Kindle Fire reviews: Reading clouds instead of testing buttons

The Kindle Fire is only good at serving Amazon's content. Why didn't more reviews say this clearly?

Kindle Fire

Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet is coming under late-coming fire. The New York Times wrote a meta-review of customer reviews, and found that many are finding the Fire to be slow to respond to nearly any action, sporting both a terrible power button and not enough other buttons, a less-than-stellar Netflix experience, and no privacy to speak of. Yet the Times finds that even those buyers giving the Fire one-star reviews on Amazon’s own site are “regretful rather than angry.” Didn’t anybody get a chance to see what this device was like before it debuted?

Lots of people, actually. The Verge (founded by departed Engadget editors) wraps up its review by suggesting the Kindle is a “really terrific tablet for its price,” but added that its “software can be buggy,” and that it featured “uninspired hardware” in its “Bad Stuff” column. CNET also went into detail, and, despite suggesting that the iPod touch was a better product in every way except for screen size, suggested that the Fire was “worth the $199 gamble,” because it was “Amazon's services--not the hardware--that make this device so appealing.” The Times’ David Pogue wrote that the Fire “deserves to be a disruptive, gigantic force,” but “needs a lot more polish,” because “its software gremlins will drive you nuts.”

Seeing a trend here? There’s a lot of big-picture analyst talk about a device that should be worth reviewing just on its own merits. In part, this is due to Apple. Apple is a company that makes, basically, electronic devices, and it was briefly the most valuable company in the world, and also easily the technology firm that attracts the most press coverage. It’s not enough to write up how any notable device looks, feels, and serves the owner these days. Every device is in a horse race against Apple and, more blatantly, expectations. All the press, rumors, competition, and mythology of today’s big tech players--Google, Apple, and Amazon--feed into the reviews of their individual offerings. It’s not enough for today’s gadget writer to tell you about the device and what they thought about it. They have to tell you where it fits in, among all the clouds, market shares, and price points.

In some ways, it’s a forgivable change of focus, because the Fire arrived with an unspoken pitch as an "iPad for the rest of us." Yet almost every reviewer says, in one way or another, that the Fire is not really an iPad competitor, because of its very low price, its resultingly underpowered hardware, and its dependent connection to Amazon’s expanding web-based services for books, music, movies, and even a subset of Android apps. Yet reading the reviews, you rarely find the logical conclusion that follows from all those particulars: this device is a nice way to sit down and enjoy things you can buy and stream from Amazon, but nearly nothing else.

A few reviewers did manage to keep the What Does This Mean for Amazon and Tablets and Everything chatter to a minimum and just rate the device on everything it tries to offer. Wired’s Jon Phillips put the Fire down on almost every level, except to say that it was a “perfectly serviceable video player”--though that was before he could see the compressed Netflix streams. Usability consultant Jakob Nielsen recently delivered some scathing assessments, noting in particular the lack of accessibility features (often glanced over in gadget reviews). And Instapaper creator and blogger (and Kindle fan) Marco Arment cut to the chase: “It’s a bad game player, a bad app platform, a bad web browser, a bad video player, and, most disappointingly, a bad Kindle.”

It’s good to put new devices in exciting markets in context--to not presume readers have been keeping up with the same day-by-day, report-after-report tech coverage that a gadget writer would consume. But I think the Kindle Fire has been an interesting lesson in where devices and market deconstruction diverged. The Fire, most likely, will improve in successive versions, much like the stand-alone Kindle e-reader. But it’s hard not to think that a good number of early buyers were misled by the horse-race-style speculation on what the Kindle Fire would mean, instead of how it actually ran.

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