It seems like ages since Amazon introduced us to the $199 Fire at a hectic New York City event, but in truth that was only about six weeks ago. Amazon's new wunderkind, panacea, and lynchpin of its continuing distribution domination began shipping on Monday, a day earlier than projected. What Amazon has delivered is a device that is intimately familiar yet mysterious—a simple, minimalistic exterior design hiding a flashy, seemingly quite trick customization that's sitting atop a decidedly ho-hum Android Gingerbread build. 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. Has Amazon actually produced a tablet that can loosen Apple's iron grip on the market?
Make no mistake about it—the Fire is a proper tablet, with many (though not all) of the capabilities of something like an iPad. To actually win the hearts of consumers, to steal those throbbing, Cupertino-captivated organs away from the iPad, the Kindle Fire has to be amazing ... and it isn't. The Fire isn't a dud, but its real-world performance and utility match neither the benchmarks of public expectation, nor the standards set by the world's best tablets. It has hit a stumbling block: the reviews so far are tepid. (Then again, the tone of the professional reviews reminds me a bit of reviews of the original 2007 Kindle.)
Animations are sluggish and jerky—even the page turns that you'd think would be the pride of the Kindle team. We expected more from the Kindle Fire's Silk browser. Sometimes the browser doesn't react to touch gestures at all, requiring that oh-so-annoying second tap or swipe instead. The momentum of the animations hasn't been calculated right, so the whole thing feels ornery. The magazine experience on the Kindle Fire isn't just bad, its possibly the worst magazine experience I have ever had. A 7-inch screen might be great for books, but how could anyone think it would work for what we think of as magazines? Try to find a 7-inch magazine on the (non-virtual) newsstand. The device is still better than most of Android tablets out there in the market, and the $199 price tag can't be beaten so easily—yet, it is far, far behind iPad, even the original iPad. You feel that $200 price tag with every swipe of your finger. Chalk this one up in the "you get what you pay for" column.
If you're an Amazon addict, the Kindle Fire's flaws may seem like less of a deal breaker. The reading experience is usually as fluid as the latest crop of e-ink-based Kindle devices, but things hum along a little faster thanks to that processor. Perfect Size & Price Point. Slick & Simple UI. The similarity to the BlackBerry PlayBook in terms of the design is undeniable, which is no wonder, as it has been designed by the same company. 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. Pretty awesome that the Kindle Fire still has access to all of Amazon's "Free Apps of The Day" that I download on my Droid X.
The Fire, the top-of-the-line Kindle tablet, has reportedly given some potential iPad purchasers second thoughts as the Fire is some $300 cheaper than the least-expensive iPad. From the moment you turn it on to the first time you download music from your own personal cloud to the minute you start watching a movie on the device and then continue watching on your HDTV—without connecting the device to the TV—you're hooked. Remember when you used to read books that were made out of protons and neutrons in addition to just electrons? Most of those weighed more than the Fire. And battery life was excellent.
Kindle Fire reviews run hot and cold from those who pre-ordered it, too. "I want to love it, I really do. But I can't, wrote one Amazon customer. "I like the size of it, and the display is clear, but it's not e-ink, so it's definitely not going to be a primary e-reader—the sounds are lame, and the tactile ergonomics are erratic and unreliable, which is just not OK," wrote another. Others complained that the Fire "IS REALLY BUGGY. I couldn't get through 3 chapters this morning without the device force-closing at least a dozen times" and disliked "having to press icons or buttons multiple times to get the device to do something." One guy said "it disappointed me more than I would have imagined."
Nevertheless, 5-star reviews outpace 1-star reviews five-to-one. "This is a stunning personal media consumption device," boasted one Fire fanboy. Others said, "The Fire is svelte, sharp, crystaline, beautiful," "gorgeous, it's sharp, and it's tied automatically to your Amazon account." "It's exactly what I wanted and by that I mean it's great for surfing the Internet, checking email, reading books, magazines, and comics, and playing the occasional game." "Amazon could have charged a lot more for this INCREDIBLE piece of technology."
Summed up one satisfied customer: "It is not an iPad. But neither is my coffee maker."
[Image: Flickr user john curley]
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.