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Amazon Kindle Fire review:

Amazon Kindle Fire

Amazon's vast server farms are good for more than just storage. A unique Web browser called Silk is included on the Kindle Fire; it splits the work of loading Web pages between the device and Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) system. The result, in theory, leads to faster page loads, as well as some predictive loading of content and sites you access often. No other tablet on the market has a feature like this--not even Apple.

Unfortunately, no matter how fast a page loads, browsing the Web on a 7-inch tablet is inherently disappointing. It's just not a screen size that lends itself to the Web. When you're not dealing with mobile-optimized sites that read like large-print versions of your smartphone, you're stuck scrolling and zooming around pages designed for screens that are 10 inches or above. It's the curse of the 7-inch tablet, and all the Amazon cloud power in the world can't correct it.

What's missing
You can't make a $199 tablet without cutting some corners--and Amazon cut plenty of them. Fortunately, the company used a scalpel instead of a chainsaw. The visual makeover is so complete that you never really glimpse the disfigured Android Oz behind the curtain.

Some omissions are obvious. There's no GPS, no maps, no Bluetooth audio or keyboard support, no cameras, no microphone, no killer gaming graphics engine, no video output, no compass, no gyro sensor, no chatting, no calendar, and no card slot for extra memory. If there's a deal breaker in there, so be it. There are dozens of qualified tablets out there looking for a good home.

The Kindle Fire's e-mail app is clean and simple, and helped by a responsive touch-screen keyboard.

But there is a silver lining to all of these feature sacrifices. It turns out that when you throw out the GPS, the 3G connection, the Google Mobile apps and Market, you also throw out annoyances like clicking through Terms of Service agreements or Privacy Statements. Having tested a few dozen Android tablets over the past two years, I can say without reservation that the Kindle Fire has the most hassle-free setup I've experienced. In fact, if you order the tablet from Amazon, connecting to a Wi-Fi network and setting up your e-mail are really on the only hassles you'll encounter after taking it out of the box. Just like any other Kindle, your Amazon account info and previously purchased digital content will be setup right out of the gate.

One surprising omission on Amazon's part the lack of a Cloud Drive app. Amazon's Cloud Drive service offers 5GB of free storage for your documents, photos, and videos, but the only way to access this content on the Kindle Fire is through its Web browser. I still managed to upload a 1GB video from my home computer and download it back to the Kindle Fire using the Cloud Drive site, but it sure would have been easier to have a dedicated app. The fact that the Docs section of the Kindle Fire doesn't link up to your Cloud drive account also seems like a missed opportunity.

Buy it, or skip it?
The Kindle Fire doesn't exist in a vacuum. In my view, its two closest competitors are the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet ($249) and the Apple iPod Touch ($199). You can find a detailed spec-by-spec comparison of the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire here on CNET, but in the final tally, the Nook simply costs more and offers less in the way of apps and multimedia.

The iPod Touch is a superior device in every way except one: its screen. It offers more features and more games but its 3.5-inch screen offers nearly one-third the real estate of the Kindle Fire, making it a poor choice for reading, browsing the Web, or watching videos.

Also bear in mind that Amazon is rumored to be working on a version of the Kindle Fire with a larger screen. That's a tempting proposition, but it's unlikely to arrive ahead of the 2011 holiday season, and there's practically no chance it will be offered at this same price.

Will there be a better version of this 7-inch Kindle Fire down the road? No doubt. The current design is relatively clunky, and the included features are meager even by 2010 standards. Knowing that, is it still worth the $199 gamble? In my eyes, yes. It's Amazon's services--not the hardware--that make this device so appealing.

The Kindle Fire includes a dual-core processor, a Micro-USB 2.0 port, and an estimated 8 hours of battery life. It's also worth noting that unlike the iPad 2, the Kindle Fire supports Adobe Flash Web content. I'll update this review with battery tests from CNET Labs once results are finalized.

Tested specs Kindle Fire iPad 2 Samsung Galaxy Tab 7
Maximum brightness (in cd/m2) 424 432 364
Default brightness (in cd/m2) 147 176 123
Maximum black level 0.44 0.46 0.35
Default black level 0.15 0.19 0.17
Default contrast ratio 980:1 926:1 1,040:1
Contrast ratio (max brightness) 963:1 939:1 724:1

Finally, there's the screen. In my experience, the telltale sign of any sub-$300 tablet is poor screen quality. On paper, Amazon's tablet seems to buck this trend. The Kindle Fire offers a 1,024x600-pixel resolution display using the same wide-angle IPS screen technology as in the iPad. Unfortunately, the screen's brightness doesn't live up to the iPad's, but it's in the same ballpark and is bright enough to look great indoors. If you want something that will look great in direct sunlight, I'm sure Amazon would be happy to add an e-ink Kindle to your order.

Here you can see how an e-ink reader like the Kindle Touch (left) compares with the LCD screen of the Kindle Fire under direct sunlight. For the sake of comparison I also dusted off an actual printed book.

One other thing to note on the screen is that the Kindle's multitouch doesn't register more than two fingers at a time. I didn't notice the deficiency until I booted up the game Fruit Ninja and tried clawing at flying fruit with three fingers. Nothing happened. In terms of typing, scrolling, and flipping through pages, the multitouch limitation doesn't come into play, but it is a limitation nonetheless.

I also have to give a nod to the Kindle Fire's audio quality. Amazon doesn't include any headphones with the Kindle Fire, so you might not trip across the Kindle's audio quality right away. Most budget-priced Android tablets (and a surprising number of high-end models) are plagued with a noisy headphone amp stage. The Kindle doesn't offer any high-tech sound enhancements or EQ settings, but the fact that they managed to pull off a clean, quiet headphone output is a rare accomplishment at this price. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life, Wi-Fi off (in hours) Amazon Prime video streaming battery life (in hours)
Kindle Fire 6.8 6.7

Final thoughts
The Kindle Fire marks an important milestone in the history of tablets. While the industry has been competing with Apple for the claim of the fastest, thinnest, or most feature-packed tablet, Amazon started in on its own slow race to make the first "good enough" tablet at a game-changing price. If you remember what Netbooks did to the laptop industry, this probably feels like deja vu.

But Amazon's triumph isn't just about making cheap hardware. The Kindle Fire is a product that stands on Amazon's years of hard work building out its e-book and digital media offerings, its app store, and its Cloud storage and processing technologies.

But as much as I like this tablet, the Kindle Fire isn't getting our best rating or an Editors' Choice. There's no doubt that I would choose an iPad 2 over a Kindle Fire in a heartbeat. In fact, I'd take an original iPad over a Kindle Fire.

But I don't live in a fantasy world where people are offering me free iPads. I live in a world where even $199 sounds like a lot of money. In that world, I applaud Amazon for making the best tablet value on the market.

What you'll pay

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