Far from being a half-priced Apple iPad 2 killer, we found the Amazon Kindle Fire unimpressive as either tablet or e-reader. Here's what we thought of its software and performance.

Amazon Kindle Fire: Apps and the Appstore

App behaviours were all over the map. With no Google Android Market on-board, the curated Amazon Appstore is your sole source for apps, short of sideloading apps from another source - something I don't expect of the average Kindle Fire owner. But at launch, Amazon's Appstore was disappointing, and my experience with apps as a whole weighed down my impression of the Kindle Fire as a tablet .

For one, most of the apps I downloaded ended up looking as if they were phone apps blown out to fit the big screen. This a problem for any Android 2.2 or 2.3 tablet, which is why we don't recommend these tablets at this point. (Android 3.x Honeycomb tablets may have similar issues with legacy apps, but at least those tablets can also run apps optimized for tablets.)

The difference in experience between phone and tablet apps on a 7-inch screen can be huge. What's most surprising is that I'd have expected Amazon to handpick apps from its Appstore that best show off what the Kindle Fire can do. Instead, my random downloads produced apps with fuzzy, phone-ready graphics and menu design, and my searches revealed apps that won't even work right on Kindle Fire because Fire lacks the necessary hardware. Even Angry Birds wasn't ready for primetime here; two versions of Angry Birds launched upside down, depending upon how I held the tablet. Oops.

See also: Group test: what's the best Android tablet?

Kindle Fire Software: Clean, But Buggy

For as many thoughtful design touches as Kindle Fire has, I found just as many glitchy behaviors. In all, they speak to premature software, and some things that may, perhaps, be fixed with future software updates.

For example, book page turns didn't always feel smooth, but highlighting passages gave me no issues. Animations and graphics were jerky, but that carousel on the home screen is insanely zippy.The music player was well-presented and is an improvement over standard Android 2.x tablets, but the interface was at times inconsistent (tapping on a song in the cloud to do something with it brought up a jarringly Android-like menu). The Amazon-supplied on-screen keyboard has a good layout for typing, but I nonetheless found myself prone to a few more errors than I'm used to on other 7-inch Honeycomb tablets.

Other random issues I encountered: The keyboard in the Newsstand didn't work consistently when in landscape mode, it wouldn't always register various taps on the screen, and sometimes the interface ran away with itself (e.g. in one instance, when I zoomed in on a photo, the image moved every which way).

While many of those are clearly software bugs that annoy, but don't impede the use of the tablet, my bigger concerns lie with the image quality compromises I idenitifed with Kindle Fire .

Let's start with the image gallery. A tablet's gallery lets you easily show off photos of family and friends. But Kindle Fire's Gallery app, however, limits the usefulness of this indispensable tool: It resizes all the photos loaded into the Gallery app - regardless of whether you add them by dragging and dropping to the tablet when it's connected to your PC, or you download the image via e-mail. By resizing images, images become soft and pixillated, and you can't zoom in on them (and when you do, all you get is a hot mess of blockiness). One of my test images, for example, was resized to 486 by 324, from its original 3888 by 2592 pixels, which made for an unacceptable viewing experience.

The issue lies entirely with Amazon's Gallery app. That same photo renders well in a random but kludgey free image viewer I downloaded, with better colour and saturation, and reasonably sharp detail. But in the Kindle Fire native image gallery? Not even close.

Knowing that Amazon has made such choices for me on the gallery makes me question what other trade-offs the company may have made in the name of Amazon's perceived greater good.

My experience with the native image gallery app makes me question other complaints I had with image quality; I can't help but wonder how much of what I saw was a design decision that traded off one thing for another. My streaming and downloaded Amazon Instant Videos always looked soft, and often pixillated; and text was soft, too - in the Newsstand, and in books at some font and text combinations. (I liked the Lucida font best, and even then it wasn't as smooth as I've seen on the most-capable Android tablets, including models with similar resolution and screen sizes). Even audio playback was wonky; audio reached a reasonable volume and body for music, but sounded downright anemic on videos played through the Amazon Video player, and via the Hulu Plus app (other apps had low-ish volume, too).

For me, those trade-offs are simply not worthwhile, even to save a few bucks. What's the point of being able to easily procure video, if my videos are going to be soft, have artifacts, and not sound great?

See also: Group test: what's the best tablet PC?

Amazon Kindle Fire: Modest Specs and Performance

Tablets are more about usability than specs. That said, the Kindle Fire's skimpy specs is one of the clear sacrifices Amazon made to achieve its $200 price.

Amazon uses a Texas Instruments OMAP 4 dual-core processor; but in use, the Fire didn't feel like it was a dual-core tablet. It lagged on transitions, even simple ones like turning pages in books or rotating orientation; it produced jerky animations; and video playback was repeatedly pixillated. It's unclear whether all of the blame lies solely with the 512MB of RAM - half what's standard on 7-inch tablets from companies like Acer and Samsung. Software optimization could also be part of the issue here; after all, Amazon's custom build of the Android 2.3 operating system could have some kinks, too. But in use, I became all too familiar with the spinning ball wait indicator as something loaded, and I felt as if I paid with my time what I saved in money on the Fire's modest price.

Some missing elements weren't felt immediately, though. For example, Kindle Fire has neither a front-facing nor a rear-facing camera, and it lacks GPS. None of these felt like onerous omissions on their own, but they are standard inclusions in the pricier top-tier competitive set, and their omission means you're making a choice not to use your tablet for video chat, scanning an image, or navigating your way around town - all of which are practical uses you may miss having in the long-run. At $200, you're getting what you pay for.

If you plan to pack this tablet with apps, music, books, and movies, you'll be disappointed: The Fire has only 8GB of storage space, and only 6.54GB is user-accessible. In practical use, it took little to blast through a couple of gigabytes of space , and even Amazon admits in its specs that the on-board storage can only hold 10 movies at a time, for example. And unlike Barnes & Noble's $200 Nook colour and $250 Nook Tablet, the Kindle Fire has no microSD card slot, so you can't add more space as needed.

We ran some of the PCWorld Labs' tablet tests on the Fire, and found decidedly mixed results. It was the second slowest tablet of more than two dozen we've tested at transferring files from a PC. On the SunSpider JavaScript test, the Fire was slower than the HTC Flyer (Wi-Fi) and every Honeycomb tablet we've tested, but faster than last year's original 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, and a slew of tablets with single-core, sub-1GHz processors and Android 2.2 operating systems.

Amazon bills the battery life as lasting for up to 8 hours of continuous reading, or 7.5 hours of video playback, but those estimates are based on Wi-Fi being turned off. With Wi-Fi on, I found my casual use of the tablet drained the battery surprisingly quickly. In about three hours and 45 minutes, the battery dropped from 56 percent to zilch; brightness was set to the default of three-quarters maximum, and the tablet was used just for some light Web browsing, e-mail, downloading a few apps, and streaming a handful of tunes and a few minutes of video. Stay tuned for our full battery life tests, which remain in progress.

The 7-inch IPS LCD screen carries a 1024 by 600 pixel resolution, and an anti-reflective coating. The Fire also has a fairly obvious air-gap between the screen's glass surface and the LCD panel itself. The Kindle Fire's screen was noticeably more reflective than the Barnes & Noble's Nook colour when I compared the two side-by-side.


Amazon Kindle Fire HD: Specs

  • 7-inch tablet
  • Google Android 2.3 with Amazon interface
  • dual-core
  • Wi-Fi
  • 169 pixels per inch display
  • 190x119x11mm
  • 412g