Why I gave up my Kindle Fire

So, I said farewell to my Kindle Fire today. I spent a week with the shiny Amazon media device and decided that we just weren't meant to be.

Why? Frankly, I want a real tablet computer, not just a book reader with benefits. Before I get to all of that, let me explain why I wanted the Kindle Fire, why I bought one, and why it was hard to say goodbye.

I have an Android smartphone, one that I really, really, love. It's an HTC Evo Shift from Sprint. This phone does everything and does it well. When the Kindle Fire was announced, I did my homework and yes, I knew going in that the Fire would not be a full-on tablet. I told myself, however, that I wouldn't need everything in a tablet -- my phone could do anything the tablet couldn't.

I do like the idea of an Amazon media consumption device. With the Fire I had a 7-inch wi-fi only, video watching, music playing, fun-and-games, app running, book reading powerhouse for $200! I convinced myself that was a great price for what it does. I still believe this. Truly, "the Kindle Fire is perfect for watching movie versions of books you no longer need to bother reading."

The Good...

I bought it the day it came out from my local Best Buy -- not having the money to pre-order it directly from Amazon. I plugged it in to charge and turned it on. I added it to my network effortlessly. It synchronized to Amazon and pulled up my library of books. I loved the way they looked on the Fire's crisp color screen. My highlights and notes were all there waiting for me, of course.

Next, I wanted to check out the Silk browser. I'd heard some not too flattering things about the web browsing experience and I was disappointed in the model at the store because you could not actually get online with it -- you only get to see a demo video. After using the Silk browser myself, I have to say that I don't know what the author of that blog post was complaining about. I loved how snappy and smooth the Silk browser was. I also loved that I could switch between "desktop" and "mobile" optimization modes for the browser.

On a 7" screen I found the desktop mode was perfectly adequate for 90% of websites I went to. Only a handful seemed too cluttered, and for them I would switch to mobile mode if they supported them. However, for most mobile-optimized sites, I did not like them on the 7" screen because they just looked like a waste of the space -- like I was using a magnifying glass on my phone's browser. So, like I said, I found the desktop mode to be my preference.

I hit up a few pages with Flash and they all worked flawlessly. I still don't care what the Flash iNaysayers spout -- until the day comes that there's no Flash on any website, I will prefer any device that supports it versus one that patently ignores those sites. Whether HTML5 is better for the future is irrelevant when in the here and now Flash/Flex is on so many websites. Leave it to developers like me to embrace HTML5 on the web and make it happen. Until that day comes, give me an Android device instead of iSourGrapes any day.

Next I hit the app store and started looking around. I was disappointed that at first I could not find the NetFlix app. I had read that it would be available so I did a little surfing around (in Silk) to see what the story was. Turns out other folks had the same problem. It was rolling out and you might have to try again later, they suggested. Not sure why this was, but I shrugged and looked around to see what was available.

The good news, there's a lot of great apps in the Amazon App Store. But here's the first solid bit of bad news: it doesn't have nearly what you might hope or expect, and amazingly, it has NO Google appsNone. Now, I can understand that the Amazon App Store is their attempt at a walled garden approach to ensure the best experience for their tablet.

A 7" screen is a unique beast and not all apps work/look good on that scale. I was even willing to accept (before they announced it should be available) that the NetFlix app might not have been there, as a way to promote Amazon's own video store. That's no more anticompetitive than most crap Apple gets away with. As it happens, after another pass through on a search, it did finally show up. It eventually also was on the top 10 free app list. It too works flawlessly, and I was very happy for it.

One last thing about apps, though the Amazon App Store is limited (but bigger than I expected), Amazon did do one thing right. They allow for installing apps from sources other than their app store, also known as "side-loading" apps. You can either download the apps as .apk files on your PC, plug in a USB cable (which the Fire does not come with, just so you know) and copy them to your Fire, then install them. Alternatively you can download them from various websites on the Fire itself and then install them.

As a third wonderful option, if you have apps on your other Android devices, you can backup those applications, copy them to your PC, and then copy them to your Fire. This was my modus operandi for all of the awesome apps I had on my phone and was able to migrate them right on over. Even a handful of Google apps, like Google Maps, because there are some that do not require a Google Account to work. Some apps would not install, but there were only a couple of these and I could live without them. Since my Evo Shift runs Android 2.3 as does the Kindle Fire under the hood, the rest of the apps just worked.

Moving on to video, I've gotta say that Amazon Prime is pretty sweet, and in just the week I used it (you get a free trial month with your Kindle Fire) I fell in love with the service. I liked the special access to some videos and TV shows it provides. Those looked just as solid as they do on my Tivo and just as good as NetFlix. So, if I had kept the Fire, I would seriously be challenged to decide whether to keep Prime vs. renew NetFlix. Seriously. (I'll save this debate for another time, but IMHO it comes down to who has the content I want.) I also liked the Lending Library feature of Prime, but I couldn't find any books I wanted to read that had enabled lending. (I had better luck using BookLending.com, where other Kindle book owners lend their own ebooks to others in one place, like a virtual book swap site.)

Also, I would like to point out that the Kindle Fire is a very good audio player. I already use the Amazon MP3 app on my phone because it makes buying and managing music (in the cloud and on my phone and PC) so freaking easy. I bit the bullet and uploaded even more music from my PC to the Cloud Drive and was jamming out to that streaming music on the Fire (and my phone). I easily almost used up the allotted 5 GB of free cloud storage. I have a lot of purchased music up there already and that does NOT count against your 5 GB. So frankly, whether you have a Kindle Fire or not, the Amazon Could Drive and Player get high marks from me, but the integration on the Fire is just perfect.

The Fire also came with Audible on the "Cloud Apps" list, so that made it so easy of course to pull my audiobooks down to listen to. Yes, that reminds me, just like other files, books, etc., the apps on the Kindle Fire can be "moved to the Cloud". I didn't really experiment much with this but I love the concept. This brings up a very important point about the Kindle Fire. It comes with only 8GB of memory and there is no slot for SD card expansion. With all of the software already on the Fire to make it run, you actually only have about 6 GB for your very own. It will not take long to fill this up. I get around this on my phone by moving apps to the SD card (when they allow for it.)

With the Kindle Fire, you can move apps to the Cloud. However, this appears to be for moving apps you don't use often to the cloud. When you do want to use them, it downloads them back to the Fire so you can run them. This is the same concept as your Kindle Book Library. Sure, you could have hundreds of books stored on your Kindle, but why would you? You're not going to read them all. Instead, you move the books off your device when you are done reading them. They are still in the Cloud waiting for you when you decide to read them again. If you have a bookshelf for your dead-tree books you probably do the same thing. Your bookshelf is for all of those books you keep telling yourself you need to keep. But you keep a little stack of what you're reading now on your desk or nightstand.

At any rate this concept is valid, but it pays off better in the Cloud Player for music because you can keep all of your music on the Cloud Drive and stream it to your device. Videos work the same way, I believe, but with video, it would be best to download what you can for a smoother experience. High-definition video is a bandwidth killer and no matter what, you should have a good hotspot, otherwise your media will stutter. That's a cross that any wi-fi device must bear, not just the Fire.

What about battery life? I was able to play with my Fire for six hours easy without worrying about charging the battery. In fact I never once got an alert telling me that the battery was low. That's pretty impressive. I have to charge my phone with some regularity when I use the web or watch video for example.

One last positive thing before I move on to the "cons". The size and weight of the device in my opinion is dead-on perfect. It fits right in the back pocket of my jeans. This makes it supremely portable. Naturally it also fits in most ladies' purses -- it did so in my wife's. It has a nice, glossy, Gorilla Glass screen though, so I would recommend a cover or protector of some kind. I'm sure it's pretty scratch resistant, but playing it safe is a virtue here.

So, those are all of the pros to the Kindle Fire. It is a great device at a great price. If these things are all you will ever want out of a tablet then, seriously, rush out and get one.

The Bad...

Now comes my greedy litany of whiny prattle that some folks may point to and proclaim, "See, the Kindle Fire is not a tablet! It's no iPad killer! Told you so!" To those people I say, "shut your trap". Just because I felt the need to have more does not mean I think the Kindle Fire is a failure. It's just for a specific audience. What I'll also say is that if the Kindle Fire included all of the things I'm going to whine about, the price would undoubtedly go up, and then it wouldn't have the price sweet spot.

First, it does not have Bluetooth. Now, I want Bluetooth for two reasons: an external keyboard and for audio. I liked the software keyboard on the Fire. It does the job and is pretty unobtrusive (in portrait mode) and has a good layout. But I just prefer a real physical keyboard because I don't like the fact that they cover up part of the screen. A primary reason why I own an HTC Evo Shift is because of its slide-out keyboard, and I had a Palm Pre before that.

As a writer, I would love to use a tablet out on the road when I might be away from my PC and just write. I did use Evernote (my cloud note/writing tool of choice) on the Fire and I still just felt weird losing half my screen to the keyboard in landscape mode. If I could just use an external bluetooth keyboard I think I'd be a happy little writer beast. Not having the option just plain sucks. Add on the fact that this means you cannot wirelessly listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts in your car also sucks. I find this one inexcusable and was the dealbreaker. Seriously, how much would it have stressed the Fire to add Bluetooth? If not for this one missing feature, I think I would have kept the Fire.

Second, as I mentioned before, there's no memory expansion for the Kindle Fire. 8 GB these days is the barest minimum that I think is necessary. I even have a 16 GB microSD card in my phone for goodness sake. Yes, Amazon, the Cloud is your friend and you do it well, but seriously? Only 8 GB? Now, I don't think that a card reader would have been all that much to ask. More memory might add up the price point, but I have seen many devices that charge only like $20 more for the 16GB version vs their 8 GB offering. Just sayin'.

Third, it does not have GPS. Now, is this something one needs? Not in a book reader, no, but in a tablet, I think so. The Kindle Fire is more than just a book reader; it's a mobile app device as well as a mobile web browser. Without GPS, I cannot use the myriad of social check-in and geolocation apps my geeky heart desires. Mobile devices beg for GPS features. But, I will cut Amazon slack on this one because as a media consumption device it really is not a big deal. It would be sweet to have it though. (It doesn't have a compass either, but who cares.)

Fourth, this one borders on nitpicking. The Kindle Fire has an email app but it does not connect to Exchange servers. It's basically for standard email like Yahoo!, Gmail, etc. Anything else you'll need to use the web, and if you need your work email via Exchange, I hope your work has web access. Mine does, so this was moot. But I like push email notifications and you won't get that with the Kindle Fire, so road warriors take a hit here.

If I can talk about apps again, I just want to know why there's no Google apps. I mean, folks, this is an Android device even if it has the Kindle layer on top. Also, frankly, I don't care who you are, I would wager you use at least one of their services besides search. Now, granted, one can go to the web browser and use their services. For most things, again, the desktop mode was my preference though Google's mobile versions of most services are very functional. But there's something to be wary of here in this complete shunning of Google apps. If it is just because the authorizing account on a Kindle Fire is your Amazon account instead of a Google account (which seems to logistically be the case) then I would still expect someone (maybe Google themselves) to create an app for the Kindle Fire to let you add a Google Account to your Fire so that you can use the apps that rely on it (like Gmail, G+, even YouTube, etc.)

By the way, I didn't bother with the Newsstand. I am sure that the Kindle Fire would rock this, even if magazine companies would prefer you to have a larger screen. The glossy color Fire screen would be great with subscription media like newspapers and magazines. I just personally do not subscribe to any print magazines or newspapers (or their digital variants) because a) print is dead, and b) the "news" is irrelevant the second it is printed.

I'd rather subscribe to dozens or more blogs and get fresh, relevant content. I did use the Pulse app which came with the Fire and I loved it. This is where I see content going, and frankly am disappointed that more providers do not embrace the RSS/blog model. The Pulse app shines on the Fire and makes reading blogs fun. It doesn't look half bad on my phone, either.

I will also say that I was surprised that you cannot subscribe to Kindle Blogs on the Fire. I assume this was forsaken because the concept of a paid subscription on the Kindle was for it to download for you to read offline, and with Kindle Fire which can run apps like Pulse and Read It Later, the point is moot. But I know some blogs that have embraced that model and not being able to subscribe to them if you enjoy that feature on your e-ink Kindle is kind of odd.

As a side note, there's a dearth of podcatching apps in the Kindle App Store. Sure there's Stitcher and MediaFly, but those are curated. There's MyPOD Podcast Manager, but it doesn't have the same features I've come to expect from DoggCatcher, which is the best, in my opinion. So, sideload that one if you want to listen to podcasts.

And The Whiny...

Now we start to nitpick. There's no camera. This I knew going in and again is an expensive feature that the Kindle Fire doesn't need but that I would desperately want in a tablet. Especially a fore-facing camera for video chat. But hey, the Kindle Fire doesn't even have a microphone, so there's no chat happening anyway. Nope, you can't plug in a headset with a mic either. So, no Skype, no chat of any kind. But without a microphone that also means no voice-commands, no speech translation, no speech-to-text features at all.

As a side note, I was disappointed that the Kindle Fire does not do text-to-speech book reading. I was under the impression you could do that with a regular Kindle so I would expect that in the Kindle Fire. If that is a feature you use on your current e-ink Kindle, then the Fire is a step down.

While comparing e-ink Kindles to Kindle Fire, you know how people rave about reading their e-ink Kindle outdoors or in different levels of light and complaining about iPads and other tablets because of glare? I always thought was was hogwash. But you know what, those folks are so very right! The glare on the Fire is awful if you catch it. I would love to see a company create an anti-glare screen protector of sorts, because it really is a problem. If you like your glare-free e-ink Kindle and that's an issue for you, the Fire will just frustrate you on that.

Finally, I just gotta say, Amazon, would it have killed you to put volume controls on the hardware? It's my last nitpick, but really, to have to tap the screen to bring up the menu bars, then tap the Settings icon to get to a volume slider is just silly. Again, it's something you get used to, but come on. Also, though the speakers are good, they could be better. You get fuller, richer sound with headphones, naturally. OK, that's enough whining.

In the end, I wanted a tablet, not just a media device. I would never buy a standard e-ink Kindle. I abhor unitaskers. The Kindle Fire is a good multitasker, but it's just not enough for me. It broke my heart every time I had to break down and pull out my phone in order to be able to do something the Fire couldn't. In the end, my phone does everything I want but I want a similarly capable device with a larger screen. The 7" form factor is perfect in my mind and I think that anything bigger than 8" (which I'm starting to see in tablets) is too big. I'll just use my laptop at that point. So, I'll keep looking for something in between.

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