Culture

Amazon is on Fire, Baby

Brother and sister gadget freaks, by now you’ve seen the news: Amazon has introduced four new Kindles — one of them a 7-inch tablet for the low, low price of $199. Is it time for Apple to start crapping itself? Let’s take a look.

At the low end you have the new Kindle, much like the old Kindle 3 I love so dearly. The cheap-ass “keyboard” is gone, replaced with a simple-looking row of controls under the screen. You can get it for as low as $79, if you’re willing to look at ads instead of book covers on your screen saver. Or you can pay $109 if you aren’t.

This one is WiFi only — and that’s fine by me. Melissa has the WiFi-only Kindle 3 and I have the one with 3G, but I’ve found that for most people, it’s probably a convenience not worth the extra fifty bucks. I think 3G connectivity is a must for a tablet — but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

My one complaint about the Kindle 3 is that the page-turning buttons are much too easy to hit by accident, especially if you like to read laying down on your side. The new buttons solve that problem. It’s also quite a bit smaller and lighter, more than I’d even hoped.

Amazon is getting wonderfully close, I think, to the time when they’ll give out Kindles for free with some kind of “Kindle Prime” book-buying subscription. Two years sounds about right.

For another twenty or thirty bucks — $99 with ads, $139 without — you can buy a Kindle Touch. It’s not quite as small and light as the new Kindle Untouched, but it’s still smaller than your Kindle 3. Bring the price up to $149, and you’ve got 3G added to the soup.

But the Touch still features an E Ink screen, which is great for reading, but lousy for manipulating. E-Ink can refresh the page only twice each second. To me, adding touch to E-Ink is like adding an aquarium to the dashboard of your car. Sure, it looks pretty — but what is it really going to do for you? However, if Amazon has given the interface enough Ooh-Pretties, maybe this will be a show-stopper. For me, though, I’d stick with the $99 model.

And what’s with charging $20 to get rid of ads on the Untouched, but $30 to get rid of them on the Touch? That silly kind of pricing signal tells me that Amazon has developed the Touch for status-buyers, and not because touch ads anything vital to the user experience.

If you need a keyboard, you can get the “new” Kindle Keyboard for $99 with ads, or $139 without. Near as I can tell, it’s last year’s Kindle 3 with a new name and a lower price. Nifty, if you can’t live without the World’s Worst Keyboard™. This is old news — don’t bother.

But the real showstopper is the Kindle Fire. Imagine: A full-color, multitouch, 7-inch Android tablet for just $199. Has the iPad killer finally arrived?

No. But that’s not to say the Fire isn’t a nice piece of kit — for what it is.

First off, the Fire was not developed by Amazon’s in-house Kindle team. Instead, Amazon went to the builder of RIM’s ill-starred PlayBook, and told them to plop in a slower processor and strip the rest of the hardware down to the bone. The goal? Hit a BOM of $180 so they could sell the thing for $199.

What’s left out?

• Size. 7″ versus 9.6″ on the iPad, and 10.1″ for many (most?) other Android tablets. That’s about 40% less screen real estate — you’re one adult-male finger away from blocking a big chunk of your screen. There’s a reason no one has yet to make a success out of that small a tablet.

• Real multitouch. iPad can distinguish between all ten of your fingers at once. Fire does but two.

• Camera. You won’t be getting anything like FaceTime.

• Memory. 8 gigs. That’s not many apps. iPad starts at 16GB and ramps up to 64.

• 3G. Not offered. I know I’ve soured on 3G for my Kindle, but it’s an absolute must for a real tablet computer.

• Battery life. Kindle gives you 7.5 hours of video, iPad gives you 10-plus.

• That wet dream BYTE magazine claimed Amazon would sell for a mere $139, but sharp VodkaPundit readers knew it would never happen.

What do you get?

• Access to pretty much all your Amazon Prime media purchases — music, TV, movies, books, or magazines.

In other words, Kindle Fire is the “media consumption device” so many people accused the iPad of being. And judged on that basis, I think this is a terrific bargain. The Fire isn’t a competitor to the iPad. It’s the device Apple hasn’t made yet: Fire is the iPad Air. You’ll store most of your files in the cloud, and do most of your heavy lifting on your desktop computer or your full-size, full-multitouch, full-memory tablet. For media consumption, 7″ should be just fine.

Personally, I don’t need anything to fill the “gap” between my iPad and my iPhone. But I think millions of people would like an inexpensive media player that offers easy and plentiful access to content.

Amazon has got a monster hit on its hands.