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Is the Fire first and foremost an eBook reader or a multi-function tablet?

Should you buy a $200 Fire or a $500+ iPad?

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Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet review part 2

A good device, but should you buy one yourself?

Kindle Fire

Although Android based, the Kindle uses Amazon's own customized interface.

Part two of a two part article, please also see part one.

Please also see our three part article series when the Kindle Fire was first introduced :

1.  The evolution of eBook readers
2.  Amazon's four new readers
3.  The Fire compared to the Nook and iPad



So - what is the new Kindle Fire?  Is it a tablet that also has an eBook reader built in; or is it an eBook reader that also has generic tablet computing capabilities too?  Who should buy a Fire, and who should instead buy an entry level ($79) Kindle eBook reader, and for that matter, who should buy a $500+ iPad?

Read on for our impressions, and our conclusion that perhaps the most important aspects of this lovely and affordable new device are the things you can't see rather than the things you can see.

Please see also our earlier three part series introducing the Kindle Fire and Amazon's other new Kindle e-readers.

No Memory Expansion Card Capability

One perceived drawback of the Fire is that it can not accept external memory cards (eg SD or Micro-SD cards) to boost its local storage capacity.

The Fire has 8GB of local storage built in to the device.  That is enough to store an unthinkable number of books (many thousands) but if you are also wanting to store music and/or video, then the 8GB can get filled very quickly (quick rule of thumb - each 1GB of storage is good for a little more than an hour of video).

Yes, it is unfortunate that Amazon omitted the ability to plug in and swap over external memory cards.  Why did they leave this out?  Perhaps as part of their brave struggle to get the price under $200?

But does it really matter?  It depends on how you plan to use the Fire.

If you're simply wanting to use the Fire to read books and browse the internet, then you have more storage than you're ever likely to need.  Furthermore, because Amazon keeps copies of all books you buy on their servers, for ever, and free of charge, you can always delete some books if you're somehow running light on space, and then simply download them again from Amazon as and when you want to re-read them.

If you want to watch movies on it, then they could be streamed to you if you have Wi-fi internet access at home.  This means they don't need to be stored on the device, and don't take up any storage space.

But if you are traveling on the road, you may or may not have access to a sufficiently fast Wi-fi connection to support streamed movies while in your hotel, or on a plane, or whatever/wherever else.

And if you're traveling somewhere away from convenient fast internet, then for sure you will want to download movies prior to traveling.   But while you can download movies you are either 'renting' or buying, you can't download the free movies as part of a Prime package - these can only be streamed realtime; they can't be downloaded and saved for future viewing.

Probably, for most people, the memory limitation of the Fire will seldom intrude on their normal usage patterns. 

Comparing the Kindle Silk Accelerated Web Browser to the Browser on an iPad or Laptop

One of the things Amazon proudly promotes is its 'Silk' web browsing accelerator.  This technology uses some clever techniques back, upstream on the internet, to reduce the amount of interaction that is needed between your Fire and the internet to download a webpage, and to do some other clever things, with the bottom line being said to be that web pages load faster on the Fire than they would with a regular browser.

Lots of things determine the speed with which web pages are rendered (ie displayed) on a computer, and there is of course no way to compare the speed with which a web page is loaded on a Fire with all the Silk features enabled and with all the Silk features disabled.

We tested the browser in the Fire with the browser in an original iPad; a newer iPad 2 would probably render pages slightly faster than an original iPad.

Pages sometimes appeared at similar speeds, sometimes slightly faster on the Fire, and it was noticeable that the Fire would suddenly display almost complete pages whereas the iPad would 'build' a page up section by section - presumably due to the Silk features.

However, overall there was no particularly noticeable faster browsing experience on the Fire than on the iPad.

When compared with the Chrome browser on my Dell laptop, the laptop proved to be massively faster than the Fire (both were using the same internet connection).  This was not altogether unexpected, and so we conclude that although the Silk service might slightly speed things up, it does not massively accelerate the browsing experience. 

Who Needs a Fire?  Kindle Software on Other Devices

Part of Amazon's extension of its role in selling eBooks has been to release its eBook reading software for other devices, freeing it from being tied only to its Kindle eReaders.

It could be said this is a very clever 'flip' - instead of removing copy protection from the books it sells, it instead allows the books to be read on many different devices - a range of other tablets and phones and computers.

Interestingly, if we consider an iPad to be a primary competitor to the entire family of Amazon Kindle devices, Amazon has already released Kindle reading software for the iPad, allowing Amazon to 'win' no matter whether you buy an iPad or a Fire to read its eBooks on.

However, Amazon is now also making an interesting change - its growing range of free services included in its $79 annual Prime membership such as being able to borrow books will only work on Amazon's own Kindle devices, not on any other devices that are running Amazon's Kindle software.

So although Amazon will let you buy and read books on other devices, clearly it is increasingly hoping you'll choose one of its own devices, and with a $200 price point on the Fire, it is making this a financially tempting consideration too.

Amazon Prime and 'Infrastructure'

If we look back to the release of the Apple iPod, it seems plain, with the benefit of hindsight, that there were two reasons for its runaway success and subsequent total market dominance.  A similar issue applied to the iPhone and then the iPad too.

This is the 'infrastructure' that supports these three extraordinarily successful families of devices.  When you buy one of these items, you are not just getting a bare bones piece of electronic hardware.  You are getting access to the iTunes store, which is full of music, video, games, programs, and just about every other imaginable thing.

Until now, the lack of an iTunes analog has been a huge hindrance to companies seeking to compete with Apple's products.

Amazon has slowly but steadily lining up the elements needed to provide a fully featured range of similar services to those available for iOS type devices, a strategy that makes excellent synergistic use of the distributed cloud computing capabilities it has created over the last half dozen years or so.

While in some areas not as extensive or as polished perhaps as the Apple product, Amazon now offers a growing infrastructure that is very similar to everything offered by Apple for iOS devices.  It has the infrastructure needed to give users a completely integrated experience, and a 'one stop shop' for all their electronic/digital needs.

Add to this a device that is only $200 rather than $500 - $830 on which to enjoy the digital content, and you can see the value proposition Amazon offers to potential purchasers.

Much of the special added value benefits that Amazon is now offering come as part of its Prime membership program.  In return for paying a $79 annual membership fee, you get a range of benefits - free second day shipping on orders with no minimum purchase, access to 10,000+ free movies and television shows, and the ability to borrow and read, for free, from a selection of thousands of eBooks.

Fire - Glass Half Full or Half Empty

Some reviewers have praised the Fire for what it can do, others have lamented about what it cannot do.

There are two key things to keep in mind when evaluating the Kindle Fire.

The first is to appreciate you are getting a device for a mere $200; by comparison the cheapest iPad is $500 (and the most expensive is $830).  You could get two Fires plus buy a year's worth of Amazon Prime membership, and still have $21 left over, compared to the price of the cheapest most basic iPad.

The second thing to understand is that this device has a 7" diagonal screen.  This is very much larger than a typical phone screen (3.5" - 4.5"), but also very much smaller than the 9.7" diagonal screen on an iPad.

The screen size doesn't really matter if you are simply reading a novel that comprises text only.  I've happily read entire Dan Brown books (ie very long ones) on my phone's 3.5" screen.

But if you're wanting to browse some websites that are designed for bigger screens, or if you're wanting to read text books or magazines with more layout and graphical elements than a text-only fiction book, then you'll definitely notice the smaller screen size compared to an iPad.

This smaller screen size is not all bad, however.  On the plus side, the smaller screen means a smaller device overall, and also lighter too (than an iPad).  That makes it easier to carry with you and less tiring to hold when reading.

Kindle Fire vs Nook Tablet

It is probably most appropriate to compare the Kindle Fire to the new Nook Tablet, also being released this week by Barnes & Noble.

On paper, the two devices are almost identical, and intended for identical purposes - both are eBook readers that have been extended into a subset of a regular Tablet's capabilities too, and both are powered by Android.  The Nook Tablet is perhaps a little superior (more internal memory and the ability to accept external memory cards) but also more expensive ($250 compared to $200 for the Kindle Fire).

But comparing these two devices should not revolve around a list of hardware features.  That is the same as comparing two different safety razors based only on their handles, not their blades.

 The big difference between the two devices is nothing to do with the hardware itself at all.  It is all to do with the infrastructure that supports the two devices, ranging from simplistic things like a count of the books available for each device and the prices they are sold at, to much more nuanced things like the differing policies on lending titles to other people and borrowing books for free, and on through cloud storage for music, video streaming, and other related benefits.

Barnes & Noble has an almost impossible uphill battle to compete against Amazon on these other issues.  Sure, the Nook Tablet is a decent enough eBook reader, also based on the Android operating system, and with a very similar screen to the Kindle Fire.

But the real difference is in everything you don't see, rather than what you do see.  It is in the hugely greater corporate commitment Amazon has already made to electronic distribution compared to B&N, and to its already in place Android marketplace for apps, its already in place cloud services for video and audio, and the other related 'bonus' benefits of its Prime membership.

We don't see a single distinctive 'deal point' in favor of the B&N total system/solution, whereas we see a whole bunch in favor of the Amazon system/solution.

With all due respect to Barnes & Noble, the company is a bricks and mortar based bookseller that is trying to catch a ride on the eBook phenomenon which it was slow to welcome.  It is being forced into the electronic marketplace.  On the other hand, Amazon is first and foremost a non bricks and mortar vendor that lives in the electronic world, and is building much of its strategic future around electronic content delivery and related services.

Barnes & Noble deserve credit for releasing their Nook Color last year, well in advance of Amazon's release of the Fire, but it is hard to look into the future and to confidently predict a future leading role for B&N alongside giants such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

For this reason, we would argue in favor of choosing the Amazon and Fire approach.

Should You Buy a Fire?

At last, the question you've probably been most seeking an answer to.  Should you buy a Fire?

The short answer is 'it depends'.  In reality, of course, you might already know the answer to this question.  But if you don't, here are some possible scenarios and suggestions.

If you already have an iPad

If you already have an iPad, there is little reason to double up on the capabilities of the iPad and buy a Fire, too, unless you feel that the free book rentals and free video streaming offered to Amazon Prime members is of such value as to justify the $200 investment in a Fire (and maybe they are, particularly when you adjust for the other values/benefits in a Prime membership too).

Maybe you already have an iPad and want a second screen - one for you and one for your partner or children or something.  If you buy a second iPad, you have the benefit of interchangeability, and all the apps you've already bought for one iPad can be duplicated onto the second iPad at no extra cost.

But if your iPad is being used simply to surf the internet, send/receive email, read books and possibly watch some video, you don't have such an investment in the iPad and it might make sense to get a Fire as a less costly second screen.

A Fire could also give you a more portable device - for example, ladies can fit a Fire into a handbag, but probably can't fit an iPad.

If you already have another Kindle e-reading device

If you already have another Kindle device, upgrading to a Fire won't give you any appreciable improvement in the reading experience for regular, unformatted, text-only, fiction.

Indeed, you'll probably sacrifice some battery life as part of the change.

But if you see your reading moving more to non-fiction titles, which might have substantial color pictures, then you definitely need some sort of color reader.

You could argue whether an iPad or a Fire is the better platform to read such books on, of course.  The iPad Kindle software supports multi-media and video clips in books, whereas the Fire software does not (at least, not yet).

If you see value in the added abilities of the Fire to access the internet and email, etc, then maybe that is a good reason to upgrade.

If you don't yet have a Kindle or iPad

If you're only now considering getting some sort of tablet and/or an eBook reader, should you spent $200 on a Fire or $500+ on an iPad?

That really depends on the main purposes the device will be used for.  The iPad has a larger screen, but is not as portable due to its larger size, and is also heavier.  On the other hand, it can do many more things than a Fire, and has a camera and GPS receiver built in to it, and has access to a much greater library of software apps.

But the Fire opens the door to the free content offering from the Amazon Prime program, and while the screen is smaller, it is also more portable.  And let's not forget the cost saving as well.

If the main purpose is to read books, then you don't really need the larger iPad screen, and the Fire would be the best choice (or perhaps simply buy a cheaper regular Kindle with black and white screen, for as little as $79).

If the main purpose is to watch video, then the iPad would probably be a better choice (due to its bigger screen)


The new Amazon Kindle Fire does a great job as an eBook reader, plus does an okay job of offering many but not all the functions typically found and expected in a tablet style computer.

Its $200 price makes it a great choice for people who vaguely want some sort of tablet, but who don't have specific and specialized needs for the device they buy, and who might find it harder to justify the $500+ cost of an iPad.

On the other hand, for people who just want to read fiction books and nothing else, why not simply pay $79 and get the entry level monochrome Kindle reader instead?

For More Information

This is the second part of a two part review of the new Kindle Fire.  Please also see our first part for the balance of the Kindle Fire review.

Please also see our earlier three part series introducing the new Kindle Fire and other Amazon Kindle devices.



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Originally published 18 Nov 2011, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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