Amazon introduced not one, but four devices in New York on Wednesday, starting with three new e-readers based on the company's e-ink technology and priced at $79, $99, and $149. The clear headliner of this launch is the $199 Kindle Fire, a 7-inch color tablet device based on the Android operating system and powered by a dual-core TI OMAP4 processor, capable of streaming videos and running demanding video games. The high-res, 169-pixel-per-inch screen is said to use in-plane switching technology similar to that used by iPad, for an extra-wide viewing angle suitable for watching videos with others.
The device has an eight-hour battery life, Amazon says, but results will surely vary depending on processing demands. Web and email access is Wi-Fi only, with no 3G models at this time. It's no small consolation that Amazon's (mobile-network-based) Whispersync technology is built in, so as to encourage purchase and rental of Amazon content. That's clearly where the profit in this device will lie for Amazon.
The real story with Kindle Fire is not the hardware but the ecosystem, which includes content, cloud backup and a new Amazon Silk "split browser" that resides both on the device and in Amazon Web Services Cloud. Amazon's deep trove of content includes more than 100,000 movies and TV shows, 17 million songs, 1 million Kindle books, hundreds of magazines and newspapers, and 16,000 Android apps from the Amazon Android App store.
All content that customers purchase is automatically backed up or archived in Amazon's cloud, which is good thing since there's only 8GB on onboard memory (versus 16 to 64 GB for the iPad2, depending on the model).
[ Is Kindle Fire right for you? See Amazon Kindle Fire: 4 Key Considerations. ]
And to improve the browsing and streaming experience, the Amazon Silk browser architecture aims to radically speed performance by splitting processing workloads between the device and Amazon EC2. The number of data-request, back-and-forth hops between the Internet and the device is said to be dramatically reduced, eliminating associated delays, and optimizing browsing and streaming.
Given the Kindle Fire's display size and lack of 3G options, it's no head-on competitor to the iPad 2. But in the great big price-sensitive consumer market, a $199 ticket to a tablet-content-consumption experience will sell. That may put a big dent in demand for the 9-inch, $499 iPad (lowest-priced wifi model) competitor from Apple.
InformationWeek.com was live at the Amazon launch event, to get up close and personal with Kindle Fire. Take a look at what we learned about its case, display, browser, and more.
Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos debuted the new Kindle family, starting with the $199 Kindle Fire, an Android-based tablet that puts video, audio, Internet access (via Wi-Fi only), and more than 16,000 Android Apps at the consumer's fingertips. The three new Kindle e-readers are based on black-and-white electronic-ink technology. The $149 Kindle Touch 3G is Amazon's first touch-screen model. Touch navigation aims to make it easier than Amazon's older Kindle models to turn pages, search, and shop for content. No-cost 3G access to the Kindle store is built in. The $99 Kindle Touch is much the same device, but limited to Wi-Fi. At $79, the new standard Kindle is said to be 18% smaller and 30% lighter than the old model, yet it features the same 6-inch screen.
There's no doubt that a device that costs $300 less than the lowest-priced iPad2 will have dramatically broader sales potential. "We're going to sell millions of these," said Bezos in an intended understatement, "so pre-order right away to make sure you can get your hands on one." The device is scheduled to ship starting November 15. We can't break the hardware costs down yet, but at $199, the odds-on bet is that Amazon is selling the hardware at a loss and counting on profits from sales of video, audio, books and apps.
At the launch event, an Amazon engineer explains Amazon Silk, the company's new "split browser" that can handle processing demands both locally on the device and on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). With each page request, Silk is said to automatically determine the most efficient split of processing, based on factors including network capacity, page complexity, and cached content. But Silk doesn't rely on back-and-forth hops between the device and the Internet for a page request that may draw on dozens of files served up from multiple domains. Instead, Silk can rely on EC2, its persistent connections to the Internet, and its massive processing power to collect all the required components, then quickly stream them directly to the device. As a result, Amazon says movies, music, books, magazines, apps, games and the Web (including Flash content) can be consumed quickly without overwhelming the processing capacity of the Kindle Fire.
At 7.5 X 4.7 x 0.45 inches, the Kindle Fire is at least two inches smaller than the 9.5 x 7.31 x 0.34 iPad2 on two dimensions, but it's actually a tenth of an inch thicker than the Apple device. The Kindle Fire weighs 14.6 ounces, versus 1.33 pounds for the iPad2. The Amazon gadget's size is very similar to that of the 7.48 x 4.74 x 0.47-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 7, which weighs in at 13.58 ounces.
At 0.45 inches thick, the Kindle Fire is fatter than the old 0.3-inch Kindle e-reader and the 0.34-inch iPad2, but it's thinner than the 0.5-inch-thick Blackberry PlayBook. All four sides are spare, with a small round power button, an HDMI micro USB plug (for charging by USB or AC adaptor,) and a mini audio plug on the bottom. The top has two speaker slots. Sorry, no memory expansion slot or external connectivity of any kind (other than audio).
You won't find a camera on either side of the Kindle Fire. But the rubberized back feels good, and resists fingerprints.
Stereo speakers are positioned at the top of the device--so they're not muffled when you place the device on a table top, pillow or other surface. Music will play while you read.
Based on what we saw at the launch event, the unit feels solid. The Gorilla Glass screen promises scratch and breakage resistance. Amazon says the display is "chemically strengthened to be 20 times stiffer and 30 times harder than plastic...which means it will stand up to accidental bumps and scrapes."
Kindle Fire doesn't match iPad2 head-on: Performance, storage, screen size and resolution, the availability of 3G connectivity, and price put that device in a different league. But how many people who might have saved and eventually splurged on an iPad will now opt for Kindle's $199 tablet experience? The killer ingredient here is Amazon's content. There may well be Android apps that don't work on Amazon's heavily customized version of the operating system. But as for video, audio, book, and periodical content, Amazon has a bigger and broader collection available than Barnes & Noble does with its Android-based Nook Color.