Amazon's first tablet challenges Apple's iPad in price and content. Based on our brief experience using a preproduction Fire, we think that, for many consumers, its strengths will outweigh its limitations.
With a 7-inch touch screen that has about half the iPad's viewing area, the Fire resembles smaller tablets more than it does the iPad. It weighs about one-third less and is about 30 percent thicker—11.4 mm. When our reporter moved objects on its display, their motion didn't appear as smooth as on an iPad, though it seemed comparable to some 7-inch tablets he had used.
Connectivity is Wi-Fi only. Built-in storage is 8 gigabytes, less than most tablets. (More on that below.) It has a USB port and speakers but no camera. Amazon says that battery life is "up to 8 hours" when reading, hours less than the iPad and weeks less than Amazon's own Kindle e-book readers.
The Fire's home screen is tailored to focus on Amazon's massive collection of content—and very little else. It has a series of tabs for books, video, music, and apps, plus one for digital magazines, anew content offering from Amazon. Touch the books tab and your Kindle library appears on a virtual bookshelf. The video tab displays your selections from the Amazon Instant Video service, which can include all the free streaming movies and TV shows available with membership in Amazon Prime (normally $80 per year but free for 30 days with the Fire).
You can download at least 80 apps plus 10 movies, 800 songs, or 6,000 books to the Fire's internal storage, according to Amazon, which is important when you don't have a Wi-Fi connection. When there is Internet access, the Fire can stream or download any book, song, movie, TV show, or app you've saved to Amazon's cloud drive (online storage). Cloud storage is free for all content from Amazon.
Amazon will also make it convenient to watch movies and TV shows by using the same WhisperSync technology that lets Kindle users move from device to device when reading a book without losing their place. According to Amazon, you should be able to begin watching a streaming movie on the Fire when you're out and then pick up where you left off on a TV at home via an Internet-connected device such as a Blu-ray player.
Much of what distinguishes a tablet from a reader is the ability to download a wide variety of apps from a major online store. Although the Fire runs the Android operating system, Fire users will be able to download apps only from Amazon's store and just the limited selection that Amazon has determined work well on the device. You won't be able to access the larger collection of apps in Google's Android Market.
The Fire includes an e-mail app that lets you access Hotmail, Gmail, or other e-mail accounts, but not the Microsoft Exchange servers you might need to get your e-mail at work. Amazon told us that an app that can do that will be available in the app store. Amazon says that the Fire uses a new technology to speed its display of Web pages, a claim we weren't able to verify.
The Kindle Fire looks like it will be competent, and it's affordable, something that has been lacking in the market. If portability and access to content are more important than a massive selection of apps, and if you're comfortable working on a small screen, the Fire might be a better match than the iPad and is certainly more affordable than most of the 7-inch tablets in the Ratings (available to subscribers).