Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire Out of Box
Oh Amazon, maybe if your carousel interface worked it wouldn't need an explanation.

My Kindle Fire, ordered the day it was announced, arrived this afternoon. The out of box experience is excellent (it comes with your account info already set up and a charged battery; when you turn it on i updates itself and you’re good to go in five minutes.

After reading a couple of early reviews (in Wired and the NY Times), I thought I’d be sending it back for a refund, but I really like it so far. It’s not as fast as an iPad 2, or even an iPad, but it’s fast enough for reading and watching videos (although the one app I’ve purchased, Sketchbook Mobile, ran pretty choppily). The display is just fine, very sharp for reading, and while it feels quite heavy for its size, I think it’s light enough for extended reading in bed. I have a wonderful book on animation (Drawn to Life) that displays very nicely (which it clearly doesn’t on the e-ink kindles).

When I tried to write this blog entry on it WordPress complained that I was using an out-of-date version of Safari. When I tried to press on, I found the going impossible. Oh well — strike one against the Fire. And no, there’s no WordPress app for it yet. (I’m writing this on my iPad 2.)

This was, in fact, my first real negative impression of the Kindle Fire. I will say that almost all of the bad things with the Kindle Fire involve its browser, with the exception of one touch purchasing… Not only can you accidentally buy stuff with a touch, as far as I can tell there is no option anywhere to lock it down.

The Good

  • Good performance when used as book reader or movie viewer
  • Best Kindle reader experience I’ve had (better than dabbling with e-Ink readers, nice display of color illustrations)
  • Good display quality
  • Adequate performance when using more general apps (I’ve only tried one thus far)
  • Great size and weight for extended reading or video viewing in bed
  • Best Android UI I’ve used (but my Android experience has been pretty superficial)
  • Excellent “cloud” integration
  • Flash works (although performance with larger or more complex elements is terrible)

The Bad

  • Much too easy for anyone using your device to buy stuff on your account — deliberately or accidentally (definitely not something I can let my children use unsupervised)
  • Power switch is stupidly positioned on bottom edge allowing it to be accidentally pressed
  • System detects all-numeric keypard, but numeric keypad is poorly laid out and you need to press “Done”
  • Web browser is not up-t0-date relative to other webkit browsers
  • Web browser double-tap to zoom is poorly implemented (animation is slow, stutters; worse, it often zooms to wrong position)
  • HTML5 media UI is pretty piss poor (worse even than Chrome)

Of the bad features, most can (and I hope will) be fixed quickly via software patches. The ease with which you can deliberately or accidentally buy stuff is a show-stopper — it means I can’t let my kids use it, and I actually feel paranoid when browsing the built-in store. It’s so bad I think it’s class action lawsuit material. The power switch positioning is unfortunate; it would be less unfortunate if the login screen weren’t always aligned so that the power switch is on the bottom edge.

Further Observations

So far, the more I use the Fire the more annoying surprises I find.

Lots of dialogs are poorly laid out. Some very prominent dialogs (e.g. the username / password dialog box for websites) have the buttons in unexpected places (the Fire puts the “action” button at the bottom-left; Apple puts them at the bottom-right, Microsoft puts them somewhere on the right, but Amazon knows better). In some cases the system will generate a full screen dialog with a huge blank space and buttons on the bottom. I’m guessing this is some kind of auto-layout.

Text selection is pretty borked. To begin with, there are two text selection UIs (that I’ve found so far) one for most apps and another for the Kindle. Getting either to work is iffy at best, and once you’ve made a selection there’s little you can do with it.

The way the web browser handles PDF downloads is bizarre. If you touch a PDF link it will (maybe, eventually) try to download it, you’ll get a message saying that it’s downloading, and then eventually a notification that it has downloaded. You can now view the PDF by touching it in the notification, but once you’ve looked at a PDF once, I have no idea how to get it back again — it’s storing it somewhere, I think, but I can’t find it under books or docs.

PDF viewing is pretty poor. The same double-tap-to-zoom issues that plague the web browser are worse here, and PDFs designed for standard page sizes are unreadable (and not well-rendered). There’s no way to set up a default crop and you really miss Apple’s subtle scroll-locking (how when you scroll some views more-or-less vertically iOS figures out what you want to do and locks it to vertical scrolling).

The global interface that the Fire wraps around apps is somewhat broken. Because there are no hard buttons (except the poorly positioned power switch) the Kindle always reserves a small band at the bottom of the screen for a global widget that discloses the standard navigation pane when touched. It would be really nice if this band included a go back button so that you don’t constantly have to disclose the pane to get at go back (which is very annoying in apps). It also seems to preclude true full-screen apps.

I tried Angry Birds (the free ad-supported edition — damned if I’ll pay a second time for it) and my first reaction was “how does anyone put up with the ads”? The way ads are implemented in Angry Birds is both intrusive and incompetent (e.g. the first ad I saw was displayed in the wrong orientation). Performance (for Angry Birds) was certainly adequate. I didn’t see any hardcore 3d apps to try out in the Amazon App store (but I didn’t look very hard).

Amazon gives you a free copy of the New American Oxford Dictionary with the Kindle (and even the Kindle app on iOS… or so I thought, but I can’t find it right now) but as far as I can tell, there’s no way to simply look up words in it. (You can search for a word, but the search in no way favors the canonical entry for the word over occurrences in the text body.) You can look up words in other books by selecting them (if you can get the selection system to work) but that’s it. (And it’s not integrated into the rest of the operating system, so you can’t look up words on websites etc. the way you can on an iPad.)

One thing that continues to boggle my mind w.r.t. e-readers (and this applies to the Kindle and iBooks) is their inability to display cover art nicely. Typically, they’ll display a shitty low-resolution image of the cover as a rectangle on the title page. They’ve obviously got the cover art lying around because they render the books nicely as icons on bookshelves — why isn’t the first thing you see when you load a book a nice full-screen image of the cover?

Bottom Line

As I was heading out the door for a late lunch today with my backpack, I thought “OK, which tablet will I take?” I thought it would be cool to take the Kindle Fire with me as “my only tablet” for the day to see how it would stand up, but on quick reflection, I grabbed my iPad 2. The fact is, the Kindle Fire is a nice book reader and possibly a nice video player, but in its current form that’s basically it.

On the other hand I think it’s probably the cheapest Android device that comes without some kind of “plan” and doesn’t suck, and since I need an Android device for testing… (Hmm do I need to jailbreak it or something?)

Other Opinions

Walt Mossberg’s review of the Kindle Fire is pretty accurate and balanced. He complains about battery life (I haven’t run out yet, but I’ll take his word for it) and the bookshelf UI (which is pretty but borked) — pretty damning given that it’s front-and-center. I actually like the hardware design just fine (aside from the poorly located power button): it’s a black slab with a touchscreen. Why is this bad? It doesn’t have gratuitous curves, unsightly bulges, a useless hardware keyboard, or razor-sharp edges. It’s thicker and heavier than I’d like but not much thicker and not much heavier. He also points out the lack of cameras and GPS (iPad 2 doesn’t have GPS). $300 will buy you a camera with GPS built in — get over it.

The Economist’s review of the Kindle Fire is, in my opinion, spot on. The UI is a bit flaky, the power button is stupidly placed, and it’s no iPad-killer, but it’s cheap and it works.

Marco Arment seems to pretty much hate it. He’s had his a day longer than I and used it a good deal more (I haven’t had time to read three books in the last two days!). I disagree with some of his points, e.g.

  • “The backlight leaks significantly around the top edge (when held in portrait).” Not for me, so maybe it’s poor quality control. (Note that when you drag a scrolling view past its furthest extent the visual effect looks like bleeding backlight, which is both aesthetically ugly and stupidly alarming. I’d make a screenshot but, of course, I can’t.)
  • “The asymmetric bezel’s “chin” is distracting in landscape orientation.” Really? OK I guess I’m not that easily distracted.
  • “The page-turn animation, a simple full-screen slide, is distracting, too long, and jerky.” It’s not great but it’s not as bad as e-Ink page turns for example. (It is, occasionally, so jerky you don’t realize you’ve turned a page, so yeah I do get his frustration. Maybe I should replace “as bad as” with “any worse than”.)
  • “Magazines are a special beast on the Fire.” I don’t disagree but the situation’s no better on the iPad. The way to do magazines on tablets is called having a good website. I prefer reading newyorker.com (despite its annoying full page ads) to either the magazine itself or the tablet app, and it pisses me off mightily that I can’t simply log in to newyorker.com and read all the content on demand. Fuck magazine apps.
  • “And finally, I don’t like the “carousel” flip-card-style home screen interface… It’s a poor, unusable interface metaphor that our industry should retire.” Eh. It’s a browsing interface not an “I want THAT” interface. The problem isn’t that the Fire uses a carousel, it’s that the carousel is badly implemented (it often interprets taps on an item as scrolling, and you can only tap the front-most item, and only with care) and that the “I want THAT” interface is buried (if you want to get from the “Books” view to the “Apps” view you need to go via home, which sucks).

He does make several good points I missed:

  • “All text is justified, and there’s no automatic hyphenation.” Indeed. Why no ragged right option? (Why can’t I pick fonts in the iPad Kindle app? Oh and why can’t I reduce margin sizes as far on the iPad? Maybe it’s not Kindle that sucks so much as Amazon as a software company.)
  • “It really needs hardware volume-control buttons.” He’s not the first to bring this up. I don’t really mind the way the global prefs menu works though (I do mind the lack of settings, though.)
  • “The free Prime video selection is very poor compared to Netflix’s streaming library.” True, but you get Netflix as well so what’s the problem? Oh wait…
  • “The Netflix app is terrible.” I haven’t tried it so I can’t comment. I assume he’s right since, as far as I know, the best way to watch Netflix, bar none, is on an AppleTV v2. (I have tried it now and it’s not as bad as a Roku.)
  • “The bottom-left corner of the Fire, when held in portrait, gets noticeably warm during use.” That’s just sad. (I guess we know where the video decoding chip is. The Fire has never gotten warm for me though, even watching video.)
  • “MP3 playback isn’t gapless.” I don’t need Kindle Fire to be a great MP3 player but it’s nice to know that it’s piss poor at it.
  • “Headphones sometimes “pop” loudly in your ears when you insert them in the jack”. The latter is true for pretty much everything, but the former is sad.
  • “The built-in Email app is pretty poor” (see my comments below — pretty poor is an understatement) and “I was unable to find good apps for many common roles in the Amazon Appstore”. File under “this is not an iPad-killer”.

As a blow-by-blow critique it is, as Gruber puts it, scathing.

Marco’s conclusion: “The Fire is an Android version, sort of, of the iPod Touch. It’s the first device available that’s inexpensive and offers Android in a somewhat reasonable package without a cellular contract.” Exactly. It’s cheap, requires no contract, and it doesn’t suck. (It doesn’t “not suck” the way BBEdit “doesn’t suck”; it doesn’t suck the way most Android crap sucks. OK maybe doesn’t suck the way something that has sharp blades that spring out and injure your hands sucks.)

More Observations

B-Team Kindle App

This morning, as I was reading Iain M. Banks’s latest on my Kindle Fire (Surface Detail, seems to be better than his last couple thus far — certainly a more interesting central idea), I rubbed the screen on my shirt to clean it and found that it had randomly popped me back a whole bunch of pages. No problem, I thought, I’ll sync it the furthest point reached. It scrolled me forward a few pages, well short of my furthest progress. Exactly how do you fuck up something that simple in book-reading software? It didn’t even scroll me as far as my furthest note.

Screen Shots

I saw some tweets yesterday concerning a supposed 22 step process for taking a screenshot on the Kindle Fire. (Hint: it involves installing the Android SDK, tethering the device, installing some kind of remote debugger stub, and pulling the screenshot from the command-line.) The fact is, taking screenshots isn’t a feature of the Kindle Fire so it’s not really a criticism per se, just a missing feature. It’s not like Jeff Bezos personally approved of having a screenshot feature on the Kindle that was this ridiculously hard to do, it’s that taking screenshots didn’t make it into the Fire’s feature-set and this is a cute hack to get around it.

So, the short version is that you can’t take screenshots on a Kindle Fire.

Email

I have two gmail accounts — my personal account (which uses dual authentication) and my work account (which doesn’t). I cannot access either account using the Kindle Fire’s email client (despite it having an explicit Gmail option). The defaults don’t work and no amount of fiddling has helped.

Orientation Bug + Stupid Power Switch = Sad Panda

I think I alluded to this problem in my earlier post, but it’s getting on my nerves. In order to avoid accidentally hitting the power button constantly when reading, I use the device “upside-down” and have the screen orientation locked that way. But, the login screen ignores the orientation, so I have to log in and then flip the device upside-down every time. Have I mentioned that I despise the login screen?

 Battery

I’ve run the Kindle Fire out of juice a few times now, but I don’t have a big issue with battery life. Part of it is that it’s just not a pleasant device to use for anything much except reading books and briefly visiting a website. (I should note that the double-tap to zoom functionality seems to have improved slightly since I first started using it, and I wonder if Amazon has done something server-side to improve it.)