Loose Ends 1

The end of the year is approaching–hopefully you were already aware of that–so I thought I’d close out a couple of open issues before the calendar turns over.

I’ve talked about Amazon’s $50 tablet a couple of times, most recently in September, when I said the thing might actually be more useful than expected. Apparently a lot of people agreed with me. Amazon dropped the price to $35 as one of their Black Friday deals, and they sold a heck of a lot of them. I don’t know how many, but they quickly went into backorder status. People who bought them Friday evening received them just in time for Christmas.

I’m speaking as a recipient, not a purchaser here, by the way. Yes, there was a Fire under our tree this year (sorry). Many thanks to Maggie for the gift.

After four days of playing with it, I’m actually impressed.

Yes, it’s made of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap. It’s quite solid, no creaks or flexes. That solidity does come at a price; it’s heavier than I expected, but that’s a reasonable tradeoff. It’s still light enough to hold one-handed for extended periods.

As expected, the speaker sucks. There’s no bass, and the sound distorts at even moderate volume. But nobody in their right mind would use a tablet’s built-in speakers anyway. Plug in headphones or external speakers, and the sound is perfectly acceptable.

The 1024×600 resolution is, well, odd. Held vertically, it looks skinny; horizontally it feels like sitting in the last row of a very big movie theater. That makes video something of a peculiar experience. The Fire plays video surprisingly well, at least in my limited tests, but the aspect ratio doesn’t quite fit either standard or high definition content. The distortion isn’t horrible, but it’s noticeable if you look for it. On the other hand, the tablet is light enough that you can hold it close to your face, making the seven inch screen much less of an issue. It’s still too small to completely fill your visual field, but if you don’t insist on your TV shows being immersive experiences, it’s quite adequate.

I expected the size and resolution would make for a decent reading experience, and I was right. I’m pleased enough that I’m making it my primary reader. It’s much more comfortable to hold for a couple of hours at a time than my nine-inch Nexus and the display is crisp enough that I’m not worried about eye strain. And it’s small enough to make it easy to slip into a pocket and take it along for BART reading.

There are some negatives. For one thing, the screen is a fingerprint magnet. Keep a lint-free cloth handy because you’ll be wiping the screen every couple of days. For another, it can be quite sluggish when switching between apps. Once I’m into an app, it’s usually fine, but I’ve had several five second waits while the tablet frees up memory.

And there are some quirks around the way the device handles user profiles. You can have two “adult” accounts and several “child” accounts, but only the first adult account can use system-level controls. That makes the second adult essentially a child, only with no age-based restrictions on content. It’s unlikely to be a problem for most users, but it’s something to keep in mind when you first set up the device–the first adult account should probably be the person who will be using the tablet most.

The biggest problem, though, is Amazon’s walled garden. I expected there would be some issues in that regard, but the details have tripped me a couple of times. Remember that SD card slot? It’s there, and it works, but Amazon seems to have made it very difficult for third-party apps to use it. Moving your music and video to SD is straightforward, but Amazon explicitly blocks you from moving other media types–including books–to SD. They prefer you to keep anything other than music and video on the internal memory and shuffle it off to cloud storage when you run short of space.

Third-party apps, as far as I can tell, only get read access to the SD card. Since this is my first Amazon device, most of my books are in epub format, which Amazon’s reader doesn’t handle. So I use a third-party reader–the same one I’ve used for a couple of years on my Nexii. I’ve had to load my books by putting the card in my computer. It works, but it’s a little cumbersome.

Bottom line: I like it. It’s well worth the $50 price tag. But be aware of the limitations. This is emphatically not a do-everything device.

More loose ends Thursday. See you then!

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