then you’re not assured of success, because the Fire often misinterprets what you wanted to press.
The software is plagued not only with bugs—its built-in apps crashed on me a couple of times, including once when I was simply trying to search the Kindle bookstore—but also design flaws. Getting around from app to app takes too many taps, and there’s no easy way to customize the Fire to your own preferences. Among other things, you can’t delete certain icons from your home screen; the Fire’s front page shows a large icon for each bit of media you’ve encountered on the device, and if you want to show something else, tough luck. (Since I wanted to see how well the Fire handled full-color magazines, I bought a copy of Maxim from the Fire’s Newstand app. Now I can’t get the Maxim cover to disappear from my home screen. Embarrassing!)
Fans of the iPad will regard these flaws as losing the whole ballgame, and many will dismiss Amazon’s device as just another in a long line of failed iPad killers. But that would be shortsighted. The Fire’s got a lot of problems, but none of them outweighs its one overriding advantage: It’s super cheap. In my few days using the device, I managed to do pretty much everything that I like to do on my iPad. Still, when you take into account its reduced capabilities and inferior interface, I’d rate the Fire as something like 70 percent of an iPad. When you consider that the Fire costs only 40 percent as much as Apple’s tablet, though, that’s not a bad deal. If spending $500 to get the real thing is within your budget, by all means, go to an Apple store. But if all you’re looking for is 70 percent of an iPad, then why spend any more?
If you’re interested only in video and books, the Fire could be the tablet for you. Netflix plays beautifully on the device, and you can buy and stream thousands of titles from Amazon’s own video store. Members of Amazon Prime get free access to about 13,000 movies and TV shows; the Fire comes with one free month of Prime membership, which then goes for $79 a year. Of course, being a Kindle, the Fire is also hooked in to Amazon’s bulging online bookstore. Fans of the standard Kindle’s E-Ink screen won’t love the Fire’s LCD display, but if you’re used to reading on your phone or your iPad, the Fire will feel the same. Unlike the E-Ink Kindle, it also works in the dark.