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This fall, Amazon surprised everyone with the release of the Kindle Fire. There had been a couple clues beforehand, but still no one expected the product Amazon announced. The Fire is an Android tablet, yes, but it is also something more. It is a specially optimized tool for accessing Amazon's numerous cloud services, and it just happens to run Android as well.

It was a bold move, and while so far reception has been good, it is still early in the game. Can the Kindle Fire's combination of Android apps as well as Amazon integration, along with a dirt cheap $199 price point live up to the hype? Read on to find out.


Specifications

Despite its cheap price, the Kindle Fire still has very decent specs. It packs 7-inch 1024 x 600 IPS display, 1GHz dual-core processor, and WiFi b/g/n, but Amazon did cut corners by leaving out any cameras or extra ports, there's not even a microSD slot on this one.

Hardware

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As with almost every device I have seen, the front of the Fire is dominated by the screen, with minimal black bezel around the edges. It looks simple and classy, but one thing that really bothers me is that the bezel on the bottom of the device is just slightly thicker than all the others.

I have no idea why Amazon did this, and it really throws off the symmetry in my opinion. Of course, I am really just trying to find things to complain about here, and in normal use the bezel width does not make one bit of difference, and still looks pretty good.

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On the back of the Kindle Fire, you will find only the "kindle" name etched into the casing, as well as the usual FCC goodness. While it's simple, I really liked both the look and feel of the soft touch matte coating on the casing.

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The bottom of the device houses the standard microUSB port as well as the power button. It's not necessarily bad, but I haven't really been able to get used to having the power/screen unlock button on the bottom of the device. Turning on the Fire with one hand is difficult, and often when I would try to rest the bottom of the tablet on a table it would cause the screen to lock. 

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There is only one other interruption of the smooth matte black sides of the device, the speakers found on top. There are actually two here, which means that you get real stereo sound. I am no audiophile, but they sounded much louder and better than any smartphone speakers I have heard, and in a pinch served to fill a small room with music. They would certainly be sufficient for gaming or sharing a quick Youtube video with friends.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of reason to want to rest this tablet on something. Although it's size is perfect for holding in your hand, the weight is not. It is manageable for some amount of time, but if I am going to browse or read for more than about 10 minutes I usually want to set the Fire down. 

It has been said that the Fire was based of the same development platform as the BlackBerry PlayBook, and the similar styling certainly shows. This is by no means a bad thing, though. We loved the hardware in the PlayBook, and while it is a bit like Deja Vu, there's no reason to change what has already worked. 

Software

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While the Kindle Fire does run Android, the experience is so far from stock that you wouldn't be able to tell unless you knew. The entire interface has been retooled, and now centers around a coverflow like carousel of your recently used applications, books, webpages, music, and as far as I can tell, basically anything you do on the device. If you have used or opened it, it is there in the seemingly infinite list of content.

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Below that there is a space where you can pin some of your favorite applications on what looks like a bookshelf. It works just as it should, providing quick access to any apps you want to have on hand without searching.

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This carousel homescreen is bordered by a top status and notification bar. Instead of sliding down for notifications, you just tap on the top left corner of the display to bring up the lists. If you tap on the right side where the WiFi and battery status icons are, you get a quick settings menu much like the one in Android Honeycomb which provides quick access to common settings.

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Interestingly, there is not any standalone settings app, the only way to get to the detailed settings is to hit "more" on the popup. While it's not necessarily bad, it really did throw me off a couple times when I was looking for settings. The universal search bar is also found beneath the top taskbar, as well as system of tabs for accessing content.

If you need to access more than just recent applications, you then turn to the tabs towards the top of the screen. The seven tabs are in this order: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web. 

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Each of these tabs brings you its specific type of content, with the exception of the "Web" tab, which sensibly opens the browser. Except for this and the "Apps" tab, the content is then separated into cloud and device, with the cloud options providing access to media stored on Amazon's cloud. I don't have much content with Amazon, but the couple of albums I have in Cloud Player instantly showed up and played perfectly.

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When viewing content, in the top right corner there is a link to Amazon's store or marketplace, which seemed to work perfectly for purchasing content on the device. The one complaint that I do have is that purchased Android Market apps do not transfer to Amazon's App Store. So, if I wanted to install a game that I have already purchased on the Market, I would either have to purchase it again through Amazon or root the Fire. 

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Overall, the Fire's browser was just fine. It supports Flash, and displayed most website's desktop version properly. One thing I would have complained about is that there is no fullscreen mode and the tab bar takes up a lot of space (especially in landscape), but an update I got just today fixed that problem. 

 Performance and battery life

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Usually, I find myself keeping a close eye on the batter gauge when using an Android device. This was not so with the Kindle Fire. Thanks to a 4,400 mAh battery, the tablet could power through about two days of light use. As I usually just charge my devices overnight, I was able to just take the Fire off the charger in the morning and not worry about running out of battery for the rest of the day.

Even with a dual-core processor, the Fire did get laggy in some areas. Most of the time, things zipped along, but occasionally the system would slow down thanks to a runaway process or application. For normal use, the Kindle Fire is plenty fast, but things take just a little bit longer to load than I would expect them to. For example, switching screen orientation provided noticeable lag that I wouldn't have expected to be there. Fortunately, the carousel that is the main focus of the Fire's interface never lagged at all, and always worked smoothly.

Final thoughts

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As you may have read in the unboxing, when I first got the Fire I was really excited about it. It appeared to be a combination of great hardware, solid software and integration, and an even better price. I don't want to say I am disappointed, per say, but as I continued to use the tablet it just seemed to become less awesome. Quirks made themselves more apparent, performance slowed slightly, and annoyances like purchased apps not being available dampened the experience.

However, when you use the Kindle as Amazon intended, it excels. Books, music, videos, magazines, and any other content from Amazon integrates wonderfully into the experience, and is easy to access and purchase. Anything having to do with Amazon works perfectly and almost always automatically, and if I lived in Amazon's ecosystem the experience would have been awesome. 

Unfortunately in this case, I live in Google's ecosystem. And while the Kindle Fire may carry the label of an Android tablet, in practice it is not one. The only thing it really carries over is application compatibility, and even then things can be problematic as you have read. Otherwise, the Fire is a different beast. Amazon has made it into a lean and simple consumption machine, and for that it works wonderfully.

If you expect the Fire to be an Android tablet, you will be disappointed. Amazon's software is good, but at the core its really just a mechanism to get you to buy from them. The design, though, is still awesome, and the hardware really can't be beat for the price. Just keep in mind that if you want something more than a consumption machine you'll have to tweak it yourself, and the Kindle Fire should serve you well.

The Kindle Fire is currently available for $199 from Amazon.