Over the past year and change since the explosion of the original Apple iPad onto the scene and the subsequent skyrocketing demand for tablet computers, a number of non-Apple competitors have thrown their hat into the tablet ring with mostly disappointing results. Enter Amazon, masters of the dedicated e-reader market with their popular line of Kindle devices. Many gadget-watchers expected it was only a matter of time before Amazon attempted to bridge the gap between the Kindles and the tablet market. Enter the Amazon Kindle Fire, a hybrid device with an eye-poppingly low price tag of $199 for an 8GB model, and an expected ship date of November 15th.
While the natural reaction to Jeff Bezos’ surprise announcement of the device was to compare the Kindle Fire to the iPad 2, the current barometer for tablet computers, the Kindle Fire is truly a genre-bender, combining the popular functions of an e-reader with web browsing, greater capabilities and processing power, and the slick look of a tablet for a remarkable price. While we of course won’t know all of the specifics and true performance capabilities of the Kindle Fire until we get our hands on one, let’s take a deeper look at some of the known and announced hardware and software features and examine whether the Kindle Fire really is the deal it seems to be on first impression.
The Kindle Fire has a 7-inch IPS display with 1024-by-600-pixel resolution, in comparison to the 9.7-inch and 1024x768 display of the iPad 2. Naturally, with its smaller screen size comes less weight and more portability, although the Kindle Fire is significantly thicker than the iPad 2. The Kindle Fire will ship with only 8GB of memory, which does concern us, if only because the device is tied so significantly to content and media usage and storage. As such, it easy to imagine that owners will have to constantly appraise media like movies and music they intend to store on their Kindle Fire, as the device will not allow for the kind of storage that will allow for much variety. Furthermore, as the standard video player is designed only to work with Amazon-purchased or streaming content, a user will have to buy their own apps to allow for playback of any content loaded by the owner.
The Kindle Fire is marketed as allowing for 7.5 hours of video playback, which rates it higher than some competing tablet devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the Motorola Xoom, but not nearly the 10+ hours sported by the iPad 2. While the Kindle Fire does feature a USB port for file transfers and media upload, it has neither a camera or a microphone, rendering it useless for functions like video chat or photo or video shooting and storage. Performance-wise, it sports a dual-core processor that should allow for respectable performance and functionality, although how that measures up to the high-test iPad 2 remains to be seen.
The Kindle Fire runs on a variation of the Android 2.3 OS, modified to integrate the Amazon storefront into the device’s interface. This raises potential concerns, however, in regards to purchasing or utilizing apps, since as of now Amazon has not provided any guarantees that it will offer any apps outside of the ones available through the Amazon store (10,000 of the more than 200,000 total featured in the wildly popular Android market). Another question raised in regards to app usage is the potential issue of compatibility of apps that require hardware (i.e. a camera or microphone) that the Kindle Fire does not come equipped with.
Mixed messages have come from Amazon executives regarding this problem, suggesting that Amazon is still struggling with the issue as well. Needless to say, losing out on the scope of apps available and accessible by dedicated Android tablets would certainly be a hindrance with the Kindle Fire. Also, with the upcoming introduction and transition to the Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS, as well as the potential integration of Honeycomb into the Kindle Fire, Amazon has said nothing but professed that Amazon will do its best to maintain compatibility with these features.
On the positive side, Amazon has appeared to do a fantastic job integrating its own storefront into the Kindle Fire, giving it a decided advantage over competing Android tablets that lack a direct integration into a dedicated storefront, and instead rely on outside sources or features like Google Market for content access. Amazon has made a great effort to highlight its Cloud service, and a user’s ability to interact with and access the Cloud does take a little of the strain off the Kindle Fire’s lacking memory capabilities, as a wide variety of content like TV shows and movies are available for streaming service through the Amazon store. This makes the Kindle Fire an attractive option for pure media consumption, especially given the price tag and the general usage requirements most people generally attribute to e-reading devices.
While we will have to wait to get our hands on one before we promote the Kindle Fire as a bargain or condemn it as a lacking alternative to the ever-growing population of tablets, the price tag alone (as we can assume Jeff Bezos and Amazon intended) makes the Kindle Fire a significant competitor to the iPad 2’s domination of the tablet market, even as the Fire still stands a few months away from the market. While the device lacks both the hardware and capabilities of a dedicated tablet like the iPad 2 or for that matter the Motorola Xoom, as a pure content consumption device the Kindle Fire does possess the ability to stand as a viable (and eminently affordable) alternative to the glut of mediocre Android tablets that command prices of several hundreds of dollars more. Furthermore, if there is any company with a user base and following that can support a worthy challenge to Apple, it is Amazon and its established market following. Either way, come mid-November check back in with Tablet Leader as we will be able to take a deeper look into how the Kindle Fire stacks up against its competitors.