The amount of potential fun to be had with the Kindle Fire HD is dependent on how much money you're willing to spend, and how guilty you're willing to feel after all that buying. The tablet's main selling point is what a good deal it is: for the same price as the first generation Kindle Fire you get a better tablet, with a fancier screen, faster processor, and snappier WiFi, all for the low, low price of $200. That is supposed to appeal to the miser within. And it does, until you realize it doesn't. To a regular shopper, the realization that you hate the sweater you bought on sale the first time you wear it is called buyer's remorse, which is exactly what I experienced when getting acquainted with the Kindle Fire HD. But first, I went through the full cycle of shopper's anxiety.
Stage 1: Just Window Shopping
Like going to the mall, the Kindle Fire disguises itself as a form of entertainment that doesn't have to cost a lot of money. You can just walk around, window shop, hang out with your middle school friends, and have fun. But underneath that facade, it is all about buying things.
Unlike going to the mall, a pastime with which I am familiar, I have never owned a tablet before this 7-inch Kindle Fire HD. At first, I wasn't quite sure what about it I would find most useful. But, Amazon took care of that for me. After figuring out how to turn it on -- it's not as intuitive as you'd expect, but easy enough after blindly pressing the only three buttons along the top edge -- the home screen greeted me with a list of destinations starting with the most important one: Shop. Clicking that, conveniently, leads to all the other magical fun we can have with our entertainment portal. There are books, videos, apps, audiobooks, news things, and games. All of that is just a few taps away. And once you're at the mall, you might as well get an Orange Julius, earrings from Claires, and look, what's that over there! Which brought me to the next mental state.
Stage 2: So Many Shiny Things
One could spend very little using their Kindle Fire, but it's much easier not to. There are things that cost no dollars, like the e-mail client, the Silk web browser, and docs, but they feel more like necessities than features. It's like, the Kindle Fire couldn't not have a mail app, so it does. It does the job, connecting right up to my Gmail (calendar included), with an Apple Mail kind of look. But I didn't use it much. More often, in fact, I found myself mindlessly checking email on my phone as I watched TV shows on the Kindle Fire. The Docs app isn't much of a writing tool. It has a "notes" tool that does some highlighting, but it's mostly for reading. And, why use the web browser at all, when there are apps that work much faster for nearly everything Internet.
Plus, this device is more about ingesting content than getting things done. There are plenty of books to buy, this being Amazon, along with some free offerings of books you haven't heard of and out-of-copyright classics like Jane Eyre. I ended up buying the David Foster Wallace collection of short stories Consider the Lobster ($9.99).
Books, however, aren't the main attraction on this device, which is a lot about video because it is right there, and has a nice screen for it, and it has a huge library. There are no truly free shows or movies, though a lot of the stuff bills itself that way. Access to the "free" content requires a $79 per year Amazon Prime membership, which, on top of free two day shipping, gives you 5,000 streaming movies and TV shows, and a free book every month. That's not a bad deal, considering Netflix costs $8 a month without the free shipping and other perks. But, with such easy access to not free stuff, which sits in the same libraries, and requires the same simple tap to watch, or read, or listen to, it's hard to resist splurging on a $2 episode of 30 Rock, or a $.99 copy of The New York Times. It's like telling yourself you'll only look at the sale rack, when all the in-season stuff sits full price on the next shelf: Impossible. And once you get started on a show, the little "next episode" widget on the bottom right of the video is more enticing than a twofer offer, begging you to binge. (That button also proved to be one of the impediments to writing a tablet review.) While perusing the offerings, Amazon indicates what stuff comes free and what doesn't, which could potentially help the situation. But my willpower was not strong enough to resist buying the shiny baubles constantly put in front of me.
Stage 3: The Justification
Easy access to content isn't really a bad thing, right? For someone who doesn't have cable (like me), for example, it provides a decent entertainment alternative. Not only does the tablet offer up Amazon's library, but there are Hulu+, Netflix, and HBO Go apps -- all of which require additional subscriptions. (Hulu+ costs $7.99 per month, but much to the annoyance of AllThingsD's Peter Kafka, Hulu+ doesn't have any of the hours and hours of free TV that's on regular old Hulu.) It's nice, albeit dangerous, to have a la carte TV show episodes next to the Prime offerings.
The Kindle Fire is not just about video, either, really. It has lots of other (arguably) higher brow entertainment. Beyond the library of books, many magazines have their own Kindle Fire apps, plus the newsstand offers individual issues. One can get that day's New York Times ($.99), or a subscription ($19.99). In general, the app selection is not as endless as the Apple store. For the rest of the Internet, however, the Kindle Fire does offer Instapaper ($2.99), the read-it-later app that puts all that stuff in one convenient (and possibly unethical) location for later reading. For someone who is a big on paper reader (of books and magazines and Internet), it's not at all hard to imagine adding the Kindle Fire into the mix. I might not ever give up certain magazine subscriptions, but it's so easy to supplement my library with issues I would never go out of my way to buy at a store. It also has other forms of entertainment that might appeal to some, like the games section, which looks extensive enough. I'm not sure how handy the audiobook and music sections would be -- the speaker works, but it's not great. And I can't imagine toting a Kindle Fire to anywhere I listen to audiobooks, like in the car, while walking to work, or at the gym. This Fire is more a seeing thing, than anything else.
Stage 4: Buyer's Remorse
After a weekend of tapping willy-nilly, I realized I had just spent more than a month's worth of cable on this thing buying more entertainment than I could ever possibly consume. It is fun, which is in the budget. But it makes purchasing too easy, as it connects right up to the credit card linked with my Amazon account. It takes at most three taps to buy anything. And you can't unbuy anything. And as an alternative to TV, the Kindle Fire falls shorter than the laptop I already own. The screen looks sharp and all -- they say it is HD. And it doesn't feel too delicate or too cheap. But, unlike a computer, which can rest comfortably on one's tummy while lying at a 45 degree angle in bed or while lounging on a couch, the Kindle Fire requires a two-hand hold, or an awkward prop-up against one's legs. (Pictured.) Also, most annoyingly, the device doesn't charge while in use. Not only does that interrupt one's Parenthood (available on Prime!) binge sessions, but it's a rare violation of Amazon's whole buy-as-much-as-possible ethos.
Stage 5: A Pledge to Responsible Shopping
This is where the 'everything in moderation' mantra comes in handy. Not everything on the Kindle Fire has to offer costs money, as we explained above. Then again, the spending money part is where the fun is at. So, I would suggest monitoring buying closely. Unlike the cash that no longer exists in your wallet, or the physical swipe of a credit card, the Kindle Fire makes it easy to forget you're spending money. There is no app that keeps tabs on all the stuff you've bought, making it hard to keep track of all the dollars you're tapping away. On the Amazon website, buried behind a lot of tabs, you can find recent purchases. To do that, as pictured right, head to the Your Account tab, click Manage Your Kindle, and there it will list some purchases and uploads.
Of course, it's not wrong to treat yourself to some paid entertainment. But Amazon has created this device hoping you will find excuses to do so more and more often. It sells the Kindle for so cheap, hoping it will "somehow make it up on the backend," as CEO Jeff Bezos put it in an interview with AllThingsD with the "somehow" meaning you mindlessly tapping dollars back to them. Like malls once did, the Kindle Fire HD does this job well, turning shopping into its own entertainment. But here's the problem: the Fire has a mixed messaging problem since it's selling itself as the bargain version to the pricey iPad. The buy buy buy! messaging doesn't jibe, setting people up for some sticker shock down the line.