Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fire on the Mountain

This note was originally written on November 22, 2011. Amazon has just announced a second generation Fire. So this, like most technical articles, is now obsolete.

Christmas is coming and friends have asked me about the new Amazon Fire and comparing it to the iPad. In the first place it is a sort of apple and orange comparison. Or should I say banana and orange? No, orange and Apple comparison! Yeah, that’s the ticket.

In today’s tablet market, there are really two camps: iPad and all the rest. Many an attempt to match the iPad’s success has met with – well – abject failure.

HP’s TouchPad and RIM’s Blackberry PlayBook tablet come to mind although there are several others. When the announcement of Amazon’s Fire first hit the news, many heads were turned, primarily by the very low price. We already know low price can move a product. Again, HP TouchPad (and Wal-Mart) come to mind.

So, let’s start the comparison with price and a key feature decision. Most tablet computers and eReaders have a wireless connection to the internet. That is both how books and magazines and music are downloaded, and – with the more powerful tablets – many other internet uses such as browsers, email, and video playing from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. It wouldn’t work well for such a portable device to have an Ethernet cable plugged into it.

My friend that asked me about the two specifically stated she would like to use the device “while driving around.”

There are two ways to connect to the internet without wires. The first is basic wi-fi, either in your own home or at a coffee shop or some other business that provides wireless access to their customers. Second is a connection via cell phone service.

The second method allows for two different paths. First, you may have a portable wireless access point as part of your cell phone service. Verizon and Sprint both sell a little device about the size of a fat credit card. It receives cell phone data service and acts as a mobile hot spot.

This service costs between $50 and $100 per month and can support up to five simultaneous users. In many cases you can also use your smart phone as a portable wireless point for a fee from your carrier. This is available on both iPhones and Androids. It would also allow you to use your laptop in a car or at a store that doesn’t provide wi-fi. For those who own several tablet or other wi-fi devices, this mobile hotspot may be the best choice.

Second some tablets, including the iPad, can be purchased with cell phone connectivity built in. This is an extra cost option and you have to decide when you purchase the tablet whether to pay for the extra function. In addition, the service may be “hard-wired” for 3G only (iPad) or available with the faster 4G. In any case, it does tie you to a particular cell phone carrier.

This feature is simpler to a regular cell phone – except no phone number and no contract. AT&T and Verizon charge $25 per month that the service is active. I shut mine off and only turn it on only when needed. When I turn it on, that creates a month of service and it is automatically paid for on my credit card. All that is managed from the iPad including entering the credit card number.

Only the cell phone or 3G feature will actually work while you are driving in your car. I used an iPad while traveling in Texas as a GPS and navigation device. I found the Motion X GPS Drive app very useful, but the interface was a little too data rich for the driver. It worked great for my co-pilot and we took several short cuts across the vast Texas geography and found our way to numerous Apple Stores. (How appropriate!)

Amazon does sell an eReader with 3G access, but currently Fire has only wi-fi access. That may change in the years to come, but for this Christmas shopping, cell phone connection is not available on the Fire unless you pair it with a mobile hotspot or phone.

Also the Fire is smaller, more like a traditional eReader. It has a seven inch screen while the iPad has a larger nine inch screen. There are other tablets on the market, such as the Zoom, that also sport the smaller screen, and I’ve read rumors of Apple preparing a smaller screen version of the iPad, primarily to compete in the lower price markets. Some of the differences between the Fire and the iPad are related to the screen size choice by the manufacturer.

Let’s compare prices and models:

The Kindle Fire with 8 GB of memory and wi-fi access only sells for $199.

The iPad comes in a variety of models with 16, 32, and 64 GB of memory and prices from $499 to $699 for wi-fi only. Other models cost $629 - $829 for the same memory sizes and with wi-fi + 3G cell phone connection.

Both tablets are supported by companies with a lot of media available for use on the respective platform. This is the so-called “ecosystem,” and is an important consideration and differentiator between brands.

Since you can run the Kindle software on the iPad, it also has access to Amazon media. The Fire is more of a closed system in that regard – no iTunes on the Fire. Very popular music applications such as Pandora are available on both tablets.

But, it is hard to beat the tremendous wealth of applications available for the iPad. There are currently over 140,000 apps designed specifically for the iPad plus thousands and thousands more iPhone apps that will also run on the iPad.

There are very new and exciting apps such as the Adobe Touch suite that show promise of turning the iPad into a powerful new creative tool. Still, I think most tablets are used simply to read books, listen to music, and stream video. This is called “content consumption” as apposed to “creation.”

If you are trying to decide between the two, things get a little more complicated with the announcement of new versions of the Nook, the color eReader from Barnes and Noble for $249.

But the Fire has some big things going for it. First, the $199 price, though the Fire’s seven-inch screen is less than half the surface area of the iPad’s display.

Second, the Amazon and Kindle brands, already known and loved for eReaders and more. Third, Amazon is the only major tablet maker other than Apple with a large, famous, easy-to-use content ecosystem that sells music, video, books and periodicals. The Fire can be thought of as a hardware front end to all that cloud content.

Finally, while the Fire, like many other tablets, is based on Google’s Android operating system, Amazon has taken the bold step of hiding Android. It shuns its user interface and nearly all of Google’s apps and services, including Google’s app store. The Fire’s software is all about the content and apps Amazon has sold you and the easy purchase of more.

When compared to the iPad 2, I suspect the Fire will appeal to people on a budget and to those who envision using the iPad mainly to consume content, as opposed to those who see the larger tablet as a partial laptop replacement.

For instance, while the Fire has a decent Web browser and a rudimentary email program, it lacks basic built-in apps, such as a calendar, notepad or maps. However, for people primarily interested in reading books and periodicals, the Fire may seem too heavy and costly when compared with a low-end Kindle or Nook. The real bargain of this Christmas season is the basic Kindle (with advertisements) for a low, low price of $79.

The Fire isn’t only competing with the iPad and other general-purpose tablets. It has to contend with a new, low-price, similar-size color tablet recently announced by eReader rival, Barnes & Noble. This device, the Nook Tablet, is B&N’s second-generation color slate and costs $249, still less than an iPad. I’ve been considering it too, and found it has some pluses and minuses compared with the Fire.

The Nook Tablet boasts double the internal storage of the Fire and a slot to expand it. It has better battery life and a more interactive approach to children’s books. But beyond books and magazines, it lacks either Amazon’s or Apple’s large, simple, built-in ecosystem for other kinds of content, such as music, movies and TV shows.

Instead, Barnes & Noble boasts it offers choice, by including video apps like Netflix and music apps like Pandora. However, these same apps also appear on the Fire and the iPad, along with the Amazon and Apple stores.

And the Nook appears to offer even fewer apps than Amazon does (Barnes & Noble doesn’t provide a number). Also, while its screen is the same size as the Fire’s, the Nook is larger overall, though a bit lighter.

The Fire’s hardware is plain and clunky. It’s a thick black box with zero style. There isn’t even a volume control or a physical home button, and the on/off button is a small thing hidden inconveniently on the bottom edge.

In the quest to meet the $199 price point, Amazon omitted many features common on other tablets. There are no cameras or microphone, no GPS for determining your location, no Bluetooth for headsets or wireless speakers and no included earbuds.

(I went to a variety program last week and a member of the audience was using an iPad 2 to video record the show. Looked sort of silly with her standing up holding the iPad in front of her face like she was reading it without benefit of glasses. It appeared to work, but I really would prefer a regular camera for that type of use. But, it takes all kinds!)

As I said, the Fire is wi-fi only -- it has no built-in cellular connectivity. There isn’t even an included cable for connecting to a computer, something you may want to do to get photos into the Fire, since Amazon lacks an online photo service.

There is just 8 gigabytes of memory, half the total of the base iPad or the Nook Tablet, and only about 6 gigabytes of that is available to store content. If you want to download movies, you won’t be able to fit many into the Fire.

When I first saw it, I really liked the Fire’s user interface. Instead of screens full of icons or folders, it presents virtual shelves filled with the books, magazines, music, TV shows, movies, apps and websites you’ve used. A large one has the most recent items, with smaller shelves below it. These are for your favorite items. Across the top is a search bar and a list of categories, like Books, Music, etc.

But I became frustrated with the interface. There’s something off with the touch calibration on the top shelf, or Carousel, which scrolls through a seemingly endless stream of items. It can be difficult to get it to stop on the item you want and it takes more pressure than it should to open the selection.

Also, you can’t configure the main screen much. You can’t reorder the top shelf, and while you can place items on the favorites shelves, they are in the order you added them, not how you like them.

Even worse, on the Nook Tablet, the user interface is a jumble of different approaches, which is confusing. There’s a main screen where you can place favorite icons but also see a scrolling row of items, a drop-down list of other items and a bottom row of tiny icons representing categories. But there’s also a separate interface called the library, with categories and shelves.

Apple, in the meantime, is busy updating the computer operating system used on their laptops and desktop computers to be more like the iOS in the iPad and the iPhone. The new “launch pad” in OSX Lion and the change in the scrolling direction on touch pads and magic mice is a sign of Apple merging the user experience. Tablet purchasers still using Windows won’t be impacted by this integration. Apple still “owns the interface.” Seems like they really get user interaction much, much better than any other company.

A big selling point for the Fire is a supposedly speedy Web browser called Silk, which splits the task of fetching Web pages between the tablet and Amazon’s super-fast cloud computers. The latter can cache common, static page elements and learn which sites and pages people most often use, so they are pre-fetched and ready to go when needed.

However, in tests, the Fire’s Silk browser was noticeably slower than the iPad 2′s browser. Amazon’s explanation is that its split-browser system requires lots of user data to achieve its speed advantages, and only a small number of people are using it, so it will get faster over time. We will have to wait to see if that is true.

It is very easy to buy, stream, download and use content on the Fire. Reading books was a pleasure, as on any Kindle. Movies and TV shows looked good, and music played quickly and well, despite weak speakers. In general, magazines and newspapers looked better on the iPad, mostly due to the larger screen. Plus the iPad has some exciting new media examples such as the excellent Woodstock multi-media “book” and a very interesting text book on the Elements. These are signs of a future of talking, and singing, and animating books that I am very excited to see developing. I’m sure the Fire will have similar offerings, but the greater fidelity of the iPad is a strength here.

On the other end of the spectrum, Amazon offers a “text view” of magazines, which makes them easier to read but loses the original formatting.

After years of corporate messaging that the gray-scale, E-Ink screen on the Kindle was better for reading than a color LCD screen, Amazon now has a Kindle with the latter display. If anything, it struck me as glossier than the iPad screen. It’s vivid and sharp, but not high definition.

Amazon commented about the reading issue and the company’s past position,  suggesting people who prefer E-Ink buy one of each Kindle and use the older style for reading, and pointing out the pair would cost less than an iPad. While that was true, such people would be carrying two devices, not one. I suspect that Amazon is just whistling past the grave yard with that explanation of their flip-flop.

(But, do remember, E-ink or e-paper can be read outside, in the sun light, on the beach. That is an advantage of the monochrome Kindles Amazon sells.)

Battery life is extremely important in a portable device. What good is any tablet if the battery is dead and you need to recharge it? In standard tablet battery test, playing back to back videos with the wireless turned on and the screen at 75% brightness, the Fire lasted 5 hours, 47 minutes. That is less than 60% of the iPad 2′s performance on the same test, and about an hour less than the Nook Tablet’s performance.

This is a concern to me as I use these devices more and more, and battery life becomes a key issue. My current iPhone can’t make it through the whole day with heavy use, and I expect the larger devices to have much longer battery life.

My experience with the original Kindle was a very long battery life and I like that. But the Fire requires charging much more often than the traditional Kindle or most other tablets. Perhaps another trade-off for lower cost, but it is a serious criticism of the Fire experience, especially to those used to charging their Kindle once a week.

At $199, and with Amazon’s content ecosystem behind it, the Fire is an attractive alternative for many people who might otherwise have bought an iPad or another Android device, especially if their principal interest is content consumption.

The Nook Tablet also is worth considering, though it lacks a music and video ecosystem.

So, to the question of “Should I buy the iPad or the Fire (or the Nook), I will give “the consultants answer,” it depends! For Amy, since she stated she wanted "internet service while traveling in the car," that may be what it depends on. Good luck all!!  And Merry Christmas!!!

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