Try to learn something about everything

My Kindle Fire and I

Back in October I broke my trusty old Kindle Keyboard, a rather annoying thing to happen at the beginning of a long trip. As a workaround I started to use the Kindle app on my iPod Touch, and while I did manage to finish several books on it, it’s a bit annoying to read on such a small screen. So I decided to get a new device, but which one? Either the new Kindle Paperwhite, a Kindle Fire or maybe just an iPad or an Android tablet with the Kindle app?

Tablet or Kindle?

Lately I got a lot more serious about my chess playing, so I own several books on the topic in digital form. Needless to say, they don’t do too well on a “classical” Kindle, so I started considering a Fire or other tablet. Once I started thinking along those lines, another group of publications came to mind, comics and graphic novels. I used to love and collect them, but eventually stopped because they just take up way too much space. Nowadays a lot of publishers do have digital editions though, so this became the point where the Paperwhite got thrown out of the race.

The decision process

So I knew I wanted a tablet, and I knew I wanted something small. This left me with four contestants, the Kindle Fire HD 7”, the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 and the Galaxy Tab 2 7”.

I like Apple products, but I wasn’t really willing to shell out the money for an iPad Mini (although you can get them for as little as 300 bucks at Wallmart at the moment). One down, three to go. Now for the Nexus 7. It’s a powerful Android device and also caters to the “power user”, whatever that’s worth in the tablet world. Alas I found a ton of comments and posts about quality issues (DOA, glass coming off the screens, devices having to be RMA’d after only two weeks etc.) so I was hesitant to get one, because the last thing I need while traveling is carrying around a dead device while trying to get it replaced. Also at $250 it was only $50 cheaper than an iPad Mini.

That left the Kindle Fire HD and the Galaxy Tab 2, the latter of which is ridiculously cheap by now (the cheapest I saw was $150 with a cover), but it’s also not exactly the newest piece of hardware. I still was leaning in the direction of the more general device though… Until I walked into a Radioshack during our layover in Florida, saw the Kindle Fire HD and bought it. Damn you, instant gratification!

First impressions

When I turned it on for the first time, I was amazed. The display is good, and I mean really good! As are the Dolby speakers. In short, I find the audio and video quality to be pretty amazing for a 7 inch device. Reading with the Kindle app is a pleasure, as is watching movies and listening to music. I actually really enjoy watching stuff on the Kindle Fire, much more than I expected on such a small screen.

But then I started to explore a bit more, and I got disappointed rather fast. Amazon’s user interface clearly was only built for two purposes: shopping and consuming content. The Kindle Fire is not meant to be a full-fledged Android tablet, it’s a portable frontend to the Amazon store and cloud. Starting from the ads which get displayed when you wake up the device (I know, you can pay to have them removed), over the unavailability of many apps in Amazon’s app store (for example all Google apps like GMail or Google Maps) to the extremely content focused UI, everything screams “Consume!” in a rather shrill and annoying voice.

Making it work for me

Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to make the Kindle Fire a lot more interesting, even without rooting it (something I really can’t be bothered to do while on the road).

First off, you will need an alternative app store. After some research I settled on SlideME, mostly because they actually check the applications they are offering, thus alleviating some of the security concerns I had about other offerings. Next I got myself a decent file manager in the form of ES File Explorer, before setting out to find a decent browser. Yes, a browser, because somehow Amazon’s own offering, called Silk, doesn’t really cut it for me. It has good features, but I found it to be rather sluggish. And I had some privacy concerns about the cloud rendering, euphemistically called “Accelerate Page Loading” in the settings. Sure, you can choose to encrypt the data or disable this “feature” completely, but it did leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste. Most people seem to prefer Dolphin or similar offerings for their Android devices, but I settled for the good old Firefox (or rather Aurora) in its mobile incarnation. It’s a solid app and so far provides everything I need, including a direct download from the website. This is how I interact with Google apps for the time being, I just use their mobile versions in the browser.

App store fixed, file manager acquired, browser fixed, on to the horrible UI. Unfortunately there’s not really too much you can do in this regard, but I found Smart Taskbar to be a huge improvement. It has a small icon for triggering the app from everywhere and features quick launch for up to five apps, configurable labels and much more. Not as good as having a “normal” Android interface, but definitely much better than the standard Kindle Fire offering.

Last but not least I installed Dropbox for easier file exchange, which is super easy because there’s a direct download link on the web site. I wish more developers would do this…

More content

Once I was done with the basics, it was time to add more content sources/viewers. ComiCat is an exzellent CBR/CBZ reader and I highly recommend it for managing and reading your digital comics. ComiXology (and its app Comics) also is a good addition, especially since they have a rather well stocked online store and a decent read-by-panel feature. Both of these apps are available in Amazon’s app store ($3 for ComiCat, Comics is for free).

For access to more books I added the Gutenberg eReader app, a frontend to the well-known Project Gutenberg, as well as the NOOK software. Yes, NOOK, on a Kindle. As you can imagine this did not come from the official app store but from SlideME instead. Since I’m usually really happy with Amazon’s offerings I’m not even sure I’ll use it, but it’s nice to have a choice and apparently the NOOK store has a dedicated comic section, so who knows…

On to movies. While Amazon’s streaming service is great (or so I’ve heard), it’s of no use to me while traveling. I do however have quite a few films and documentaries on my netbook (go check out VODO, there’s some great free stuff on there), but I don’t want to convert all of them to a format the Kindle understands. Enter MoboPlayer, a great free movie player that can deal with a ton of formats and even has a windowed mode. Yes, on a tablet!

With comics, books and movies covered, what’s left? Games! The guys over at Humble Bundle don’t only compile great game bundles, they also have a nifty Android app, that let’s you manage all your purchases. Since they offered several Android bundles in the past I actually have a ton of games, and the Kindle Fire is an excellent device to play them on.

Of course I have a lot more apps than that (Instapaper, Twitter, Flipboard, LinkedIn etc.) but they all come from the official app store and don’t really need any explanation here.

Final verdict

After I got over my initial frustrations, I REALLY like my Kindle Fire. I guess it’s all about expectation management. This is not a productivity device, it’s a gadget for consuming media in all its forms. I especially love reading comics and graphic novels on it, the colors are great, and the resolution is high enough to actually be able to enjoy them, even on a rather small screen. It’s also great for watching movies or listening to music and audiobooks, and since it’s a Kindle, reading eBooks is a pleasure too once you configured the app to your liking.

The hardware is fantastic (especially for $200) and the battery life (around 10-11h) is great. I don’t exclude the possibility of rooting it in the future and maybe even flashing a different ROM, but for now I take the Kindle Fire for what it is and thoroughly enjoy it that way: during a bus ride the other day I read a book, watched a video, and read some comics, all on the same device.