Kindle Fire: First Impressions

Not a networking post as such, but I hope sufficiently nerdy that you’ll indulge me. I received my $180 refurbished Kindle Fire yesterday from Amazon. A new one is $200, but as the refurb came with the same warranty as new, I opted to save the $20. (You say “cheap.” I say “frugal.”) The Fire is a 7″ Android-based tablet with a 1024×600 “gorilla glass” color touch screen and 7 to 8 hours of battery life. I bought the Fire for one reason: to consume my growing collection of networking PDFs and ebooks. Why not just read them on my laptop? Because my laptop is not as portable as I’d like – it’s heavy, it can get hot, and the battery life is only so-so. The Fire allows me to read anywhere, including the gym when I’m on a stationary machine doing cardio work.

The bits that were most important to me:

  • The physical tablet is a clean design. It’s got a black, rubberized back with the word “Kindle” molded in. There’s a small power button, micro USB, and 3.5mm headphone jack on the “bottom”, and 2 speakers at the “top”. Top and bottom is somewhat relative with this device, as content orients automatically depending on how you’re holding the tablet. There are no hard keys other than the power button.
  • The Fire is solid, but I wouldn’t say “heavy”. You might tire of holding in one hand for a long time, though. In practice, I’ve been holding it in both hands, or resting it on something.
  • The glass is very reflective, meaning overhead lights can reflect back at you and make you sad. They make screen protectors to help with that, so I’ve heard. I haven’t tried one yet.
  • The screen is sharp enough, but it’s no retina display. I have no issues reading the screen, and there’s some attempt on Amazon’s part to suggest smoothly rendered fonts like Microsoft does with ClearType. It looks fine, but it is what it is. Apple crams 960×640 into an iPhone-sized screen, and it looks amazing. Amazon uses a similar number of pixels for a much bigger screen, so naturally it isn’t as sharp. My opinion is to not let that scare you away.
  • The OS, as I understand it, is Android that has been “Amazon-ized”. So if you just want a raw Android tablet, the Fire isn’t it. I have no interest in rooting the Fire, and so have not researched that. I presume it’s possible, with all the caveats of warranty voiding and other issues that could arise through doing so.
  • The interface is easy to navigate, but a little goofy. The Fire has a “carousel”, sort of like flipping through album covers in iTunes, only you’re flipping through icons of the stuff you’ve used recently. You can assign certain carousel items as favorites, which puts them as flat icons on a shelf below the carousel level. It’s…okay. Mostly, I just use the text menu bar up above the carousel, which lets me get to what I want pretty quickly.
  • The Fire came pre-attached to my Amazon account. When I first started the Fire up, I completed the registration process to verify that, yes indeed, this was me, and yes, please attach the Fire to the Amazon account indicated. This is somewhat Apple-like, in that my Kindle is connected to my Amazon account and the Amazon ecosystem, much like an iOS device can be connected to your iTunes account and the iTunes ecosystem.
  • The Fire upgraded and auto-rebooted itself a few times after registering. At least, I think that’s what it was doing. I wasn’t watching that closely, because I was doing something more important…whatever that might have been. I do know that once it settled back down, screen swipes got smoother – something I noted in other people’s reviews of the Fire. Overall, responsiveness to document resizes, page turns, and the like are comparable to my iPhone 4. Mostly, it’s smooth, but there are moments where the animation is a bit clunky. Overall, it’s very usable.
  • Putting content on the Fire is as easy as drag ‘n’ drop. Plug the Fire in to your system with micro USB (not supplied by Amazon, but I happened to have my own), and the Fire’s file system is accessible as a drive. Some of the folders are obvious as to intent. Some are not. Google for details.
  • Fire storage is 8GB in total that’s divided up into chunks. You get 5GB for your own documents. The Fire keeps the other 3GB for itself from what I can tell. So far, 5GB is a lot of PDFs & ebooks. I’ve put 300+ files in my documents folder, and only used up about 1.5GB. It looks like I could get around 1,000 documents or so on the Fire if I wanted. And in fairness…I don’t. It’s no problem to shuttle some files in and out of the Fire document library if needed due to lack of available space.
  • The Fire has a built in PDF reader. However, that default reader will not parse through folders. So, if you want to use the default PDF reader, you have to dump everything into the root of the “Documents” folder. Then you can browse through the list of PDFs on the Fire. It’s not wonderful, especially if you’ve got a great folder hierarchy already established. I went through some trouble to rename PDFs with a bulk renaming tool so that they’d present in a way that I could find stuff, since the list of PDFs is presented in alpha-order. Between alpha-order and the Fire’s search feature, I was doing okay finding things, but I didn’t love the user experience of finding something. And besides, flat-file just doesn’t scale.
  • Reading PDFs on the Fire *phase 2* has turned out to be installing the Adobe Acrobat reader app for Android from the Amazon app store. The process of finding and installing an app is very iOS-like, so no learning curve for me there, as I’m used to my iPhone. Acrobat DOES parse folders, plus has a special slider that lets you rip quickly up and down the list of documents. That process is much more efficient than the default PDF reader, in my opinion.
  • Acrobat does a good job of letting you read PDFs on the Fire. No major complaints with it so far. Two finger gestures for zoom/unzoom, a slider to move quickly to different pages, plus Acrobat remembers recent documents viewed. Not much else to say – it just works. Yes, you’re working in the confines of 1024×600 to read PDFs, but that’s very do-able. Acrobat also has a “text reflow” viewing mode, which makes the reading experience more like consuming an ebook than viewing statically formatted PDF pages, in that the text is reformatted for you, ignoring the margins, columns, and tables of the original PDF. Plus, the text can be resized, etc. That’s a big win for reading the text sections of books, although for CiscoPress titles that have embedded diagrams, “text reflow” mode can be a bit of a fail. All in all, a great (and free) app.
  • Of course, the Kindle Fire excels in displaying ebooks. You can view the text in your choice of several fonts, font sizes, line spacing, and margins. You can also set black/white, white/black, or sepia. I rather like the sepia – very easy on the eyes. Plus, unlike the PDFs, ebooks show up with the book cover as the icon in the Fire interface. Not a big deal, but nice.
  • You can e-mail documents to your Kindle Fire via [email protected] – where “youraccount” is some alias Amazon will auto-assign, and which you can tweak via your account settings on Amazon.com. You have to assign a list of approved e-mail addresses that can send documents to your Kindle via that address.
  • Typing on the Fire is tolerable. There’s more physical space than on an iPhone keyboard, so I make fewer mistakes. That said, they made the space bar overly small, and stuck a “.” next to the space bar on the right. That particular layout choice has been frustrating, as I will sometime type a period when I intend to type a space. Then again, I have no plans to type overly much on the Fire. An e-mail in a pinch? Perhaps. Maybe a comment on a blog. Maybe a tweet. But for me, the Fire is all about consuming, not creating, so I can overlook some keyboard layout foibles.
  • Recharging the Fire reportedly happens in about 3 to 4 hours via the included charger. It takes much longer via a USB port (I’ve read as much as 8+ hours), but is do-able. My Fire is plugged into a USB port right now, and the charge is trickling away.
  • The Fire plays music and videos. Apparently. I haven’t tried those functions, because they are not that important to me. I can possibly see using Pandora while reading a document, just to help tune out the rest of the world. And maybe I’ll throw a few albums on there to get by on a plane flight when wifi is not available. But…I have an iPhone as well as an iPod, which manage my large music library extremely well. I don’t need the Fire to worry about that for me.
  • No camera. No 3G or 4G. No slot for storage. Not super important features to me, and from my perspective it’s preferred that the Fire not have them, as it keeps the cost of the Fire down. The iPad has a camera and can have 3G, and that contributes in part to the much higher cost (along with the 10″ screen of course). An SD card slot would be nice, but I can live without it.

Other stuff I’ve tried with the Kindle Fire:

  • Wireless. I’ve been able to connect to a variety of 802.11 networks with no issue, including 802.11n WPA2 Personal with a PSK, 802.11n WPA2 Enterprise with user/pass credentials, and 802.11g with WEP. I was even able to pre-populate an SSID and WEP key of a wireless network I knew I was heading for, and the Fire connected automatically when I arrived with no further interaction from me. The wireless radio in the Fire is 2.4GHz only. The Fire did not pick up my 5GHz SSID at home.
  • Web browsing. Yes, it browses the web with Amazon’s built-in browser called Silk, that reportedly uses unicorn tears to makes surfing with the Fire speedy. I’ve tried surfing several pages, and they all look…fine. Undramatic. I haven’t tried Flash embeds or java apps. The Fire is certainly good enough for casual surfing. It’s not something I’ll do much of – mostly just jumping from Feedly to blogger pages to be able to read an entire article.
  • E-mail. I’ve added a couple of Gmail-based IMAP accounts to the Fire. The jury is still out. Setting them up was easy enough, but I need to spend more time with contacts and IMAP integration. I think it’s a little weird…as in, I’m seeing some mail items I thought I’d deleted, and vice-versa. I need to look closer. I have several mail clients that access the same mailboxes via IMAP, so it’s possible I myself am mentally out of sync with where things should be. It’s probably fine. FWIW, I have not tried to connect the Fire to an Exchange server yet, so I don’t know how well it will do with that as compared to the iPhone (which does well with Exchange indeed).
  • Hootsuite. This is the tool I use to manage my Twitter feeds. I use it on Win7 and on my iPhone. I don’t like HootSuite as well on Android as I do on other platforms, but it works.
  • Feedly. Feedly hooks into your Google Reader account, only it presents the RSS content in a way that doesn’t suck. I like Feedly a lot since converting over to it a few weeks ago. I use Feedly to consume blogs and news articles. It’s how I keep up with the daily content generated by the networking community. Feedly on Fire is turning out to be pretty important to me, as it means I can do essentially all of my reading on one device.
  • Google Plus. There is a Plus app for Android, but there is NOT a Plus app in the Amazon store for the Fire. So, I used the Google mobile version of Plus via the web browser, which isn’t great, but isn’t bad once you get used to it.
  • Other apps. There’s a WordPress app, and it feels the same as the WP app on iOS. There’s several weather apps. There’s IMDB. There’s Angry Birds. And the ubiquitous white-on-blue “f”. Etc. My understanding is that the Amazon app store for the Kindle Fire is somewhat limited, and it’s no iTunes store from a standpoint of app availability. But, for what I want the Fire to do, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Okay, I’m missing Trello (a workflow tool I use with Greg to organize the podcast among other things). No app for Trello…but if I’m honest, trello.com looks pretty good right from the Fire browser.

Parting thoughts.

The Kindle Fire is a highly usable device that at first glance will easily meet my goal of making my PDF library portable. I have already read more technical documents with it than I typically read on my laptop in the course of a day. I took in about half of an IPv6 presentation by Cisco’s Shannon McFarland from a webinar I missed a couple of weeks ago. I also completed chapter 1 of a brand new cert prep book for Certified Ethical Hacker. The fact that the Fire can do other things like e-mail, HootSuite, and web surfing is a pleasant bonus. For the money, I think the Kindle Fire is a spectacular buy.

Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, has been managing networks for higher ed, government, financials and high tech since 1995. Ethan co-hosts the Packet Pushers Podcast, which has seen over 2M downloads and reaches over 10K listeners. With whatever time is left, Ethan writes for fun & profit, studies for certifications, and enjoys science fiction. @ecbanks
Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks
  • http://twitter.com/tbourke tbourke

    Because Tablets are so content-centric, I don’t think the hardware manufacturers have much of a chance of making a huge dent in the tablet field (Samsung, Motorola). I think Amazon is the best company positioned to take on Apple, and it seems they’re doing well. 

  • http://showbrain.blogspot.com Ben Story

    My wife got a Kindle Fire for Christmas and I’ve been allowed to borrow it on occasion.  My one complaint is that without buying a kindle book version of a book I already own on PDF or ePUB, there is no way to use the highlighting and note taking capabilities of the Kindle on the book.

  • Davis Stanley

    I love my fire for studying …its only draw back if any is the fact that you can browse the web which proves to be a big temptation while studying…

  • Elizabeth S.

    For PDF docs you might also want to check out RepliGo Reader and ezPDF reader. Both have excellent highlighting and markup features. ezPDF reader also has a voice reading option.

  • http://twitter.com/cloudtoad Derick Winkworth

    I kind of want one of these… I am disappointed in my 7″ Galaxy..

  • Abe

    If I were to purchase a tablet, the Fire would be the one especially after reading this thoughtful review based on experience and not “I hate apple, so I’m going to push the Fire” attitude. 

    • http://packetpushers.net/author/ecbanks Ethan Banks

      Heh. That would be because I *like* Apple stuff, generally. Just couldn’t cough up the money for an iPad. Plus…the form factor of an iPad is actually a little bit big for my specific application. The 7″ size is really good. But overall, I’m not much of a fanboy for any brands anymore. They’re all good…and bad, you know? :)

      • Abe

        “They’re all good…and bad, you know?” Yup. My thoughts exactly. I service iPads and iPhones at work, so I’ve had plenty of experience with them and just cannot “get into” them, but the reasons are all subjective so I haven’t written a paper on why Apple’s tablet and phone sucks. :)

  • Eoghan

    If you can read while working, you’re doing it wrong. :)

  • Craig Rash

    Great Review, Ethan!  I’m with you on the fact that my phone does just about everything I need a tablet for — except reading!  (until they make a good wifi survey tool) It makes a lot of sense to spend a little to fill in the gaps than to spend a ton to get features you already have in another device.

  • Danx1000

    A few additional thoughts
    1.  You can most Android apps without rooting the device – in settings you can allow it to install apps from other sources.  Then surf to garjar or other android app sources and install their interface app and start finding new apps.

    2.  The Fire has no microphone – so you can’t use Dragon Go or other Siri type voice engines – I love Dragon Go on my iPhone 4.

    3.  I can’t find a way to Sync my calandar from outlook to the Kindle Fire

    4.  The interface sometimes isn’t responsive

    5.  The battery life is far shorter then on my older Kindle – the joys of backlit displays  suppose . . . .

    It is a great deal and a nice box, but it lacks the polish of an iPad

  • Jrush

    I can not get a gmail and a clear account work since they are both on the gmail pop… the no calendar annoys the hell out of me