Walt Mossberg

Kindle Fire, A Grown-Up E-Reader With Tablet Spark

It’s often said that there isn’t really a tablet market, just an Apple iPad market with a bunch of other contenders fighting over the remnants. But, starting this week, that is likely to change, because Amazon is adding a multifunction color tablet to its popular Kindle line that costs less than half as much as an iPad 2.

This new $199 device is called the Kindle Fire, and after testing it for a week, I think it’s a good—though not a great—product and a very good value. It doesn’t just add color to the Kindle, it adds a robust ability to store and stream music, TV shows and movies—and a weaker ability to store and display color photos. And it offers about 8,500 apps at launch, including Netflix, Angry Birds and QuickOffice.

To be clear, the Kindle Fire is much less capable and versatile than the entry-level $499 iPad 2. It has a fraction of the apps, a smaller screen, much weaker battery life, a slower Web browser, half the internal storage and no cameras or microphone. It also has a rigid and somewhat frustrating user interface far less fluid than Apple’s.

PTECH-JUMP

Kindle Fire

But the Fire has some big things going for it. First, the $199 price, though the Fire’s seven-inch screen is less than half the surface area of the iPad’s display. Second, the Amazon and Kindle brands, already known and loved for e-readers and more. Third, Amazon is the only major tablet maker other than Apple with a large, famous, easy-to-use content ecosystem that sells music, video, books and periodicals. The Fire can be thought of as a hardware front end to all that cloud content.

Finally, while the Fire, like many other tablets, is based on Google’s Android operating system, Amazon has taken the bold step of hiding Android. It shuns its user interface and nearly all of Google’s apps and services, including Google’s app store. The Fire’s software is all about the content and apps Amazon has sold you and the easy purchase of more.

When compared to the iPad 2, I suspect the Fire will appeal to people on a budget and to those who envision using the iPad mainly to consume content, as opposed to those who see the larger tablet as a partial laptop replacement. For instance, while the Fire has a decent Web browser and a rudimentary email program, it lacks basic built-in apps, such as a calendar, notepad or maps. However, for people primarily interested in reading books and periodicals, the Fire may seem too heavy and costly when compared with a low-end Kindle or Nook.

PTECH-JUMP

Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet

The Fire isn’t only competing with the iPad and other general-purpose tablets. It has to contend with a new, low-price, similar-size color tablet out this week from e-reader rival, Barnes & Noble. This device, the Nook Tablet, is B&N’s second-generation color slate and costs $249, still less than an iPad. I’ve also been trying it out for a few days and found it has some pluses and minuses compared with the Fire.

The Nook Tablet boasts double the internal storage and a slot to expand it. It has better battery life and a more interactive approach to children’s books. But beyond books and magazines, it lacks either Amazon’s or Apple’s large, simple, built-in ecosystem for other kinds of content, such as music, movies and TV shows.

Instead, Barnes & Noble boasts it offers choice, by including video apps like Netflix and music apps like Pandora. However, these same apps also appear on the Fire and the iPad, along with the Amazon and Apple stores.

And it appears to offer even fewer apps than Amazon does (Barnes & Noble doesn’t provide a number). Also, while its screen is the same size as the Fire’s, the Nook is larger overall, though a bit lighter.

Hardware

The Fire’s hardware is plain and clunky. It’s a thick black box with zero style. There isn’t even a volume control or a physical home button, and the on/off button is a small thing hidden inconveniently on the bottom edge.

In the quest to meet the $199 price point, Amazon omitted many features common on other tablets. There are no cameras or microphone, no GPS for determining your location, no Bluetooth for headsets or wireless speakers and no included earbuds. The Fire is Wi-Fi only—it has no built-in cellular connectivity. There isn’t even an included cable for connecting to a computer, something you may want to do to get photos into the Fire, since Amazon lacks an online photo service.

There is just 8 gigabytes of memory, half the total of the base iPad or the Nook Tablet, and only about 6 gigabytes of that is available to store content. If you want to download movies, you won’t be able to fit many into the Fire.

User Interface

When I first saw it, I really liked the Fire’s user interface. Instead of screens full of icons or folders, it presents virtual shelves filled with the books, magazines, music, TV shows, movies, apps and websites you’ve used. A large one has the most recent items, with smaller shelves below it. These are for your favorite items. Across the top is a search bar and a list of categories, like Books, Music, Videos, Apps.

But I became frustrated with the interface. There’s something off with the touch calibration on the top shelf, or Carousel, which scrolls through a seemingly endless stream of items. It can be difficult to get it to stop on the item you want and it takes more pressure than it should to open the selection.

Also, you can’t configure the main screen much. You can’t reorder the top shelf, and while you can place items on the favorites shelves, they are in the order you added them, not how you like them.

On the Nook Tablet, the user interface is a jumble of different approaches, which I consider confusing. There’s a main screen where you can place favorite icons but also see a scrolling row of items, a drop-down list of other items and a bottom row of tiny icons representing categories. But there’s also a separate interface called the library, with categories and shelves.

Browser

A big selling point for the Fire is a supposedly speedy Web browser called Silk, which splits the task of fetching Web pages between the tablet and Amazon’s super-fast cloud computers. The latter can cache common, static page elements and learn which sites and pages people most often use, so they are pre-fetched and ready to go when needed.

However, in my tests, the Fire’s Silk browser was noticeably slower than the iPad 2′s browser.

This pattern was consistent over scores of Web pages, and on four Wi-Fi networks and two different Fire devices. Amazon’s explanation is that its split-browser system requires lots of user data to achieve its speed advantages, and only a small number of people are using it, so it will get faster over time.

Content

I found it easy to buy, stream, download and use content on the Fire. Reading books was a pleasure, as on any Kindle. Movies and TV shows looked good, and music played quickly and well, despite weak speakers. In general, I found magazines and newspapers looked better on the iPad, mostly due to the larger screen.

Recognizing this, Amazon offers a “text view” of magazines, which makes them easier to read but loses the original formatting.

Screen

After years of suggesting the gray-scale, E-Ink screen on the Kindle was better for reading than a color LCD screen, Amazon now has a Kindle with the latter display. If anything, it struck me as glossier than the iPad screen. It’s vivid and sharp, but not high definition. When I asked an Amazon executive about the reading issue and the company’s past position, he suggested people who prefer E-Ink buy one of each Kindle and use the older style for reading, pointing out the pair would cost less than an iPad. I said, while that was true, such people would be carrying two devices, not one.

Battery Life

In my standard tablet battery test, playing back to back videos with the wireless turned on and the screen at 75% brightness, the Fire lasted 5 hours, 47 minutes, or less than 60% of the iPad 2′s performance on the same test, and about an hour less than the Nook Tablet’s performance. In more general use, I didn’t find myself worrying about the battery. But the Fire requires charging much more often than the traditional Kindle.

Bottom Line

At $199, and with Amazon’s content ecosystem behind it, the Fire is an attractive alternative for many people who might otherwise have bought an iPad or another Android device, especially if their principal interest is content consumption.

The Nook Tablet also is worth considering, though it lacks a music and video ecosystem.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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