Update: Amazon announced that the Kindle Fire will start shipping today, a day early.
Navigation. The Kindle Fire’s home-screen “carousel” displays items you’ve accessed, in the order in which you accessed them; swipe through the ribbon of icons to see all the movies, books, magazines, and apps you’ve been using. If you take one of the free 14-day newspaper trial subscriptions, as we did with the Washington Post, the day’s paper appears at the front of the ribbon as soon as you connect to Wi-Fi in the morning. (The Kindle Fire is a Wi-Fi only device.)
E-mail. We were able to connect to an existing Gmail account via the device’s e-mail client. The client also supports Yahoo, Hotmail, and more; apps including Touchdown are also available to link to corporate accounts on Exchange, but we haven’t yet tried those.
Also, each Kindle Fire comes set up with a kindle.com e-mail account, so you can send photos, documents, and other files to the tablet. Initially, we couldn’t send photos to that account, seemingly because we were sending them from an e-mail account other than the one registered to the account. Amazon says it restricts addresses to limit spam, and that you can register additional addresses for your account. After we did that, documents e-mailed to the address arrived quickly, though it wasn’t easy to figure out how to get photos, say, from the Docs inbox to the photo gallery app elsewhere on the device.
Until we’d fixed that problem, we instead sent photos to the Gmail account. They arrived fine, though accessing them presented a bit of a challenge, since they didn’t always turn up where we expected. For example, we had to search for documents using the Quickoffice app. In addition, we found that photos didn’t show up in the gallery until we rebooted the tablet after downloading them.
Content. The Kindle Fire's killer feature may be its access to the free streaming movies and TV shows that are among the benefits of subscribing to Amazon Prime, the company's $79-a-year premium program. (A free 30-day subscription to the service is included with the Kindle Fire.)
We found it easy to stream Prime videos, and they quickly loaded and ran smoothly on both the fast broadband connection in our labs and a relatively slow one at a staffer’s home. You can also rent or buy movies from the Amazon store. Bought or rented titles can either be streamed from Amazon’s servers, to help conserve the Kindle Fire’s 8GB of storage space, or downloaded to the device to view videos on the go; we found it took less than 10 minutes to download full-length movies. The option to store and access some content in the cloud is also available for all other Amazon-purchased content, too, including apps.
We also added music to an Amazon Cloud account—both from a personal music collection and also by purchasing from Amazon—that we then accessed from the Fire. We rebooted the tablet before those showed up on the Fire. But we subsequently discovered a “sync to Cloud” setting that loaded new music without the need for a reboot.
Books and publications look good on the Fire. You can read magazines either in “page view,” which displays the magazine just the way it would look on paper, or “text view,” which makes the magazine pages look more like a book. Amazon Prime subscribers can take advantage of the new Kindle Lending Library, which offers thousands of titles that can be borrowed free, one per month, with no time limit. Some of the available books are on the current New York Times bestseller list.
You’ll also have access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Slacker, and other content sources. As for other apps, Amazon’s Appstore is a curated marketplace, with apps chosen by Amazon.
Display. The Fire’s display looked very good, with a crisp picture. The videos we watched played smoothly without any glitches, even when streamed over Wi-Fi. But the display is only fair in sunlight because of glare. That’s the case with many other tablets, although some did a little better in our glare tests than the Kindle Fire. While viewing the Fire in sunlight, for example, our tester had to keep adjusting the angle at which he held the tablet so he could see better. The viewing angle was fine, as wide and symmetrical as you’d expect on a 7-inch tablet.
We’ve seen tablets that are better optimized than the Kindle Fire for viewing photographs. While the images were fine in quality, there’s seemingly no full-screen viewing option; a large menu on the bottom of the screen, coupled with a narrower one above, limits the viewing area and cuts off the upper and lower portions of photos.
Touch screen. Touch response on the Kindle Fire was quick and smooth. But sometimes the touch screen was overly responsive, interpreting a tap as a swipe, which could cause problems when navigating on the home page, for example. That said, when we played Angry Birds on the Fire, touch response was fine.
Limitations. Unlike many other tablets, the Kindle Fire has no camera, and it lacks the memory-card slot of some tablets, though you can load content via a mini-USB connection. Its 8GB of storage space is sparse, but you do have the option of storing Amazon content (and up to 5GB of your own content) free using Amazon’s cloud service. Of course, that also means you’ll need Wi-Fi access to get at that content.
Bottom line. In our first look, the Amazon Kindle Fire was a fine performer, especially if your priority is to get Amazon content including movies, TV shows, music, and books. The display is smaller than the iPad’s, and the app market is more limited, but for $200 you’re getting a full-featured tablet that performs well.
We will continue our tests of the Kindle Fire, including such attributes as battery life, and we will also compare it with the Nook Tablet, the competing device from Barnes & Noble that also launches this week.
—Donna L. Tapellini