Dreaming of a better Kindle Fire

When the Kindle Fire arrived last year, I bought one. For $200, why not, right? I suspect a lot of people felt the same way—and during the holiday season, Amazon apparently sold a bunch of them. The company is pretty tight-lipped about such matters, but despite reports to the contrary, the Kindle Fire is still probably the second-most-successful tablet around.

When people ask me what I think of the Kindle Fire, I have a stock answer: It’s decent at everything and great at nothing. (Hey, you think that’s harsh? You haven’t read Melissa Perenson’s review, then.) I prefer reading books on the fourth-generation E Ink Kindle. The iPad is better at magazines, comic books, video, email, web browsing, and third-party apps in general.

But the Kindle Fire has a few things going for it. It’s cheap—at $200 it’s half the price of the now-discounted iPad 2. It’s small and light. It’s integrated with Amazon’s ecosystem, which is strong and getting stronger all the time. If an Android-powered tablet is going to break through and become a hit, I’ve got to think the Kindle Fire is the product to do it. But Amazon has some work to do before it gets there.

Hardware changes

It’s possible that the Kindle Fire is a stopgap product designed to hold off the Barnes and Noble Nook Color long enough for Amazon’s “real” tablet to arrive this year. We’ll see. But regardless, the Kindle Fire hardware is lacking in a few areas.

The hardware buttons need an entire re-think. The sleep/wake button is located dead center on the device’s bottom edge, and it’s way too easy to press by accident. More problematic is the Kindle Fire’s lack of hardware buttons to control system volume. An increasing number of third-party apps have solved this problem by adding an on-screen volume control—Netflix is a good example—but there are still plenty of times when I’ve wanted to just nudge the Kindle Fire’s volume a little bit, and been forced to tap the tiny gear icon at the top of the screen in order to gain access to the volume slider.

Many critics argue that the Fire’s 7-inch screen just isn’t big enough. But my gut feeling is that building a larger Fire risks blowing the product’s size advantage over the iPad. I read books on a Kindle and not my iPad specifically because I can comfortably hold a Kindle in one hand. Watching video on the Kindle Fire might not be a mind-blowing HD experience, but it’s pretty good.

Software changes

Over the months, the experience of being a Kindle Fire owner has definitely improved. Amazon’s software updates have made the Fire feel more responsive, and Kindle Fire-specific updates to third-party apps have helped a lot. (The Netflix app plays far more smoothly than it did originally, putting it on par with Amazon’s built-in video app.) At no point when using the Kindle Fire have I felt that I’ve been abandoned by Amazon to fend for myself in Android—this is an Amazon experience through and through, and the product is all the better for it.

But the Kindle Fire still doesn’t interact with Amazon’s own ecosystem as well as it should. Tying the device to a single Amazon account can be confusing if you live in a family with more than one active Amazon account. At one point I logged out of my account and gave the Kindle Fire to my wife, who logged in with her account. All the Fire’s third-party apps refused to launch, because they were purchased by the other account. She downloaded a few new apps, which then wouldn’t load when I switched the Fire back to my account. Support for more than one Amazon account, and a more forgiving approach to launching those third-party apps, would be a good idea.

The main reason we swapped our accounts on the device was because we were getting around another Amazon shortcoming. Amazon allows an Amazon Prime member to share the benefits of that membership with other members of their household. My wife bought Prime and shared it with my account. But that account sharing doesn’t cover all aspects of Prime, most notably free Amazon Instant Video streams and the monthly free book from the Kindle Lending Library. To use those features, we had to change the account the Kindle Fire was linked to—thereby depriving it of access to all the music and Kindle books tied to my Amazon account.

Room for improvement

The Kindle Fire is definitely a first effort. I’m reminded of the original Kindle, which was intriguing and yet horribly flawed. After a couple of iterations, Amazon got the Kindle in shape. It can do the same with the Kindle Fire, especially if it emphasizes its two strongest points: a small size and a low price. With some tweaks to the hardware (volume buttons!) and continued software refinements, including better support for multiple Amazon accounts, the Kindle Fire’s future can still be bright.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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