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The word “game-changer” gets thrown around a lot, but that’s exactly what the Amazon Kindle Fire is. Not because it’s especially innovative–7-inch color tablets are nothing new–but because it’s cheap. As you probably heard yesterday following its introduction, Amazon has priced the Fire at $199. That’s a shot across not only Apple’s bow, but also RIM’s, Samsung’s, and even Barnes & Noble‘s. This latter group sells 7-inch tablets–the BlackBerry PlayBook, Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi, and Nook Color, respectively–for $499, $349.99, and $249. And of course the iPad 2 (which, granted, has a 10-inch screen) starts at $499.
At $199, the Fire obviates the question, “Why do I need a tablet?“, and replaces it with, “Heck, it’s only 200 bucks! I’ll figure out later what it’s for.”
What it’s for, of course, is reading books and magazines, listening to music, updating Facebook and Twitter, watching TV shows and movies, playing games, checking e-mail, browsing the Web, and running apps of all kinds. What would you rather pay for those capabilities: $200 or $500? Thought so.
As I noted in my review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi, which last April I considered to be the best iPad alternative you could buy, the 7-inch form factor is both more comfortable and more practical. (I say this as the owner of comparatively mammoth and unwieldy iPad 1.)
Of course, before you get into Amazon’s virtual line to preorder the Kindle Fire, there are a few things you should consider:
- Battery life. Don’t expect the Fire to last for weeks and weeks on a charge like a traditional Kindle. Amazon promises up to eight hours of continuous reading, but if you use it heavily for things like Web browsing and media streaming, you might be lucky to get two or three hours. In my experience with Android-powered tablets, battery life is a major Achilles’ heel.
- The Amazon ecosystem. One of the best things about the iPad is the built-in iTunes store, which provides easy access to music, movies, TV shows, books, and the like. No other tablet offers such a rich supporting ecosystem–except for the Fire. That’s one major reason I think it will be a bigger hit than all previous iPad challengers.
- Lock in. The downside to Amazon’s ecosystem is that it’s Amazon’s. Consequently, you probably won’t be able to run, say, the Barnes & Noble Nook app, or Netflix or Hulu. Amazon wants you to consume its media, not its competitors’. This kind of “lock in” has always been an issue with e-readers, but here it extends to other kinds of content as well.
- No cameras. I don’t consider this a deal-breaker by any means, but it’s worth noting that most competing 7-inch tablets have front- and/or rear-facing cameras. The Fire can display photos and videos, but it can’t capture them. Again, I can’t recall a single time while using my iPad or Nook Color that I thought, “Gee, I wish this thing had a camera.” But you may consider that an important feature.
- No 3G. Many competing tablets offer a 3G option, meaning the Internet goes where you go–you don’t have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot every time you want to, say, stream music from your Amazon account or open a Web page. My guess is that Amazon will offer a 3G-equipped Fire down the road, but for now it’s a Wi-Fi-only device.
What are your initial impressions of the Kindle Fire. Think you’ll buy one? Will you wait for some hands-on reviews before making your decision? Or do you think this whole tablet thing is much ado about nothing? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Self-proclaimed cheapskate Rick Broida has been a technology writer for over 20 years. He has authored over a dozen books, including, most recently, “How to Do Everything: Palm Pre.” Currently he writes the Cheapskate blog.