Playing with Fire

By John Kamerer

Kindle Fire display. Image from

Kindle Fire display. Image from

I recently came into possession of Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Now, I’ve been a long-time user of Apple’s iPod touch/iPhone and have used iPads at work, so I’d like to share my findings for those on the fence about whether to buy an iPad or the new Fire device (I’ve also had a Kindle Keyboard since back when it was the only type of this device on the market, so my background experience should also help those looking for their ideal e-reader).

Hardware: The Fire is significantly smaller than the iPad, and is a bit minimalist when the devices are compared side-by-side. The only button is the power button, which is located next to the charging port and headphone jack on the bottom of the device. A possible problem I see is that it would be easy to accidentally bump the power button, but a simple workaround is to simply turn the device upside down (due to the lack of physical buttons, the Fire works exactly as well flipped as it does normally).

The fact that it only comes in an 8GB size (2GB of which is reserved for the operating system) can be a bit of a problem for users with lots of music and videos, but presumably if you relied on Amazon for all of your digital media it wouldn’t be much of an issue due to their cloud storage system.

PROTIP: The Fire comes with a wall-charger, but it can also connect to your computer via a USB cable, where it can mount like a flash drive for easy data transferring.

Reading: I knew when the Fire was announced that reading on it wouldn’t be that great of an experience. Having read a few books on the iPhone/iPad Kindle app in the past, I didn’t like the eye strain brought on by the backlit screen. When it comes time for me to do some recreational reading for an hour or more, I reach for my regular Kindle for the e-ink screen and the longer battery life.

Don’t count the Fire out just yet though, as it’s an ideal delivery platform for magazines, graphic novels, and children’s books. I tracked down some scans of comic books that I read as a child and found the Fire does a very good job of displaying them. One advantage the Fire has over the iPad is that it allows the use of Digital Rights Management–free Ebooks. If you’re like me and don’t want to have to re-buy the dozens of printed books you’ve bought over the years, it’s easy to do an online search for Kindle-compatible Ebooks in the file formats .mobi or .prc.

PROTIP: Put Ebooks in the “books” folder, PDFs in the “documents” folder, single images in the pictures folder (inside their own folder to pre-sort pictures into albums). Word documents and similar text-only file formats must be sent to the Kindle email address that Amazon provides to get them on your device.

Apps: Since the Fire runs off an Android OS, there are not as many apps to choose from as Apple’s app store offers. You can get your social media apps like Facebook and Twitter, and popular games like “Angry Birds,” “Plants Vs. Zombies” or “Cut The Rope.” One problem is that despite being an Android device, Amazon only allows users to download apps approved by them in the Amazon app store. I’ve heard it’s possible to get non-Amazon approved apps on the Fire, but since it requires an Android-enabled phone, I’m out of luck. One advantage Amazon has over Apple, in my opinion is the inclusion of a personal “wishlist”, for those apps you want to buy later.

PROTIP: Some apps look deceptively small when downloaded, only a few MB, but they might ask you to download a 500MB+ chunk of data to run the app properly. Deleting the app won’t delete this data, so make sure to go in the Fire via USB to delete it manually.

Video: In addition to Netflix and Hulu + apps, Amazon prime members can stream videos from Amazon’s instant viewing library, or buy and download individual movies from their video marketplace. Since the Fire allows Flash script, even YouTube videos are an enjoyable experience to watch. As an experiment, I had my Fire, iPhone and laptop all stream the same video at once, and the Fire seemed to stream it the fastest.

PROTIP: If you want to put your own video files on the Fire, the only format it accepts is .mp4. I recommend the program Kigo Video Converter for the task of creating the proper format.

Internet: There is currently no 3G option for the Fire, but I haven’t had any complaints about that so far. As a big tech geek, I have about 8 devices in my room that can connect to Wi-Fi, some of them better than others. The Fire seems to hold a better connection than most of my devices, despite all occupying the same location on the edge of my wireless network. The built-in web browser, Silk, does everything I expect of Safari on an iPad, perhaps even a little better (it’s easier to Google something, for example). I’ll probably still go to my laptop for the bulk of my web browsing, but I’ll pick the Fire over my iPhone when given the choice.

PROTIP: The Silk browser is supposed to learn your patterns of web browsing, then try to predict where you’ll go next and pre-cache it (i.e., when reading an article online, it might have “other articles like this” already loaded by the time you click on it), so even if you prefer your laptop, be sure to give it some “training” periodically.

Music: I’ll admit, I’m not intending to use the music function much, seeing as my MP3 collection would never fit on the Fire, while my iPhone does just fine. I tossed a single album on for the sake of trying it out, and it seems to have a similar interface to the iPhone/iPod music app. It seems to have been designed to make and manage playlists from the Fire itself, rather than using an iTunes analogue as a “middleman” like I’m used to. I would recommend only using it for your top 50-100 songs, and I believe there’s a Pandora radio app available as well.

PROTIP: Amazon-bought MP3s will be stored in the cloud. Presumably this is how they intended to use the device as a music player, despite the small storage size.

Overall, I’d say the Kindle Fire is worth the money. If I had used one for a weekend and then been asked to guess the price, I would have guessed well over the current price of $200. It may not be the David to slay the iPad’s Goliath, but it could just be the young contender that keeps the champ on his toes.

John Kamerer is a Resident Einstein in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

1 Response to “Playing with Fire”

  1. 1 scottfeldstein November 28, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    A thoughtful review, John. But I have a few things I’d like to add.

    1. Apple’s iPad (and all i-devices) do allow DRM-free ebooks to be loaded on them.

    2. While it may be a disadvantage to be limited to Amazon’s curated Android app store, it could be an advantage at the same time. At least one hopes it’s not the wild-west environment that the rest of the Android world seems to be becoming. See here:

    3. Although iPads and iPhones don’t have this feature, visiting Apple’s app store on your computer (via iTunes) does allow you to save apps to a Wish List.

    4. The iPad’s Safari web browser does in fact allow you to play youtube videos. Flash or no Flash.

    5. I’m skeptical of the Silk browser. I’d like to see some rigorous performance testing on it. And I’m not entirely comfortable with so much of my browsing actually taking place on a server farm in some remote location. What are the privacy implications of a third party like Amazon sitting between me and the web sites I visit? Do they keep a remote cache of my browsing? For how long and for what purposes? Amazon is a retailer. Selling things is their business. Will they use data about me to more effectively market to me? Or sell my information to someone else?

    Even, so, I agree with your general assessment: seems like a decent value for money if you’re after an eReader and some efficient ways to consume Amazon content. Hard to go wrong at just 2 bills.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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