Future Tense: Life With Kindle

Maximum PC Staff

Before it shipped, a friend of mine expressed a great deal of skepticism—even hostility—about the Kindle Fire. This was right after HP had dropped their remaining stock of Touchpads onto the market for $200 each.

My buddy failed to understand two things—first, HP was abandoning the Touchpad and cleaning out their warehouses. And second, the Kindle Fire is not a tablet—it’s a low-cost content-delivery system. This is critical to understanding what the Kindle can and can’t do.

I’d had the previous model Kindle for just about a year when the Kindle Fire was announced. As much as I loved the convenience of the device, I have to admit that I had also been experiencing Nook-envy. The Barnes & Noble Nook had a color touch screen. Color makes a big difference—especially for magazines. And a touch screen is essential for any tablet device.

But as tempting as the Nook might have been, I have enough content purchased for the Kindle that I just didn’t want to switch to a new platform. So the announcement of the Kindle Fire was a welcome surprise. I studied the specs for a few days, decided I liked what I read, then placed my order.

My Kindle Fire arrived a day early and the out-of-box-experience was exceptional. The device is handsome and rugged. It’s simple and it’s scratch resistant. On the downside, the on-off button is on the bottom and that’s inconvenient for holding it or propping it up on your lap, because you can accidentally turn the device off while you’re reading. Fortunately, you can flip it over and use it upside down, but not every application reorients to how you’re holding it.

The Kindle Fire is about as heavy as a hardcover book, so you’re either going to lay it flat or prop it up against something or purchase a stand for it. It simply is not convenient for holding unsupported for long periods of time. The same is true of every other tablet I’ve looked at. I expect that at some point in the future, these devices will be a lot lighter and slimmer, but we’re not there yet.

Now, my buddy was right that the Kindle is not a complete tablet, but it was never meant to be. But as a content-delivery system, it’s exceptionally convenient. I can’t tell you if Amazon’s Silk browser is faster than browsers on other tablets because I don’t have another tablet handy to compare.

Unlike my previous Kindle, the Kindle Fire does not have 3G, so access to the internet or even to Amazon’s “whispernet” delivery system requires a wi-fi connection. This means sitting in Starbucks or McDonalds or tethering your Kindle Fire to your phone.

If you buy a tablet from one of the cellphone companies and you want web access, then you have to buy a contract so your device can connect via cellphone towers. This averages around $40 a month. On the other hand, if you have a newer model smartphone—I have a Galaxy SII—then you can tether multiple devices to your phone. My carrier provides tethering ability for only $15 extra per month. Tethering does use up battery life in the phone, but for the most part, I keep my phone in a powered stand, and I always carry a spare battery with me.

When the Kindle Fire is tethered, web access is fast enough to be useful. Downloading books or magazines is near-instantaneous. Web-surfing is almost as fast, but it depends on the connection. If I’m too far away from my phone or if I’m logged onto a public source, web pages will slow down a bit. Not enough to be impractical, but enough to be noticeable.

The Kindle Fire’s speakers aren’t loud enough for listening except in a very quiet environment. Headphones or earbuds are a necessity. Watching a video on the Kindle Fire is a lot better than trying to watch it on a Zune or a smartphone. You can actually see what’s happening on the screen. But due to the Kindle Fire’s limited—8gb—memory, you’re not going to store a lot of your own videos on the device.

And this is why the Kindle Fire isn’t a tablet, it’s a content-delivery system. Most of your books and magazines, music and videos, are going to remain in the cloud and Amazon will stream them as you desire. This is practical if you’re sitting in Starbucks. It’s impractical if your 30,000 feet over Kansas and want to catch up on back episodes of Dexter. Unless you’ve previously downloaded them, you’re out of luck. Unless you’re flying on a plane with internet access.

The Kindle Fire does not have a slot for a memory card. I consider this to be the device’s biggest flaw. An SD-slot would allow users to add as much as 128gb of memory—yes, there really are cards that big, Lexar sells them. That’s multiple libraries of music and videos.

The Kindle Fire does not have a camera, it cannot be used for Skype or video chat. It does not have GPS, so you cannot use it for real-time guidance. You can access Mapquest, but as of this writing, there’s no app for Google Maps. I wish it had all these capabilities.

I wish it had all the capabilities of my Android smartphone so I could use it for taking stills and videos and making video calls via Skype. I wish it had GPS for real-time traffic alerts and 4G for fast internet access. I wish it had the Swype keyboard that makes texting a lot faster on my phone. And I wish it had a built-in kickstand on the back so it could stand up by itself. (You know those cheap picture frames that can be propped up portrait or landscape? The Kindle should do that too.)

But the Kindle Fire is not a phone and it’s not a full tablet—not yet. I expect that eventually the Kindle will evolve to include all those other features. And I expect that Amazon will keep the price as low as possible so that they can own the market for content-delivery. I expect Amazon to eat Apple’s lunch—and probably everyone else’s too.

Despite its current limitations, I remain enthusiastic about the Kindle Fire. I bought it for reading books and magazines and watching the occasional video. It has a very readable screen for books. Magazines look great. Videos are clear and crisp. Music sounds great on good headphones. Web pages are clearly readable—much more accessible than on the 4.3 inch screen of even the best smartphone. You can magnify pages if you need to.

There are a number of exceptional applications available for the Kindle Fire, including IMDB, Netflix, WiFi Analyzer, HuffingtonPost, Evernote, Angry Birds (of course), Pandora, and QuickOffice Pro, an office suite that can access Microsoft Office files. You can download documents, spreadsheets, and powerpoint presentations to the device and have important files easily available and even do some quick editing.

I take the Kindle Fire with me almost everywhere, because I never know when I’m going to be stuck in line or waiting for someone. I’ve also downloaded the .pdf manuals of all my various electronics onto the Kindle so I have those references always available. This is especially handy when I’m away from home and need to check some feature on my camera or other piece of gear.

My buddy was right that the Kindle Fire is not a full tablet. We’re still a few generations away from that. But when I showed him what it was capable of today, he admitted he was impressed enough to consider getting one for himself.

Now it’s your turn. What features would you like to see in a 7-inch form factor device?

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David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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