Saturday, November 19, 2011

Evaluating the Kindle Fire

Comparing the Kindle Fire to the original Kindle called the “Keyboard.”

MY BIAS: As you read this, please understand my bias. I’ve owned a Kindle Keyboard (hereafter just called Keyboard) for awhile and have hundreds of books on it. Many of the features in the Fire are similar, so learning the Fire may have been easier for me than someone who never used a Kindle. I’ve spend a couple of thousand dollars purchasing material for the Kindle, all of which is usable on the Fire. That is a powerful financial incentive to staying with the Kindle system and I have a total of six devices using it. Switching to another system would mean starting over. Thus I am likely to view the Fire with more favor than someone who is wedded to a different e-reader system.

Travel Consideration:  Although the new color readers (the ones less expensive than the iPad) are very attractive and fun to use, if you're traveling and cannot be sure of a Wi-Fi connection, stick with one of the older 3G readers where you can download your books or even buy them from other places in the world without incurring data usage charges.  A friend of mine downloaded a book on her Kindle Keyboard 3G while in Brazil.  Another friend downloaded a book on her original Nook 3G while in Chile.  Other friends visiting Europe and China similarly had no problem accessing new books on their 3G devices.  Wi-Fi is not always available.  I love using my Wi-Fi devices at home and many local places, but for distant travel, I'd trust the connectivity of a 3G device.

Loyalties and Financial Considerations: From an article on NYT web site by David Pogue: Now, choosing an e-reader is a big decision. Each company’s books are in its own proprietary format, and you can never sell or donate them. So if you choose, for example, a Kindle over a Nook from Barnes & Noble, the price for changing your mind will be very high.

The "company" referred to is the online digital book provider, not the copyright owner or the publisher of the printed copy.  What it means is that, without an adapter or an app, if you buy a Kindle eBook, you need a Kindle reader to read it.  Likewise the Barnes & Noble Nook.  Sure, with an adapter you can do it, but if you switch systems and want the ease of access, you have to buy new books in the new system. 

OTHER BIASES: People favor what they’re used to, so switching from one system to another can frustrate users of other systems. However, I do think it is totally unfair to compare the Fire to the iPad. The entry level iPad costs $500, more than twice the Fire, and if you want the extras, it can set you back $700-$800. I hardly think it’s a fair comparison. That’s like trying to compare my Rav4 to a Mercedes SUV. They’re not in the same league.

BASICS of Fire: Power on: Tiny button at bottom edge. (Some people online have complained about this and feel it should be on the top edge so you don’t accidentally turn it off. Others suggested reading upside-down—which works.) I haven’t accidently hit that button while using it, so bottom position is fine with me. Automatic turnoff time is preset at 5 minutes, but it is adjustable.

HOME screen: Turn power on, slide green arrow to left. Home screen appears. Display quality: Brightly colored, sharp, clear.

First I'm going to cover the problems to get them out of the way!

FIRST PROBLEM—lack of Categories: Most Keyboard users commenting on Amazon were disappointed to find that the Categories setup on the Kindle Keyboard (where you can group books however you like) is missing from the Fire. Instead someone got the zany idea that every blooming book ever bought or borrowed from the library should appear in the Carousel. You can rearrange them by Most Recent, Author, or Title, but you can't segregate them out into Categories like History, Art, etc. as you can on the Keyboard 3G.

SECOND PROBLEM on Fire--Carousel: The Carousel is a disaster. It displays everything you’ve ever bought including all the web pages you just visited. Gone is the simple front page of the Keyboard where you could show or hide whatever items you wanted. (For example, I had “Categories” on my Keyboard for Fiction, History, Science, Philosophy, Sci-Fi, etc.) The section for Favorites below the Carousel does not make up for the ability to set categories. From my own experience, and from the comments on Amazon, the Carousel is a major mistake. Fortunately, it’s software, not hardware, so it can be re-programmed. I hope.

THIRD PROBLEM--Slick and Slippery: The Fire is slippery. It’s nice to see they made it glossy (It’s like a mirror), but it’s so slippery you can drop it. Perhaps they are hoping for big sales of Skins ($24) to offset it. My plan is to put a tape strip on the back to grip after I decide whether I’m keeping it. Update:  I bought a skin.  Haven't got it yet, so jury still out on that.  The Kindle Keyboard, however, is easy to grip and lighweight to carry around.

WEIGHT: The Fire (Kindle Fire) weighs almost twice what the Kindle Keyboard weighs: 14.5 oz on my kitchen scale while the Keyboard weighs 7.6 oz on the same scale. I know that’s not terribly scientific, but since I’m weighing everything on the same scale, it should provide a good comparison. You might think that since the Keyboard (Kindle Keyboard) is far lighter, it might seem easier to handle. However, if you hold the Keyboard the way you hold a book, by its edges, you can accidentally advance several pages -- suddenly having no clue where you are. You have to learn to hold the Keyboard by its top or bottom edges to avoid that problem. Though one adapts to this, it can be a bit awkward at times, especially when reading in bed, and I do LOVE my Keyboard for its simplicity, long battery life, ease of use, and lightweight portability. No matter what I get, I’m not giving up my Keyboard.

Though the Fire is heavier, it can be held more like a book without accidentally advancing pages. Since it’s a touch screen, you don’t even have to lift your hands from the Fire. Tap right side of screen with your thumb to advance or left side of screen to retreat. Try not to sweep across the screen like an iPhone. (See Touch below) Reading with the heavier Fire in bed was easier with than with the Keyboard, mostly because it props up on pillows nicely, and you don’t have to hold it in an awkward position.

FONTS & READING PORTRAIT OR LANDSCAPE:  Both the Keyboard and the Fire allow you to change the size of the font, the spacing of the lines, and whether you read in the Portrait or Landscape position.  If you're visually impaired, you can make the text HUGE, set it to landscape, and still read smoothly. 
TABS/MENU on the Fire and Keyboard: Across the top of the screen there are 6 links and a search bar. These take you to sections like Books, Videos, Newsstand, Store, etc. They work well. They don’t quite make up for the Carousel on the Home page, but they help.  The Keyboard allows you to set up categories and has drop-down menus for accessing the web, the bookstore, and other online functions and they work via 3G.  The Fire's setup is easier to use, but doesn't have 3G.

THE CLOUD Compared to Device Storage: I think the Cloud is a really cool concept. Save space on your Fire by returning your book to the Cloud if you’re not reading it. Keep those books on the Device (Fire) that you’re currently reading or want to keep handy for reference. Transferring to and from the Cloud takes split seconds.

I liken the Cloud to the bookshelves in your house. When you want to read a book you take it off the bookshelf and use it. When you’re finished reading, you put your book back on the bookshelf where you find it whenever you want. You can upload your documents, iTunes music, and your photos to the Cloud. This greatly expands your available memory. You can also store whatever items you want on the Device (Fire). This is useful if you’re going to be anywhere there isn’t a Wi-Fi connection. While you can read or listen to music or watch a video directly from the Cloud, most people will want to store several current titles and their favorite photos on the Fire in case they are out of Wi-Fi range.

However, for absolute certainty of having access to the books you bought, the Keyboard 3G wins.  On the Keyboard you download the books.  It holds up to 3500, a huge library to carry around within 7.6 ounces.  If you forget to download the book you're reading on the Fire and go outside the Wi-Fi area, you're out of luck.  So, again, for travel, the Keyboard is more certain unless you remember to download whatever books you're reading onto the Fire.
TIME TO DOWNLOAD/UPLOAD--Fire: I timed the downloading of several different books from the cloud. Most downloaded in 2 seconds (as measured by my Atomic clock with the sweep hand). Very large tomes took 3 or 4 seconds. Certainly I’m not impatient enough to be put off by that. They go back to the Cloud instantaneously once you tap/hold on the title and choose either “put in Favorites” or “Remove from Device.” Removing from Device simply returns it to the Cloud. If you want to get rid of it forever, do it through Manage My Kindle online. Caution, once you do that, you have to pay if you want it again.

TIME TO DOWNLOAD/UPLOAD--Keyboard:  Downloading books onto the Keyboard via 3G takes a few seconds.  A really good feature if you're in France and need a book and don't know where the local Wi-Fi hotspots are.

BOOK TITLES on the Fire: Books can be displayed either with pictures of their jackets on bookshelves or in lists which allow you to see 18-20 titles at once. There’s a menu icon at the bottom of the screen which looks like a box with lines in it. Touch that to move from list to grid (bookshelves.) You can also search through the Search box at the top of the screen.

BOOK TITLES on the Kindle Keyboard: All the books you bought on the Keyboard go wherever the Keyboard 2G goes.  They can be arranged by category or left on the home screen. You can delete them if you want from the device without deleting ownership of them, but since few people are likely to take this device to capacity, deleting them is unnecessary.
BACK on the Fire: The back arrow at the bottom menu on any screen returns to your previous choice just as internet back arrows do and the little house returns you to the Home screen immediately.

BACK on the Keyboard:  There's a dedicated key to take you back and it works whether "back" is the last book you were reading, the last thing you viewed in the online bookstore, or the last item you were viewing online.

Page numbers vs. locations. Many readers, including me, don’t give a fig about page numbers. However many people care a great deal about them. The Keyboard was updated last year to include page numbers, but that feature is missing from the Fire. People who do research or who want to quote from a book prefer page numbers. Presumably, a software update will fix that, but since it took several months on the Keyboard, it probably won’t be right away.

The Slider Bar. Tap on any book page. At the bottom are the several icons (Home/Back arrow/Menu/Search) and a Slider Bar. Using the slider bar you can rush through any book as fast as you want. However, all Kindle products are excellent at returning you to the last point you read to in the book. And of course, it syncs with your other devices such as Kindle, Fire, and the Kindle app on the iPhone.

DICTIONARY: Press lightly and hold on any word for a definition. Options to go online for further information to places like Google or Wikipedia make notes or search for that word in the book appear. As I said, I’m comparing the Fire to my old Keyboard here, not yet to competitors of the Fire. The Keyboard could give you a lookup, but it was clumsy and slow. The Fire’s lookup is fantastic. For example, I read this in a spy novel, “Mark, grab me my REC7, will you?” Hunh? But tapping on the REC7 brought me to several articles online about advanced weaponry. I could never do that with the Kindle Keyboard. Yes, I know the iPad and other devices probably had that already, but it was lovely getting it on a Kindle product.

BOOKMARKS: Tap near the top of the screen on any book page. A little bookmark symbol appears. Tap it to put a bookmark on that page. Easy-breezy.

HIGHLIGHTING: I was taught as a child never to mark up a book, not with a pen, pencil, nor later with a highlighter when they were developed. So I NEVER highlight. Therefore I felt I could not adequately evaluate this feature.

DISPLAY: There are a eight fonts to choose from while reading, eight sizes of each typeface, and 3 different line spacings.  You can have narrow margins and fill the screen with words or wide margins and few words on the screen. You can vary the size, spacing, change the background color and light (a nice taupe is great when reading in a dark room—reduces contrast), and vary the reading display in many ways.  The Keyboard also allows all these features except for dimming the screen since the Keyboard can't be read without an exterior source of light.

BRIGHT-DIM: Though it’s not a terrible problem, the Fire doesn’t dim as much as I’d like. Now here I go with an unfair comparison. My iPhone is a $500 product and you can dim the screen almost to invisibility. On the Fire, you can’t dim as effectively. However, changing the background color to taupe helps and makes reading in the dark more comfortable.

The TOUCH: Oddly, the lighter and more glancing the touch, the better the performance. One commenter online said she felt she could breathe on it and it would fly. I felt the same. However, people used to other touch systems don’t necessarily like it. Perhaps there’s a “style” to the touch that varies from one touch screen to another. If I barely touch the screen on the right or left, the pages turn fast and smoothly. On the other hand, if I try to sweep my finger across the same way I turn pages on my iPhone, the page sort of skitters before it turns. 
MUSIC: I’ve never been one to put music on an iPod or on my iPhone. I’ve either listened to the radio or bought CDs to play in the kitchen, bedroom, or the car. For many years I listened only to classical music unless in the car, so I’m not terribly familiar with current music artists. Nevertheless, when evaluating something, it’s important to do it all. I decided to try the music feature on the Fire.

From the Home screen I chose Music. Since I had no music either on the Cloud or on my Fire, I had to choose Store from the upper menu. A screen came up offering 4 specials across the top, 4 tabs offering Featured, Bestsellers, New Releases, and Genres. I chose instead to skip to the search screen. Since I don’t know many artists but I do watch American Idol, I chose Scotty McCreery’s album. A choice appeared: put on Cloud or Device. What the heck. I chose Cloud. In a flash I had bought it, and one touch later was playing it—from the Cloud, not from on my Fire.

While listening to music, one can also read. An agreeable feature for many people. But I’ve always found that I can’t both listen and read at the same time. I keep listening, not reading, so I’m not likely to use that feature.

SPEAKERS: I’m not much for fancy speakers or sound systems so I can’t really evaluate the quality of the sound. It sounded to me like what I get on my kitchen radio or in my car. Each song has a progress bar and a volume bar. You don’t have to slide the volume bar—just touch it to one side or the other to make it louder or softer. I put the sound near max and could hear the music throughout the house (one level). Some people online said that different music titles play at different volumes—in other words, some are louder than others. I only tried one, so I can’t testify to that.

Amazon does sell ear buds to use with the Fire. I’m not an ear bud person either. Do I sound anti-music—I’m not—just never got into the whole Walkman/iPod carry your music around with you schtick.

READ TO ME: The Fire does not read to you. You can set the Keyboard to read out loud to you so that you can listen while driving or other places where you can't look at the screen.

VIDEOS: INCLUDES MOVIES: Back on the Home screen, I chose Videos. The top slot was reserved for Prime members’ free videos. Since I’m a Prime member, I chose that. Under Popular Movies, 37 showed up. Another 35 showed up under Recently Added. 15 showed under Editor’s Picks. Under Popular Movies, I chose Time Bandits. It took two seconds for the choice to become available (buy or watch now). I chose Watch Now. A screen timer showed that it took 10 seconds for the movie to load and start. I thought that was excellent. The download was smooth and had no hitches. (See APPS below for Hulu and NetFlix.)

DOCS: There was only one item under Docs—the User’s Guide (on the Cloud), so I tapped it while watching the sweep second hand on my “atomic” clock. Less than 3 seconds later, the document was on my screen. One tap-swipe to the right side and the Table of Contents displayed. I touched the one of the categories on the Table of Contents, and it took me to that in a split second. Nice and smooth. Not lightening speed, but smooth.

DOCS YOU SEND TO YOURSELF: Both the Fire and the Keyboard also have the capability to receive documents and display them on the screen by emailing them to your device's email.  If your document is not in a format accepted by Kindle, simply type "convert" in the subject line and the staff will convert it to readable format.
APPS: There are 15 “free” apps that come with the Fire. I chose Comics, then Install. 15 seconds later the app completely installed and was ready to OPEN. There were 52 Featured Comics, 362 Just Added comics, and 25 popular ones. The Fire has an Android operating system. You can buy APPS though Amazon has promised many more free ones. Amazon recently added Hulu and Netflix to the Fire and promises many more apps, especially to Prime members.

WEB: 14 Bookmarked web sites showed up. I typed in the name of my guild website: When it displayed 10 seconds later, there was a little bookmark icon at the bottom. I tapped it. Now I have a bookmark to my guild web site that displays when I go to WEB. Annoyingly, however, my web site showed up on the Carousel when I returned to Home Page.

NEWSSTAND: I tried Magazines. Since I have several online subscriptions that I can access through the web, I didn’t buy any magazines. I get my digital magazines directly from the publisher in PDF format, so I don’t need to pay for others. Also, I subscribe to other sites and magazines. I get Consumer Reports Online and get the magazine at home. I don’t need to pay for another subscription, so I didn’t download any. I did look at one sample, however, and it looked fine. Other than that, I can’t say. I was unwilling to pay for something I won’t use just to evaluate it.

SUMMARY: Overall, I love the Fire. I don’t have any experience with other color e-readers, and one does tend to stay with first loves. I have a lot of money invested in Kindle materials. A kind relative who bought the Nook Tablet has loaned me her Nook Color to compare.  I expect that my prejudices (and pocketbook) will encourage me to keep the Fire rather than learn an entire new system and spend a lot of money doing it.
I’ve already discovered that I prefer my lightweight Kindle Keyboard for portability since what I mostly do out of the house is read. It weighs HALF what the others weigh. If I’m going to be in a doctor’s office or riding in the car, the old Keyboard makes a lot of sense. The Fire encourages you to explore other media, but you need Wi-Fi to do it, so my portable of choice will remain the Keyboard.

1 comment:

  1. I found this summary very useful. Thanks for taking the trouble, Terry.