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Devices

Introduction

Amazon's Kindle Fire probably ended up under many Christmas trees yesterday, and for good reason. The form factor is nice, the device is good looking, the specs are solid and, most importantly, the price is right.

So when the opportunity arose to borrow one from a friend, I jumped at it to see if I too would join the throng of consumers rabidly purchasing the first tablet that really has the potential to make Apple work for its iPad market share.

Android vs. Kindle Fire

I've been using an Asus Transformer [reviewed] since it shipped earlier this year, so it's only natural that I would compare the Fire to it. After all, the Fire is running Android, albeit a highly-customized 2.3.3 Gingerbread version vs. stock Honeycomb 3.2 that runs on the Transformer.

Some will say this as unfair and to a degree, they'd be correct. On paper, the two tablets are very different: different screen size; different resolutions; different CPUs; different OSes. However, most people buying either tablet are primiarily going to notice screen size, user interfaces and what they can do with it. So that's going to be my approach.

Screen

Of course the biggest difference between the Fire and your standard Kindle is the screen; it's color!!! This opens up a whole new world for Amazon in that they finally have a device with a screen fast enough for video and gaming. The screen on the Kindle Fire is very pleasant to use, more so than my Nook Color, which has a similar IPS panel, but feels much more pixelated.

Compared to your standard Honeycomb Tablet, the Fire's screen stands up equally well. The 1024x600 resolution makes the application icons look crisp, and text is readable from a distance, although it's still not as good as an E-Ink Kindle. Definitely a win here for the Kindle.

Although this isn't an issue specific to the Fire, screen size does matter and is a highly personal preference. Some people prefer, or at least don't mind, a smaller screen on their tablet. And if the Fire is your first tablet, you may never realize what you are missing. Especially if you've been accustomed to a cramped smartphone screen.

Other folks may be frustrated web-browsing on a seven-inch screen. Using a site's mobile version feels odd and underutilizes available screen area. But switching to a site's normal version makes for squintingly small type and links that are very hard to hit the first time without pinch-zooming. The only way you can decide is to spend some time with tablets of both sizes.

User Interface

Google finally got a tablet interface pretty-much correct with Honeycomb 3.2. Aside from occasionally laggy input response, Honeycomb v3.2 fixed all the issues I initially had with Google's Tablet OS.

With its TI dual-core ARM 9 CPU that includes graphics and video hardware accelerators, the Fire has the hardware to provide a swift and smooth user experience. But that's not what I found, at least with the version 6.1 OS.

Input was laggy to almost unusuable at points and button taps sometimes didn't register. The sad part is I know it's not the hardware. I have spent some time with a Blackberry Playbook, which uses similar hardware and the interface was buttery smooth.

On top of that, the interface design tries too hard to emulate Apple with its primary navigation centered on a Cover-Flow style "carousel". Every app you launch ends up there, which tends to clutter it up and make for unnecessary scrolling. The carousel is eye candy anyway, since the "favorites" bookshelf-style area sits right below it and provides quicker and easier access to whichever apps you park there.

Things have gotten better with last week's release of the 6.2.1 update. This early Christmas present fixed some of the responsiveness issues and allows you to remove items from the carousel, among other things. And for the most part, it seems to have helped. But selecting items on the carousel is still too twitchy (as it is in iTunes, too) and I've had the browser go completely unresponsive from time to time, only to start working again on its own.

Amazon gets credit for burying Android's native too-many-ways-to-get-in-trouble nature away from folks who will be holding a tablet for the first time and just want to get it doing something right away. Getting to the Settings menu requires clicking on a tiny gear icon tucked up in the upper-right screen corner that isn't even shown in the device promo photo above. And getting to the detailed Android Settings menu, where you could get in trouble by killing apps, is buried even one more level down.

But if you're an Android geek and want all the customization available from stock Android, you probably won't like the Fire (or end up rooting it).

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