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Amazon Kindle Fire review: Amazon Kindle Fire

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MSRP: $199.99
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The Good Simple, attractive operating system; effortless shopping; gorgeous video player; impressive screen.

The Bad Ho-hum design; average web surfing; not great for reading.

The Bottom Line Amazon has stripped the tablet down to its essentials, leaving a sleek (if never sexy) media device that delivers where it counts: music, video and apps. You'll come for the price but you'll stay for the convenience, and that's just the way Amazon wants it.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.3 Overall

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The Amazon Kindle Fire is a smash hit Stateside -- and the Fire has now spread to Britain. Launching alongside the new Kindle Fire HD, the Fire is a 7-inch Android tablet blazing with online features.

Amazon has beefed up the specs for the Kindle Fire, giving it more power than the version that's been on sale in America up until now. The new model goes on sale on 25 October and costs a mere £130, £30 less than its closest 7-inch rival, the Google Nexus 7. If you like the sound of the Kindle Fire and its cloud-based features, but want a high-definition screen, check out our review of the Kindle Fire HD, which is the same size but has a more detailed screen.

One big change you should be aware of is that both Kindle Fire tablets will have 'special offer' ads on the lock screen, which we don't like the sound of. We'll know more about how obtrusive the ads are when we give the Fire a full review when it arrives in late October. The views below are based on the US version we reviewed in November 2011, but which never saw the light of day here.

The Kindle Fire has had its specs bumped up for the UK release with a new 1.2GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. We'll try out the improved model with a full in-depth review shortly -- feel free to bookmark this page and check back nearer to the release date to see what we think about the souped-up tablet. In the meantime, this review of the US Kindle Fire will fill you in on many features that will be similar, but be aware there may be variations when the new version arrives on these shores.

Should I buy the Kindle Fire?

Amazon is shaping up to be the anti-Apple. Where Apple does everything it can to deliver beautiful, easy-to-use hardware that just works, Amazon's sole goal is to tear down the barriers between you and what it's selling. In practice, that means some striking similarities between the iPad and the Kindle Fire -- as well as some crucial differences.

For a start, Amazon's re-skinning of Android could have come straight from Apple. Out go multiple home screens cluttered with live widgets, in comes a Cover Flow-esque 3D carousel of book covers, movies, web pages and apps. This scrolls smoothly from side to side, with simple tabs that let you browse your collections -- and, naturally, buy more stuff.

Amazon Kindle Fire vs iPad
The Kindle Fire resting on an iPad 2. Guess which one was designed by guys wearing turtlenecks?

The 7-inch Fire is no high-tech powerhouse. Amazon has eliminated anything unconnected with media consumption. If you're looking for a tablet to double as a digital road atlas, there's no GPS here. If you want a gadget to stay in touch with friends abroad, you'll look in vain for a webcam. Road warriors will have to make do without Bluetooth, although there is support for office apps and a decent on-screen keyboard.

This is not an iPad killer, then. But how many people who have purchased an Apple tablet really need -- or even use -- everything it offers? The Fire is much smaller and a third lighter than an iPad, boasting a media ecosystem that's as simple and easy to use as Apple's, and often much better value. Books are a given, of course, but it's Amazon's video offering that really impresses.

Of course, while the Fire has been dragging its heels for a UK release, the similarly priced Google Nexus 7 has stolen its thunder. This 7-inch tablet powerhouse offers the latest Android Jelly Bean software and a mighty quad-core chip. We'll be sure to give a detailed comparison when the Fire arrives in Britain.

Amazon Kindle Fire home screen carousel
The Kindle Fire home screen with its recent items carousel.

But rest assured, with the Fire you can choose whether to download films and TV for offline viewing, or watch videos live, thousands of which are completely free thanks to Amazon's all-you-can-stream Prime service. Music and books, although less polished, are still a good option for portable use.

Amazon Kindle Fire video
Ignore the glare -- video quality is usually great and the screen controls are admirably simple.

The Fire is worth buying for the same reasons as the iPad. Both are convenient, cohesive and very easy to use. But with the more flexible Google Nexus 7 battling for your cash, you've got a decision to make whether you're happy getting the bulk of your movies and books from Amazon or whether you'd prefer the more open Android experience of the Nexus 7.

Amazon operating system

Welcome to the world's newest mobile operating system. Amazon OS may be based on Android, but it's a world away from the rough and tumble of Google's open-source system.

Amazon hasn't just skinned Android: it's gutted, cleaned and dressed it. From the moment you open up the anonymous recycled cardboard box and hit the Fire's power button, Amazon, not Google, is in control of the experience. Choose a Wi-Fi network -- there's no 3G here -- and the Fire automatically updates and registers itself. Within minutes, you have a tablet that knows who you are, what you like and your entire Amazon shopping history.

Amazon Kindle Fire controls
The drop-down action bar gives one-click control of rotation, volume, brightness, Wi-Fi, music playback and more.

The home screen is nothing short of inspired. Instead of Android's chaotic jumble of apps, widgets and icons spread over five or six screens, the Fire presents you with a single coherent image -- a carousel of recent items. This re-imagining of the multi-tasking button makes it easy to jump between two or three apps (they'll always be at the front), or flick back quickly to something you were working on yesterday.

It's also the scene of the touch interface's few weak points, however. The carousel can feel 'sticky' to get moving and it's often awkward to pick out the icon you want. Hitting Settings in the top right brings up a menu bar with often-used features: screen rotation, brightness, Wi-Fi, Sync and volume. Because the Fire has only one physical button (power), this is the only place to adjust the sound level -- and there's no mute button. Ouch.

Hitting Settings also reveals the last vestige of Android -- a lower menu bar with familiar Home, Back and (occasionally) Menu buttons. Touching the top-left corner brings up a small notifications box with incoming messages and alerts.

Also on the home screen is a search box. Amazon has missed a trick here. Instead of this being a proper universal search that hunts through emails and books, launches web queries and -- dare we say it -- Amazon products to buy, it merely searches the titles of local media or links out to Google.

Amazon Kindle Fire home screen
The Amazon home screen in portrait mode shows the pretty useless search box, the carousel and four favourite apps.

Books and newsstand

In-between the search box and the carousel are seven fixed tabs -- all media-focused and reflecting how Amazon expects the Fire to be used. The first tab is Newsstand. Like all the other tabs, it clicks through to a bookshelf display with two filters -- Cloud and Device -- showing your purchases locally or on Amazon's cloud servers. There's also a prominent link to the relevant Amazon storefront.

Seeing newspapers and magazines in full colour is a much richer experience than plodding through text-only copy on an E-Ink Kindle, of course. But it also draws your attention to just how small the 7-inch screen can feel, especially in portrait mode. Squinting or pinching to zoom is a far cry from lounging back on your sofa and idly leafing through a magazine.

Incredibly, even less impressive is Books. It's as though Amazon developers said, "Hey, we've already got a Kindle Android app. Let's get busy on cool video streaming!" It's not that there's anything wrong with Amazon's Books app, but shouldn't a flagship device bring something new, like the sexy X-Ray feature arriving on the Kindle Touch shortly? Or even proper animated page turns, as found on the Kindle's iOS app?

Instead you can adjust font and margins, launch dictionary, Wikipedia and Google searches, and add notes or highlighting. You'll need to mind your fingers too -- the lovely slim bezels on the screen means it's a little too easy to turn pages by accident.

Amazon Kindle Fire Newsstand
The bookshelf of the Kindle Fire is a great improvement over the Kindle 4’s functional list.

Video

Talking of cool streaming video, here it is. The video tab is the only one that defaults straight to the Amazon store. Note, if you want to load your own videos, they pop up in the Gallery app. Amazon splits its offering into three sections. Prime Instant Video holds around 10,000 films and TV shows that are for streaming only, but are totally free for Prime members.

Amazon Kindle Fire Prime video
The video tab jumps straight to the Amazon store for Prime streaming video, movie rentals and TV show purchases.

Streams start within about 10 seconds and generally look excellent on the 1,024x600-pixel LCD display. Tapping the screen brings up play/pause controls, a scrub bar to zip in either direction and a useful 10-second rewind for when the cabin crew make an announcement on the plane. There's also an on-screen volume bar.

Movies are generally rental only (from $2 to $4, plus $1 more for HD), with rentals lasting around 24 hours. TV shows are only available to buy (from $2 or $3 in HD). Both can be watched as a live stream or downloaded for later. Sound quality is a little tinny through the built-in speakers but plenty loud enough. Through headphones, it's excellent.

Music

Amazon is currently looking like the weakest of the three US cloud music players. Unlike Apple, it doesn't offer music matching to cloud-ify your current music collection. And unlike Google, it doesn't offer unlimited free storage (although you can store unlimited songs for $20 per year).

What it does offer is a nice mix between the two. Click through to the 17 million song Store and tunes cost $0.99 each, or you could buy the album of the day for $3.99. Buy here and your purchases remain in the cloud indefinitely; they don't count towards your 5GB free Cloud Drive limit.

Back in the Library tab on the Fire, you can browse your cloud songs and stream them live, with virtually no delay. Songs play nicely in the background -- we couldn't get them to stutter when changing tabs, downloading videos, opening apps or viewing documents. Only opening and using the Silk browser caused the occasional hiccup.

You can also download songs to the tablets with a single tap -- although bear in mind that you've only got 6GB of on-board storage to play with, and no room for expansion. Diving into the menus lets you enable music player controls on the lock screen or choose from a dozen unnecessary equaliser settings.

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