Yesterday, Amazon officially released its Kindle Fire, which is expected to offer a serious alternative to Apple’s iPad. However, the Fire will only live up to your expectations if you remember what you can buy with $200.
I can’t recall a non-Apple product for which we have been waiting as anxiously as we have for the Kindle Fire. Perhaps we are starving for tablets, or maybe we are just searching for one that is an affordable alternative to the iPad. If you have already purchased a Fire, then you know that it is not a means of getting an iPad for less than half the price. If you plan to order a tablet for Christmas, it would be a good idea to know exactly what capabilities you want in one. Depending on your needs, the Fire could be a waste of money (even if it is just $200).
Kindle Fire: What your $200 buys
The Fire is a 7-inch tablet that is built with the purpose of simple web browsing as well as using Amazon’s core digital entertainment services (books, music, and video) and a limited set of Android applications.
A positive aspect of the tablet is clearly the Amazon content offering with local and cloud storage as well as a slick web browser. Also, its display is the best I have seen in the $200 class of tablets so far. However, there is only so much that $200 can buy, and much of that value is derived from the Amazon platform rather than the Fire’s features. For example, I found the dual-core processor to be slower in everyday browsing than specs of the chip suggest. Compared to high-end tablets, there are occasionally delays when an app is launched.
When you consider a tablet, it is prudent to not only consider what you get, but also what you do not get. The Fire, for example, does not have cameras. Its screen is larger than your average smartphone, but it still feels a bit small for web browsing and typing emails. Furthermore, it does not include a microphone, a memory expansion slot (there are 8 GB of memory included), 3G/4G or GPS. The last feature is critical because it is the most likely reason why Amazon uses a curated Android app store. There are many of the big applications, but there are neither maps features, for example, nor applications such as “Sky,” which have made Android particularly appealing.
After one day of heavy usage, I consider the Kindle Fire a compelling tablet in its price category but not overall. The following are some alternatives.
Pandigital SuperNova: Two steps forward and two back
If the 7-inch size is a problem, there is an 8-inch option for $200—the Pandigital SuperNova, which we recently described in more detail. You will get two cameras, a Flash expansion slot, HDMI interface, a microphone and a much more standard Android (2.3) UI surface. The SuperNova has plenty of book content (Barnes & Noble) but no music service or Netflix (at least not yet). The display is not as crisp as the screen in the Fire, and there is only a single-core processor, which is, however, subjectively just as fast as the chip in the Fire.
Pandigital uses GetJar as its app market. This tablet, like the Fire, also lacks a GPS unit and does not qualify for the Android Market. App variety in such devices is definitely a problem. Personally, I feel that the 8-inch units are somewhat more attractive as they are small enough to easily fit in backpacks, briefcases and purses. However, they are much more convenient to use than the small 7-inch devices. If you are considering a $200 tablet, keep an open mind. There are products out there that may suit your needs better than the Kindle Fire.
Spend $400 and you get the kind of tablet everyone is talking about
I have been using several 7-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch tablets in parallel for several weeks. One of the lessons I have learned is that there is no perfect tablet at this time. There is always some sort of compromise you will have to make.
If you spend at least $400, you could, depending on your expectations, easily get twice the value. The Acer Iconia tablet has 16 GB of memory, Android 3.x, GPS and full access to Google’s Android Market. Unlimited access to it carries considerable entertainment value that virtually all entry-level tablets lack.
Spending another $100 can provide you with a capable 10-inch tablet with 32 GB of memory and 4G on-demand data access. A high-end tablet such as this is another class of devices that bridge the gap between casual computing devices and those that are sufficient for professional environments.
However, those extra features not only cost substantially more, but they are also heavier. For example, the Kindle Fire weighs 14.6 ounces, while the Iconia weighs 26 ounces. (This is a rather heavy example of 10-inch tablets due to their material choices.)
The Bottom Line: Know what you buy
The Kindle Fire is not an alternative to the iPad. Even if the two devices are competing for the tablet buyer, they deliver different features and require different compromises. The Kindle Fire is a very basic digital entertainment device that will not match what an iPad or a high-end Android tablet can deliver. If you expect the Fire to be a $200 iPad, there is a good chance that you will be disappointed. You may even be disappointed if you expect a high-end Kindle reader. The regular Kindles have screens that work much better for reading purposes. However, if you are looking for a simple tablet that you can use for occasional web browsing and email communication from the living room couch, you will get a decent compact computing device.
What makes the Fire attractive is Amazon’s approach to building an entertainment platform around minimalist hardware that focuses on what is truly important: an adequate processor and a great screen. The value over other $200 tablets is clearly in media streaming and storage services.
This is just one man's opinion, of course. Be sure to read Barry Gerber's more positive take on the Kindle Fire at Tom's IT Pro.