Ever since I bought an original Sony Reader, and then when I purchased an Amazon Kindle, and then again when speculation began about the screen size of the original iPad, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a 7″ tablet. Devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle were just so conveniently small and light that I could carry them anywhere, even when toting around a (moderately) heavy Notebook computer, that I thought that form factor would make an ideal general-purpose tablet computer. Well the iPad came out with a 9.7″ screen, and I’ve really grown to love that form factor. Still my interest in 7″ devices persists. I came this close to buying a Samsung Galaxy Tab just to try a 7″ device, but was stopped by three factors: (a) I don’t much care for the Android 2.x UI, (b) there were no tablet-specific apps for it, and (c) the $500 price-point is not someplace I care to go for something I feared would spend most of its life sitting in a drawer. So I waited. Now it turns out that I’m a big fan and user of the Amazon ecosystem, so when they introduced the Kindle Fire at $199 I figured there was finally a 7″ form factor device I would try. I’ve had mine for a few days now and wanted to give an initial report.
In previous postings I’ve talked about tablets being Content Consumption optimized devices (whereas PCs are Content Creation optimized), but this is really a continuum. On one end of the spectrum are devices that are not only optimized for consumption, but are optimized for consumption of one particular type of media. The Sony Reader, Amazon Kindle, and B&N Nook are book reading optimized Tablets (but Tablets nonetheless). Some Personal Media Players also fall at this end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum would be high-end Desktop PCs used for things like CAD/CAM, Traders’ Workstations, Software Development, Computer-Generated Animation, etc. Right in the middle, spanning the consumption/creation optimization line, we have a group of things that fall into the “thin and light” notebook category. The Macbook Air and the new Ultrabooks, are good examples. So where do the Kindle Fire and iPad fit into this taxonomy?
The space between a dedicated media consumption Tablet and a general purpose consumption Tablet has always seemed fuzzy to me, but the Fire and iPad bring a little more clarity. The iPad is a true general purpose consumption oriented device that approaches, though doesn’t span, the line between consumption and creation. More specifically, the iPad is optimized for running any consumption-oriented application. The Fire is optimized to be just a step above the dedicated media consumption devices. Sure the Fire can run most Android applications, but the experience is really optimized for consuming media from the Amazon cloud. And it does a wonderful job of this. But as you try to use it for other purposes the experience rapidly breaks down.
Let’s start with something as simple as using the Fire for email. The built-in email client sucks. To begin with it is a pure POP3 and IMAP client, meaning poor (if any) support for Hotmail or Exchange (both of which are present on the iPad and many Android devices). There is no calendar application. There is no calendar (obviously) or contact sync. Ok, let’s go look at 3rd party applications that support these things (particularly the Activesync protocol used to talk to Hotmail and Exchange). There is only one such app that has been specifically tested for the Fire, it is $19.95, it doesn’t actually claim Hotmail support (though it works), and it has a UI only a dead rodent could love. They actually make a free version available for 30 days so you can test to make sure it actually works with your mail server before you shell out the $19.95. Not exactly a confidence builder. And I found its calendar support buggy. Given the way I use my iPad (and my wife uses her’s) the Fire would not be an adequate substitute.
The application library for the Fire is also pathetically small as there are still few applications that Amazon has tested and verified work on it. Even the built-in Facebook icon just launches the browser and takes you to Facebook’s mobile web page. True one can change a setting on the Fire and install most any Android app, but that means taking you further from the experience, ecosystem, security, and safety that Amazon is trying to (compete with Apple on and) bring to the Android Tablet market. It also runs you right back into the problem that although Android has a huge application library almost none of those apps are designed for tablets. You’re basically running a smartphone app on the tablet.
If you have any experience with another tablet or a smartphone you’ll find the Fire’s lack of GPS a real issue. Just take something as simple as running the Weather Channel app. If you are used to having the option of getting the weather for your current location you are out of luck. Ditto for apps for finding restaurants. The lack of GPS, even more so than a camera (which the iPad “1″ doesn’t have either), just reinforces that this is a media consumption device and not a general purpose tablet. So if the Fire is not intended to be a general purpose Android Tablet, and that’s what you want, why not wait until January when you’ll be able to get one for $100 that includes features missing from the Fire such as Cameras and GPS?
Which brings me back to the real reason I bought the Fire, to try out a 7″ device. From a physical form factor standpoint it is nicely small. My wife’s immediate reaction though was that it was kind of heavy for its size, and I agree. I’m not sure that you’d notice any weight advantage carrying it around vs. the iPad 2. Moreover, I find it much harder to keep in your hands than the ~10″ form factor devices. It is actually hard to hold with two hands, and keeps wanting to slip out of one. Like the first generation Kindle eReader there is no way to actually hold the Fire securely without touching a control (in the Fire’s case meaning the screen). Hopefully the case I have on order, which will sadly add weight and size, will solve the grip problem.
But my real problem with the 7″ screen size is that it doesn’t blow away using a smartphone (where 4″ and larger screens have become popular) for most experiences. I find the 9.8″ screen on my iPad an excellent substitute for paper or a large computer screen when running the Wall Street Journal app. When I run that app on the Fire there just isn’t enough screen real-estate to make the experience work. This suggests to me that 7″ screens are either going to be better with a smartphone optimized user experience or a dedicated 7″ user experience. And I don’t know that many app authors are really going to target separate 3.5-5″ (smartphone), 7-8″, 9-10″, and (when Macs and PCs are thrown in) large screen user experiences. I think most will choose to force the 7-8″ world into one of the other user experiences, and if that’s the smartphone experience then it just might not be enough for people to carry around both. Reading a book on the Fire is fine, but the iPad’s larger screen is better. Watching a movie on the Fire is fine, but the iPad’s larger screen is better. etc. Of course rumors abound that Amazon will introduce a larger screen Fire in 2012, so my comments in this paragraph are not really trying to knock the Fire concept but rather just apply to the current model (and other 7″ devices). All this said I still think there is room for 7″ devices. From the many people I know who will still carry a Notebook around in their briefcase but want a small (and light!) tablet they can throw in as well, to women who want something that will fit in a smaller handbag, the 7″ form factor offers a solution. We’ll just have to wait to see if Amazon and others can differentiate these sufficiently from smartphones to convince people to carry both.
Now that I seem to have trashed the Kindle Fire let me tell you how great it is at the thing it was obviously designed for, consuming media from the Amazon cloud. The experience reading a book or watching a movie, or indeed buying a book or movie (or music) on the Fire is so far ahead of where the iPad is that Apple ought to be embarrassed. When you order your Fire, Amazon associates its serial number with your Amazon account. So once you connect to a network the rest of “registration” and setup is automatic. If it was a gift then the giftee will have to associate it with their account, but that is a simple login step. You immediately see your media on the screen and can start consuming it. Purchasing new media is a breeze, something Apple has intentionally made hard for 3rd parties such as Amazon to offer on the iPad! As an Amazon Prime customer I can stream video to the device for no extra charge, and with the ease of doing so on the Fire that has become my favorite feature.
Basically the Kindle Fire is a multi-media consumption device that doubles as a general purpose tablet. The iPad is a consumption-oriented general purpose tablet geared to running a broad array of applications. If what you want is an awesome multi-media experience at a low price, and particularly if you are pretty devoted to Amazon’s services, the Kindle Fire is great (though if you aren’t in a hurry I’d wait for a larger screen). But if you want a more general purpose device, the iPad is not only the better choice it is in a completely different league. This positioning may change over time, with software updates and new versions of the Fire, but this is how things shake out now.
As for my Fire the jury is still out on how I will integrate it into my life. Certainly in situations where I am carrying around a Notebook I will likely leave the iPad at home and take along my Fire. And I may prefer to actually leave all personal information (other than that associated with my Amazon account) off of the device making it easier to take with me in situations with higher risk of loss or theft. Or I may find that it doesn’t fit in between my Windows Phone and my iPad (or a future Windows 8 Tablet) at all and allow it to find its way to eBay. I’ll write about its fate in future postings.