Amazon Kindle Fire review

Online retailer Amazon may have started out as a book store, but today the company sells everything from shoes to groceries. Over the past few years the company has also expanded into digital media, and now Amazon offers some of the industry’s top eBook, MP3 Music, and digital video stores. Earlier this year the company also launched the Amazon Appstore for Android, an alternative to Google’s official Android Market.

A few years ago Amazon also got into the hardware business with the launch of the Kindle line of eBook readers. While it might seem out of character for Amazon to design its own products, a Kindle isn’t just a tool for reading digital books. It’s a tool for reading digital books from Amazon.

The company changed the face of the eBook reader market by selling a high quality portable device with an E Ink screen for a low price and making its profits by selling eBooks to Kindle users. Amazon has even partnered with wireless carriers to let users download books for free over 3G.

The Kindle Fire is what you get when you combine these two trends. If the original Kindle line of eReaders were designed to sell eBooks, the Kindle Fire is designed to sell the entire Amazon digital ecosystem.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire is a tablet with a 7 inch tablet which you can use to read eBooks, newspapers or magazines, listen to music, watch movies, or play games or run apps. Amazon wants you to get all of that content from its content stores, and even offers plenty of content for free to get you hooked.

But under the hood, the Amazon Kindle Fire is running a modified version of Google’s Android operating system. It turns out that it doesn’t take much work to break out of Amazon’s walled garden and run apps that aren’t available from the Appstore, or read books that you didn’t get through the Kindle Store. You can even change the look and feel of the tablet if you like.

In other words, Amazon is positioning the Kindle Fire as a $199 media consumption device that’s tightly integrated with the company’s digital media stores. But it can also be seen as a general-purpose tablet for less than half the price of an Apple iPad 2 or a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 — even if you never plan to spend a penny on Amazon content.

Design

The Kindle Fire may not have all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a more expensive tablet. It doesn’t have a camera, microphone, or SD card slot. It has unique software that can be a little quirky. And it doesn’t feel as responsive as some other tablets. Even the $249 Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet, which has very similar hardware, feels faster.

But I suspect many of the quirks are software-related and could be addressed with future software updates.

In terms of hardware, the Kindle Fire may not be state-of-the-art, but it’s not far behind. It has a 7 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel IPS display with a capacitive multitouch touch panel. The tablet has a 1 GHz TI OMAP4 dual core processor, 512MB of RAM, and 8GB of storage.

If the design looks familiar, that’s because the Kindle Fire looks almost exactly like the BlackBerry PlayBook which was released earlier this year. Both devices are manufactured by Taiwanese OEM Quanta, and the Kindle Fire’s hardware is basically what you’d get if you reduce the amount of memory and storage in the PlayBook and removed some of the ports.

From the front, the Kindle Fire is almost all screen. The glass panel stretches nearly from one edge of the tablet to the other, where it meets a slim plastic bezel. But there’s actually a black border around the edges of the display, which gives you something to grip while you’re holding the tablet in your hands.

The back of the tablet has a soft black plastic finish with the Kindle logo carved just above the center. The plastic feels good in your hands and has just enough texture to provide some fiction to keep you from dropping the tablet.

But when you’re holding the Kindle Fire your thumb will also probably be touching the slippery glass panel on the front.

The sides of the Kindle Fire are pretty much flat, and while there’s a slightly rounded edge where the sides meet the bottom of the tablet, the sides reach the top at a nearly 90 degree angle. The corners of the tablet are slightly rounded, with an emphasis on slight.

Amazon’s tablet measures 7.5 ” x 4.7″ x 0.45″ and weighs 14.6 ounces, making it half an ounce heavier than the B&N NOOK Tablet. But that’s not the reason I find the NOOK tablet easier to grip.

While the NOOK Tablet is actually a little larger, at 8.1″ x 5″ x 0.48″ it has a soft plastic bezel that surrounds the display so that you’re never holding onto plastic as you grip the tablet. The sides and edges are also all rounded in a way that makes the NOOK Tablet easy to hold in one hand without the corners digging into your palm.

I find the most comfortable way to hold the Kindle Fire is with two hands so that it never digs into my palms. But I wouldn’t say the Kindle Fire is uncomfortable to hold in one hand. It’s not like it has razer blades on the edges.

It’s just not quite as pleasant to hold for a long period as the NOOK Tablet, which was clearly designed to be used for long reading sessions.

On the top edge of the Kindle Fire you’ll find stereo speakers that are packed so closely together that I can’t figure out why Amazon didn’t just go with a mono speaker.

The speakers are reasonably clear even at full volume, but as you’d expect from such tiny speakers they’re not very loud. In fact my Google Nexus One smartphone speaker is a little louder, but the Kindle Fire speakers provide a little more bass (which isn’t saying much since the Nexus One speaker is awfully tinny).

On the bottom edge you’ll find a microUSB port which you can use to charge the tablet or connect to a computer to transfer files to and from the Kindle Fire.

There’s also a headphone jack at the bottom of the tablet as well as a tiny power button. That’s it. There aren’t any volume buttons. There’s no home button, or back, menu, or search buttons. All you get is a power button.

Every other button you need to use to navigate the tablet is an on-screen button that pops up when you need it… and sometimes when you don’t, but we’ll get to that in the software section.

The placement of the power button at the bottom of the tablet is a tiny bit problematic, because if you hold the tablet in your right hand there’s a chance you might bump the button and turn off the display while you’re reading a book, surfing the web, or performing some other activity. You have to bump the button pretty hard for that to happen, but I found myself doing it at least once.

Fortunately, you can just rotate the screen 180 degrees and treat the bottom as if it were the top if you like. I promise I won’t tell. This also puts the headphone jack at the top of the tablet. This doesn’t work with all apps, since they don’t all rotate. But the Amazon app launcher, Kindle app, and Silk web browser all rotate just fine.

Software

While the Kindle Fire is running Google Android, you wouldn’t know it when you first turn on the device. Amazon has created a custom user interface that some people may find easier to use than Android. But the key difference is that it’s more tightly integrated with Amazon’s services including the company’s online music, video, book, and app stores.

The dominant feature on the home screen is a carousel which shows recent apps, books, videos, and other media. You can scroll through this list and tap on any icon to bring up the appropriate program.

Under the carousel is a book shelf which you can use to add favorites to the home screen. Amazon pre-populates the list with a few apps, but if you don’t think you’re going to be using the Amazon Shop app, for instance, all that often you can just tap-and-hold on any icon to bring up a context menu. You can then either remove a listing from your favorites, or remove it from your device altogether.

Don’t worry about accidentally deleting apps though — because after you’ve removed an app, book, song, or movie from your device you can always download it again from Amazon. Once you purchase content from Amazon it’s always available online.

Above the bookshelf and carousel you’ll find listings for Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps and Web.

When you click on these you’ll see bookshelf views for your newspaper/magazine collection, eBooks, music, TV shows and movies, and apps, as you might expect. Each of those entries also includes a link to the Amazon Store where you can subscribe to periodicals, purchase books, buy music, and rent or buy videos.

The Docs section is another interesting feature that’s only available to people who own an Amazon Kindle or Kindle Fire. Amazon sets you up with an email address that you can use to email yourself “personal documents.” That can DOC, PDF, or HTML files — or eBooks in Amazon’s MOBI format.

In other words, you can read eBooks that haven’t been purchased from Amazon, you just need to convert them to MOBI files first and then email them to your Kindle address. They’ll show up in your Amazon account and you can send them to your Kindle devices. Amazon will keep track of your bookmarks, annotations, and last read page and synchronize your progress across devices.

This feature isn’t yet available in the Amazon Kindle apps for Android, iOS, or other platforms. It’s only available if you actually buy a Kindle from Amazon.

The last tab on the screen is for Web. It takes you to the Amazon Silk web browser. Amazon made some pretty bold claims for this browser, since it will use Amazon’s servers to compress data before sending it to your device in an effort to speed up page loads.

It will also keep track of your browsing habits so that Silk can pre-render some content before you even open a website.

Silk sounds good in theory, but in practice the browser doesn’t really feel much faster than any other Android web browser. It’s reasonably attractive, and does offer browser tabs at the top of the screen though, which makes it easy to switch between open web pages.

For most users, it will be the only web browser they need on the Kindle Fire, but it’s nothing to write home about.

Back to the home screen, above the list of bookshelves there’s a search box. You can enter a query and either search your device or search the web.

At the top of the screen there’s a status bar which shows the time, WiFi and battery status, and any notifications. You can also tap the Settings icon in the right corner to bring up a menu that lets you perform several actions quickly, including:

  • Locking the screen so it doesn’t rotate automatically when you switch the tablet from portrait to landscape mode
  • Adjusting the volume
  • Adjusting the screen brightness
  • Accessing your WiFi settings
  • Synchronizing with Amazon’s web service.

You can also tap the More button to bring up a detailed settings panel that lets you tweak your sounds, manage your account, and make other changes.

This toolbar is accessible from nearly every app you run on the Kindle Fire. You may have to tap the screen to bring it up when you’re reading a book or watching a movie, since those apps run in full-screen mode. But since the only physical button on the Kindle Fire is the power button, Amazon made sure you always have quick access to the volume slider and other features.

Speaking of the power button, it actually serves two purposes. A short press will turn the display on or off. Like most Android devices, the Kindle Fire draws very little power when the display is off and you’re not using the device, and it will probably take a few days for the battery to die when you’re not using the tablet.

But if you do want to completely shut down or restart the tablet, you can press-and-hold the power button to bring up an option to shut the Kindle Fire down.

There’s one more feature of the user interface that’s very important — but it’s not visible on the home screen. When you run any app or switch to one of your bookshelf views you’ll notice a toolbar at the bottom of the tablet with a Home button, back button, and several other buttons which may change depending on the app you’re running.

Amazon’s tablet is based on a modified version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and most phones or tablets that run this version of Android have physical Home, Back, Menu, and Search buttons built into the bezel. Since the Kindle Fire doesn’t have physical buttons, they’ve been replaced with software buttons.

This makes sense because it means that you can hold the Kindle Fire any way you like and the buttons will always show up at the bottom of the screen. It also allows Amazon to offer different buttons depending on the app you’re using.

The Silk browser, for instance, has forward and back buttons for navigating web pages.

But it also means that when you’re reading a book or watching a movie it takes several taps to get back to the home screen since you have to tap the screen to exit full screen mode and bring up the toolbar, and then tap the home button.

The only way to view a list of recent apps is also to return to the home screen, since you can’t long-press the home icon to bring up a pop-up list of recent apps as you can do on most other Android devices.

That means there are only two ways to switch between apps. You can go back to the home screen and select a new app, or in some cases you can tap the notification area to switch to some apps after you’ve receive an alert. For instance, if you have a notification for incoming email messages, you can switch to the email app by clicking the notification.

You can view a complete list of apps purchased from the Amazon Appstore by clicking the Apps tab. This includes free apps as well.

The Apps shelf is divided into Cloud and Device sections. Cloud shows all of the apps you’ve ever added to your Amazon account. You can download any of these apps to your device by clicking on them. Apps which have a little download icon on them haven’t yet been downloaded.

You can also see a list that only shows apps you’ve already downloaded by clicking Device. You can sort all of your apps alphabetically or sort them so that the most recently used apps show up at the top.

The Newsstand, Books, Video and Music areas are also divided into Cloud and Device sections, just like the Apps menu. Since the Kindle Fire has just 6GB of user-available storage, you can leave most of your digital media on Amazon’s servers and only download the books, magazine issues, movies, or other content you need when you need it.

In fact, if you spend all of your time near WiFi hotspots, you never need to download your music or movies at all — you can stream them over the internet from Amazon’s servers. But if you expect to spend some time in a WiFi dead zone you can download content to your device for offline access. You just won’t likely be downloading your entire digital media collection.

If you already get most of your digital media from Amazon, that’s probably not a problem. But if you already have movies that you’d like to watch on your device that didn’t come from Amazon. You can load them onto the tablet by connecting the Kindle Fire to a computer with a USB flash drive. It will show up as a USB mass storage device, allowing you to drag and drop media to and from the tablet.

But 6GB isn’t a lot of space for movies if you want to download content from the Amazon Instant Video service and store it on your device.

You may have things a little easier with music though. Amazon offers a free Cloud Drive feature which lets you upload 5GB of music for free. You can stream your songs to a Kindle Fire without downloading them first (or to any device with a supported web browser).

Reading on the Kindle Fire

Amazon’s original Kindle devices were designed first and foremost for reading. While the Kindle Fire adds media, web browsing, and third party apps to the mix, the eBook, magazine, and newspaper apps provide a pretty strong reading experience.

The Amazon Kindle app is very similar to the one available for Android phones and tablets. It provides a full-screen reading experience with a choice of three color schemes, adjustable line spacing, fonts, and margins. It’s not the prettiest eBook app I’ve seen, but it gets the job done.

You can also save bookmarks, highlight text, make notes, or look up words on Wikipedia or Google. But I think the coolest thing about the Kindle app is the integration with Amazon Whispersync which allows you to synchronize your bookmarks, annotations, and last read page across devices so that you can start reading a book on your Kindle Fire and then pick up where you left off by opening the Kindle app on your iPhone or other device.

Whispersync alone is one of the key reasons I decided to buy a Kindle Fire in the first place.

You can purchase Kindle newspapers and magazines by signing up for a monthly or annual subscription, or by paying for individual issues.

When you open a newspaper you’re greeted with a list of articles on the front page and following sections. You can jump to sections using a drop-down menu, and open any article by taping the headline.

Articles open in the Kindle Reader app, so the experience of reading a newspaper article is pretty much the same as reading an eBook, except that most articles are just a few pages long. You can also skip to the next or previous article by tapping buttons at the button of the display.

Amazon offers free 14-day trials of magazine subscriptions, but not newspapers. This lets you see what National Geographic or Newsweek looks like on the Kindle Fire before deciding whether to pay for a subscription.

I recommend taking advantage of that offer, because unlike the newspapers which are formatted for the Kindle Fire’s 7 inch display, most magazines available from the Kindle Store are digital reproductions of print magazines. In other words, you’re looking at a page designed for an 8.5″ x 11″ on a display that’s closer to 4″ x 6″

Suffice it to say, the text and pictures are very small and you’ll have to do a lot of zooming and panning to actually read most articles. It’s nothing you can’t get used to, but it feels like more work than reading a printed magazine, not less.

A handful of magazines don’t use the Kindle Fire’s magazine viewer though.

Wired Magazine, for instance, has an app that’s actually well thought-out and clearly designed for use on tablets. It includes multimedia content, moving pictures, and  design that allows you to move between articles by swiping left or right, or scroll through an article by swiping up and down.

Third Party apps

While the Kindle Fire can run many Android apps, it doesn’t come with the Google Android Market installed. Instead it includes the Amazon Appstore for Android.

Like Google’s Market, the Amazon Appstore lets you browse by category or search for apps. You can refine your search by price, or only see free apps if you like. There are users ratings, and reviews for each app, and screenshots so you know what an app will look like before downloading it.

And like the Android Market, the Amazon Appstore includes a website that you can use to find and even purchase apps without touching the Kindle Fire.

But there are a few important differences between the Google Android Market and the Amazon Appstore. The first is that there are hundreds of thousands of apps available in the Android Market compared with about 20,000 in Amazon’s app store.

The second is that Google lets you try an app for 15 minutes and then “return” it for a full refund if you decide you don’t want it. Amazon does not.

The Android Market also lets you push an app from the web to your device automatically, while Amazon’s app store requires you to press a download button on your mobile device after making a purchase.

It’s the disparity in the number of available apps that’s the biggest challenge though. If you’ve never used an Android device before, the Amazon Kindle Fire offers access to plenty of high quality apps and you might not be disappointed in the selection at all.

But if you’ve used an Android phone or tablet before, you may find that there are a number of apps missing from the Amazon Appstore. For instance the popular Dolphin HD web browser isn’t available. Neither is the popular game Wind-up Knight.

In fact, some of the apps that are available in the Amazon Appstore for other Android devices are not available for the Kindle Fire. Amazon has removed most home screen launchers, for example.

The Kindle Fire comes with a Facebook “app” preloaded, but it’s not actually an app at all. It’s just a shortcut to the Facebook mobile website. There’s no way to download the actual Facebook app for Android from the Amazon Appstore on the Kindle Fire.

The Appstore does have a few things going for it. There’s a free app of the day feature. Every day Amazon takes a paid app and offers it for free. Sometimes you can save as much as $14.99 by grabbing the day’s free app.

You can also add an app to your account today and download it some other time. Amazon keeps a full list of all your free and paid apps and lets you download them on as many devices as you’d like. Google’s Android Market only does this for paid apps.

Watching video on the Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire is the first device to feature the new Amazon Instant Video application. On other Android devices you can access Amazon’s streaming video service through a web browser with Adobe Flash. But the Amazon Instant Video app makes it easier to search the video store, allows you to stream videos in higher quality, and download titles for viewing on your device.

If you have an Amazon Prime membership you can also stream thousands of TV shows and movies from Amazon Instant Video for free. That’s a small portion of all the videos Amazon offers for rental or purchase, but it’s a nice value-added feature if you’re already paying $79 per year for a Prime subscription.

The video quality is pretty good whether you’re streaming content over the internet or downloading it to your device. You’ll want to make sure you have a relatively fast internet connection if you plan to stream video, but since the Kindle Fire only supports WiFi and not 3G connections, odds are if you have DSL, FiOS, or a cable modem you should be fine.

While the Amazon Instant Video app is nice, it’s not the only way to access videos on the tablet. You can connect the Kindle Fire to your computer as a USB mass storage device and copy videos from your PC, but with the limited amount of storage space on the tablet it probably makes more sense to stream videos over the internet.

You can do that with the Netflix or Hulu Plus applications which are available from the Amazon Appstore. Each requires a $7.99 per month subscription to use. I didn’t test the Hulu app, but since I have a Netflix subscription I took that app for a spin.

The Netflix app for the Kindle Fire is the new version designed for tablets. It features nice big graphics on the home screen letting you know which TV show sand movies you’ve recently viewed, and also lets you browse your recommendations, instant queue, and other sections.

You can also navigate by category by tapping the “browse” button or search for videos by name. For the most part the app looks exactly the same on the Kindle Fire as it does on the NOOK Tablet, and that’s generally a good thing.

Unfortunately the picture isn’t quite as pretty when you actually start to watch a video. When watching Netflix videos on the NOOK Tablet, I was blown away by how sharp the picture quality was. On the Kindle Fire the videos weren’t nearly as sharp. Even though both devices have the same display and processor, it felt like I was watching HD movies on the NOOK and standard definition videos on the Kindle.

There’s also a thin bar that displays at the bottom of the Netflix app when you’re watching a video. I guess the idea is that you can tap that bar to bring up the on-screen controls, but it feels completely unnecessary because you can tap anywhere on the screen to bring up the menus to control video playback or exit the app.

The strip at the bottom of the screen only seems to serve one purpose: it gets in the way of thew viewing experience.

I should also note that the Kindle Fire has a screen with a 16:10 aspect ratio. Most recent TV shows fill the screen, but you’ll notice black bars to the left and right of the video window on older videos that were filmed for televisions with 4:3 aspect ratios.

Meanwhile, many movies have even wider aspect ratios, which means you get black bars above and below the video. That’s probably not a problem on a device like an iPad which has a 9.7 inch screen, but on the Kindle Fire’s smaller 7 inch screen, every fraction of an inch lost to black bars is noticeable.

Keyboard and Software roundup

Amazon designed a custom keyboard application for the Kindle Fire. It’s a little easier to use on a 7 inch tablet than the standard Android 2.3 keyboard, and has nice wide keys.

There’s also a suggestion bar above the keyboard, with suggestions that change depending on the app you’re using. In some areas you’ll see punctuation marks above the keyboard, while suggested URLs will pop up as you type when you’re using the address bar in a web browser. In other areas you’ll see suggested words based on the letters you’ve entered.

You can tap these suggestions instead of typing the full URL or word to save time.

In the Settings area of the Kindle Fire you can configure a few keyboard options by enabling or disabling auto-capitalization, auto-correction for common typos, and audible clicks when you press a key.

Overall the Kindle Fire keyboard is fairly easy to use, for searching, entering URLs, or responding to email messages — although I wouldn’t want to compose long documents or letters using it.

If you don’t think of the Kindle Fire as an Android tablet, but rather as a media tablet that can stream and download content from Amazon and which also happens to be able to run thousands of apps, it’s a pretty nifty device.

But if you’re expecting the full range of Android applications, you’re going to have to do a little extra work. It’s possible to download and install some Android apps that arent’ available from Amazon’s store on the tablet. But it can be a pain in the neck finding apk installer files.

Fortunately, it’s also fairly easy to root the Kindle Fire and install the official Google Android Market. There are a few quirks to put up with if you go that route, but we’ll get into those below.

The bad news is that no software is going to give the Kindle Fire physical buttons, front or rear cameras or removable storage. So if you’re looking at the Kindle Fire as a cheap Android tablet, you should keep in mind that most of those limitations make sense if you buy into Amazon’s ecosystem for the tablet and keep most of your data in the cloud most of the time. But if you do decide to use the Kindle Fire as an all-purpose tablet, the $199 tablet isn’t necessarily going to compete with a $500 Android tablet or iPad.

Performance 

On paper, Amazon’s tablet looks a lot like the latest offering from Barnes & Noble. Both the NOOK Tablet and the Kindle Fire have 1 GHz TI OMAP 4 dual core processors and 7 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel IPS displays.

But the B&N tablet has 1GB of RAM, compared with the Kindle Fire’s 512MB. And both tablets run their own customized versions of Google’s Android operating system.

It’s hard to pinpoint whether it’s the RAM or the software… but the NOOK Tablet feels much more responsive than the Kindle Fire.

For the most part Amazon’s tablet works just fine. But every now and again it feels unnecessarily slow. I say unnecessarily, because the tablet isn’t always sluggish when performing these tasks. But the tablet feels sluggish at times when:

  • Turning pages in an eBook.
  • Launching applications from the home screen (the apps actually launch pretty quickly, but the animated effect that occurs when you open an app seems slow).
  • Returning to the home screen from an app it takes a moment for all of the app icons to load. This seems to happen quite a bit when exiting the Wired Magazine app.

It’s possible that a software update could address some of these issues. I’ve also noticed that the Kindle eBook app on Amazon’s tablet is different from the company’s Kindle app for other Android devices. It’s much larger and seems to use more system resources. When I tried extracting it and installing it on the NOOK Tablet, HP TouchPad, and my Nexus One smartphone, it failed to run.

That leads me to believe that at least part of the problem is software-related, rather than hardware. So I’m hopeful that the Kindle Fire may feel faster in the future if and when Amazon issues software improvements.

And to be clear — the Kindle Fire is reasonably fast and responsive most of the time. It’s definitely one of the zippiest $200 tablets I’ve ever used. But it feels sluggish compared to the $249 NOOK Tablet, which is a shame, because they feature nearly identical hardware.

Amazon says the Kindle Fire should get around 8 hours of reading time. I haven’t thoroughly tested this, but I have read books for several hours at a time without charging the tablet, and I suspect if you keep the backlight dim, and disable WiFi 8 hours is a more than reasonable estimate.

I suspect the battery will die more quickly if you’re playing games, surfing the web over WiFi, or streaming videos over the internet, but up until recently you’d have been lucky to get four hours of run time out of most tablets for $200 or less, so 6 to 8 hours of battery life seems more than reasonable given the Kindle Fire’s low price.

Unfortunately the battery is not user replaceable, so if you need extra run time you’re going to need to bring along a charger or external battery pack.

I found that the tablet charges very quickly when using the supplied power cable. The Kindle Fire has a standard microUSB port, and it will also charge if you plug it into a computer with a standard USB cable — but it will charge much more slowly than if you use a wall jack.

Amazon also doesn’t offer a USB to microUSB cable, so if you want to connect the tablet to a computer you’re going to need to supply your own cable.

Sound, battery life, other apps…

Hacking and tweaking the Kindle Fire

Up until now we’ve mostly talked about the things that Amazon expects you to do with the Kindle Fire. But it turns out it’s pretty easy to break out of Amazon’s walled garden and download apps that aren’t available from the Amazon Appstore, replace the bookshelf home screen with a more traditional Android desktop, and even root the tablet to access hidden settings and install the official Google Android Market.

If rooting sounds scary, don’t worry. You don’t need to root your Kindle Fire to install third party apps that aren’t available from the Amazon Appstore. All you have to do is tap the settings icon in top right corner of the taskbar, choose “more,” select the “device” section, and tap the option that says “Allow installation of applications from unknown sources.

Sideload

Now you can search the web for Android applications and install them on the tablet. Android applications have the file extension APK appended to the end of the file name.

One of the easiest ways to find apps that aren’t available from Amazon is to visit m.getjar.com in the Kindle Fire web browser. GetJar is an Android app store which offers thousands of applications. Just look for an app you want to download, and when you click the download button GetJar will prompt you first to download and install the GetJar app. Once you’ve done that, you can use it to download additional apps, and use the GetJar store to supplement the official Amazon app store.

Note that the GetJar app may ask you what device you’re using. The Kindle Fire probably won’t show up as an option, but you can just select any phone model. I used Google Nexus One in my test.

Apps you download will show up in the Apps menu of your home screen, in the “Device” section. But if you want, you can also download a complete replacement for Amazon’s home screen.

Just search GetJar (or another third party app store such as SlideMe), and search for Launcher. For instance, I’ve installed GO Launcher EX on my Kindle Fire.

It offers a user interface similar to what you’d find on most Android phones and tablets. You have several virtual home screens to populate with you favorite apps and with widgets for weather forecasts, email messages, calendar appointments, or other information.

You can also set the alternate launcher as your default home app. When you first install GO Launcher, Zeam Launcher, ADW Launcher, or a similar app, every time you hit the Home icon on the Kindle Fire a menu will pop up asking if you’d like to complete the action using your new launcher or the default Kindle Launcher.

You can select a default action by checking the box that says “Use by default for this action” before making your choice.

Amazon doesn’t appear to want customers to use third party application launchers. While GO Launcher EX was available from the Amazon Appstore the day I received my Kindle Fire, it has since disappeared. You can still find it in Amazon’s store if you’re using a device other than the Kindle Fire, but Amazon blocks Kindle Fire users from downloading it directly.

That’s probably enough to keep most users from customizing the user experience on the tablet, but if you want to break away from the standard Amazon experience it’s very easy to do.

Likewise, Amazon doesn’t let you download alternate web browsers from the Appstore on the Kindle Fire, but you can grab web browser installer files from the web. For instance, you can download the latest beta version of the Dolphin HD web browser directly from the Dolphin website.

You can also download apps to your computer first and then send them to the Kindle Fire to install. You can do this by emailing the APK installer to yourself and then opening it from the email app. Or if you have a USB cable you can connect the Kindle Fire to a computer and use it as a mass storage device. This will let you drag and drop APK files (or other files) from your computer to the tablet.

Once you disconnect the tablet from your PC you can fire up a file browser application on the Kindle Fire to find the APK file and tap it to install. You can download the free ES File Explorer directly from the Amazon Appstore and use it to navigate your tablet’s storage.

You don’t have to use an app store such as GetJar or SlideMe to download apps from the internet. You can also find many apps from developer website, user forums, or other locations. There are also a number of other sites that host APK files… but you might want to proceed with caution.

Just because a file is labeled dolphin.apk doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the correct installer for the web browser and not some sort of malware. You probably want to stick to downloading installers from sources you trust.

If you want to really open up the number of apps available for the Kindle Fire, you can take the next step and install the official Google Android Market to access hundreds of thousands of apps. Not every app on the Market will show up on the Kindle Fire, but you’ll still be able to find far more apps than you can get from Amazon’s store.

But in order to install the Android Market you’ll have to root your device. This may void your warranty, and if anything goes truly, horribly wrong, you could potentially damage your tablet, so proceed with caution.

That said, the process is relatively easy, especially if you’ve ever used the Android SDK before to connect to an Android phone or tablet over adb. You can follow our step-by-step instructions for rooting the Kindle Fire.

After you’ve done that, check out our post on how to sideload apps and scroll down until you find the section for installing the Android Market.

Rooting the tablet is also the first step toward completely replacing Amazon’s software with custom firmware. Right now there’s no easy way to do that, but a number of early Kindle Fire purchasers are tinkering with their tablets trying to figure out how to load custom builds of Android on the device and improve performance or just change the way the tablet works.

If they succeed, the Kindle Fire could truly become a $200 all-purpose Android tablet… with a few caveats. No software is going to take photos or make video calls on tablet with no camera or microphone.

There’s some evidence to suggest that the Kindle Fire might have a dormant Bluetooth chip inside though, so there is a remote possibility that someone could figure out a way to turn it on and enable you to use a Bluetooth headset to listen to music or even make voice calls over Skype.

There a few issues that arise if you decide to start installing apps that don’t come from Amazon. The first is that the Amazon Appstore apps all have higher resolution icons than apps downloaded from other sources. This means that sideloaded apps look blurry when they show up on your home screen in the favorites bookshelf or the recent apps carousel.

When you download an app from Amazon and then install the Android Market, you may occasionally get a message from the Google Android Market letting you know that an update is available for your app. But when you try to download and install that update using the Android Market, it will fail, because the app isn’t signed properly if you downloaded it from Amazon’s store, not Google’s.

That’s not a huge problem, but it can be a minor annoyance. You can dismiss the notifications, but there’s no way to keep them from appearing, and it’s not always easy to remember where you downloaded an app from.

Update: If you want to replace Amazon’s software entirely, there’s now a way to install CyanogenMod 7, which is based on the Android Open Source Project. It provides a more standard Android experience as well as a number of performance and usability tweaks. 

Conclusion

The Amazon Kindle Fire is a good, but not great device for reading books, watching movies, playing games, and surfing the web. But for $200, you’d be hard pressed to find a better device.

The Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet for just $50 more, and that tablet is easier to hold, feels faster, and offers higher-quality Netflix video streaming. But Barnes & Noble doesn’t have its own music or video stores, and the NOOK app store offers just about 5 percent as many apps as Amazon’s Appstore.

Barnes & Noble also lacks Amazon’s synchronization tools which let you continue reading a book or watching a video where you left off on another.

It also probably wouldn’t have killed Amazon to include some physical volume buttons on the Kindle Fire, but it’s not that hard to get used to tapping the screen to bring up settings when you want to adjust the volume or other settings.

While I prefer the NOOK Tablet’s hardware, the Kindle Fire doesn’t fall very far behind, and Amazon offers a much better software ecosystem — especially for users that have no interest in sideloading applications or rooting their tablets.

It’s definitely a solid offering for anyone looking for a relatively inexpensive device for enjoying media around the house or on short trips.

Since the Kindle Fire requires a WiFi connection to access most content and offers just about 6GB of storage for media, it might not be the best device if you’re hoping to take a few dozen movies and hundreds of songs with you on your next camping trip — but really, shouldn’t you just enjoy nature and maybe read a good book anyway?

You can open up the Kindle Fire by installing third party apps which extend the tablet’s capabilities… but it will never really rival the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, or other high-end tablets. It simply doesn’t have the hardware to do that.

But the Kindle fire doesn’t feel like it’s designed to compete with the iPad or higher-priced Android tablets. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find the word Android anywhere on the tablet. Instead, it’s best to think of the Kindle Fire as a portable media device with tight integration with Amazon’s online services and stores.

It’s sort of Amazon’s answer to the iPod touch. They’re both WiFi-only devices that sell for $199, and offer access to music, movies, and apps.

The iPod touch has cameras and a microphone, while the Kindle Fire has a larger display. That seems like a more than fair tradeoff — especially since with a little work you can turn the Kindle Fire into a general-purpose Android tablet.

Latest Kindle Fire news

  • David Alastair Hayden

    I’ve scanned this review and can’t wait until I have time to really read it in depth. Went in and played with the Fire, Nook, and other tablets today at Best Buy for the first time. Wasn’t impressed with TouchWiz on the Samsung 7.0, though the device itself seemed nice. The Fire and Nook did everything I would need as far as I could tell.

    Weird thing for me was that the text on ebooks using the Nook Tablet was a little… I wouldn’t say fuzzy. It just wasn’t as sharp as it should have been. Fire had much clearer text, but I know the screen specs were basically the same.

    • David Alastair Hayden

      Great review! Helped me a lot.

  • Wydawnictwacyfrowe

    Some publishers and booksellers difficult to understand that such devices are the tools to more sales. The very clouds to the recipient, however, carries some risk

  • Bob

    The reason that the Nook Tab has HD-quality Netflix streaming, as opposed to the Fire’s “normal” quality, is apparently because the NT has Netflix HD streaming. It’s likely the basis for NT’s locked bootloader, as that’s a prereq for Netflix HD certification.

    I’m curious if there are other Android (or iOS devices) that has Netflix HD streaming available.

    • Anonymous

      TI announce they got the first HD certification for Netflix back during the summer, thanks to the added security of the TI M-Shield security technology. 

      So far no others have been reported but B&N may also have a exclusive deal with Netflix at the moment, I’m assuming, and that combined with the locked bootloader could mean it’ll be awhile before we see another device support full HD for Netflix.

  • http://www.angrybats.com/ Wholesale gadgets

     Conveniently ignoring the fact that the iPad doesn’t have to render Flash.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UP74MLD2NWYRBCOXFLWFTYZANQ Sathish

    I bought it in US with the hope that it’ll work in all the countries. Its waste. U’ve to be physically located in US to use this device. Also to purchase any music/video/book u’ll need a US credit card and US shipping address. They don’t support Non-US regions. I tried kindle fire in India as well.
    Don’t buy kindle fire.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, it’s US only right now but that’s also why they’re not selling it everywhere yet.

      The services will eventually get expanded to other regions, keep a eye out for Amazon Prime service being made available first, it’s just going to take time. 

      Mind that they have to negotiate deals with publishers, music companies, movie and TV producers.  All of who are highly protective of the content they control and expanding to more markets also increases the possibility of losing control.

      The B&N Nook also has the same issue right now as well for non-US regions.  Though both will run anything stored on the device just fine and it’s just the access to their services that’s the issue.

  • http://www.angrybats.com/apparel-gadgets/life-gadgets/christmas.html Christmas gifts

    Their also conveniently ignoring the fact that everything from scrolling
    to opening looks sluggish (and that being the understatement of the
    year), so that evens it out.. 

    Edit: Oh, they didn’t leave it
    out.. sorry.. still, I don’t think that in 2011 a dual-core tablet can
    show any sluggishness. It’s just ridiculous if you compare any Android
    device to the iPad, even the Samsung didn’t show a 1:1 response.
    And
    the $200 price point is no excuse. I don’t know why people rather bring
    out cheap (thick sluggish) crap, than a device that is smooth and silky
    for $100 bucks more… 

  • Lou

    Thank you so much for this helpful article!

  • Jonalisa

    Are there any apps thaat would allow you to use something like Drpbox for storage?

  • Mark

    In case anyone hasn’t noticed… Google’s search engine doesn’t work on the Kindle Fire. I contacted Amazon support about this and the response was that they have had numerous complaints about the problem plus “it’s all Google’s fault”. Amazon makes no promises as to a possible fix. Bing and Yahoo search engines work fine on the Fire.

  • mrbrf

    Awesome review and great details on how to upgrade/modify the Kindle Fire. I hope there will be a follow-up with even more in depth information.

    Question…
    I installed Go Launcher EX and it’s awesome and works great. But, how do I now access my Newsstand, Books, etc that is normally availble on the Kindle Launcher?

    • http://www.liliputing.com Brad Linder

      You should be able to view a list of all your applications from the app drawer. This includes an app called “Launcher” which you can use to return to the main Kindle Fire launcher view so you can access all of your files. You can also launch the Kindle app or other apps from this view.

      • mrbrf

        Wow…….awesome fast response.  :-)

        OK…..yes I have done that and can get to them.
        I guess what I was asking, is there a way to setup a “shortcut” directly to these items (Books, Newsstand, etc) instead of going back through the Kindle Launcher?

        Thanks much for your response…….

        Your article here has opened up a whole new world on the Kindle Fire for new users like myself.
        You are to be commended for taking the time to get into this kind of detail and respond to users questions.

      • http://www.liliputing.com Brad Linder

        Not really. The Kindle app will get you into the books view, but if you want the entire experience you’re going to want to open the Kindle Launcher. You can place that shortcut on your home screen for easy access though. 

      • mrbrf

        OK…That will work.

        Thanks again.

  • KK

    We have a kindle fire and every time we turn it on we get a message comes up “Could not find that app in the Amazon Appstore for Android at this time”.  We have used this application before.

  • http://www.facebook.com/studiocreative Marcin Pawłowski

    I have really big troubles – my friend switch my new Kindle Fire HD to factory settings – i lost my photos – it was only one copy (i know – i was stupid) I want try use recovering applications to recover my photos – i have on that first three years of life my son! Please hlp me – recovery applications don’t see kindle as a hard disc – they see memory stick, but i don’t know what i can do for change Kindle in disc or do it visible for recovery apps on my PC – i ask in Amazon, of course they said ”not possible” – i find one solution and many information where is ”that, it is possible” – but how? My computer see Kindle of cours as multimedia device.. Any step by step solution?