Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Kindle Fire - A Review (incl. a 1-Click fix)

Updated 12/7/2011, 3pm.

I've never owned a tablet or e-reader. Apple products have always been a no-go for me because at least 90% of the web sites I visit use Flash. And I've never seen the point in spending $400-$800 for a tablet with limited functionality when I could buy a laptop (admittedly low-end, clunky, unsexy) with more functionality and expandability for the same amount of money.

Why the Fire?
Price, price, price, price and price. When I looked at the price of the Fire, and the one month free Prime, and compared that to the potential advantages of a tablet for me, well, it was pretty much a no-brainer.

iPAD Owners
First, I envy you the disposable income that lets you buy multiple tablets.

Second, if the KF doesn't compare to the iPad, I can only ask if you read the description or purchaser comments before buying. It's smaller and at least half the price. What did you expect?

Third, one word: Flash. At least 90% of the web sites I visit regularly use Flash, often for such mundane tasks as site navigation or text display. I happen to hate Flash for a number of reasons, but a tablet that doesn't support Flash would be essentially useless for me. OTOH, the KF or Silk don't seem to support Microsoft's Silverlight.

Expectations Matter
It should go without saying that expectations matter. If you want a camera, this isn't for you. 3G would be nice - my U-verse DSL/Wi-Fi is not exactly a speed demon - but I'm not willing to pay yet another monthly fee for a modest increase in speed or accessibility.

Microphone: why?

So what did I think a tablet might offer that would make it an attractive alternative, at the right price, to a low-end laptop?

1) The ability to quickly look something up on the web. I turn off computers when they are not in use and even my near-top-of-the-line desktop takes 5 minutes to go from a cold-start to the Windows 7 desktop (via login and loading of startup apps). So when I'm reading a magazine or book (the real kind) and suddenly want to check something on the web, well, it's a hassle. And why turn it on if I'm going to turn it off in 5 minutes?

2) The ability to engage in recreational computer activities from a comfortable location (sofa, lounger, bed). Specifically, I have become interested in a number of free education web sites. But I spend enough time working at my desktop computer not to want to spend any more time there than necessary. But if I could access these sites from a comfy chair? Well, that would be appealing. And it would be nice to be able to play games (yes, Angry Birds), access internet radio stations or otherwise waste time comfortably.


Criticisms - Caveat Emptor:
Before buying, I read reviews (esp. the negative ones), on Amazon and elsewhere, and checked the forums. Some of the criticisms appear accurate, some are user-specific, and some are inaccurate. I have done my best to verify that my criticisms are based on fact not ignorance or inexperience, but, please, if something I say is a deal-breaker, research it on your own before taking my word for it.

Some users complained that the pre-registered (linked to your Amazon account) KFs came in boxes with Kindle Fire prominently displayed (an invitation to theft). I ordered the KF and the USB cable together. Both came in plain boxes inside a larger plain box. (I recently had two different vendors ship a DVR in the manufacturer's box - talk about theft potential.)

If however, you are concerned, you can order the KF as a gift and register it when you get it. NOTE: I'm not sure if it is possible to use an unregistered KF, but at the very least, if you don't register it, you are bound to lose some functionality.

Essential Accessories:
Get a cover! The KF arrives naked as a baby, in a very flimsy, tightly fitting plastic envelope. Even if you are not sure you will keep the KF, get a cover, even a real cheap one, at the same time.

USB cable - if you don't already have a USB cable (USB 2.0 A male to Micro B) and do own a computer, you might want to order one if you have, for example, music or e-books you want to transfer.

This is not for your computer-phobic Uncle Harry whose cell phone does nothing but make phone calls. The documentation, online and on the KF, is minimal. Amazon appears to assume that people know how to pinch, swipe, tap, double tap. The built-in documentaion only describes the icons, doesn't display them.

I think the videos on Amazon's support page ( should run automatically the first time one turns on the Kindle. They are, perhaps not surprisingly, more useful than the written documentation.

I'm pretty computer-saavy and yet have spent hours searching the web, the documentation, and Amazon's forums trying to get answers to all kinds of questions.

Power Button
There have been a lot of complaints about the power button being on the bottom where it can be easily and accidentally pressed. True, but all you have to do is turn the KF 180 degrees with the power button at the top. It works just fine for almost everything (only the opening swipe and a few web pages won't turn around) - and I don't know why Amazon didn't make that the default.

Note: If you just press the power button, it goes into a "semi-sleep" state so that pressing it again will bring you to the swipe arrow at once. If, however, you hold down the power button and tell it to shut down, it will take about 30 seconds to start back up. I'm not sure what the consequences for battery power are for the "semi-sleep" option.

Touch Screen Gremlin
I'm convinced there is a gremlin in the touch screen.

When I'm reading a book, the merest hint of a whisper of a touch will turn a page backwards or forwards.

On the web, when I want a double tap to work, it does some times and doesn't other times. On the other hand, when I just want to scroll down a page and not click on anything, something I pass will get activated and off I go to a screen I didn't want. Pages display in desktop mode and then because of something I don't even know I've down get switched to mobile mode. When I want to increase or decrease the size of a page, I may have to double tap or pinch multiple times. When I don't want the page display size or type to change, it does. Obviously, I'm touching or doing something to cause these unwanted actions to occur, but the problem is that I haven't figured out how to control the use of the touch screen so that it does only what I want when I want it.

I'm obviously spoiled by years of multi-window displays on wide LCD monitors and the W7 task bar. On the KF, it seems that the most frequent things I do are press the back arrow or the Home icon. To get from one app or book or function to another, you must get the Home icon, touch it, select the option you want on the home screen, then do something with that option. It has become really annoying.

Wireless Connectivity
The strength of the Wi-Fi signal in our home varies significantly on the KF from second to second. It appears that any change in position or even where one is holding the KF can affect the strength of the Wi-Fi signal. It's steady only when the KF is near to the router. It's difficult to say if the problem is with the KF, or if we need to buy wireless access points in order to get the best possible signals for the KF throughout our home.


I'm not a fan of e-books for all the well-known reasons we "real book" lovers give. So I will comment only on a couple of usability issues.

Books downloaded from sites such as Project Gutenberg show up in the Docs section rather than the Books section. That's OK. What is annoying is that they show up on the carousel with just a big blue icon and no title. (For testing, I set up Kindle on my PC. The same big blue icon appears but, importantly, with title.)

I find the KF too heavy to hold comfortably while reading. Now, if I want to read a hardback that's bigger and heavier than the KF, I might consider the KF as an alternative, but since most of my books are paperbacks, that's not likely to be a frequent occurrence.

I generally read while flopped on a sofa or in bed. It is not uncommon for a book to land on the floor with little negative consequences other than, perhaps, a crimped cover. While reading with the KF, it would be only a small exaggeration to say that not a minute passes without my worrying that I will accidentally drop the KF with consequences all too awful to contemplate. In bed, I build pillow "guards" to prevent its falling on the floor.

Minute shifts in position cause the KF to switch quickly from portrait to landscape mode. (While on the Web, it takes time to create the orientation shift.) However, there is a setting in the options at the top that lets you lock the KF's orientation.

No page numbers. That's right. Not supported. Maybe e-readers get used to the location numbers and % completed, but I find it disconcerting. There is also no indicator for how/where to tap to move forward or back. In fact, you can tap or swipe almost anywhere, but a bottom of page indicator would be a nice addition. And I don't understand why the KF can't give one the sense of a 3-dimensional object - as even Zinio's awful reader or The New Yorker's similarly awkward reader can do.

Library Checkout
Works fine but you must have Wi-Fi. You can download directly to the KF or to a computer and then transfer the books to the KF via USB. It's a multi-step process: library to book selection to Overdrive to Amazon but not difficult. Its usefulness will depend on the e-book catalog of the library you have access to and the popularity of e-books. My library has around 500 e-books in various genres and about 2/5 were available for a lending period of 21 days. There were as many as five holds on the most popular books.

The KF comes with Quickoffice, but I was surprised to discover that when I clicked on Quickword, I was presented with a screen with two options: Internal Storage and Recent Documents. The app installed on the KF can read existing docs (that you transfer, presumably, one way or another) but not create new ones. For that, you must upgrade.

I simply can't imagine using the KF keyboard to do anything more extensive than tweet 140 characters, so I didn't spend any time here.

Email - you can set up multiple email accounts. Gmail is a snap. To set up an AT&T account, I had to check my Thunderbird to get all the system settings right. I've not spent much time yet with the email since I rely on Thunderbird to manage multiple email accounts.


Almost all the attention paid to Silk has been on its backend, its split processing. Technically and theoretically, the model makes sense. The KF has limited storage relative to other tablets, so one doesn't want to waste space on cache. And the idea that Amazon's servers will be faster than local processors & internet connections because web pages will already be in cache on its servers is technically sound. But, the performance depends on a balance of factors: enough, but not too many (probably not an issue unless the KF is astoundingly successful), users accessing the same pages. Users with fast internet connections who visit the less-traveled web sites may do better on their own. To turn off the Amazon "backend", when you are in Silk, click the menu item at the bottom select options and uncheck the "Accelerate page loading" under the Advanced section near the bottom of the page.

Front End
The best that can be said for it is that none, zip, of the existing browsers on the market (inc. IE) need worry about losing market share. It is a disaster in almost every respect and bears about as much resemblance to a modern browser as the Gopher Client did to Mosaic (Netscape's predecessor) .

Note: I do not expect the functionality of Firefox or even the lesser usability of Chrome but really. It takes 3 steps to bookmark a web page. and the default order of display of the bookmarks appears to be either (I've not used it enough yet to tell) the most frequently accessed or the most recently accessed.

You can't order bookmarks alphabetically or group them into folders (categories). This won't matter if the web browsing you do with the KF is limited to a dozen or so web sites. If, like me, you visit a lot more than that, it is painful. (Hint: To go from thumbnails to a list, you need to tap in a blank search box while using Silk. You can speed things up by typing the name of the web site.)

You can't import or export bookmarks. It took me close to an hour to manually enter the 20 sites I most wanted access to from the KF. And then I had to go searching through my documentation to find the IDs and passwords for most of them since, of course, my password manager won't work under Silk. Being able to export bookmarks & then re-import them is important if one accidentally or purposefully unregisters your KF. (See section on security). I've not been able to locate any add-ons for Silk akin to Firefox's enormous library.. Since I visit a number of foreign language sites, I really miss the ability to use Google to translate a phrase or a page.

Opera Mobile is available for the KF. Firefox is not yet approved by Amazon and Ive found no way to get it onto the KF. Easy Installer can't find it even though I downloaded it to the Downloads section. I suspect, based on the Opera Mobile .apk file that East Installer expects the .apk file to be in an sdcard directory which I can't see or access. Apparently one can get Firefox to work on the KF by using an Android smart phone with an SD card. Google for instructions on how to do it. I've seen the process referred to as sideloading.

I thought there was no way to open a page in a new tab. But if you press down on the link, a popup window gives you the option. It's slow but maybe there's no other way to do it on a tablet? (I should have watched Amazon's video on using Silk instead of just jumping in on my own.) Go to the Options section to instruct the KF to open the new tab in front or in back of the current tab.

Page display
You can set options for the KF to use its best judgment, mobile or desktop formatting. I prefer the desktop formatting, but even with it selected, some web sites still display in mobile view. There is an option under the Advanced Settings called "Website settings" but it does not seem to have been implemented yet. If you choose to rely on KF's "autoformatting" or find the mobile setting best for most of your web sites, you may find that some web sites offer a mobile/desktop option somewhere on the page (check the top and bottom). This is one area where the 7-inch size works against the KF. It is too large for the mobile setting to be appropriate and too small for the desktop view to be easy to read. I do a lot of pinching and double tapping.

PDF Support
When you click on a PDF link on a web site, the PDF is downloaded. Tap at the bottom of the screen to bring up the menu of options and select "Downloads" to find it. I strongly, strongly, strongly, strongly recommend getting the free Adobe Reader app. I found Silk's default PDF reader inadequate to say the least.

The KF is not designed to be shared. There is a "Locked Screen Password" option under More/Security that will limit access to the KF (you are prompted for the password when you swipe the entry screen), but will also add to the time it takes you to get into the KF especially if you choose a strong password.

The KF is tightly integrated to your Amazon account. You register the KF to your Amazon account. You can manage the KF from your Amazon account. Books, for example, that you have on your KF appear in your Amazon "Manage Kindle" section, so if you don't want somebody else to see what you are reading, you are out of luck.

In short, there is no way to set up the KF for multiple users. This is NOT as some critics have suggested an easy thing to fix.

Consider what Amazon would have to do:

Have an "administrator" on the KF who can assign userids and passwords.

Let multiple userids have access to the same Amazon account (say for credit card access) but, in this case, set up the "Manage Kindle" function on the Amazon account to prompt for a KF userid/password and, of course, limit the books and apps available to each user on the KF itself.

In addition, it should allow each userid on the KF to be associated with its own distinct Amazon account.

Then there is Amazon Prime. If you have multiple users on the Kindle, each with a separate Amazon account, would you need an Amazon Prime for each (assuming you want the benefits of Prime)? I've read that Amazon Prime can be shared for shipping but not for videos.

In short, Amazon could develop software to make sharing safe & practical but it is not in the company's bottom-line interests to do so. It wants families to buy multiple Kindle Fires.

I do not know how this compares to the security on other tablets.

The 1 month free trial was a nice add-on and smart marketing.

Limitations: the free 2-day shipping applies only, as far as I can tell, to products shipped directly from Amazon rather than from 3rd parties. So the value of the $70/year for fast shipping will depend on your shopping habits.
Second, you get some free TV shows and movies with Amazon Prime on the KF but the number is sufficiently small, limited, and, quite frankly, bizarrely displayed (no way to alphabetize that I could find), that it appears to be mainly a loss-leader, designed to encourage you to buy content. (It is more than a little annoying to scroll through the TV section, for example, and see what appear to be multiple instances of the same program but which turn out to be, when selected, different seasons or episodes. OTOH, you get the first 6 seasons of Buffy for free!)

1-Click for the KF is a different animal from 1-Click for your standard Amazon account.

You can turn your Amazon account's 1-Click On or Off.

Some members have commented that there is a "turn off 1-click for mobile" option, but I found no such option on my account and wonder if by "mobile" what is meant is a smart phone.

You have to set up 1-Click separately for the KF and once you have done that, there is no way to turn it off for the KF. And you cannot set up 1-Click to work with a gift card on the KF which would be one way of preventing a shopping spree.

Unfortunately, you need 1-Click to get even free apps from the Kindle Store and to borrow library books.

According to an e-mail I got from an Amazon rep, this is because those services are available only to U.S. residents and the credit card associated with the 1-Click proves one is a resident. I find this an absurd explanation. The KF is tightly linked to one's Amazon account, and if Amazon can offer credit card options for the KF 1-Click, it can surely ascertain that at least one of one's credit cards has a U.S. address. (Apparently, Amazon wouldn't mind if you had other credit cards with addresses outside the U.S.?)

Re gift cards:if your Amazon account has a gift card balance, 1-Click on the Kindle will default first to the gift card balance before starting on the credit card. I don't know if you get any kind of warning when the gift card balance goes to 0.

This is major security problem. And not, as some critics have suggested, a problem only for families with ill-behaved and untrustworthy children. The KF, by its very size, is designed to be portable. Forget it someplace, leave it lying around and anybody could go on a shopping spree. If you are going to take it away from home, at a minimum set up a "Lock Screen Password" with a very strong password. (This, unfortunately, makes it less easy to simply pick up the KF, turn it on and start using it.)


I added a credit card to my Amazon account that I rarely use, then changed the credit card associated with the Kindle Fire to that card. Then I deleted that card from my Amazon account. 1-Click for Kindle disappeared. Apps I had "bought" (they were free but all turned up on said credit card) still worked. This is a pain. But if you have or can get a credit card with a very, very, very low limit, it might be a half-baked solution. If you have only one credit card and have turned on 1-Click for the KF, wait until all your purchases have hit the credit card, delete it, then put it back after your 1-Click for the KF is gone.

I am hoping that Amazon doesn't realize some people are doing this and make it impossible to delete the credit card associated with 1-Click for the KF rather than just switch it to another credit card. If Amazon does something like this, we will learn something important about the company.

If you've never owned a tablet, this is a good one to start with - if only because of the price. You're very likely to find it useful or fun in one way or another - provided you understand its limits before you buy - at least enough to justify the price, and by using it, you will figure out 1) whether you really want or need a tablet and 2) what features or functions are important to you.

Bottom Line:
I'll be keeping the KF because, bottom line, the tradeoff between price and functionality is acceptable for my purposes.
Detect language » English

Detect language » English

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pro-choice needs new slogan

With increasing attacks on Roe v. Wade and on contraception, the Pro-Choice Movement needs to go on the offensive, starting with a new slogan.

Two Suggestions:
To whom does your uterus belong? You or the government?
Who owns your uterus? You or the government?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bin Laden - misc. thoughts

Whether we show pictures or not, we can be sure of two things:

1. He will now become a martyr to the terrorists who took their lead from him.

2. Many will not believe that he is dead. Call it the Elvis phenomenon (where even a body & a burial ceremony did not stop random sightings).

3. They found only 5 computers, 10 hard drives and no internet access? Hard to believe that anybody in charge of an ongoing world-wide conspiracy managed to do this with so little electronic technology.

4. I have no idea what Bin Laden wanted to accomplish when he ordered 9/11, other than to prove that we were vulnerable. But with that one act, he set the U.S. well along the path to becoming a police state. 10 years later, one needs a passport of some kind to travel to Canada or Mexico. Flying means the equivalent of a full-body search, either electronic or manual. Guantanamo and torture are supported by our leaders and way too large a proportion of our population. Torture, thanks to Bin Laden, is now only wrong when other countries do it because they do it without justification while we do it with justification. (Needless to say, those who use it in other countries probably use the same justifications that we do.)

10 years on, we have become a harsher country, a less free country. But Bin Laden only provided the push. As a nation, we did not have to fall off the cliff. We chose to respond to terror with terror. Bin Laden proved just how thin the veil of "civilization" is and how easy it is to breach it.