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I'm a big Amazon fan, and a Prime account is great when you live in the boonies. I've also become a big Kindle fan -- but I've just discovered that I'm only a fan of the old design: the amazing thin, light, black-and-white book-reader-only kindles.
I've held off on buying a tablet until now. I have a great desktop (fanless running Windows 7 and, inside Virtualbox, Unbuntu Linux) and a great laptop (Macbook), and it's getting more and more seamless to move back and forth between all the OSes with cloud stuff like Google Docs and VirtualBox. Why do I need yet another computer when I'm trying to save money? And waiting on computer purchases always gets you better, cheaper, faster.
The book I'm working on with Dianne Marsh began as an ebook-only project (we later decided that it's worth having a print version as well). That made me realize that I needed to start playing with ebooks, so I got a Kindle. As I've used it, I've gotten more and more attached to it. Just not having to deal with the weight of a book, hold a book open and (I suspect) compensate for the text curved over pages makes it a lot easier to read, and most people I've talked to say that they are reading more now because of it. Being able to carry your library with you is fantastic.
So when the Fire was announced, I was already primed. I really liked the Kindle experience, and here was a tablet computer for only $199! It seemed like it was time to take the leap.
This was my first tablet computer so I assumed I'd have to compensate and adapt. The 7" screen makes selecting and typing a hit-and-miss affair; perhaps younger and nimbler fingers were having a better time of it.
Then I tried transferring an AVI video file to the device. No go; it simply didn't see the file. Also, there's no way to add memory so even if video files did work I wouldn't be able to put very many of them in (I found one or two blogs that said you had to translate them into MP4 format first, but following those instructions produced no joy. Apparently you also need to use a tool that will translate them and create a special profile file before the Fire will recognize it but I never got that far).
Then a really big surprise. I've been creating a tool to memorize lines for an upcoming play, and it creates a .mobi file (the Kindle format) so I can upload it to the Kindle and use it to prompt myself. This has been terrifically useful, and it's also pushed me through the process of learning how to create this Kindle-specific format.
Or so I thought.
It turns out the Fire doesn't read .mobi format. This completely stuns me -- Amazon has invested so much in having their own format which goes against the apparently more powerful EPUB format that I can't see how they wouldn't have built-in support for it in the Fire. But sure enough, I uploaded my .mobi files to the "books" directory of the Fire and they didn't show up. I understand that there's probably some way to manage all this stuff and get what you want but it seems like an uphill battle.
The more I used the Fire, the more it felt like I was looking through the wrong end of a spyglass and all I could see was Amazon. I had read that the Fire is designed as a consumption device for Amazon products but I hadn't believed that they would go to so much trouble to hobble what should be a general purpose computer. This is an unfortunate sign for the company; it means that the people who are running it are salesmen and bean counters who are more concerned about what a product does for the company and its bottom line than what it actually does for the customer.
Still, I was determined to try to make a go of the Fire because its $199 price tag seemed to be a breakthrough for tablets and could motivate a lot of people to get one, so I should know about them.
Then I went to Costco. There, I saw a $189 Vizio Android tablet which was not only 8" (vs. 7" for the Fire) but also had things like a camera and expandable memory. So there went the price advantage. Next to it was a 10.1" Acer Iconia Tab A500 for $319, sporting the very latest Android as well as things like a GPS and front and back cameras. The size alone drove me to this one.
The feel between the Acer and the Fire is nothing short of totally different. From the first moment, the Acer feels like a real computer, one which is trying to enable you rather than restrict you.
There were some oddities, which I suspect are universal with Android devices. For example, there's no built-in file manager to copy files around and the like. A quick search led me to the most popular, Astro. Downloading and installation is easier than any desktop OS I've ever used. It looks like there are a lot of applications out there, predominantly free or very low cost, on the order of what you see in the Windows world.
If you want to manage files from a Windows machine, all you have to do is connect a USB cable, but for a Mac you must install the Android file transfer program.
If you use Google, Android devices are tuned to make the transition seamless. Although it was possible to connect to Gmail using the Fire, the full Android experience puts you right in touch with all your Google apps (such as contacts). When it's sleeping it even gives you little sound notifications when an email or calendar event happens.
Loading an AVI file was seamless; actually the ACER can accomodate standard USB dongles as well as micro USB and it even has an HDMI output for your TV. There's a switch that locks the orientation of the screen (very nice for watching movies in bed, and something the Kindle Fire sorely misses, or perhaps it's a setting I just didn't discover).
The Kindle reader application works very nicely, and something called "Lumibooks" came pre-installed, and although I have yet to discover the file system for either of them both apps claim you can download to them. There's also a Nook app that comes pre-installed, so buying an Android tablet allows you to read books and watch videos of any kind but buying a Fire makes it hard to do anything but interact with Amazon, while at the same time leaving out lots of other useful features like cameras and GPS and expansion memory.
The salesmen and bean counters must certainly feel like this is a triumph because the Fire feels like a funnel into Amazon. But it is a short-term, hollow victory and indicates a bad trend for Amazon.
Fortunately the company should get quick feedback when people start discovering that lower-cost competing products give them much more: A true computer rather than shackles. I can't imagine why anyone would want a Fire when they can buy a real Android instead. I only hope that programmers will not have to do anything in order for their Android apps to run on the Fire; that would be a real nail in the coffin.
Here's another article talking about the pros and cons of the Fire.
|Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.