Clothing hand-me-downs in my house usually flow from the older kids to the younger kids. Technology hand-me-downs, however, can be a different story – sometimes they actually change hands from the kids to the adults.
My son had a Kindle Fire (First Generation) for a couple of years which he seemed to like well enough, but then he received an iPad mini this past Christmas and the Kindle was kicked to the curb by the gleam of a shiny new Apple product. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to tinker around with something new (to me), I asked for his Kindle which he gave me without another thought.
I hadn't had much exposure to the Kindle Fire before that day, but I had read a little about it and vaguely assumed it was a content delivery mechanism for Amazon books with maybe the ability to install some games or surf the web on a clunky browser. Based on my experience with my wife's Nook, I figured perhaps I could load some free classic literature onto the Kindle (since I don't buy e-books through Amazon) or – more importantly – wipe the operating system and put a full-fledged Android installation on it.
I reset the Kindle to factory defaults then got started. I knew whatever I did with it would have to yield a purpose. I don't keep old stuff around; I'm not running a museum, and I am a minimalist so if something doesn't fit my needs I pass it along to those who can use it more effectively. I have a Samsung Android and several laptops so I wasn't sure what the Fire could really do for me but was willing to see if I could wedge it in between the portability of my smartphone and the bigger screen/better working environment of my laptops.
I admit I had low expectations, but as things turned out I was pleasantly surprised at how much it could do out of the box – even for a first generation version. The Kindle runs a modified version of the Android operating system, but it lets you do a lot more than just read books. You can browse the web, install apps and access email.
Checking out the apps
First I looked at the web browser.
I found the web browser fast and responsive and the touch screen quite accurate. I've always had middling luck with touch screens – my wife's Nook barely even acknowledges my existence, much less permitting me to swipe across the screen to unlock it, and typing out emails on my Android is not a fun chore – so I appreciate the fact this screen does what I tell it to with Apple-like precision. Zooming in and zooming out were simple and turning pages or switching screens worked perfectly.
The 7" screen size on the Kindle meant plenty of real estate to display web pages properly:
The tabbed interface on the browser along with the ability to quickly access recent sites has made the Kindle invaluable just for the access to the web alone:
I then scoured the Amazon store looking for apps I might use. I found some favorites like Dropbox, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google+, Facebook and Twitter and got those installed. I also found some new apps such as a FileManager (a Windows Explorer for the Android), QuickOffice, a PDF Reader, and a Wi-Fi analyzer. By the time I was done a few minutes later my Apps list resembled the following:
Dropbox is probably the app I rely on the most since my Dropbox folders contain all of my work, tasks, and current reading material. Rather than buying e-books online I generally put technical PDFs and white papers in Dropbox so I can stay current.
The Dropbox screen easily showed all of my familiar folders:
Like the web browser, opening a PDF file from showed a readable and realistic display:
I then copied several documents to the Kindle and accessed the "Docs" link to confirm they were present:
It's great being able to just drag and drop files onto the device rather than using a sync program and all of its headaches. The "File Manager" app also helped by allowing me to browse the folders on the device to figure out where stuff is located behind the scenes:
Next I checked out Twitter and found it as useful as on the laptop/desktop:
My Google Calendar displayed well in landscape mode, presenting me with information I can use about my upcoming schedule:
And since I love maps and rely on Google Maps for directions, research and pure recreation I found the Google Maps display handy as well:
The Kindle also offers the ability to play music and videos, but I didn't test these since my primary focus was to see how I could use it for business purposes.
Some other advantages
I've really become attached to the Kindle thanks to its instant-on capability and the way it comes in handy as a second screen when I'm doing research while writing about a topic. I've come to depend on dual monitors for my desktop systems, so this gives me more flexibility when working with my laptop.
The battery life has also been fine (Amazon says this version offers 8 hours of reading or 7.5 hours of video playback). I haven't really used it for hours on end and so I have not found myself in a situation where I'm low on juice.
Some cons on the flip side
Like any other device out there, the Kindle is not without a few drawbacks however. There's not much drive space; 5 GB total, which seems like a lot if you leave out the music and video and focus mainly on documents – but I have a LOT of documents I work with such as Linux and Windows manuals. I can't copy my entire library onto the Kindle as I can with my Android, ironically. This is because my Android has a micro-SD slot and the Kindle has none.
I also found I couldn't install some apps from the Google Play store; nothing happened when I tried. For instance, for the life of me I couldn't get Chrome installed – I couldn't even get an error message upon trying to do so. It's not a huge deal to me since the native browser works fine, but a troubling sign nonetheless.
Having only Wi-Fi connectivity means I can't access the web on the Kindle everywhere I go, of course, but this is the same situation with my laptop. Only my smartphone has 3G/4G connectivity out of all my gear, but for the Kindle it's not such a big deal since docs are still saved locally and my smartphone can be used for driving directions or other as-needed web access when I'm out and about.
Lastly, the email client worked fairly well and I could work with items in my INBOX, but I couldn't access anything in my folders, despite being able to open them (they appeared as blank). Since I have rules that route a lot of my email into folders, this is a distinct disadvantage since I can't see those messages. Perhaps there's something I need to tweak there but so far I haven't come across any clues.
A worthwhile addition to the tool belt
For an oldie but goodie, the Kindle has been a big benefit to me in my quest to access information and keep tabs on social media, my schedule and my reading material. The newer version of the Kindle Fire (the HX) offers more benefits such as a better display, more storage, a faster CPU, longer battery life, and updated apps, but so far so good in terms of working with what I've got.
I will probably wind up installing the full-blown Android OS on the Kindle just to see how it compares to the default OS. There will be more to follow on that in a future article.
Finally, if you're interested in learning more about Kindles, I recommend checking out a very cool site called www.lovemyfire.com. It includes a lot of great tips and strategies.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.