Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Kindle Fire - So Close... A Review with Education in Mind

I have had really high hopes for the Kindle Fire, as an Android tablet lover, especially as it might work as an education device. Amazon is big enough and well-positioned enough to bring to market an inexpensive tablet that combines 1) a virtually unlimited library of public domain and traditional books with 2) access to the Web, and 3) an open development app platform. I recognize and appreciate how much the "wow" factor plays a big role in the adoption of the iPad in education, and that an Amazon device is not going to elicit the same reaction--but I'm not sure it needs to if the solid learning functionality over time proves itself.

My own 10" Acer Android tablet (the A500), which I bought only because it was on sale at Staples at the still-amazing price of $299, has become my primary learning device in a way that I didn't anticipate. I've basically stopped using my netbook computer, which indicates that the form factor and size, more than the capabilities, must have been the hidden heart of the netbook's appeal to me. While the tablet is not a great device for creation, which I still do at traditional PCs, the world of knowledge that the tablet conveniently opens to me every day is stunning in scope. I really want that for my own children and for our students.

Having played with a Fire for several hours, I am if anything only more convinced of its potential in education, but less sure that Amazon is taking the product in a direction to realize that promise. I might try to put aside the fact that my own personal work habits are so tied to Google that I won't actually use the Kindle Fire myself as a primary device (more below), but even then the degree to Fire presents an Apple-like integrated/locked-in experience ultimately leaves me uncomfortable evangelizing it to education right now. My Acer tablet has much of the same integration with Google, but without the lock-in.

Intriguingly, though, there's another side to this:  that Fire is more Apple than Android--more locked-down with less work getting started--might actually make it more attractive to schools and parents. I'd have to see what the implications are for giving Fire to a student or child (do they get their own Amazon account? do they have to have the right to make purchases? can I put their Fire on my Amazon account, and if I do so will they have unlimited access to ordering books/movies/music?), but this control could make entry into the student market much easier even if I don't personally like it.

More details below, plus Audrey Watters shared her thoughts about the Kindle fire here, and she and I discuss it at length in our weekly ed tech roundup podcast which will be released on Monday.

First Impressions
  • Minimalist packaging, loved it. Classy, but not over the top.
  • The Kindle Fire recognized me, probably from hardware spec tied to my order with Amazon. Very nice, meaning it brought in all my Amazon content.  Much like Android tablets automatically bring in all your Google content (Gmail, contacts, app purchases), Fire linked to all all my Amazon content (books, music, and video).
  • It found wifi right off the bat, connecting to my network was painless.
  • After it downloaded an update automatically, I was up and running in a few minutes. Here again, more Apple than Android in the user experience setting up.
  • Every time I pick up the device to use, it's pretty much instant-on, which is very nice. It's made me realize that my Android phone and Acer tablet are actually a little sluggish there.
  • The price point ($199) is a huge plus in its favor.
  • Interestingly, by being more than a Kindle, it almost feels like less... Because this is a integrated media device (Amazon video and music, Audible audio book), it left me wanting more because it gave me more. By adding so much additional functionality, I realized how locked in I was to Amazon compared to a traditional Android device.
  • Amazon would really benefit, I think, by focusing this device on education in some way. This would make a LOT of sense for giving the device a mission/purpose. I don't see that yet. If there were a compelling reason for school adoption--either content or capability--I think the price point would make it a no-brainer for parents and teachers.
Amazon Integration

  • This is an Amazon, not Google, integrated android device. I'm so wed to Google that I miss the Google apps and other pieces not authorized by Amazon. But it also makes me realize the degree to which my love affair with my tablet is in part because of my deep Google usage. Right off the bat I miss Google Maps, Google Music, and Skype. 
  • There is value in the unified Amazon experience. It's easy to navigate, and much simpler than my Android tablet--at the cost of being a less fulfilling device for a power user.
  • The Audible integration to Amazon has been a bonus for me just as customer, and is added to on Fire. However, because audible allows you to download audio books (I love this on my Android phone!), I immediately realized that I can't do the same thing with an Amazon movie that I rent or buy, so I can only watch a movie on Fire if I'm connected to a wireless network (in other words, not on a plane or in a car). 


  • I am interested to see if this continues, but I actually found my eyes more tired after reading on Fire than reading on my phone or my Acer tablet. I actually had trouble focusing when looking at reviews in the Kindle store. That would be a little bit of a deal-killer for me as a read.
  • I've lamented the fact that as a Google Prime member who orders lots of books both electronic and physical, and an active user of the Kindle software on my phone and Android tablet, I haven't had access to the new Kindle lending library because it requires and actual Kindle device. So having a Fire comes with the added bonus of being able to borrow a book each month.
  • Also a little unrelated to the Fire itself, I still wish that book samples would synch between devices. I use the book sample feature basically as a way to collect potential purchases, like I would browse in a bookstore, and having those samples on different devices means I never really drill down on most of them.
  • I do a lot of PDF and other non-Kindle reading on my Acer tablet, and I have no interest in trying to figure out how to do this on Fire within Kindle, as I'd be shocked if Amazon will make it easy for me to do... which make the lack of any external memory understandable. My Acer has full USB and micro-SD.

Amazon App Store

  • I've never liked the whole Amazon app store idea, since one of the great features of apps on Android is that the system is seamless over multiple personal devices.  Amazon's app store, by design, doesn't know what apps I'm already using, doesn't know which ones I've paid for already, and doesn't carry some of the ones I use the most.
  • My Android-using 13-year-old daughter, who's been coveting the iPhone recently, grabbed the Fire, looked at the games installed, and immediately said:  I wouldn't want an iPhone if I had a Fire. That surprised me, and I haven't looked in detail at the games available, but am guessing this is the response Amazon wanted!


  • For all the talk about the Silk browser, this was a real disappointment to me. I know it's supposed to "learn" and speed up over time, but right off the bat it didn't feel any faster than my good Android browsers.
  • A major downfall of the browser is that the top and bottom panels eat up so much real estate that in landscape mode I just didn't want to even read the web pages. Maybe I just couldn't figure it out, but I was not able to make the panels auto-hide.  
  • Honestly, I just won't use the browser now if given a choice to use another device.

  • Acknowledging the frustration of having to be on a wireless connection, watching an Amazon movie this way is a very experience.
  • Of course, they are not likely to let me watch Netflix on Fire.   :)  (UPDATE: To Amazon's great credit, the Netflix app is available on the fire.)  Netflix is available on my Android phone, but not on my tablet. I can watch Amazon movies on my tablet using Flash, but it's not a great experience. So what's obvious here is that the movie piece is a big strategic play, and candidly, that's what worried me--the focus and attention on this will detract from the (to me) more important educational opportunities.


  • The Gmail experience is so amazing on my 10" Acer tablet, and so bad on Fire, that I deleted my account within about 5 minutes and didn't even consider using this device for email.


  • Again, I'm really interested in how student accounts would work--do they have to be on their own, with a form of payment involved? If my child has a separate account and I buy a book for him or her, will I also have access to that book?  This is my next research area, as I imagine this is going to be complicated for parents and am hoping that Amazon surprises me and they have some good solutions here. 
  • Like all Android devices, this also suffers from non-multiple user capability.
  • Fire uses the standard micro USB for power charging, which is a HUGE plus for someone always having to think about what cables I need to have when and where. But the power cord is way short--what is that all about?  
  • Because there is no Google Map, I probably won't miss GPS, but it's not there. But it also comes in handy for apps that benefit from knowing where you are (weather and movies, for example).
  • No 3G of course
  • Anecdotal, of course, but the UPS guy who delivered my device, when asked if he'd been delivering many, asked what the Kindle Fire was. Since the name is printed on the box, and the packaging is unique, I guessed my was his only delivery that day. He confirmed that when I showed him the box.


  1. Re:Netflix. I watched a Netflix movie the first day I had my Fire, and an Amazon movie the next day. The Netflix movie showed better--no jumpiness or pauses.

    I'll be using my Fire in the school library to make myself more accessible. I no longer need to be behind the desk to circulate books.

    I don't think I'll be using the Fire to read, as I'm too used to the non-glare screen on my other Kindle.

    For $199, this is a great tablet. I can't wait to take it to school after Thanksgiving break and put it to work!

  2. so you are saying that it's either kindle fire or Acer, not nook tablet, right. I'm lusting after the kindle fire, but it will have to do evernote.

    Thanks for the review

  3. @SEMS Library Lady: thanks for the heads-up about Netflix! I did update the original post. I'm interested in how you'll make yourself more accessible with the tablet.

    @kittent: I haven't played with the Nook at all, and now I really want to. Fire does have the Evernote app--and I agree with you, I would most definitely make any computer hardware decision right now based on Evernote myself as well.

  4. No matter which tablet you have, this is the way people will be reading and learning. there are so many valuable uses for these devices and more functionality is on the way.

  5. I have a Kindle Fire on order for my school to see differences in iPad and Fire. I want to put it in the hands of kids, random age, to see what happens. I agree, Amazon should get into the education business because we administrators are looking for "bang for the buck." $200 vs $500 is a HUGE difference. I can get two Kindle Fires for the price of 1 iPad!

  6. I'm hoping that this will be a more affordable option for some parents as an educational device. The first thing that people have to keep in mind when comparing it to the iPad is that it isn't an iPad, and it is more than 1/2 the price.

    Hopefully some of the android app developers will jump on board and get more of them available in the Amazon app store.

  7. @Mike: I totally agree. The world of information opens up amazingly on the tablet in an intriguing way. I'm reading MUCH more than I ever have.

    @Victoria: Agree here, too. Update on my 13-year-old daughter: she really likes the Kindle Fire because it is *not* trying to be an iPad, and in the way that only a 13yo can describe, it doesn't look like you're using an iPad-wannabee, but is a device you wouldn't be ashamed of... :) Fascinating.

  8. @Mr J: I'm not sure it's the app developers... I think Amazon has created a "selected" marketplace, but I could be wrong. I can use the Amazon marketplace on my other devices--it's just their way of organizing and playing a middleman role (I'm guessing it's a long-term revenue play as well). You can change the setting on the device to allow unsupported apps, but in what I think is EGREGIOUS when you try to go to the Google App marketplace in your browser, Fire redirects you to their marketplace. Ouch.

  9. You've convinced to get an Acer tablet and wait and see what happens with Kindle, Fire, and others after Christmas.
    As far as an educational tool, I think we, educators, need to focus on the work that students do and be as neutral as possible on what they use to produce the work. I'm a fan of Dixson Ticonderogas because I've wasted way too many hours sharpening and resharpening the cheap big box pencils. But, I really don't care what pencil the student uses, as long as I don't have to sharpen it for them.

  10. I'll be usin. In elementary school library with students. Let's see what they think!

  11. @Dan--you've opened a real can of worms there! I really agree, and when a technology has matured, that makes a lot of sense (like pencils and calculators). I think we're there if we focus on using the Web as the primary technology, but when you get to apps, especially Apple vs. Android, I'm really wondering how bumpy this road is going to be over the next few years. :)

  12. @Craig--I'd love to know how you set them up in terms of the Amazon account. Amazon may have a great system for this in place (student accounts, library accounts, etc.) that I'm just not aware of, and I hope so since that would be a big part of the parental evaluation.

  13. Thanks for such a good review. We introduced kindles in our library this year. Great for storing classics and other interesting but less read books and they have encouraged students to try things they would not have before. I have a Kindle Fire on order for my school to see difference. We habe tablet notebooks in the school for staff and just starting with students and many of the boys have the apple technology at home. I want play with the kindle fire myself but more importantly put it in the hands of our boys to see what happens. The Amazon technology is still so much cheaper than the iPad and in schools this is a big selling point.

  14. I am wondering how and if libraries... public, private, university etc. will welcome the "FIRE". We have two iPads at our library- at the present time- first generation and are lightly circulated for over a year now. Laptops are still more heavily circulated for production work. Right now the "FIRE" is sitting in front of me in an unopened box... I too will make an educational comparison between the iPad and "FIRE". But it seems I do use my iPad2 with a bluetooth keyboard which makes it laptopish! I still seem to be desiring to push my mouse around the desk! The iPad2 has tempted me use the small bluetooth keyboard, forget the mouse because it is seemed to have transformed itself into the touch screen. I am glad to give up the little critter for less desk clutter! I went to San Diego last week with just the iPad2 and bluetooth keyboard -(which had arrived in the mail one day before departure to LA/San Diego.) It did take less than one hour to get my wrists and fingers aligned with the smaller keys! No offense to Mickey Mouse... but I have retired my mouse! I hope new device sets my heart on "FIRE"!

  15. @Rhondda and @Roxann: I can't wait to see what you both think of Fire as a library device. Unlike the iPad or and Android tablet, Fire feels like a "toaster," more of a limited-use appliance than a real tablet device.

  16. Hi Steve!

    Thanks for the thorough review on the Kindle Fire. I have been looking for a review like this one because I can see its values to the educators, students and administrators.

    I have had my eye on the Kindle Fire or the Nook Color tablet. My 11 year old niece requested a tablet for her birthday. After looking at what was available to her and what she could afford; she opted for the Nook from Barnes and Noble because she got enough gift card money to use with her savings to get the Nook now! She was going to save up more money to get a different tablet. At first she thought she wanted the iPad. Then she found out that Apple does not accept "Flash" which she needed to access her math skill building website so the iPad got knocked down in her choices list. It was not in her current budget either. I am interested to know which Nook she has and what she thinks as a "student" user.

    As far as apps are concerned my significant other is a computer programmer and he is needing to know what kinds of apps are the stakeholders looking for? He is ready to design anything that is suggested!

    I am adding a tablet to my list for Christmas, even if I may have to wait until afterwards to get it!

  17. @JudibeeFL I really need to go look at a Nook now. Have your significant other email me at and let's make a connection.

  18. I just bought my very first e-reader, a Nook Simple Touch, for only $79. I am still learning, but so far it's been very user-friendly. I immediately ordered and received a book from B&N and have been happily reading it. What I want to learn how to do is borrow books from my local public library and purchase TED books--I think both of these will require which they call "side-loading", which I presume means downloading first to my laptop and then transferring via USB to the Nook.

  19. I'm pretty sure you can add your PDFs and other non-Kindle documents to your Kindle Fire through the kindle email account that is tied to your amazon account. Supposedly you can email the document to that account and then instantly view it on the Fire.

  20. Anonymous10:46 AM

    I realize this forum is for those who educate children. I am an adult returning to college. I still feel compelled to comment.

    I suggest considering Amazon's intentions for the Kindle very carefully; they are not targeting those of us who want a tool for studying and learning as long as docs in PDF and other formats are unreadable.

    To clarify, I can comfortably read books, textbooks, anything in the format the Kindle book reader supports.

    I struggle at only 40 years of age to read all other material, even docs in PDF, which I believe is the most common document format. Web pages are often worse. This functionality is not elusive to Amazon, it's simply compromised.

    I wonder as well about slideshow and video presentations. How well does Kindle support those formats?

    I made a mistake and did not shop carefully. I would not want those of you with the responsibility of educating children to do the same.

    Apple or Samsung and others more versatile would be in best position for innovating an effective educational tool. Amazon sells books, movies, and games, not good computers.

  21. Is anyone aware of any college or university using the Kindle Fire?


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