The Kindle Fire has been out in the States for a year, but finally, the UK is getting a taste of the Fire with its release due in two weeks’ time. Two versions of the Fire are coming across the pond: There’s the Kindle Fire HD 7in, which we’ve already reviewed, and the basic Kindle Fire tablet – which is what we’re looking at here.
The vanilla Kindle Fire has been revamped since the original was launched in the States, and will be priced at £129 in the UK. That budget price tag alone is an obvious big attraction – but the market has changed considerably in the past year since the initial US launch, and there are now other big name budget Android slate options. Google’s Nexus 7 for one.
Design and interface
Externally, the refreshed Kindle Fire for 2012 is absolutely identical to last year's US-only model. It's the same black rectangle with rounded edges and a slightly grippy, soft-touch back, with the same 1,024 x 600 LCD.
At 120 x 11 x 190mm (WxDxH), and 400 grams, it's the same size and weight as the previous Kindle Fire and a little smaller than the Kindle Fire HD 7in. See the picture below for a side-by-side comparison of the Fire and Fire HD:
The Power button is still awkwardly placed on the bottom panel, and hardware volume controls are still missing, two issues which Amazon corrected on the Kindle Fire HD.
Turn on the tablet, and you see a somewhat different interface than last year's US-only Fire. For one thing, the lock screen now has an ad on it – this is all part of Amazon's infamous "offers." The company has pulled the same trick with the Kindle Fire HD, and in the US, you can pay $15 (£9.25) to rid your tablet of these adverts. It isn’t yet clear whether UK punters will get the same option (hopefully, we will).
Swipe past the ad, and the Kindle Fire's virtual shelves are gone. The screen is still dominated by a carousel of recently used items and apps, but below that there's now a suggestion of more things to buy rather than a list of favourites. (You can pop up four favourite items from the bottom of the screen, though).
The Kindle Fire's simple menu used to be contained on one screen, but now it spills over into a scrolling bar: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, Docs, and Offers. With ads appearing on the lock screen of the new Kindle Fires, and the Shop and Offers options bracketing the main menu, Amazon's sell is harder here than it was before.
The interface is easy to use, but programs putter rather than zip along. I didn't have any problems playing action games or using painting programs, although the Kindle Fire HD's brighter, higher-resolution screen offers a better experience.
Like all Kindle Fires, this unit is tied to Amazon's stores, including its Appstore with 30,000-plus offerings, and of course its book store. You can side-load other Android apps by dragging them over from your PC via a USB cable, but you can't get the Google Play store on this tablet without seriously hacking it.
Having apps and side-loading available means that you aren't completely tied to Amazon's content ecosystem, even if Amazon content will always be the easiest to use here. Of course, when it comes to media, you can load your own music and videos onto the device as long as they fit into the tight 5.5GB of available storage. (You get free unlimited cloud storage for all of your Amazon content). The tablet played our MP3 and AAC music and MPEG4 video test files, but not other video formats.
The OS is Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but it also isn't. I've been calling it "Amdroid," Amazon's highly simplified version of Android. The easy interface has been successful for Amazon so far, as it lays out very clearly what the tablet can be used for and how to get started.
Amazon claims the new Fire is 40 per cent faster than last year's model, and we found a significant speed increase in our benchmarks. Its score on the overall Antutu system benchmark went from 5,052 to 6,479. On the Browsermark browser benchmark it went from 76,739 to 108,485, and on the Nenamark graphics benchmark it jumped from 20 to 29.7 frames per second. While web pages loaded marginally faster, sadly I didn't feel much of a difference in real-world performance.
The speed jump comes from two elements: Boosting the TI OMAP4 processor from 1GHz to 1.2GHz, and changing the Kindle Fire's underlying OS from Android 2.3 to Android 4.0. The Kindle Fire HD only scored slightly higher, although Nvidia Tegra 3-based tablets like the Google Nexus 7 offer up significantly better performance. I didn't run into any bugs during my test period, and the Kindle was always responsive.
Wi-Fi speeds haven't been boosted, though. Unlike the Kindle Fire HD, this Kindle Fire is still dependent on the crowded 2.4GHz band, which makes for slower Internet speeds; when we've tested 2.4GHz against 5GHz devices on networks with fast backhaul, we've found that 5GHz offers faster web page loads and clearer streaming video. Even on 2.4GHz, the Kindle Fire HD's dual antennas and faster processor produce a better performance. Connected to a fast corporate network, I consistently got slightly faster speeds on Speedtest.net with the Fire HD. This Kindle Fire reported 16-18Mbps down, while the HD reported 20-24Mbps down.
Otherwise, the Kindle Fire is notable for what it doesn't include: No cameras, no Bluetooth, no video out for playing stuff on an HDTV, no NFC, no GPS, no cellular radio. While those were all considered reasonable losses to hit a cheap price point last year, competitors such as the Nexus 7 have shown that you don't have to make all of those compromises to produce a speedy, sub-£200 budget tablet.
And remember, you're only getting 5.5GB of on-board storage with no option for expansion. This won't be much of an issue if you're using this as a family/kid's tablet to play a few games and read books that you swap in and out of the cloud (although remember that fancy games like Asphalt 7 Heat can take up to a gig each). The Kindle Fire HD's 16GB of storage offers more flexibility. Flash is also missing from the browser, a step backwards from the previous Fire.
As for battery life, I was able to get 5 hours and 11 minutes of video playback with Wi-Fi switched on, and the screen set to maximum brightness. That’s almost two hours less than the Kindle Fire HD, though, and even further off the Nexus 7 which lasted over 10 hours on the same test.
If you’re really focused on budget, and absolutely want the cheapest tablet possible, then priced at £129 you can’t argue with the fact that the Kindle Fire is a great starter slate. It’s also very easy to use, and suitable as a gentle introduction to tablet computing for the family/kids as a result.
But I can't recommend it with too much enthusiasm because there are significantly better options for only slightly more money. Amazon’s own Kindle Fire HD is only £30 more, and for that extra bit of cash, you get a lot – a much higher quality screen, longer battery life, a front-facing camera for video chats, better Wi-Fi performance, and improved speakers and volume controls that help make it a stronger entertainment device.
And for the more tech-savvy consumer, again for £159, you can pick up the 8GB version of the Nexus 7, a far speedier tablet, with better games and a bigger choice of apps, customisation, and extras such as GPS. And then there’s the rumoured iPad mini on the horizon, too…
All that said, the refreshed Kindle Fire is by no means a lemon. It's the best tablet at its price point. This is just one case where spending £30 more is a better choice, whether you plump for the Fire HD or Nexus 7.
Manufacturer and Product
Amazon Kindle Fire
Android 4.0 customised
120 x 11 x 190mm (WxDxH)
AVI, MPEG4, H.264
Battery Type Supported
Music Playback Formats
AAC, MP3, OGG, WAV
Storage Capacity (as Tested)
8GB (5.5GB usable)
802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n
5 hours 11 minutes
Dedicated email app
Texas Instruments OMAP4430 Dual-Core