Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kindle Fire: probably good enough



Since Dave Patterson and I have signed up to offer the first 5 weeks of Berkeley’s CS169 Software Engineering class as  a free online course using Stanford’s ClassX, I feel the pressure ratcheted up to finish the textbook we’ve been preparing for use with this course.


We’ve always intended to deliver it primarily as an e-book, and while we have a very promising prototype of a highly interactive tablet version, we recognize that in the near term the mass market for e-books will be the Kindle format.


We‘ve been assuming many (most?) people will use the free Kindle Cloud Reader since it displays color and can take advantage of a larger screen than the Kindle hardware devices.  So we were excited when the Kindle Fire was announced—a color e-book reader that doubles as an Android tablet at an attractive price point ($199) might be something that gets real student uptake.  We ordered a couple to evaluate internally.


First, people are invariably going to compare it to the iPad.  I’d say there’s no comparison.  Besides Fire’s smaller size, its user experience is downright clunky compared to iOS.  (I’m new to Android, but if this is representative of the gap between iOS and Android, they’re two different products.)  Using the tablet is far from intuitive.  Not all of my books appear under the Books tab; some appear only under the Home tab.  And the Home tab is different from the Apps tab.  In trying to review the apps I have, there’s a bunch on there I don’t even understand (hidden apps that came with the device but aren’t visible on the Apps screen), and I can’t imagine how a nontechnical user could figure out what to do with them.  Frequently, dialogs will pop up that require typing, yet the on-screen blind-up keyboard will cover some of the fields, so that it’s impossible to see what you’re typing except by repeatedly hiding and re-showing the keyboard.  There are ever-present buttons along the bottom of the screen for Back, Home, and Search, but these buttons don’t work the same way (or at all) in every app.  For example, I downloaded a YouTube viewer app and was puzzled when the Search button didn’t present a search bar. Turns out the app had its own Search function that doesn’t use the Android-standard everpresent search button.  Big lose.


I didn’t try the media-consumption features (watching TV/movies, downloading songs, etc.), but they’ve gotten .


The touch interface is flawed.  The multitouch hardware is fine, and the build quality of the device feels solid, but the sensitivity to actual gestures is badly off.  It’s nearly impossible to open a book from the “carousel view” without flipping past it.  Page turns are oversensitive, and you can’t hold the device in just one hand because every part of the screen responds to touch and you end up turning pages without meaning to.  (The original Kindle had this problem with button placement.  It’s amazing they didn’t learn from that experience.)  The page turning animation is jerky rather than smooth, and if you balk partway through the page-turning gesture, it’s quite hard to detect whether the page was actually turned or not except by actually re-parsing the words—big lose.


So it’s not an iPad—is it a better Kindle?  Maybe.  I have 3 other black-and-white Kindles (1st gen, DX, and graphite-colored 3rd gen), and my position has always been that those devices are one-trick ponies, but it’s a really good trick.  The 3G in particular is ultralight, can be read in bright sunlight, can be easily held in one hand, is no strain on the eyes, has a battery that lasts for days or weeks, etc.  In contrast, the Fire is too bright to read in a dark bedroom, even at the lowest brightness setting; eyestrain sets in quickly.  You can’t hold it in one hand, not only because of the misdesigned UI that results in gratuitous page turns, but because it’s just too heavy to hold comfortably despite its small size.  Its battery life is a few hours—by the end of my playing around with it on the first day for a couple of hours, it was down to 60% charge.  It seems to combine the disadvantages of the iPad with the disadvantages of a smaller screen (about 7”, or only slightly larger than the 6” screen on the 3G).


What about the rendering of actual Kindle books on the Fire?  It seems to be identical to the rendering in Kindle Cloud Reader, which isn’t great news since the layout possibilities are extremely limited.  (They would be on a small screen anyway, even with more powerful layout facilities.)  The Kindle Format 8 is supposed to improve on this, but I’ve been on their mailinglist since the preannounce and nothing has been announced to developers on what new formatting is possible in KF8.  For the moment, though, the device I’ll always throw in my bag is still the less-expensive black & white Kindle 3G.


Having said all that, the Fire will probably sell well.  Android phones have sold well even though the user experience is clunky compared to the iPhone.  Windows killed Apple on the desktop even though its user experience is a far cry from Mac OS X (or for that matter Mac OS 1 through 9).  Both sold because they were cheaper and because they looked good enough from afar, until you try to really get intimate with them.  As some technology columnist recently wrote, the Fire doesn’t have to be better than the iPad—it just has to be good enough.


I miss Steve Jobs.