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Kindle Fire Review : US Import to UK

Published on 09 February 2012 22:25 GMT by Lou

This review is based on a US Kindle Fire imported to the UK. For details and resources on obtaining and getting the most from a Kindle Fire in the UK, please see the links at the end of the review.

Before I get to the actual review, I thought I'd run through some background information first to provide a good basis for the review.

Zooming back to the past, before the Kindle Fire was released, Android had mainly failed in capturing the imagination or the spending of the consumer. This is mainly down to a huge fragmentation of the market with almost every computer hardware vendor releasing their own Android powered phone or tablet. Some of these were fairly good, but many of them were cheaply made by hardware manufacturers with little understanding of user interface or aesthetics meaning that they also looked and felt cheap when used.

By contrast, the more expensive iPhone and iPad have claimed a huge share of the mobile device market. The main reason behind this is the whole Apple ethos of design and quality. Love them or hate them, Apple know how to build a product and provide top notch software to go with it.

Similarly with the apps, for the most part, Apples own App Store has particularly stringent quality control and whilst some turkey do slip through, the overall quality of apps available on iOS devices is very high. By contrast, Google's equivalent, Android Marketplace has a far smaller collection of Apps and a significant proportion of these are of low quality reminiscent of early 90's shareware. To further compound the matter, Android apps sometimes don't work with your particular device or make no distinction between a phone or a 10" tablet, something which seems to plague the Android platform as there is no clear distinction, and sometimes the devices themselves don't even seem to know. Android has also undergone a huge number of development cycles and software versions with some apps working on a specific release and not others. Apple are sometimes seen as being too controlling, but whatever you think about their approach, the proof is in the pudding when comparing Android to iOS.

Enter the Kindle Fire…

Leading up to the launch, many were claiming that the Kindle Fire would be an iPad killer. When the hardware was finally released, it became clear that certainly the launch model, hardware wise, would not compete directly with the iPad but fit slightly lower down the food chain. However, for the first time, the Android platform had a champion - a device backed by a big name with media ties and a delivery platform to compete with iTunes.

So on with the review….

First Impressions

On taking the Kindle Fire out of the packaging, the first thing you notice is how much heavier it is than a regular Kindle (the main reason for this is the glass screen) and also the different form factor - it's a lot longer than a regular Kindle.

The device itself is very well made and feels much more expensive to hold than the relatively cheap $199 price tag would indicate. The only peripheral supplied is the charger (and don't forget it will have a US plug if you've imported from the UK) - there's no USB cable in the box for PC connection. Luckily, if you've already got an e-ink Kindle, you can use the same cable and charger just fine.

Due to the low price point, there is no built in camera, mic or additional SD card slot meaning you are limited to the 8gb built in SD card and the Amazon cloud.

My Kindle was already around 30% charged, so I didn't have to wait long before I could turn on for the first time. The start up screen is a nice, subtly animated Kindle Fire logo and once booted, the screen goes to the default 'lock' screen which shows background images in a similar vein to those found on the Kindle 4. To proceed further, you need to slide the orange arrow from right to left.

There is no printed user guide other than a tiny getting started note. The rest of the user guide is on the device itself in the documents section.

When you power on the Kindle Fire for the first time, you will need to run through a quick setup for Wi-Fi and also registering your device, much like an e-ink Kindle. This only takes a few seconds if you know your Wi-Fi settings and account login details. The device registers perfectly well to a UK account, but does have limitations if not linked to a US account and used inside the US, but more about that later.

The main screen on the Kindle Fire is the Carousel which is a rotating cover-flow style overview of your media and apps. The idea behind this is nice, but in practice doesn't work too well. For starters, if you have a large eBook collection with Amazon, the carousel will immediately be filled with your whole library, perhaps 100s of books. Scrolling through these via the carousel is not very practical despite it being fairly responsive. The other drawback with the carousel is that any 3rd party apps you install will appear there too. There's nothing wrong with this, but many Android apps have a tiny icon which looks just awful when scaled to work on the Carousel.

Below the carousel is a bookshelf where you can drag your favourites to keep them close to hand. This is a nice idea and works well, much better than the general carousel concept.

The Kindle Fire user interface is overall a very polished affair and far better than any of the other Android tablets I've looked at. This is a big plus and goes a long way toward the credibility of the Kindle Fire, much more so than say the Kobo Vox interface which looks very dated in comparison.

The Kindle Fire comes with the following apps built in :

Kindle eBook reader

This is capable of reading Kindle eBooks including the latest Kindle Format 8. Despite the LCD screen, the books display nicely and are quite easy to read for fairly long periods. If your book includes colour images then these will naturally display in full colour and add to the experience. The cover display is also very welcome. Usual controls for font style and line spacing are present, but sadly there is no text-to-speech function.

Web Browser
The web browser is a fairly standard webkit based browser. It has support for all modern browser capabilities and also is capable of running Adobe Flash, so pretty much all websites work just fine.
You can zoom in on web pages as well as rotate the device for portrait or landscape mode. My only gripe with the browser is that it doesn't always give you enough feedback, leaving you unsure sometimes if you've clicked a link or not. Similarly with file downloads, you have to be alert and notice the download start or you can end up downloading the file twice.

Amazon music player
This is quite polished and seems very capable. It can play MP3 files you transfer to the device, but will only reach its full potential when able to connect to the Amazon MP3 store, something only possible at present if you have a US account / credit card and are located in the US.

This is a very nice application for viewing images. The galleries scroll smoothly and you can zoom in very easily. Now, if only the Kindle Fire had a camera.

Does what it says on the tin. Manage your addresses and phone numbers.

This is a fairly simple email client, but looks smart, is easy to configure and also provides nice notifications when mail comes in. It doesn't allow any formatting when composing an email, but has all the expected functions including adding file attachments. It's quite basic, but adequate for general email use.

Like the MP3 player this depends on being able to connect to Amazon's US only video on demand service, so it's pretty much useless in the UK. As far as I have been able to test, it won't play videos you transfer yourself, such a mp4 files. You can however use the Gallery app to play video.

PDF viewer via Kindle app
This is extremely basic offering simple turn the page navigation and little else, not even a way to go to the beginning or end of a PDF. If you use PDFs a lot, you will want to install an alternative fairly soon.

These are the main pre-installed apps. There is no calculator or a calendar/planner which would be really useful. All of Amazon's own apps are very polished and well integrated with the Kindle Fire experience, which is a definite plus over many other Android tablets.

Aside from these, you also get apps for Facebook, IMDB and a few others. The Facebook app is merely a shortcut to the Facebook website. There is also Quick Office which allows you to view Word docs and Excel spreadsheets.

3rd Party Apps

If you are based in the UK, then you will not be able to use the Amazon App Store (for reasons unknown, it is not available in the UK), the Android marketplace is also locked out along with many other Google services.

Don't worry though, because there is a way for us UK users to sideload apps onto the Kindle Fire and it's a very easy one. See links at the bottom of the review for more info.

With the latest firmware, the Kindle Fire performs very well for a budget device. Video playback is good and game performance is also fairly good.

The screen is nice and bright and of a high quality, however the touch surface is less reactive than some more expensive devices and particularly Apple's, which means that if you are used to and iPhone or iPad, you may find the touch interface a little frustrating as it can be quite inaccurate meaning it's all too easy to accidentally click the wrong link on websites even when zoomed in to a reasonable size.

The interface is smart and among the best available on Android. This gives a nice solid and professional feel.

Living with the Kindle Fire in the UK
As mentioned, the Kindle Fire is not really supported in the UK, but it still is very capable even without access to Amazon services.

Most of the fundamentals like web browsing and email are all in place and if you disable the Silk feature you can even use BBC iPlayer just fine. Thanks to a few tricks, you can easily add your own apps even without access to the App Store.

Once the Fire is launched in the UK, this will open up even more possibilities, but as things stand, I could see no reason not to buy a Fire for use in the UK as you can do pretty much everything you could do with any other Android tablet with the bonus of more to come.

The Google Factor
Android, the operating system is an open source product from Google which means that hardware developers can use and modify the system software for their own needs. Most Android devices rely heavily on Google services like the Android Marketplace, which is where Google make their money back. Amazon however have completely eliminated all Google dependencies from the Kindle Fire. So much so, that you cannot use Android Marketplace without hacking the Kindle Fire firmware. Also, Google adsense adverts are completely blocked from the Kindle Fire browser. Believe it or not, this actually is a good thing as it offers you some protection from the pervasive nature of Google's services and to some extent their new un-privacy policy. For Amazon it's a very smart move as it means you will be using and paying for Amazon services, not Google's.

Overall Conclusion

I really like the Kindle Fire. It's not an iPad, that we know, but for the price it is a very nice tablet giving good solid web and email access and decent overall performance. If you are looking for something to read books on, watch a few movies, listen to some music along with general web based activities then it represents a great investment. Once the Kindle Fire services launch in the UK, this will then open up a whole host of additional possibilities.

Good Points :

Excellent build quality
Good quality LCD screen
Cheap price
Fairly decent apps built in
Easy to use

Bad Points :
Touch screen could be more accurate
Lacking a calendar and calculator
No SD card slot

UK Kindle Fire Resources

How to buy and import a Kindle Fire to the UK
How to download and install apps on a Kindle Fire from the UK
Alternative App Stores
How to use BBC iPlayer on the Kindle Fire

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