Monday, November 21, 2011

Kindle Fire & Touch: First Impressions

I thought everyone was pre-ordering both a Kindle Fire and a Kindle Touch so I did too. Now a lot of people are asking me why I got both. More on that in a bit. After using the Fire and the Touch for a few days now I wanted to share my initial thoughts on each of them.

Kindle Fire
When I heard the Fire was going to be roughly the same size as the RIM Playbook I was pretty excited. I've got a Playbook and, although it has almost no apps to speak of, RIM's form factor is perfect for me. I bought a first-gen iPad on day one and I've enjoyed using it but I've always felt it's too bulky, especially when you have to lug around a laptop in addition to a tablet. It's been said that tablets are much better at content consumption than content creation, so why have something as large as an iPad when consumption can be accomplished on an even smaller screen? I'm finding the smaller Fire is a much better match for my needs.

The major disappointment with the Fire so far, as reported elsewhere, is the unimpressive results from the Silk browser. Amazon really played this up and many of us were expecting a speedy browsing experience. In reality, the Fire's browser is no faster than my iPad's. It makes you wonder how Amazon benchmarked this and why they feel it's superior.

I've been outspoken about the need for a better way to manage and organize content on a Kindle and I'm not convinced Amazon's Carousel view is the solution. It has all the sizzle of Apple's cover flow without an underlying folder structure. Have you grown accustomed to the Collections organization capability of your eInk Kindle? Get used to living without it on a Fire. That's right. One step forward, two steps backwards. One minor advantage to the Fire user interface is the Favorites section. That's the smaller-sized view of covers at the bottom of the screen. If you're reading 3 books at the same time, just drag them down there so they don't get lost in the larger Carousel clutter. And speaking of clutter, is there really a reason for so many operations to add items to the Carousel? Open a new tab in the browser, go back to the home screen and there's an image of that web page added to the Carousel. Yuck. Amazon needs to get a UI expert to help them reconfigure the main screen and navigation.

Finally, my last beef with the Fire has to do with the app selection. There are a number of iPad apps I use that aren't available on Android. Zite is the most important one. I can't imagine a day without Zite. It's an amazingly useful app but it's for iOS only. I realize there haven't been any successful Android tablets up to now and that's why developers like Zite haven't bothered with an Android version. But surely they saw the enormous potential for the Fire, so why weren't some of these killer apps available on day one? I'm forced to use both an iPad and my Fire till more of these apps are ported. If you buy a Fire, btw, don't limit yourself to only those apps Amazon offers. Here's a link to a very simple series of steps you can take to open your Fire up to a large number of additional ones, including, believe it or not, the B&N nook app!

You might think that with all these complaints I regret buying a Fire. You'd be wrong. I'm optimistic Amazon will address all of these issues in the coming months and I have no buyer's remorse whatsoever.

Kindle Touch
My third-gen Kindle is less than a year old but knew I wanted to upgrade to the Touch as soon as I heard about it. I never liked it that so much Kindle surface area was dedicated to a lousy keyboard that gets used, at best, perhaps 1% of the time I'm holding the device. It made no sense.

The Kindle Touch is a terrific device. I opted for the $99 Touch with Special Offers. The "offers" are totally unobtrusive and never appear during the reading experience. I have yet to find one I want to take advantage of but if this program helps lower the cost of the device I'm all for it.

The touch screen is great but not exactly perfect. It's clear that eInk displays aren't intended for use with something like a virtual keyboard where you want instant feedback that the right key was pressed. The delays are a bit irritating. Then again, since the keyboard is used so infrequently it's not a big hassle. It's so nice though that I can now simply touch or swipe the screen rather than hunt for the physical button for any operation.

I've noticed a bit more screen ghosting with the Touch than I had with my third-gen Kindle. I believe the new eInk display technology is to blame for this. Amazon offers a new option called "Page Refresh" on the Touch and it's set to "off" by default. If you've used a Kindle before you're familiar with the screen flash that happens each time you turn the virtual page of an ebook. What's happening is every little dot on the screen gets reversed before the next page is displayed. With this new setting in the off mode you don't see so many of those flashes but you wind up with a bit of ghosting. It's easy enough to flip the switch to "on" and the ghosting goes away.

The Touch is even smaller than the already lightweight third-gen Kindle and the battery seems to last even longer, if that's possible. You could easily tuck the Touch in your backpocket (assuming you're not concerned about sitting on it, which you should be!).

The bottom line is I'm very happy with both these devices. So why did I buy more than one? I'm hooked on eInk for long-form reading. As crisp as the Fire's display is, I find eInk to be a much more comfortable reading experience. I wouldn't want to do much web browsing on a Touch though and, of course, the Fire is much more extensible via the app ecosystem. I've been using both a tablet (iPad) and an eInk device (Kindle) for most of 2011 and I don't see that changing. It would be great if eInk would offer full color since that would allow me to go with one device instead of two. That doesn't appear to be on the short term horizon so, for now, I'll continue using two devices.