Why Kindle Fire Reviews Are All Over the Place

Steve Wildstrom / November 18th, 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.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Anonymous

    Take it easy on Pogue man, he’s getting a divorce and bound to be a little cranky.

    • J’Marinde Shephard

      “Take it easy on Pogue man”

      and who is this Pogue you reference? ;->

  • Antony Deepak

    I never thought of Fire as ipad junior but was disappointed when I un-boxed.

    Amazon marketed this device as a color reader(hence the name Kindle) with an enhanced browser,Silk. Nevertheless, Fire was so uncharacteristically heavy and hence was unusable as a reader; Silk was just clumsy to work with and its touchpinch & zoom was awful.

    Amazon’s promises were just not promising.

    • J’Marinde Shephard

      “Fire was so uncharacteristically heavy”
      EXACTLY my point! AND, I am disabled, so this was recommended as a “lightweight” option for me.
      Lotta’ money wasted!

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you that the Fire is not designed to be an iPad competitor. It is simply not the same class of device. Anyone who wants the functionality of an iPad needs to know that they will need to spend a lot more than $200, because that price is attained by cutting many corners with consequences for performance.

    These facts have not stopped Amazon from making price comparisons between the Fire and the iPad as part of their marketing strategy, however, nor have they stopped nearly every news article out there from calling the Fire an iPad competitor. Frankly, the tech media has completely dropped the ball by feeding the line that the Fire IS an iPad competitor and focusing only on the price difference. Pogue, Arment, and other reviewers are doing consumers a service by clarifying the situation. Rather than criticize them, you should criticize everyone else who created the misperception in the first place.

    It is too late for the hundreds of thousands of people who pre-ordered the Fire without the benefit of reading actual reviews of product performance. A good portion of them, like Deepak below, will surely be disappointed with what they get.

  • Anonymous

    One more thought: I just don’t get what Amazon was going for with this device. The e-ink Kindles are far superior for reading devices. The screen and battery life are awesome for that. The backlit touchscreen on the Fire is a serious downgrade in that department.

    Yet, with the small screen size, lack of video out, and limited operating system, it is very crippled as a multi-media device compared to real tablets.

    So, it is neither great for readers nor is it that great for movies, web browsing, or music. Aside from having an even-smaller screen, it seems like an iPhone or high-end Android phone is at least as good as the Fire.

  • Walt French

    Let’s assume that in some Utopia, businesses that “delight the customer” thrive, while those who exploit them stumble or fail. In that world, the Fire would succeed only with people who want a very limited device and can’t/won’t part with $500 to get something that works a LOT nicer.

    There ARE those people. (My sister-in-law just switched to DSL from maybe a decade of using dialup.) But it’s hard to imagine that they’re the big customers for digital media that Amazon needs to prosper. So mostly, as other posters note, Amazon is advertising the Fire as something that it’s not, and the customers will connect the dots about the fact of it just being a Trojan Horse, and feel ripped off.

    Great way to trash a brand that was based on a reputation of trustworthiness, value and innovation. I think they’d better re-think this thing before it gets out of hand.

    • Anonymous

      Good thoughts Walt. You make some very good points.

    • J’Marinde Shephard

      Please see my notes above. You are RIGHT ON!

  • Cornelllawgroup

    I bought 3 kindle Fires intending to gift two of them this holiday season. I will keep mine, but send back the others. It is an Amazon consumption device and its cost should be rebated once the customer spends four or five hundred at Amazon. I couldn’t give this as a gift because I am shackling the recipient with an onerous cash register, if they are not already an Amazonite.

    As an avid iPad user and advocate, the devices aren’t even close. The only thing I prefer on the kindle is size for certain moments. I guess I’ll buy the 7 inch iPad when Cook decides to relent on Jobs’ criticism. Because I use Kindle as my reader of choice, I’ll get my 200 dollars worth out of the Kindle. Beyond that, it is so woefully limiting that I think after the hype, Amazon better have a generation 2 ready to go!

    • One caution: If Apple were to build a 7″ iPad, its success would depend more on people wanting that form factor than price. If you assume that the 7-incher will retain all the features of the current iPad in a smaller package, the only savings would be from a smaller display and a smaller battery, which would be both necessary and possible, because the smaller screen would draw less power. Those don’t add up to a dramatic price reduction.

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  • J’Marinde Shephard

    I cannot use my Kindle Fire. I was advised to get it, as I have Carpal Tunnel and arthritis and it was getting too hard to hold books, but this supposedly “lightweight” thing is heavier than a book and I cannot hold it without prompting pain or losing feeling in my wrists and hands. It is BRAND NEW (All costs more than $300++) & TOTALLY USELESS to me, and — because of illness that took me past the 30 day return period I am STUCK with this POC!.

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