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Kindle Fire: Got game?

Does the Kindle Fire have what it takes to be a legitimate portable gaming system?

Riptide GP runs at a decent clip on the Kindle Fire. Good luck controlling it with any kind of accuracy, though. Josh Miller/CNET

The Kindle Fire tablet is a very good, cheaper alternative to the likes of, say, a full-featured iPad 2 or Transformer Prime, but does being cheaper preclude its becoming a great gaming device?

What's this thing capable of anyway, exactly?
Should you expect your Kindle Fire gaming experience to be overrun with unsophisticated 2D games or are bleeding-edge 3D engines able to run on this thing? Let's first take a look at the specs to determine just what types of games the Fire's capable of running.

Most tablets include a capacitive touch screen, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope. These make up the current trifecta of gaming controls on tablets today. While we can confirm that the Kindle Fire includes two of the three features, there's no evidence supporting the inclusion of a gyroscope.

According to iFixit, the tablet uses a Texas Instruments 1GHz OMAP 4430 dual-core CPU as its brains. That's the same CPU found in the BlackBerry PlayBook, and thanks to its PowerVR SGX 540 GPU, the Fire is (give or take) as capable at pushing polygons as any Tegra 2-based tablet.

Now, while most Tegra 2 tablets include 1GB of RAM, the Fire's 512MB of RAM is disappointingly low; however, unlike the single-channel RAM used by the Tegra 2, the Fire uses faster, dual-channel RAM. The screen runs at a resolution of 1,024x600 pixels.

Purely from a specs perspective, the Kindle Fire makes for a more than decent gaming machine that can easily run your average 2D puzzle game or a polygonal racing game.

OK, it seems capable, but are there readily available games capable of distracting me from real life?
Most Kindle Fire owners will get their games from Amazon.com's curated Appstore for Android. From here you'll have access to games like Angry Birds (and its expansions), Cut the Rope, Where's My Water?, and so on. You know, all those ridiculously cute, 2D games that barely tax even the most pathetic of smartphones.

That's not the Kindle Fire. It's the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 running Shadowgun, which we easily downloaded from the Android Market. Not so easily done on the Kindle Fire. In fact, unless you have access to the game's APK or are interested in participating in some illegal activities, it's damn near impossible to get. Eric Franklin/CNET

However, 3D games (polygonal, not stereoscopic) are a bit harder to find.

Though we did find Riptide GP, a 3D Jet Ski game that's become a kind of graphical benchmark around CNET Labs of late, Shadowgun, one of the most graphically impressive mobile games of 2011, is nowhere to be found in the Amazon store.

Curious, since there's convincing evidence that Shadowgun can be sideloaded onto the Fire without actually rooting the device and played smoothly. However, Shadowgun costs $4.99 in the Android Market, and downloading APKs of apps that cost money is illegal and obviously not something we support.

In addition, other benchmark Android games like Blood & Glory, GT Racing, and N.O.V.A. 2 are also missing from the store. I did find a Kindle Fire version of Gameloft's WoW-clone, Order & Chaos, and the Uncharted-"inspired" Shadow Guardian, however.

To get games into the Appstore, Amazon has only a few, reasonable-seeming requirements, but these games either have not been submitted, are still in the approval process, or have been rejected. This matters little to someone who just wants to play the games on a new tablet.

Looks like I have a few to choose from, but how's the playing?
Once you actually have the games you want on the Fire (or the ones you want that are actually available), how well do they play? Are they optimized? Are frame rates too low?

That's also not the Kindle Fire. It's the iPad 2 running Assassin's Creed: Recollection, whose liberal use of screen real estate makes a great case for gaming on a 10-inch tablet as opposed to a 7-inch one. Eric Franklin/CNET

Well, as you'd expect, games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope play pretty much perfectly. Not surprising, given the simple nature of these titles.

The 7-inch screen is larger than smartphone screens and makes certain games easier to play; however, there are still games where I prefer a 10-inch screen.

Assassin's Creed: Recollection on the iPad, a card battle game that liberally makes use of that screen's real estate, is an example of a game that would lose some playability in the transition to a smaller screen. Overall, though, for most games, 7 inches, at 1,024x600 pixels, works quite well.

A surprising detail we stumbled upon was that the Fire doesn't support three-finger swiping. So, games like Fruit Ninja, which supports three fingers on the iPad and other Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, can detect a maximum of two fingers at a time on the Fire. Attempting to swipe with more than two fingers results in no swiping at all.

Although 3 fingers are supported on the iPad and other Android tablets, here's the Kindle Fire's 2-finger-max swipe support in action. Or in 'nonaction'! Right, everyone?!...No? Fine. Josh Miller/CNET

Riptide GP looks as good graphically as it does on other Tegra 2-based tablets. Unfortunately, I found the accelerometer-supported controls to be severely lacking in sensitivity. There's a noticeable lack of finesse and precision when playing the game on the Fire, and I found myself bumping into walls. A lot.

When playing on other tablets, even other 7-inchers, we experienced controls that were tighter and more responsive.

As for battery life, we didn't find that playing games, 2D or 3D, sapped power any faster than it does on other tablets; however, don't expect to get more than about 3 to 4 hours of play time with a 3D game.

Sounds like a pretty good experience, but I think I'll wait for the next 'Fire'
While there is a lot of gaming fun to be had on the Kindle Fire, there are also many ways the experience can improve. Before we get into how gaming on the next Amazon tablet (not officially announced) could be more enjoyable, though, there's one big improvement Amazon can make now to help matters: more apps in the Appstore.

The Fire obviously has the hardware to run these cutting-edge games, and although we can speculate as to why some of them are missing, the bottom line is that there needs to be a wider selection, plain and simple.

What I want in the next Amazon tablet
A faster CPU: The current Kindle Fire includes a dual-core processor capable of running an advanced game like Shadowgun, so I don't think I'm asking much here by hoping that the next version will come with the quad-core CPU.

We've seen what the Transformer Prime can do when developers code games with quad-core in mind. Quad-core CPUs aren't crazy-expensive now and will likely decrease in price as their yields increase over the next six months to a year (when the next Amazon tablet will hopefully be launched).

So, Amazon wouldn't necessarily have to worry about its next tablet being too expensive because of the inclusion of a quad-core CPU. We can't yet speak as to other components that may be included, however.

A larger screen: More screen real estate would mean more types of games the tablet would be suitable for. Seriously, Assassin's Creed: Recollection is awesome and needs to be played on a 10-inch screen.

Better motion controls: A much tighter and more responsive accelerometer is needed in order to improve the experience of playing racing games. Also, a gyroscope would be nice.

Game-supported HDMI out: One of the coolest features of the Transformer Prime is that you can plug an HDMI cable directly into it and play games on a bigger screen. With some games, like Riptide, you can even then use your tablet as your controller.

Three-finger support: Not useful in every game, but when beating your buddy's Fruit Ninja score is paramount, you'll take any advantage you can get.

Higher-resolution screen: It's rumored that the iPad 3 won't be the only tablet to debut next year with a super-high-resolution screen, and if there's an area that benefits greatly from increased resolution, it's games.

The verdict
As it stands now, the Kindle Fire is great for doing some casual playing, but if you're at all serious about gaming on a tablet, don't even think about making it your primary portable gaming system. The lack of games in the Appstore alone is enough reason not to take it seriously. For tablets, the iPad 2 is still the gaming king, with the Transformer Prime a great second choice.