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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Fired Up About the Kindle Fire

When Amazon.com introduced its first tablet last year, one of the harshest reviews came from Jakob Nielsen, the usability expert. He slammed the Kindle Fire for offering “a disappointingly poor” experience.

”If I were given to conspiracy theories, I'd say that Amazon deliberately designed a poor Web browsing user experience to keep Fire users from shopping on competing sites,” Mr. Nielsen told Bits. His blunt comments sparked their own conspiracy theories: that he was somehow doing Apple's bidding by criticizing a cheaper competitor of the iPad. But then, just about everyone who didn't like the Fire last year was accused by the more extreme Fire fans of being an Apple cultist.

Mr. Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, a Silicon Valley consulting firm, predicted that the retailer would get just “one more shot” at establishing itself in the tablet marketplace. “If that's a failure,” he added, “then the Fire is doomed to the dust pile of history.”

As the second generation of Fires - 9-inch and 7-inch devices - seem to likely to pile up under Christmas trees shortly, we asked Mr. Nielsen what he thought. If Amazon is going to collapse in a heap of busted dreams, we want to be on the inside track.

Mr. Nielsen kindly agreed to check the devices out. When he did, he was pleasantly surprised. There was much that needed to be improved in the earlier model, and it was.

“Last year's Fire was like a Ford Model T,” he said. “You had to start out by hand-cranking it forever, and it was still prone to breaking down. Now it's a Model A from the 1930s - a real car. You can drive it places.”

Some things he particularly liked:

- The e-mail reader. “It is a very well-designed piece of software that took me only seconds to set up. It 's better than the iPad e-mail reader in small ways.”

â€" Less glare. “Last year, if you turned the Fire off, it was almost like looking into a mirror. This year, there's some reflection but not as much.”

â€" Just about everything else. “It's more pleasant for a lot of uses - Web browsing, using applications, watching movies. The hardware has improved a good deal. The pixel density is better, so the text is clearer and easier to read.”

Some things he didn't like:

â€" There is no ability to enlarge the text in the Web browser. “If you're trying to squeeze in Web pages, the text tends to get small. How serious a problem this is depends on how good your eyesight is.”

â€" The app selection. Apple has an edge with developers of several years and several hundred thousand apps.

â€" The 9-inch Fire might have a bigger screen, but it isn't optimized to take advantage of it by showing more information, such as more items in a table of contents, or more paragraphs in an article.

Mr. Nielsen's bottom line:

“If you want a small device, for financial reasons or because you want to carry it in your purse, the smaller Fire is better than the iPad Mini. The 10-inch iPad is probably better than 9-inch Fire, but not by a lot.”

The masses do not appear to be quite as enthusiastic as Mr. Nielsen. The 7-inch Fire, for instance, has 368 one-star reviews on Amazon, about 10 percent of the total. Nearly a third of all the reviews are three stars or less. That is about what the original, much criticized Fire got after the first month.