Burning A Kindle On Both Ends
In addition to countless puns and plays on the product name, commentators have been coming up with all different ways of characterizing the Kindle Fire 7-inch entry into the tablet category (tablet on training wheels, et al). By all reports, Amazon’s new mini-tablet will easily take second place in the tablet market by year’s end. Whatever reservations analysts and reviewers have about the device, its flaws are outweighed by its incredible price. At $200, the Kindle Fire is the very essence of the principle that half a tablet is better than none -- especially at less than half the price. From the time I got my hands on the original Samsung Galaxy, it was clear to me that a 7-inch tablet experience really wasn’t a direct competitor with the iPad. The difference between the two form factors in terms of immersive experience and manageability of the interface is obvious.
Usability expert Jakob Nielsen threw some water on the Kindle Fire yesterday with a full-frontal smackdown of its interface problems. In the course of his analysis, Nielsen called the Fire a “disappointingly poor user experience.” His admittedly limited test group of four users found that the Web browsing experience on a 7-inch tablet is just excruciating, with many tap errors. His testers clearly preferred using mobile Web sites to full sites on this device, which pretty much turns the tablet into an oversized smartphone. In fact he recommends that users do precisely that and turn the browser setting so that sites detect it as a mobile device. Publishers and brands hoping to get the 3 million or more Kindle Fire users we could see by year’s end may also want to sniff for the Fire browser and just serve its users the mobile version of their sites.
Nielsen himself really lights into the Fire based on his own subjective judgment. He denounces the magazine apps on the device as “miserable.” The early magazines on the Fire generally aren’t trying to optimize for the smaller screen. Most don’t even have the rather standard hotlinks on the cover that jump to articles, he finds.
Generally Nielsen agrees with my initial take on the Kindle: that it is surprisingly sluggish and awkward to use. The delays often experienced when dragging or tapping on activation buttons breaks the connection between user and virtual space. I am astonished that the Web browser is so slow, given Amazon’s build-up of its use of the Cloud to accelerate performance of many sites. Lord, I would hate to see what this browsing experience is like without the acceleration. The lack of a physical volume control is just crazy. Having only four favorites that are customizable on the Home page is almost as daft. Merely stacking on a pile of recently used icons and passing that off as efficient Home page architecture is plain wrong. And even with a 7-inch screen, the basic menus are divided between top and bottom of the screen, so you are hunting for the next button to press.
I also can’t stress enough how much my first impression of the Kindle Fire’s lack of customizability distances this user from the device itself. The emphasis here on selling the goods is so strong and locked within a bland inflexible interface that I get no sense of fun or engagement from the experience. It feels business-like and straightforward.
All that said, the Fire is not half bad as a media consumption device of an impersonal sort. As with all things Amazon, the management of the media store itself is ham-handed. I like the access the Prime membership give me to the Instant Videos collection, but this thing really needs more of the Netflix tool set for saving and retrieving media. One thing I do like about the all-you-can-eat model on the Fire is the inclusion of trailers to the stream catalog. I am a hopeless browser, so I miss having trailers in Netflix.
Nielsen raises the basic question that occupied me foremost years ago when I first tried the Samsung Galaxy:Iis there a real place for 7-inch tablets? After seeing how poorly they handle full Web content or material sized for 10-inch tablets and also seeing how uninteresting it is to have smartphone content blown up to fill this screen, it is clear content and interfaces need to be designed for this scale. If the little things like buttons and layouts were crafted to accommodate the mid-sized display, then the experience might be more involving than it is. Nielsen thinks the experience, while never likely to equal a 10-inch screen, can be engaging if the ecosystem can support yet another form factor.
Personally, I think a 7-inch form factor is practical and viable in the long run. Ultimately, I think the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble will move toward a free or near-free device model that will help many users ignore the clear limitations of the devices. Their walled gardens, lack of customizability or personality and compromised technical performance are decent trade-offs for delivering select media experiences well enough. After all, we spent a couple of generations staring at crappy TV resolution mainly because standardization on a compromised experience was acceptable because the price was right. Surely many consumers will find a 7-inch and near-free media-selling device palatable.
But I would also say that on the basis of use cases alone, 7-inchers could find a place. Their portability is important. In moving across all three device form factors now for a few months (using the Nook Color as well), I find that the 7-inch tablet is more conducive to bedtime use. It is simply easier to manage and position with one hand. I think there may also be a good case for it as a TV second screen. In some ways I find thumb-typing on the smaller screen easier than I do on the iPad, an so I can imagine leveraging it as a second screen social interaction tool, remote or even game controller.
A market for the 7-inch tablet probably does exist, and Amazon may help open that up. But the Fire itself is far from the last word. Given the experience of other tablet releases before it, the interface lessons from touch screens generally, and the hype it generated for this hardware release, I am surprised the Fire is as unpolished as it is. I hope some of these problems will be addressed in a firmware update -- but personally, I am more hopeful that Kindle Fire 2 will be closer to what we need.