The Wirecutter reviews the options and finds that Google’s new Nexus 7 is the best cheap tablet. Along the way, they don’t make a very convincing case for why you’d actually want to spend $200 on one. They do, however, accidentally make an excellent case for why someone would want the rumored, hypothetical, cheaper, smaller version of the Apple iPad.
I think the real reason Google released the Chrome browser for the iPhone and iPad: Users of Chrome on iOS won’t be able to block the Google tracking cookies that Mobile Safari blocks by default.
When Amazon first announced the Kindle Fire, many people heralded it as the first tablet with a chance in the market against Apple’s iPad by virtue of the fact that it was less than half the price, and more portable, with a 7″ screen.
Those predictions were recently validated, with Amazon selling an estimated 5.5M in the first quarter of release. Not bad, but we learned today that Apple sold 15.43 Million iPads, a 111% increase over the same period last year. It is an interesting contrast, but I wondered how the Kindle Fire’s sales compared to those of the iPod Touch.
My reasoning in comparing the two is that the Kindle Fire competes more directly with the Touch than the iPad. The iPad has a 10″ screen. When the first 7″ Android tablets hit the market, Steve Jobs said that Apple had considered smaller tablets, but found that the iPad was the smallest device they could make that allowed a significantly broader range of interactions than the iPhone. You can type on an iPad, as well as create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. The Kindle Fire, on the other hand, is a lot like a big iPod Touch. The bigger screen is better for reading and browsing the web, and perhaps a little better for viewing movies. On the other hand, the iPod Touch is significantly more portable; it fits in a pocket, the Fire, in a purse.
I wondered how Kindle Fire sales compared to iPod Touch sales. Apple reported that iPod sales were down 21% to 15.4 million, but over 10 million of those were iPod touches. With a little digging, I found that Apple sold about that many iPod Touches during the same period a year prior. So, even without an update, the iPod touch is selling about twice as well as the similarly priced Kindle fire. Of course, the Fire seems to be on an upswing, while the Touch is just holding steady.
Rumors about the iPad 3 have been swirling around for months, but things kicked up again today after Blomberg reported that production has begun on the iPad 3 in preparation for a March launch. According to their three sources, the iPad 3 will have a double-resolution “retina” display, a new quad-core CPU, and the mobile data capability will be upgraded from 3G to LTE.
If the report is accurate, these will be welcome, but unsurprising improvements. The retina display debuted on the iPhone 4, a few months after the first iPad shipped. Some hoped it would be a feature of the iPad 2, but there were good reasons it was impractical then. A higher resolution display is much more practical now and will provide a decisive improvement in the user experience.
I’m not persuaded that a quad-core CPU is essential for a tablet at this date, but it does provide an avenue for improving performance. A faster dual-core CPU would probably provide a greater overall performance improvement, but I don’t know how practical that is. There is a new generation of ARM cores on the horizon that should deliver a big performance boost over the Cortex-A9 cores used in the iPad 2’s A5 CPU, but people don’t expect them to reach mass production until late this year. A big clock-speed improvement with the existing core design could provide a nice boost, and should be practical given the expectation that the new chip will be built on a 28nm process, compared to the 40nm process used for the A5. The long-shot in all of this is that Apple will release their own core design. An iPad with a retina display will demand a faster GPU, but whether this will come from a new design, or be achieved through higher clock-speed and improved memory bandwidth, remains to be seen.
A bump from 3G to LTE is also a logical improvement, as carriers, led by Verizon, seek to recoup their investments in upgrading their networks to LTE. Apple avoided LTE in the iPhone 4s because available chipsets have horrible power consumption, but in the intervening 6 months, bring opportunities for new chips, and, perhaps more importantly, the power consumed by the cellular radio is much less significant on a 10″ tablet like the iPad, where the power consumption of the displays dominate.
What I’m most interested in, though, is something that probably won’t have an answer until the iPad 3 actually ships:
Will customers with 3G/LTE iPad 3s will be able to move them among various mobile carriers?
The iPad 2 had different hardware depending on whether it is a Verizon or an AT&T model. The iPhone 4s is sold with it locked to a carrier, but the underlying hardware can work with both AT&T’s GSM-based network and with Verizon’s CDMA network. I expect future iPads to be similar to the iPhone 4s, with a single hardware configuration that can work with different carriers, but the iPad is sold without a subsidy, and the GSM iPads have always been unlocked, allowing their use with other GSM carriers.
So, will carriers have to compete month-in-month-out to gain and retain iPad users? I sincerely hope so. I believe that the time will come where Apple has to pit the carriers against each other. For the iPhone, that time will likely come in a few generations, when the unsubsidized cost of the latest iPhone model drops to $300 or so. Is this the time for them to make that move with the iPad?
The Kindle Fire gives you a lot for under $200, but compared to the iPad, it is missing a lot of things. Some of those things, like the smaller screen, less storage, lack of GPS, slower GPU, lack of volume buttons, are inevitable tradeoffs for a device that costs less than half the price of an iPad, but there is something else, something more personal that the Kindle Fire is missing: Your Photos.
On the iPad, its clear that Apple knows you value your photos. There is an option to jump directly to your photo gallery from the lock-screen. Photos on your computer can be automatically synced to your iPad, and new photos taken with an iPhone flow directly to your iPad too via the iCloud Photostream. You can even get a camera connection kit that lets you copy photos to your iPad directly from a digital camera over usb, or from a memory card. Once your photos are on your iPad, browsing them is smooth and easy. You can quickly scroll through thumbnails from thousands of photos, or you can browse photos grouped by time, location and if you loaded the photos from a Mac and iPhoto, by the faces of people in the photos.
Amazon, on the other hand, doesn’t make it easy to get photos onto the Fire. You can drag them over from your computer, but you’ll need the right USB cable, which isn’t included with the device. You’ll have to do the same thing every time you want to add more photos. Once photos are on the Fire, it sounds like the experience of actually using them is anything but silky smooth.
It gets worse too, Amazon’s Cloud Drive service can store photos, but it requires you to upload the photos with a web browser, a tedious task for more than a select group of photos. Most incredibly though, there is no easy way to access photos stored on Cloud Drive from your Kindle Fire. It doesn’t appear to integrate with the built in Gallery application at all.
This seems like a tremendous opportunity for Dropbox, which makes it ridiculously easy to get access to photos and other files from multiple devices. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t seem to make Dropbox available in the Kindle Fire App store, so you’ll have to “sideload” it, but it is still (relatively) easy to do.
- Sign-up for a free Dropbox account with 2GB of storage, if you don’t already have one. Use this link and we’ll both get an extra 250MB of free storage, while you are at it, download and install the dropbox client on your Mac or PC.
- On your Kindle, visit the download page for the Dropbox Android App and tap the download link.
- While you are waiting for the download, turn on the ability to install applications that you didn’t find in the official Kindle Fire app store.
- From the Kindle Fire home screen, tap the gear icon in the upper right corner to call up the settings panel.
- Click the “More” button on the right hand side of the settings panel
- Scroll-down and tap “Device”
- Switch “Allow Installation of Applications From Unknown Sources” from “OFF” to “ON.”
- Return to the browser to check on your download.
- Look for the notification in the top-left corner that the download is complete. Tap the notification and find the Dropbox.apk file in the list. Tap the file.
- You follow the prompts to install the application.
- Launch the Dropbox application and log in.
- Any files you put in your Dropbox on your Mac or PC will be automatically uploaded to the cloud, and available through the Dropbox app on your Kindle Fire.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Kindle FIre since it was announced, and I’ve ended up writing a lot about it too, in the form of comments sprinkled here and there on sites like Hacker News. I thought I’d take a little time to try and get them all down in one place. So, here it goes.
This isn’t a review, it is a rumination on what the Kindle Fire “means” in the context of the larger technology and media landscape. My goal isn’t to reach conclusions, but rather to document and share my current thinking.
I’ll start by going over some basic details about the Kindle Fire, and my first impressions from using the device, before considering the device’s relationship to other aspects of the technology and media landscape.
- 7″ “widescreen” IPS LCD Screen (600×1024, 161ppi)
- 1GHz Dual Core CPU
- 8 GB Flash
- 512 MB RAM
- Heavily modified version of Android 2.3
- 8 hour battery life (with WiFi off)
- No camera, no ports beyond USB
- Sold by Amazon at or below cost
- Part of Amazon’s longstanding line of ebook readers
- Positioned as a more flexible/capable Kindle, with an emphasis on consumption of the web, purchased media (including Apps) and a shopping experience.
- Positioning was well received by consumers and critics.
- Actual device has been panned by many critics, but customer satisfaction seems to be high.
- The screen is crisp and bright
- The power button is awkwardly positioned
- The placement of the stereo speakers don’t make any sense (they are both on the same side when watching a video wide screen)
- The UI is smooth, except when it isn’t
vs eInk Kindle
Amazon notes the Kindle Fire’s abilities as an ebook reader, but doesn’t go so far as to suggest that it is an outright replacement for an eInk Kindle. The eInk screens are better for reading books, particularly in full sunlight, and enable both lighter weight and longer battery life. The eInk devices are also cheaper, and available with 3G to allow downloading of new content wherever there is cellular coverage.
I suspect that for many existing Kindle owners, the Fire won’t be a replacement device.
Amazon vs Apple
Before digging into the devices, its worth comparing Apple and Amazon as a whole.
Apple started out making relatively expensive stuff that other people sold for them at a relatively high margin. Over time, Apple has taken responsibility for selling more and more of the stuff they make. They have also become an important retail channel for people who make less tangible products, like music, movies, apps and, to a lesser extent, ebooks, and they have started offering services to end-users.
Amazon started out by retailing books that other people published and quickly added all sorts of stuff that other people (including Apple) made. In recent years they’ve become an important seller of services that other people use to provide end-user services, they’ve become increasingly important retail channel for people who make less tangible products, like music, movies, apps and ebooks. Most recently, they’ve started making and selling stuff that with the consumption (and sale) of those less tangible products. In all of this, Amazon has been comfortable with relatively slim margins.
Both companies have been willing to buck the trend of focusing on next quarters earnings. In Apple’s case, one result has been healthy margins, healthy profits, and strong market share. In Amazon’s case, one result has been strong market share and modest profits.
Kindle Fire vs iPad
Amazon didn’t explicitly position the Kindle Fire as an iPad competitor, but plenty of people have made the comparison for them. I don’t see them as direct competitors, but I am curious about how the Kindle Fire will impact the iPad in the future, and vice versa.
There are obvious differences between the Kindle Fire and the iPad. The Fire doesn’t have a camera, the iPad has two. The Fire has a smaller display. The Kindle is less than half the cost of the cheapest iPad 2. The iPad is available with more storage, and with a cellular data connection. What are the implications of these differences?
The cost difference is obvious, a family could buy two Kindle Fires for the cost of one iPad, and have $100 to spend on content. The size of the Kindle gives it an obvious advantage in portability. On the other hand, the iPad’s size makes typing on the touch-screen practical. It’s large enough to view PDFs formatted for letter-size paper, and for browsing and using layouts for digital “magazines.” It also makes it practical to create, populate and format a spreadsheet, or a document, or a presentation. For many people with modest computing needs, it is a viable alternative to a desktop or notebook.
In the end, I think the Kindle Fire is probably a viable competitor to the iPad for listening to music, watching videos, reading ebooks, and playing certain classes of games (provided they are available). I think it is inferior to the iPad for web browsing, writing email, creating and editing documents. I think the iPad has an added advantage in these areas because with iCloud, plus Pages, Keynote and Numbers, Apple provides apps and services that help people who are using the iPad as both a replacement for a standard notebook, or to augment one.
It’s worth noting too, the way that content and hardware businesses fit together for Apple and Amazon. For Amazon, hardware is something they sell close to cost in order to enable the sales of low-margin content. For Apple, they sell content at or close to cost in order to enable the sames of high-margin hardware. In the past, Apple’s control of music sales drove music labels into Amazon’s embrace as they looked for ways of reducing Apple’s influence. I wonder if Apple might be the beneficiary of similar concerns on the part of media companies, since Amazon seems interested in disinter-mediating them.
The differing business models also suggest different near-term futures for the different devices. Advances in technology will shift the price and performance envelopes for both the iPad and the Kindle Fire.
My prediction is that Apple will put most of those advances into enhancing the capabilities of the iPad in order to drive upgrades and make the iPad a viable alternative to a full-blown laptop. I would expect an “retina” display, as well as the more capable CPU and GPU required to drive it. They may trim weight, but I’m not convinced that battery life or weight will see rapid improvement
Amazon, on the other hand, has much less incentive to improve device capabilities. Video and ebook reading doesn’t require faster CPU or GPU. Web browsing might benefit from upgrades, but they seem to think their cloud-services will help with some part of browsing performance. If games become really important on the platform, then CPU and GPU advances might have a place. Battery life and weight have room for improvement as well. Given Amazon’s business model though, the most obvious course of action is to lower costs, which will largely be put to reducing the sales price in order to increace market penetration and leverage over content producers. In short, Amazon has more to gain from selling more devices than they do from selling more capable devices.
vs iPod Touch
Much has been made of how the Kindle Fire compares to the iPad as a media consumption device, which is fine, but ignores the fact that an iPad is capable of being more than a consumption device.
I agree though, the Kindle does seem strongest as a media consumption device, and from that perspective, I think it is worth comparing it to the iPod Touch, which is available at about the same price point.
For that price, the Fire gives you a larger screen for watching videos, playing games, browsing the web, and shopping. It is also reasonably portable, particularly if you carry a purse. It is, however, far less portable than an iPod touch, which fits in just about anyones pocket, and ads the capability of taking photos and videos.
It’s also worth noting that, while the iPod is in decline, Apple still sells millions of iPod Touch devices every quarter, so at least some of the people in the market for a Kindle Fire
I’m running out of steam here, but I think a lot of the points made above, about the iPod Touch, apply here as well. Many people already have, or will soon be buying, capable, portable media consumption devices in the form of smartphones. However, there is evidence so far is that Android users lag iPhone users in purchasing content and apps on their devices. This consumption gap might create an opportunity for the Kindle Fire among android phone owners, but the larger opportunity might be some sort of Kindle Phone, whereby Amazon could drive an app and media purchase and consumption experience that rivals Apple’s.
I don’t think the Kindle Fire is a viable notebook alternative, while I think the iPad is. Further, I think over the next few years, the iPad is likely to become a more viable notebook alternative, as its capabilities advance. On the other hand, I don’t think the Kindle Fire will become a more viable notebook alternative, because Amazon will put more focus on lowering costs than they will on enhancing capabilities, particularly since their non-hardware business are likely to see more benefit from selling twice as many devices than they are from selling devices that are twice as capable.
I’m tired, but at least now I have something to expand on and/or refer to in future posts. Possible topics:
- A closer look at Amazon and Apple’s content distribution businesses
- A closer look at Amazon and Apple’s entire user experience offerings. For example, Apple’s web services, desktop apps, retail experience, consumer support.