Kindle Fire, First Reviews: Hot Gadget Or Just Another Lukewarm Tablet?

A new day, and a new device to challenge Apple’s iPad in the market for tablets.

At $199, the Kindle Fire, which starts shipping this week to those who ordered early, might attract a huge volume of buyers simply because it has lowered the cost barrier.

That will mean those who have held off buying tablets until now because of the price could pony up; but so might those who already own devices and don’t feel that $200 is a big price to pay to test a new one.

There have been some surveys out already hyping up how big the device might become (more on that later) but for now the initial responses to the Fire from reviewers have been less hot, and more lukewarm. Read on for more…

“Pretentious this isn’t, and neither is it a handful,” writes Tim Stevens at Engadget.

On the outside the device (as we have mentioned before) looks a lot like RIM’s PlayBook, and as Stevens notes the product feels weighty in a good way. Apart from this Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) has taken a very minimalist approach not just in the branding — lightly etched Kindle and Amazon only on the back of the device — but in physical aspects, too. That includes only one button for the whole of the device, meaning even volume needs a touch of the software; no HDMI output to view content on other screens; and speakers that will likely send people to a pair of high-quality headphones.

“The Fire isn’t a speed demon, though it definitely holds its own,” writes Joshua Topolsky at The Verge.

The device is on the low end of tablet specs these days — which has helped the company beat down the price to just under $200. But to me the low specs also seem mismatched with Amazon’s goal in pushing it it for content consumption. Could that translate into less fluid video and gaming experiences? Some seemed to have confirmed as much:

“The Fire does not have anything like the polish or speed of an iPad,” writes David Pogue in The New York Times.

“You feel that $200 price tag with every swipe of your finger.” He points out that animations are sluggish and jerky — “even the page turns that you’d think would be the pride of the Kindle team,” and it is not always responsive to taps.

“Newsstand: A failed attempt at digital downsizing…[but] For every sin it commits as a reading device, the Fire atones with a good deed in video playback,” writes Jon Phillips at Wired.

Amazon is working overtime to promote the Kindle as a magazine reading device, with some 400 magazines available in its Newsstand and offers for free subscriptions to some of them for those users who buy the Fire early doors. Equally, it is meant to hold its own against the other Kindles and e-readers out there for consuming boosk. But Phillips says the device is not suited as a comfortable reading device: the screen is the wrong size for magazines; graphic images take too long to render when the pages are zoomed in and out; and he too points out the jerky page-turning. As for reading books, the Fire is not built with e-ink as the past Kindles are. That means the devices are potentially less easy to read over prolonged periods of time and probably won’t work as well in sunlight, either.

However, when it comes to video, the Fire is, well, on fire. Phillips notes that playback is good, and the widescreen aspect fits well with the amount of HD content on offer in Amazon’s library.

In terms of that content, Amazon has a formidable catalog of its own, with some 100,000 television programs with more to come; and Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) and Hulu apps to complement that besides. You could even argue that this is really what the Kindle may have been made for, rather than for reading.

Future iterations of the Kindle tablet may serve to marry those two experiences of easy reading and good video consumption in one device, but for now at least this disparity could mean that the tablet will not cannibalize Amazon’s e-reader sales.

“So much like an Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) product that Apple should be scared,” wrote Wilson Rothman at MSNBC.

(Or, one could suppose, calling its lawyers.)

Rothman’s is possibly the most glowing of the early reviews that I read this morning: he is a big convert and perhaps is speaking most to how the average consumer will respond.

Rothman describes the Silk browser (Amazon’s “forked” Android OS) as quick, and points out that gets faster as it figures out a user’s browsing patterns by caching certain pages. And while the device is not nearly up to the mark when compared like-for-like with the iPad (no camera, worse battery life, smaller screen, less storage, etc etc), it will still compete well, he predicts. “The Kindle Fire can handle about 80 percent of what I want to do on an iPad, for 40 percent of the price. And much of what’s missing won’t be missing for long.”

Read on here to see our side-by-side comparison of how the Kindle Fire holds up against the new Nook tablet as well as the other e-readers and tablets on the market today, with a handy table to navigate the info.