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Kindle Fire: We're Just Not That into You

The Kindle Fire
The Kindle Fire

The hype's been going on for months -- the new Kindle Fire is supposed to be the best thing to hit the sub-tablet/amped-up book reader market ever. This is not the typical book reader with a plain old black-and-white screen, the Fire is touted as a movie-watching/book-reading/game-playing/Web-surfing marvel with a brilliant color screen.

We have to admit that we were smitten with the idea of the Fire and were anxious to try it out. Is the new Fire a mini iPad? Or just a book reader on steroids? We took it on a test drive for a few days to find out. Our criteria for the trial was simple: ease of use, speed and availability of content/apps. Our verdict...we'll get to that in a minute.

Day One: We were giddy opening the box and ready to fall in love with the Fire. We immediately and unhappily found out that Fire isn't perfect; the slim Fire comes in a huge box, which doesn't seem very green-friendly. As we turned a blind eye to the over-packaging and pulled out our Fire, it felt like a disappointing first kiss. Deep breath, move on, maybe it gets better.

The sleek-looking Fire was ready to use as soon as it came out of the box. It was already registered to us (via our charge card info), and took only a few keystrokes to sign into our office Wi-fi system. It was less than two minutes from opening the box to downloading our first e-book (a free book, as it happens, since Art Attack had a zero budget for this particular test).

We went to Amazon's Kindle bookstore first. We immediately found free dictionaries (okay, so we're a word nerd), and fiction titles. We picked a couple and downloaded them. The transactions took about 20 seconds to complete and the books were available immediately. Sometimes the on screen buttons were slow to respond, and we had to tap them two or three -- or four -- times. Still, so far so good.

Next it was app time. Same deal, lots of choices, quick transfer time. We downloaded a puzzle app, but the images of both the pieces and the finished puzzle were tiny on the small Fire screen and we couldn't enlarge them, so we quickly dumped the app.

Next it was movies and our first real hiccup. Signing in to our Netflix and Hulu accounts was difficult because the pop-up keyboard had such slow reaction time the characters in our passwords were either skipped or entered twice. Okay, that could be human error (although we've never typed too fast for any other device).

Then it was our next, and really big, hiccup. Actually, it was more of a WTF? moment: Downloading the second film, the screen froze into a white page that responded to none of our commands. Not even the on-off button. We put the Fire on our nightstand and went into the den to watch cable television. We checked on it an hour later and the screen was still frozen and unresponsive.   Day Two: The frozen screen was gone, but only because the battery was completely drained. We hooked the Fire up to the recharger (included free with the reader). Three hours later it was charged and we tried again.

Back to the bookstore to find more fiction titles. We easily downloaded 20 or so classic books. We moved on to Amazon Prime television and film section. (A month's membership in Amazon Prime, which includes free instant viewing of hundreds of television shows and movies that are for rent or sale on Amazon, comes with every Fire.) We got some episodes of our favorite television shows, a couple of movies. They seemed to download fine, but weren't showing up on our home screen as saved. The more we tried, the slower the response time got and the more titles seemed to disappear from our home screen. Frustration set in and we put the Fire down. Again.

A few hours later and with lots of patience and some super-slow typing, signed in on both Netflix and Hulu. We selected a foreign film as a test, since one of our main concerns was the size of the subtitles. Thankfully, the subtitles were more than large enough. Cool.

We tried reading and sending e-mail with much less luck. Reading messages was fine, but we couldn't figure out how to send a response, even after we checked the Help section. And that points out the real problem here: The Help section isn't very, well, helpful. It's limited and gives short, terse answers to complicated questions without differentiating between various circumstances.

We admit our disenchantment with the Fire was growing.   Day Three: The Fire spent the night recharging. In the morning, we tried to organize our favorites on screen. More frustration. The swipe motion used to move the page up and down is more than a little loose. The screen slips and slides like it's made with greased ball bearings. We tried moving our fingers real s-l-o-w across the screen. That worked -- both on the screen and our nerves. If we wanted something that had only worked when we didn't ask much from it, we'd have bought a $99 tablet at the drug store.

We visited the Web. Surfing was quick enough, but the images were small. Turning the Fire on its side to get a landscape view meant the images were larger, but we could only see one-third of the page at a time. Visits to YouTube and Google went fine. Kinda. Most pages loaded fine and the videos played well, but some Web pages loaded slowly, some not at all.

It took just three days for the Fire to lose its charm and appeal for us.

Our Verdict: On ease of use, we rated the Fire poorly even though some functions were super simple. Set-up was easy. Viewing Amazon content, either books or movies, is very easy. The books transferred quickly, but even after several attempts at downloading, some movies never showed up on our Fire. The keyboard and on-screen buttons are sometimes slow to respond or enter multiple characters. Having to slow down when typing is a big turnoff, and a super-slippery slide function was just downright annoying.

We give the Fire an unenthusiastic good rating on speed. Surfing the Web is quick, but other functions were just average.

On availability of content, the Fire rates very high, at least when we're talking about Amazon content. There are thousands of books, movies, even podcasts, less than five clicks away from the home screen. And Amazon holds all your purchases in the Amazon Cloud.

Non-Amazon music has to be uploaded to the Amazon Cloud (every Fire owner gets some free cloud storage for non-Amazon music and books), which is a tedious task taking hours. We read online comments from other Fire users about how they spent the weekend uploading their i-Tunes collection to the Cloud and decided not to bother.

Overall, the Fire earned a big, fat yawn. No, it's not an iPad, but at $200 I didn't really expect it to be. With Amazon behind it, I did expect it to be completely glitch-free, though. No freezing, no failed downloads, no slow keyboard responses, no multiple tapping the on-screen buttons.

We're sure we'll use the Kindle Fire -- sometimes. We do read lots of books after all and we like watching movies, even on a small screen, but we're going iPad shopping for Christmas. Lots more money, true, but way, way less frustration.


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