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Kindle Fire review: Worthy investment for students

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Kindle Fire alongside Kindle Keyboard (K3/KK/KSO), Kindle 2 (K2), and Kindle DX Graphite (DXG).

Amazon amazed tech geeks when it first released details of the newest top-of-the-line Kindle, the Kindle Fire. For $199, Amazon released a device that looks more like an iPad rather than a traditional e-reader. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, describes the approach as “premium products at non-premium prices.” However, is the Kindle Fire truly an alternative to the iPad, or is it an e-reader trying too hard?

I’ve been using an e-reader for over a year now. Initially switching from traditional print books to e-ink seemed strange but having highlighting and note-taking features, along with a dictionary, proves e-readers to be a worthy investment for college students. When writing research papers, having a search feature in books makes the writing process much easier.

The Kindle Fire takes these features and expands upon them; when highlighting a word or passage, users have the option to highlight, make notes and look up a word using a built-in dictionary like my old e-reader. However, the Kindle also gives the option to look up the word or phrase on Google or Wikipedia. While it is not the first reader to do this – this type of feature is typically reserved for higher-end readers that cost well above the Fire’s $199 price tag.

How the Fire diverges away from tradition, however, is the integration of multimedia capabilities. This does not necessarily mean that the device can go toe-to-toe with other tablets in terms of processing power or features, but it gives users a unique service.

“What we really built is a fully integrated media service. Hardware is a crucial ingredient in the service, but it’s only a piece of it,” Bezos said in a Wired magazine interview.

Bezos concedes that the Fire strays from its main purposes but says it offers more in return.

“When you’re reading long form, there’s no comparison. You want the e-ink. But you can’t watch a movie with that. And you can’t play Android games. And so on,” Bezos said.

While the Fire does indeed offer services like video streaming, web surfing and apps like Angry Birds, what has struck me hasn’t been the abundance of features, but the lack thereof. First and foremost, there is no dedicated note-taking feature outside of books – nor is there a calendar or, more importantly, a Facebook app. (The Fire’s version of a Facebook app is simply a link to the mobile version of the website.) However, there are apps like Evernote, Notepad and Quickoffice that make the Fire a useful device for students and other consumers alike.

I have wondered where the Fire will find its role in everyday life when it does not read as well as e-readers. It is not as convenient or mobile as a smartphone; it is not as powerful, fast, or sexy as an iPad, nor is it a replacement for a laptop or netbook in terms of creating and working on documents.

Where the Fire succeeds, I’ve found, is being a balanced and capable device worth carrying around. I have used it extensively for reading and it definitely holds up as an alternative to traditional e-readers. It’s becoming increasingly useful in organization; the screen size makes it more convenient than smartphones to keep as a quick note-taking device, while its size makes it far easier to pull out on a whim than a laptop.

One big advantage you get in buying a Fire over another Android device is the support of Amazon. Amazon seeks to integrate the Fire with its cloud service (which helps to make up for the Fire’s 8GB capacity) and the app store is growing.

Bottom line, the Fire is a worthy investment for students, especially those who don’t already have an e-reader, a netbook or a smartphone. It doesn’t excel in anything, but it does well enough in several areas to remind us why so many were amazed on why Amazon would sell such a useful device for just $199.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Pros: Screen size is easier to read than smartphones. Research and pleasure reading is enhanced by use of highlighting, note-taking abilities, and Google and Wikipedia search functions. Amazon offers great support, and the app store is growing quickly. Web browsing is easier and more enjoyable than many smartphones.

Cons: Specs don’t compete with Apple’s iPad, nor is the app store as robust as Apple’s. The screen tends to attract a lot of glare in sunlight. The only button on the device is the power/screen lock button. Documents can only be transferred to the device via email.

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