Amazon’s consumer-electronics business has sometimes felt like a sideline–something the company did to supplement its real business of selling physical and virtual goods created by others. But it’s time to rethink that. For one thing in 2014, with the Fire TV streaming-video box and Fire Phone, the company entered two new product categories.
And today, in its biggest announcement ever in terms of sheer volume, it’s revealing an array of new models in two areas it’s already in, tablets and e-readers. The company is taking pre-orders for these new products now, but doesn’t plan to ship any of them until October. (Maybe, just maybe, it’s announcing them now to get a head start on any iPads which Apple might be getting ready to unveil in the coming weeks.)
I attended an Amazon press briefing in New York and got some hands-on time with the new devices. Let’s go through them one by one, shall we?
There’s nothing new about an Android tablet that costs less than a hundred bucks. Amazon itself sells hundreds of models. It’s just that most of them are from companies you’ve never heard of, and are either a little chintzy or unbelievably so.
With its new $99 Fire HD 6, Amazon is trying to hit a low price point without releasing a hunk of junk. (Its business model–sell hardware for little or no profit, and hope to make money when customers buy content–makes that goal attainable.)
The biggest concession it seems to have made is the screen size: It’s six inches, placing the device in a no-tablet’s-land in between phablets and seven-inch models. But the specs are far from embarrassing: It has a quad-core processor, an HD screen, and front and rear cameras. And though the industrial design is mundane and chunky, it comes in five color choices and looks sturdy.
In fact, Amazon says that sturdiness was one of its overarching goals. It even brought some of the machinery it uses for tablet torture tests to its press briefings. The tumbler shown here simulates the sort of violent jostling which a tablet might get inside a purse or backpack, which the company says is too much for many cheap tablets to handle.
The $99 Fire HD comes with version 4.0 of Fire OS, Amazon’s Android-based operating system, and includes goodies such as unlimited online photo storage and Family Library, which lets up to two adults and four kids share the content they’ve purchased. However, it doesn’t include the amazing Mayday video tech support that’s a signature feature of the Fire Phone and higher-end Fire tablets.
Amazon is also introducing a new 7-inch Fire HD that’s essentially the same beast as the 6-inch model, but with a tad more screen space. It’s $139, the same price as the Kindle Fire HD model it’s replacing.
Last year’s 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX was one ambitious tablet, with a magnesium case, a super-high resolution screen, unusually robust Wi-Fi, and Mayday. This year, the company is spiffing up that model rather than trying to reinvent it. But there are some noteworthy updates.
The new Fire HDX keeps the same industrial design and screen resolution, but bumps the processor up to 2.5-GHz. It has Dolby Atmos sound–a neat technology, although it only works for movies released in Atmos format, and only over headphones–and a new light sensor which it uses to adjust the screen contrast to mimic the look of ink on paper in varying environments.
You also get Firefly, the image-recognition technology which lets you point your device’s camera at real-world objects and get information about them–and, if you choose, buy them from Amazon. That isn’t yet available on the Fire HD, although Amazon says it’s working on that.
Amazon boasts that this 13.2-ounce tablet is 20% lighter than the iPad Air; that’s true, but it has an 8.9-inch screen vs. the Air’s 9.7-incher, so it isn’t entirely due to brilliant engineering on Amazon’s part. Still, it is startlingly easy to hold: It feels like it might be hollow. It still starts at $379.
Before I learned the details on these new products, I wondered if Amazon might announce a tablet with dynamic perspective–its wildly imaginative and ambitious technology, available on the Fire Phone, which uses multiple camera, face recognition, and on-the-fly 3-D rendering to create on-screen images which change as you tilt your head and crank your neck. The new HDX doesn’t have it, and that’s okay, because dynamic perspective has yet to find its killer app. But even though consumers haven’t been interested enough in the technology to make the Fire Phone a hit, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year’s top-of-the-line HDX tablet has it.
Fire HD Kids Edition is a tablet–two of them, actually–for young people, especially those between 3 and 10 years of age. Strictly speaking, it amounts to a bundle offer. For $149 (6 inches) or $189 (7 inches), you get a Fire HD tablet designed to be run in Amazon’s FreeTime mode. That’s a kid-friendly environment which provides access to appropriate videos, books, apps, and games–and which lets parents set limits and establish goals, so that a child has to do 30 minutes of reading before she can play a game, for instance. There’s no access to the AppStore, the web, e-mail, or anything else which might be unexpectedly expensive or potentially dangerous. (Parents, however, can switch back to standard mode for their own use.)
Kids Edition tablets also come with one year of FreeTime Unlimited, a sort of junior-sized equivalent of Amazon Prime, with 5,000 pieces of content. They include a thick, bumper-style case. They’re backed with a two-year warranty which Amazon says covers damage of any type–even if the tablet gets dunked in the toilet. And unlike the rest of Amazon’s tablets, which have “Special Offers”–basically screen savers with advertising–unless you pay extra to remove them, these ones are ad-free.
Amazon’s very first consumer electronics product, back in 2007, was the original Kindle e-reader. It was breakthrough–but it also happened to have a hard-to-read screen, a peculiar user interface, and some of the strangest industrial design ever to have emerged from a major company. Did I mention it was sluggish?
Flash-forward to 2014. After seven years’ worth of improvements, the new Kindle Voyage e-reader not only doesn’t have any of the original model’s issues, but is just a beautifully refined product, period. It’s not going to be the biggest seller among Amazon’s new products, but it might be the nicest, most distinctive thing the company has ever made.
Starting with the Kindle Paperwhite models, Amazon gave its e-readers an illuminated screen which, at long last, made them highly readable in murky lighting as well as bright sunlight. The Voyage keeps that technology and adds a new 300 dots-per-inch version of E Ink that makes monochrome text and images look better than they’ve ever looked on an e-reader. The lighting is 39% brighter, adjusts itself to the environment you’re reading in, and even slowly dims itself when you read in the dark as your eyes adjust.
The Voyage’s case is so thin (7.6 mm) and compact that I thought for a moment the screen was smaller than before. (Nope: It’s still 6 inches.) It’s taken on a bit of the style of the Fire HD tablets, and feels seriously upscale.
The price is upscale, too. The Voyage starts at $199 for a Wi-Fi model with Special Offers and goes up to $289 for one with 3G networking and no ads. I can’t imagine that Amazon expects to sell these things in vast quantities, but I’m glad they exist. It’s sort of as if Apple had never stopped trying to make the original, classic iPod as good as it could possibly be.
Lastly, there’s a new version of the $79 Kindle. It’s nowhere near as slick as the Voyage, and the screen isn’t lit. But for the first time, the very cheapest Kindle has a touch-screen interface rather than physical buttons.
One side note about all this new stuff which you may or may not have already noticed: Amazon is tweaking its branding. The new tablets are just Fire tablets, not Kindle Fires. The Kindle name, it seems, will be reserved for more reading-centric experiences. Maybe that’s yet another sign that this company which people still associate with books and reading wants to be taken as seriously as anyone else in the gadget game.