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Walkthrough: Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet (11/2011)
by Douglas Dixon
The Amazon Kindle Fire tablet is an intriguing product -- a 7-inch color touchscreen Android tablet for only $199! (Kindle the fire, get it?)
Compare the Kindle Fire to the Apple iPod touch or iPhone, starting at the same $199 price, but with a comparatively tiny 3 1/2 inch screen, or the full tablet size (9.7 inch) iPad 2 starting at a much higher $499 price.
And, of course, the most direct comparison is to the Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet, also a 7 inch Android tablet, at $249.
What Amazon has done is to create what I would call a spectacularly adequate tablet -- It adequately performs general tablet functions like e-mail and web browsing on the paperback-size display, but is clearly focused on delivering (and selling) media and entertainment. The result is a spectacularly great deal at $199.
The first key decision in designing the Fire was to cost-reduce it under $200, by stripping away all the nice-to-have but ultimately non-critical features, including Bluetooth and 3G wireless, cameras and microphone, GPS and sensors, physical home and volume controls, expansion memory (with only 8 GB of memory built in), and common apps like calendar and chat.
The second key design decision was in moving the Amazon media consumption elements front and center, to dominate the home screen and relegate everything else to second rank.
So if you think of the Kindle and other e-readers as stripped down tablets focused only on downloading and reading books for people who like to read, you can see the Kindle Fire as a similar device focused tightly on serving as the gateway to consuming a broader range of media -- It's an e-viewer, for people who are interested in viewing.
Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet
E-Viewer for Media
You can see this focus in the design of the home screen of the Fire. In other tablets, all functions are performed through apps, and all apps are (mostly) equal -- you access video or music or books or e-mail or web or any other app in the same way, by tapping on the icon. And you customize your home screen by re-arranging the icons as you want them.
Instead, the home screen of the Fire starts with a horizontal menu of the key built-in media types across the top -- Newsstand, Books, Music, and Video, plus Docs, Apps, and Web. These are not apps also listed on the Apps page, instead they are hard-wired built-in functions, which link directly to the associated Amazon stores and cloud services. Everything else (the non-Amazon and non-monetized stuff, from e-mail to photo), is then relegated to the world of apps -- although you can customize the bottom of the home screen with four apps in a Favorites row (plus more off-screen).
In addition, this Amazon-centric design focus also results in the total sublimation of Google and its cloud services from the Android-based environment. You still can do Google searches, and access Gmail as one of the supported providers, but everything else is gone. There's no syncing with Google Contacts and Calendar -- in fact, there's no calendar app at all, though a vanilla Contacts app is still provided for e-mail (but there's no messaging). And other services like Google Docs are replaced by Amazon's Cloud Drive.
In The Cloud: Stores and Storage
The Kindle Fire is built as a cloud device, which bridges online services and local storage into an impressively integrated platform for accessing media. It makes it so easy to use your Amazon ID to access the Amazon Kindle online stores, plus your content and files stored in the Amazon Cloud Drive. One-Click buying becomes One-Tap on the tablet (which is so dangerously easy to do accidentally that Amazon does let you disable One-Click on portable devices).
This is much like the way Apple links your Apple ID (with associated credit card number) to the Apple iTunes Store and App Store for the iPad (and iPhone and iPods). And it's a clear differentiator for the Apple and Amazon tablets with integrated stores, compared to the Barnes & Noble NOOK and other tablets that require you to set up multiple accounts with different vendors to inconsistently access different types of content (i.e., B&N for books; Netflix and/or Hulu Plus for movies and/or TV shows; Pandora and Rhapsody, MOG, and/or Grooveshark for music, etc.).
For Apple, the iTunes Store originally started with music plus podcasts, and has since added movies and TV shows, apps (App Store), and finally books (iBookstore).
Meanwhile, Amazon has evolved in the opposite direction, starting with books and periodicals and audio books (from Amazon.com to the core Kindle Library), and then expanding into music (Amazon MP3 Store), movies and TV shows as downloads and streaming (Amazon Instant Video), and apps (Amazon Appstore for Android).
Then there's your own personal content beyond the stores, including music, videos, and other documents. While Apple has architected its iCloud service primarily as a web-based background synchronization service between your devices, Amazon has much larger ambitions for its Cloud Drive service, where you also can access your content across a variety of devices, and upload a broad range of your own content from your personal computer.
Manage Your Kindle - Your Devices and Content
The first stop in managing the contents of your Kindle device online is the Amazon Manage Your Kindle site (www.amazon.com/myk). This provides a nice centralized web interface to control your Kindle account and settings, and to manage the content for your device.
You can view the content associated with your Kindle Library, including scheduling individual items to be delivered wirelessly to your various devices.
And you can review your Kindle Account settings -- you can register and view information on all your Kindle devices, set payment and subscription options, and change the name of your devices (as displayed on the home screen).
The types of content in your Kindle Library are:
Beyond your library of book-ish content for Kindle e-readers, the Manage Your Kindle site also has links to your other purchased digital content, where you can review your previous orders and trigger downloads to your devices:
Amazon Cloud Drive - Personal Content
Beyond your purchased content, Amazon provides the Amazon Cloud Drive service to store and access your personal content online on the Amazon servers (www.amazon.com/clouddrive). This can serve as your personal hard drive in the cloud, accessible from any computer or from your portable devices. You can store music, videos, photos, and documents, plus archive your purchased MP3 music.
Amazon customers can sign up for 5 GB of free storage. Songs purchased from the Amazon MP3 store do not count toward the storage limit. Then you can buy additional storage for $1 per GB per year, from $20 for 20 GB to $1000 for 1000 GB. These plans include unlimited space for your uploaded music.
From the web interface, you can upload files, and browse, organize with folders, and view your archived content, for four types of files. You then can view these files online if the file type is supported in the browser.
Music files are played using the Amazon Cloud Player for Web, which provides views including albums, artists, and genres, and playback options including repeat, shuffle, and playlists (www.amazon.com/gp/dmusic/mp3/player). It supports the MP3 and unprotected AAC (.m4a -- iTunes non-DRM) formats. You also can use the Amazon MP3 Downloader and the Amazon MP3 Uploader to transfer large collections of music.
You also can access the Amazon MP3 Store and Amazon Cloud player on the iPad (but not iPhones) via the Safari browser, and on Android, BlackBerry, and Palm devices with an Amazon MP3 app.
Access to the Amazon Cloud Drive is limited to up to eight devices. This includes mobile devices, different computers, and different browsers on the same computer.
Document Transfer via USB and E-mail
You also can transfer files directly to the Kindle Fire through a microUSB cable. The Fire will appear as an external storage device, with folders for the various content types (Documents, Music, Pictures, Video). You then can drag and drop supported formats to the appropriate folder to view them on the Fire.
Amazon also supports document transfer to Kindle devices through using your Send-to-Kindle e-mail address (see Manage My Kindle to set this address and specify an approved list of senders).
The Kindle personal document service supports file types including:
The Kindle Personal Documents service will convert the e-mailed files to supported formats for the destination Kindle device (www.amazon.com/kindlepersonaldocuments). These file types also can be combined in a compressed ZIP file for e-mailing.
Fire File Formats
Supported file types on the Kindle Fire (i.e., for USB download) are:
Note that you access and play your music through the Music content library along with purchased music, while the Video content library is only for purchased videos. Personal videos are accessed through the Gallery app, along with personal photos.
For your personal documents, PDF files are accessed through the Document content library, while other types of documents, including text and Word must be viewed using QuickOffice or another app.
Kindle Fire - Quick Tour
The Kindle Fire has a very simple visual design, with the black frame around the screen and a few interfaces and controls recessed in the top and bottom.
The Home screen has a fixed structure, with some space at the bottom for customization.
The Kindle Fire has a minimal hardware design, with the screen on front, two speaker cut-outs on the top, and only three other elements along the bottom: the headphone jack, the microUSB connector for power and data transfer, and the power button, which lights up when powering on or charging.
The power button is a tiny stub, the same size as the headphone jack, and requires some attention to locate and push on.
When you turn on the Fire it displays a Lock screen, with a slide control to unlock. You slide right to left, like flipping a page in a book, opposite from other common devices.
The lock screen has a variety of pretty backgrounds related to media, but there's no way to customize it or the Home screen background.
The Home screen of the Kindle Fire is divided into horizontal strips -- the top Status Bar with notifications and settings, the Search box and Content libraries menu, the rotating Carousel with recently accessed items, and the Favorites row.
These are all visible in portrait orientation, otherwise in landscape orientation the screen condenses to show down to the Carousel.
The Status bar has your device name at the top left (settable in Manage Your Kindle online), the time (but not date) in the center, and setting icons on the right.
Tap on the right side of the Status bar for Quick Settings, including Volume, Brightness, Wi-Fi, screen rotation lock, and Sync to sync to your cloud content. These are important to have at hand, because the Fire does not have physical volume controls or a sensor to automatically control the screen brightness. The Quick Settings also include play controls for currently playing background music.
The left side of the Status bar displays Notifications from the system, a game, an application such as e-mail, or the music player. Tap there to display the full notifications list. (Note that unlike common experience, you're not swiping a notification bar down, you're tapping on the left or right side for Notifications or the Quick Settings.)
Below the Status Bar is the Search box. Tap to type your search query using the on-screen keyboard, and tap the buttons below to choose to search your local Library content, or the Web.
Then comes the main Content menu -- the key built-in (and monetizable) content types -- Newsstand, Books, Music, and Video, plus Docs, Apps, and Web. These are listed in plain text, with no fancy buttons or icons, and jump directly to the associated content library.
The center of the Home screen, taking up half of the screen area, is the Carousel. This is an automatically generated array of the icons for your most recently accessed items -- books, music, videos, newspapers, magazines, documents, web pages, and apps. Swipe left and right to flip through the list.
This is something like the Apple Cover Flow interface for album covers, except the most current item is on the left of the screen (see Wikipedia).
The Carousel is generated automatically from your actions; there's no way to add, remove, or reorder items.
The final virtual bookshelf on the Home screen is the Favorites list. This is customizable -- press and hold on icons in the Carousel or on other pages to add to Favorites, then drag to reorder, and press and hold to remove. You can fit four favorite icons on the row below the Carousel, and then add more on the rows below, although they are only visible if you scroll down.
When you tap on the Home to move on to other screens, the Fire display a common Android context menu strip (the Options bar) on the bottom of the screen, with icons for Home, Back, Menu, and Search. Some screens save space by putting this menu off-screen, with a small arrow to expose it.
The built-in Content library screens identify the library in the top left, and then have a Cloud button to at the top of the screen to view and access your available content online (i.e., purchased from Amazon stores or stored in the Cloud Drive), and a Device button to access the local content stored on your device.
The Content screens also have a convenient Store button at the top right for immediate access to the associated Amazon store for the current content type. The Store screens than have a similarly-positioned Library button to return to your content library.
One way Amazon works around the fixed limited memory on the Fire is providing you with direct control of what content is downloaded to your device for offline access, while the rest of your content is stored online for later access.
The Library displays tend to provide indications of the download status and/or size on the device. Press and hold on a specific item to remove it from the device.
The Newsstand content link accesses your periodical subscriptions, including magazines and newspapers.
Magazines typically offer a Page view with the full printed page, which may be difficult to read on the 7 inch screen, plus a Test view for easier reading without custom formatting.
Some periodicals, like Wired, may instead be available as apps.
The Store link goes to the Kindle Newsstand, to browse periodicals and purchase subscriptions.
The Books content link accesses your library of books.
As you read, you can adjust the adjust the appearance of books and periodicals by changing the font style, typeface, line spacing, margins, and color mode from the bottom Options bar.
You also can add bookmarks and notes, and sync these and your reading position with other Kindle devices and readers (including online and iOS apps).
The Fire provides Text Pop-Up for reading text over images in children's books, and Panel View for graphic novels.
The Store link goes to the Amazon Kindle eBooks store, with over 1 million books and periodicals, and over 800,000 titles for $9.99 or less (www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks).
For personal content, you also can download free titles from sites including the Internet Archive, Open Library, Project Gutenberg, and ManyBooks, using the Mobipocket or Kindle (.azw) formats.
The Music content link accesses your music library, combining online purchases and your own uploads to your Cloud Drive.
The Fire music player has the typical organizational categories (Artists, Albums, Songs), with the ability to create Playlists.
The Store link goes to the Amazon MP3 music store (www.amazon.com/MP3), with over 17 million songs.
The Video content link does not go to your video library, but instead goes directly to the Amazon Instant Video store (www.amazon.com/gp/video/ontv/start), with over 100,000 movies and TV shows. The top section is Prime Instant Videos, available for free streaming by Amazon Prime members.
You can rent movies from $2.99 and TV shows from $1.99 an episode, and purchase for around $14.99. The videos have various rental options, for a period of time (e.g. 48 hours), and in standard definition or HD. Then you can choose to Watch Now to stream on the Fire or other supported device, or to Download to watch offline.
From the Store, you can tap Library to return to your personal library, listing your purchased movies and TV shows (or free trailers) stored on the cloud and/or on the Fire.
Note that while the Music content library combines both purchased music and your personal music, the Video content library is only for purchased videos (including movie trailers and other free promotional clips).
Your personal videos stored on your Cloud Drive cannot be accessed or downloaded from the Video library. Instead, personal videos that you download to the Fire are accessed separately through the Gallery app, along with personal photos.
The Docs content link goes to your personal Document library, to view PDF files.
There is no associated monitized content, or Amazon store for documents.
Oddly, there are no options to view or download your online Cloud Drive documents. Instead, you can transfer documents directly via USB or send them by e-mail (as discussed above).
Other types of documents, including text and Word (.doc), cannot be viewed in the Docs library. Instead you need to use the included QuickOffice app, or other apps like Documents to Go to view these and other common file types, including Excel (.xls) and PowerPoint (.ppt).
The QuickOffice and Documents to Go apps also include built-in file browsers, so you can view the folder structure and files stored on the Fire, including recent web downloads.
The Apps content link goes to your Apps library, showing local Apps and your purchases in the Amazon Appstore (www.amazon.com/appstore).
Just tap the icon to launch the application (or launch from the Carousel or Favorites). The list of applications is organized most recent first, or alphabetically; it cannot be manually re-organized as in the Favorites.
The Store link goes to the Amazon Appstore for Android, with Amazon-approved apps for the Fire (and not the general Google Android Market).
In particular, the Fire currently does not support the wide array of Google apps as found on iOS and Android (no Google Maps or Google Earth), does not support accessing the Google cloud services (Google Docs), and does not support syncing with the Google services (Google Contacts and Calendar).
Interestingly, Amazon offers one paid app for free every day, including entertainment titles and productivity tools including QuickOffice Pro and Documents to Go Full Version. This is a particularly sweet inducement to check in regularly at the Appstore.
The final content link is not content, instead it launches the built-in Web browser.
The Fire uses the Amazon Silk "split" web browser, which off-loads some of the work of assembling the various components of a new web page onto the Amazon servers, delivering the page faster by reducing the work and traffic for your device. (You can disable this feature for more private browsing.)
Other Capabilities: Pre-Installed Apps
All other functions of the Kindle Fire are accessed through the Apps content link, which displays virtual shelves with your available apps, pre-installed, downloaded, and purchased and available in the cloud.
The Fire ships with pre-loaded apps for basic e-mail capabilities and viewers for other personal content:
As with your personal videos, there is no mechanism for accessing and downloading personal photos stored on your Amazon Cloud Drive to the Fire. Instead, you must transfer them over USB, and then view them with the Gallery app.
Other pre-installed apps include:
Not surprisingly, there's also an Amazon Shop app.
The Fire does not include apps for a variety of other quite common and useful functions, including:
These kinds of apps are available in the Appstore, along with other popular apps including Facebook and LinkedIn, Angry Birds, Netflix and Hulu, Pandora, MapQuest, weather, and dictionaries.
The Kindle Fire tablet is an impressive first product from Amazon. It really is spectacularly adequate, smartly designed to fit its purpose as an e-viewer. Its design obviously is skewed strongly towards Amazon-supplied content, with some nods to more general tablet functions like web and e-mail (although these still are somewhat cramped by the 7-inch screen). If you want the flexibility of a more general tablet, then you should step up to the Apple iPad, or consider some of the other Android tablets, including the Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet.
With its broad array of stores (books, music, video, and apps), and its extensive Cloud Drive services, Amazon has the content and infrastructure to create a focused device to serve as a gateway for consuming media. The Fire's reduction of non-monitized functions to second-class status is a tad off-putting, as is its inconsistent support for accessing your Cloud Drive files. And yes, the Fire is a "walled garden" like Apple does with its iOS devices (see Wikipedia), but that single login from your Amazon (or Apple) ID sure makes the user's experience much simpler, compared to multiple separate logins for different services.
As a bonus, Amazon aggressively leverages its stores, devices, and online infrastructure in further ways, beyond daily and seasonal specials:
Amazon Kindle eBooks Store
Manage Your Kindle - Settings, Kindle Library, Media Content