December 18, 2012

The Kindle has become a household name – but the Kindle compared to the Kindle Fire is a little of a chalk-and-cheese comparison. The Amazon Kindle broke all records when it was introduced in 2007 and was the first tablet type device to be launched since the failure of Microsoft to expand on its tablet format – which for them was used mainly as a data gathering device and never as a mobile computing device. Amazon in the meantime built up a huge readership for it’s Amazon eBooks and needed a way to present their media without the need for laptops or PCs – especially after most users reported that they wouldn’t read a book on such a device. Amazon came up with the Kindle, a paperback book-sized eBook reader that could download books from their store and present them on the proprietary glare-free, reflection-free screen. This special screen technology gave rise to a huge popularity of the Kindle as it read pretty much like a real paper book without reflections and with minimal light or in strong light. This is exactly what book readers need – a screen that is similar to paper in as many ways as possible.

Kindle Original Side View
A 4th Gen Kindle

The advent of new processors, the addition of color (the original Kindle was only 4 shades of grey), more functionality and processing power, extra memory and connectivity has driven the product through 5 generations of Kindle with the original now looking very dated in comparison.

The latest in the family of Kindle eBook readers is the Kindle Fire. This is available alongside the 4th generation Kindle which boasts a range of features original Kindle owners could have only dreamed about. From the Original fairly featureless Kindle came the Kindle 2, which added text-to-speech and more memory and then the Kindle DX which came in a slimmer format with better battery life and PDF support.

The Kindle DX was the last in the 2nd Generation series with a better screen display (E-Ink technology) and a larger screen (9.7” as opposed to the previous 6”) with an accelerometer to allow for page rotation on the fly.

Third Generation Kindles then took on the role of Wi-Fi providers adding 3G cellular capabilities – though the device could not be used as a cellphone or for VoiP. The cellular connections were to allow users to download purchased content from any network through a 3G connection. The technology within the Kindle was also evolving and in addition to better hardware and more memory resources, the Kindle was capable of voice command recognition and could play MP3 files.

The 4th Generation Kindles allowed users to buy a cheaper version of the machine if they put up with advertising. It had 2 GB of memory and a web browser (when within Wi-Fi range). This generation was the advent of touchscreen technology in the Kindle Touch Wi-Fi and Kindle Touch Wi-Fi/3G. Later versions of the Kindle Touch had only a 6” screen and a 2 month battery life (Kindles take regular alkaline batteries).

The 5th Generation was lighter to carry (only 170g down from the original at 290g), had better resolution at 167ppi (from 150ppi) but was not really much of a leap forward in terms of new technologies. The Kindle Paperwhite that came out shortly after the new series has some more impressive specs – including a 212 ppi screen resolution and an XGA level screen resolution of about 1024×768 (Amazon never published the exact number).

The Kindle Fire Series

Kindle Fire Side View
Kindle Fire

The latest models are the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD which are a radical departure for the Kindle series as this is the first series without an E-Ink type display – the type which was a common denominator across all previous Kindles and noted for its ability to display text in any light condition and appear very similar to the text in a real book. Instead, for the Fire series, designers have opted for a color touchscreen display which aligns the Kindle Fire with the market for tablet computers. In keeping with this design aim, Kindle has included many tablet features, but they were by no means direct competition for anything like an iPad 2 – as the technical specs will show.

Operating system

A general release version of the Android operating system (Android 2.x ) customized and functionally restricted was the only option on previous Kindle models, including the original Kindle Fire. The latest version has Android 4.x (ice cream sandwich) which is also modified specifically for the Kindle. This version is compatible with most Android software (with just a few exceptions) and has a different appearance to the Android 4.0 user interface.

Available Models

There have already been 5 models in the Kindle Fire Series, with 3 in current production; the Kindle Fire 7”, the Kindle HD 8.9” and the Kindle 8.9” 4G. The only difference between the two 8.9” HD versions is the amount of Flash memory and the cellular capability. The Kindle 8.9” 4G has cellular functionality and 4G speed. The regular HD version has none.

Processor Speeds

The Kindle Fire series all share the same ARM processor architecture. The dual-core Cortex A9 is a favorite among tablet designers and appears in many Android-based tablets and offers great compatibility and ample processing speed for today’s apps. The HD 7” and the HD 8.9” clock in at 1.2GHz and 1.5GHz speeds respectively with a 1-GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 dual-core processor in the Fire and the 1-GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 and 4470 dual-core processor in the 7” Fire HD and the 8.9” Fire HD respectively.

GPU / Graphics

Both versions use a PowerVR SGX series graphics processor from Imagine Technologies. The Fire 7” has a PowerVR SGX540, with the larger screen getting the more capable PowerVR SGX544. The original Kindle Fire is not very well spec’d up with only 512MB of system RAM which is reflected in poor graphics performance and making the display ‘stutter’ at times, though this is also in part attributable to the Android OS, but this is now being addressed. The HD models with 1GB do not suffer this problem as much.

Display Specifications

The Kindle Fire HD is the higher specification of the two Fire models, with a choice of two screen sizes – 7 and 8.9 inch diagonal diameter. The kindle compared to other tablets is a little smaller with most tablets now having a 10” screen. The HD tag certainly makes a difference with resolutions of the standard 7” Kindle being only 1024×600 at 160ppi. The HD version has much better statistics with the Kindle HD 7” delivering 1280x 800 (720p) resolution , the 8.9” HD version has a remarkable 1920 x 1200 (better than 1080p) resolution both at 254ppi. This is comparable to the displays on the latest Samsung Galaxy 2 and the iPad 4 Retina display tablets although their quality is not quite matched. The display is presented beneath Gorilla glass which has a reputation for strength, resilience and scratch protection. The technology is, of course, IPS (in-plane switching) with advanced polarizing and anti-glare technology.

Memory and Storage

Internal Flash RAM is limited to 1GB (with the original now discontinued Fire only having 512MB). This is the same across all Kindle Fire and HD models. The Storage capacity is 8GB for the Fire model (5.5 GB available to users) and 16GB, 32GB and 64GB on the HD models. Neither the internal Flash storage nor the system RAM are upgradeable so it’s a good idea to choose the right memory option from the start. The NAND from Samsung fitted to the Fire series is not exactly stunning in performance but matches the speed of other components pretty well.

Battery Life

Battery life in the Kindle series has always been acceptable. It works out at either a long day of around 9 or 10 hours which is a decent amount that compares well with other tablet devices. The type of usage affects battery life with cellular users being hit the hardest. For most situations the charge time is quite acceptable. The recharge time is somewhat lengthy if done through USB but it is no doubt convenient to have that port recharge the tablet. An extra adaptor has to be purchased to use mains charging but reduces the full recharge time to a handy 4 hours.

Audio Features

All HD models feature Dolby audio with dual driver stereo speakers. The sound quality is not bad for the size of the device but will always be improved by using external speakers in a docking station or similar configuration. There is a 3.5mm headphone jack on all models too.

Kindle Fire HD Side View
Kindle Fire HD

Connectivity

A notable difference between the Fire and the Fire HD is that there is no Bluetooth available on the regular models. The HD version has Bluetooth 3.0 EDR which means the Fire series can connect with a arrange of storage and other supported devices such as keyboards and other input devices. There is a Micro-B USB 2.0 socket on the side of all models which allows for USB connections and data transfer to external storage.

Wireless

Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n is available on all Kindle Fire and HD models. Cellular connections are available on the HD 8.9” 4G version with cellular 4G LTE the only available network standard. In comparison, the Kindle Fire series had the worst wireless performance of all the top 10 tablets released at the time of it’s release. A top speed of 15MBps is the limit for the Fire series’ Wi-Fi as the Wi-Fi stack has been tuned for power saving rather than download speed. This prevents the Wi-Fi from draining the battery too fast but still allowing an acceptable upload/download rate. The Kindle Fire HD has a much different setup and can offer a much better 31MBps data transfer rate.

The different deals on offer from Amazon might put some buyers off if they intend to be downloading a lot of movies as the download plans are not very flexible for high volume; for those who just want to surf the Internet etc. however, the download plan from Amazon is very reasonable.

Cameras

The HD Fire versions all have a HD camera built in but the resolution of this camera is not well publicized at all. The claim that the Fire camera is “HD capable” and knowing that the screen resolution on the lower end is about 1 megapixel, the camera may also only be a 1Mp resolution device which is far from an impressive specification. However the Fire series of tablets does not position itself in the video/photography market so that is not too worrying or surprising.

Controls

The Kindle series relies on a touchscreen interface and has no external controls other than the power button; everything else is controlled by the touchscreen interface. A keyboard can be added as a Bluetooth accessory and the tablet comes with a stylus for those who prefer not to use fingers to control everything.

Weight and Dimensions

The dimensions for the 7” versions are 190 x 120 x 11.4mm with the 7” HD version slightly wide but thinner at 193×137×10.3mm and the 8.9” versions at 240×160×8.8mm which is slimmer again. It seems the bigger the screen size, the thinner the device – presumably as the components can be spread out over a larger area in devices with larger screens.

Accessories

The Fire series all come with a USB connection cable which is used to charge from any USB port that supplies power. The mains power adaptor is sold separately though and is much needed as charging takes about 14 hours via the USB port.

In use

Comfortable to hold and with a pretty good screen display, the Kindle Fire is not quite a dazzling array of new technologies but more a solid construction of durable hardware that offers adequate performance and some pretty nifty features. The casing has a rubberized back to aid in grip and the screen does not suffer much glare or reflection interference. The external controls are a little fiddly but no different to most other devices of this type.

Conclusion

Although the Fire is a Tablet device as opposed to its original roots as a decent eBook reader, it is facing some heavy competition out there. For those who like the Fire and some of its unique features, choosing whether to get the original Fire or the HD version is really going to probably a financial decision. Choosing between the 7” and the 8.9” versions will be less so. The original Kindle Fire can be picked up at a bargain now that it’s somewhat dated. The Fire HD on the other hand has a much more impressive specification and although is quite a dent in the pocket, has some features that some people simply couldn’t do without, the multimedia and connectivity options being the foremost advantages.

Those who prefer the Kindle to other eBook reading devices will probably not be as enamored with the Kindle Fire series. Despite the HD screen, models over the $250 mark are really not as powerful as some of the competitors’ tablets. At the high end the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 competes with some hefty competition but unfortunately does not come out ahead in any of the specifications and comparisons. Diehard Kindle fans will want their E-Ink technology which is not available on the Fire, so Kindle are at a bit of a crossroads in terms of design with two different series emerging: The tablet format with full color and HD and the E-Ink series offering better reading technology.

Whichever Kindle you choose, they are all sturdy, well-thought out machines. They may not hit the top of the charts in performance but performance isn’t everything and usability goes a long way in making up for that. The connection with Amazon is great for those who like to get their hands on the latest that the Amazon media store has on offer (22 million books, games, movies and other media) with seamless integration of their services and many other social media activities such as Facebook and Twitter built in. There is also free Skype video calling and free cloud storage at Amazon.

There are many reasons to pick up a Kindle Fire and a few to choose other products. Potential buyers must decide which of the features of the various tablets are the ones that will offer them the best experience. Some may be simply looking for an eBook reader, in which case the original Kindle compared to the Fire is a better choice – and indeed the 5th Generation Kindle is hands down the best choice in the market for an eBook reader. The Kindle Fire is a popular device so it must have enough to make it appeal to the average user.

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