Why Kindle Fire Reviews Are All Over the Place

on November 18, 2011

The Amazon Kindle Fire is having an extremely polarizing effect on reviewers. Most mainstream reviews, like this one from The Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg, have been favorable with some important reservations. But some, like The New York Times‘s David Pogue were far more hostile.

Kindle fire and iPadThe prize for the most over-the-top reaction to the Fire goes to Instapaper creator Marco Arment, who, in a scathing post on his own blog, said: “Granted, I’ve only spent two days with it, so I can’t share any long-term impressions. But I’m honestly unlikely to have any, because this isn’t a device that makes me want to use it more. And that’s fatal.”

There are two radically different ways of looking at the Fire, and the point of view a reviewer chooses goes a long way toward explaining the reaction. Arment gives the game away high in is review when he writes: “I expected the Kindle Fire to be a compelling iPad alternative.” Pogue adds: “Most problematic, though, the Fire does not have anything like the polish or speed of an iPad.”

Anyone who picked up a Fire expecting it to be an almost-iPad was bound to be severely disappointed. Apple explicitly designed the iPad as an alternative to a traditional personal computer for many purposes. Steve Jobs famously compared the PC to trucks and the iPad to cars and said that while some people needed trucks, a car was more than adequate from most. With that goal in mind Apple set out to build the best tablet it could, then figured out how to price it.

Amazon had entirely different goals. It was looking for a way to build on the success of the Kindle, to offer a more capable device whose capabilities would mostly focus on enabling the purchase of stuff, especially digital content, from Amazon. It wanted a device it could sell for $200 without losing its shirt, and it designed the Kindle with the compromises necessary to make that price point. Complaining that the Fire is less thrilling or compelling than an iPad is a bit like grumbling that a Honda Civic is less fun and exciting than an Audi A6. Both do what they are intended to do very well (though their intended functions are a lot more alike than the Fire and the iPad.)

That leaves the question of how successful the Fire is at its intended uses. I think Slate’s Farhad Manjoo hit about the right balance when he wrote: “Still, when you take into account its reduced capabilities and inferior interface, I’d rate the Fire as something like 70 percent of an iPad. When you consider that the Fire costs only 40 percent as much as Apple’s tablet, though, that’s not a bad deal. If spending $500 to get the real thing is within your budget, by all means, go to an Apple store. But if all you’re looking for is 70 percent of an iPad, then why spend any more?”

But I would argue that even Manjoo gets it partly wrong when he insists on viewing the fire as a kind of junior iPad. I own both–admittedly most people won’t–and I am finding completely difference uses for both. The iPad does replace my Mac or Windows PC a fair amount of the time. The Fire replaces my old Kindle as a reader, with the added benefit of being able to watch videos, play some casual games, do light web browsing–and buy stuff from Amazon. Also, going out with the iPad means taking a bag of some sort, while the Fire fits easily in a jacket pocket.

Related content: Where Kindle Fire Fits in My Life

One final word about Arment’s review: While many reviewers, myself included, have found that the Fire’s touch screen response is fidgety when compared to  many other devices–not just the iPad–the problems he experienced were so severe that I suspect he may have been using a defective unit. In particular, his complain about light leaks around the edge of display is something that neither I nor other users I checked with have experienced, and points to a unit that maybe should have failed quality control. And bad manufacturing defects can lead to an unsatisfactory user experience that make a device seem much worse than it objectively is.

Updated: Marco Arment responds.