Leave it to the Internet's biggest bookstore to deliver the paperback of tablet computers. As a softcover book is to a hardbound title, Amazon's Kindle Fire is to Apple's iPad: It's smaller and lighter than its market-defining competitor and also lacks some of the iPad's refined design.
In fewer words, the Fire isn't as good as the iPad. But at $199, it doesn't have to be to provide buyers with a worthwhile alternative to Apple's $499-and-up tablet.
Other iPad alternatives have hit the market at or near that price. But they — and, for that matter, just about every Android phone — have lacked one key ingredient baked into the Fire: convenient integration with your movies, music and other content.
Amazon's MP3 and video-on-demand services match the selection and pricing of Apple's iTunes Store, its e-book store crushes Apple's sadly neglected iBooks, and its Cloud Player service makes your own music available anywhere with an Internet connection. The Fire can tap into any of these online sources via Wi-Fi and can download files to its roughly 6.5 GB of storage for offline access; the whole setup is seamless enough that it's easy to forget how a particular song or video got on the Fire's 7-in. touchscreen.
(Note that when you're reading a book, you can still hear audible alerts as new e-mails arrive, making for a more distracting experience than on such dedicated e-readers as Amazon's new, $99-and-up Kindle Touch.)
The Fire's hardware is good enough too, aside from the inexplicable absence of volume buttons and the less-shocking lack of a camera or microphone. Its battery lasted for a bit over seven hours of nonstop Pandora Web-radio playback and allowed days of intermittent usage.
Its browser, however, doesn't hold up so well. When the Seattle retailer introduced the Fire in September, chief executive Jeff Bezos made much of its Silk browsing acceleration; people worried far more about Silk's privacy implications than the possibility that it wouldn't deliver on those promises.
But on the device loaned by Amazon's PR department, I didn't see any speedup. Six pages I clocked with a stopwatch took as much as twice as long to load on the Fire as they did on an iPad 2. Following a suggestion to disable Silk and its Flash plug-in (sorry, Adobe) helped considerably, although the Fire still trailed Apple's tablet. The browser also crashed on me several times.
The Fire sputters most often when you go looking for apps. Although it's based on Google's Android system (with enough tweaks to its interface to confuse veteran Android users) it connects to Amazon's Appstore instead of Google's Android Market. That only gets you access to a subset of Android apps, excluding such popular choices as Facebook and Google Maps; although the Appstore offers Twitter's app for other Android devices, on the Fire you only get a Web-bookmark link.
You can "sideload" regular Android apps by copying their ".apk" files to the Fire's internal storage, but non-techie users will probably just wait for their favorites to show up on the Appstore.
The commitment Amazon has made to its Kindle line suggests those buyers won't face a long delay for those updates — or for software patches addressing some of the Fire's stability and performance issues. But it may also be a reason to hold off on the Fire: When you look at how the Kindle e-reader improved from its sometimes-awkward first version to 2009's Kindle 2, you may wonder what kind of advances the Fire's successor might bring.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery