The Kindle Fire tablet computer is Amazon's first device with color capability, and the first that isn't primarily focused on reading books—it does much more than that. Based on my brief look at the the device, which was launched today in New York, the Fire appears to fulfill much of its promise, with some caveats.
Here some of my pluses and minuses for the device, based on my early impressions. See the video (below) for more on many of them and for a look at the Fire in action.
• Its price. To put the Fire's price into context, it's $50 less expensive than that of the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, which the Amazon tablet resembles in many ways but which lacks video streaming, among other Fire features. And the Fire costs around half what a 7-inch tablet from a major manufacturer such as Samsung or Toshiba does. It's $300 less than the minimum price for an Apple iPad, which has a 10-inch screen.
• An interface customized to Amazon content. Though it uses the Android operating system (the Gingerbread version rather than the latest Honeycomb version), the interface doesn’t much resemble that of most Android tablets. But such features as the multimedia carousel of recently-accessed content and the tabs organized by media type work well to facilitate access to the books, movies, and more that you've bought from Amazon.
• Amazon Silk. This browser technology claims to boost the speed at which Web content will load to the Fire. It's hard to judge download speed anecdotally, since it depends so much on the strength of the network being used. But the demos I saw suggest that Amazon may have found a way to have many Web pages load more rapidly to mobile devices.
• The Fire lacks features common to many tablets. Among other things, the Fire lacks a camera, so you won't be able to use it to video-chat with friends. It lacks Bluetooth capability, so you won't be able to connect it wirelessly to a separate keyboard.
• Its apps will be limited. The iPad and the major Android tablets allow access to apps stores with tens or even hundreds of thousands of apps. The Fire, by contrast, will have a curated selection of apps, much as is the case for the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, which ranks of the best (and certainly most tablet-like) color e-book reader in our current Ratings, available to subscribers.
• It's focused on Amazon content. The flip side of the Fire's optimization for accessing Amazon content: That is mostly what you can easily enjoy on the device. You'll be able to sideload other content onto it, though, as you can do fairly easily on some Android tablets, or download attachments to e-mails or docs you e-mail to a dedicated e-mail address for the device. But this is a device that primarily stays within the "Amazon ecosystem" as far as taking on content goes.
My preliminary bottom line: The Kindle Fire promises to fill, and capably, a useful niche between full-featured tablets and color e-book readers. But for many people, it won't do away with the need or the allure of some pricier tablets, especially the iPad.
But will there still be a compelling reason to buy any of the current color e-book readers, after the Fire ships on November 15? That I'm not so sure about. The Fire seems to offer what they do and more, and for a lower price than the best such devices now on the market.
We'll test the Kindle Fire in our labs on (or before) its ship date and answer the remaining questions. Check back here for a First Look review in mid-November.