Last year, Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, which unlike previous Kindles, was a color 7″ tablet that could run Android apps. They sold a lot of them mainly because they were priced at $199, but as a competitor for other tablets, they were still pretty “meh” – a little underpowered, with some not-quite-ready software.
This week, Amazon announced some hardware and software that make them a really impressive player in the personal hardware device market. I’ll give the details below, but as far as I can tell, these tablets are category beaters at the moment (though we’re still waiting for Apple’s play). I know this tech stuff isn’t interesting to everyone, so the rest is after the break.
Let’s start with the new Kindle software, which has some impressive integration with Amazon. For example, you can buy a new kind of audiobook. You can choose to read and listen, so the book is read to you and the text is highlighted at the same time. You can also choose to read or listen, and Amazon keeps track of your place in the book either way. So, for example, you can listen to a book on your smartphone on the way home from work, and seamlessly switch to reading it on a Kindle when you get home.
Amazon also introduced a new feature called X-Ray, which works in books and movies. In movies, if you tap on the screen on your Fire, each actor in the current scene is identified, and you can pull up their IMDB profile from within the movie viewer. In a book, if you tap on a character’s name, you can read the introductory paragraph that introduces the character, as well as look at a character index that shows all the characters. This also works with textbooks, which is a huge advance on traditional indexing.
Both the audio/book sync (which Amazon calls Whispersync) and X-Ray are probably limited to a few titles right now, but they looked useful and they’re something nobody else has.
This software runs on impressive hardware. There’s a new Kindle Fire at $159 that has a similar 7″ screen as last year’s $199 Fire, but is 40% faster than the old Fire. Wait for the reviews, but this sounds like it might be a hell of a bargain. At $199, they have the Fire HD, which has a high-definition 7″ screen, and an even faster processor. At $299, they have an 8.9″ Fire HD, which is just a bit smaller than an iPad, with a HD screen, at a price $200 less than Apple’s. Finally they have a Fire 8.9″ HD that has 4G LTE (fast) cellular networking and a $50/year data plan. The cost of ownership of that device is around $400 less for a year compared to an iPad with the same level of cell service. Again, wait for the reviews, but that’s also a bargain if the device lives up to its PR.
Finally, they also introduced an upgrade to the traditional ePaper Kindle, which has some kind of pure fucking magic screen they call Paperwhite. The text is the crispest and sharpest ever, on a device that already had fairly crisp text. And the screen has some kind of very even frontlighting that makes it just glow. This means they’ve solved the main issue with the traditional Kindle, which was that you needed a lamp to read in the dark. And, like the traditional Kindle, it works fine in daylight, and the battery lasts for an even longer than usual 8 weeks. The WiFi version costs $119.
Overall, I’m surprised at how far Amazon has come in a year. For the last couple of years, Kindle has been a great value. Amazon basically sells them at cost because they want you plugged into purchasing books, movies, TV and music from Amazon. Now Kindles are also competitive versus other tablet devices. Even if you don’t want to buy a Kindle, they’re injecting a huge amount of competition in the market that will keep Apple, Google and Microsoft’s margins thin.