Summary: Amazon's new Kindle Fire has much better usability than last year's model—and the 7-inch tablet beats the 9-inch version.
Last year, we tested the usability of Amazon.com's 1 st generation Kindle Fire. Wow, was it bad. The product had clearly been released before it was ready in order to make it available for the holiday shopping season.
Amazon has now had a year to improve the product and recently launched the updated versions as Kindle Fire HD . It comes in two form factors: 7- and 9-inch tablets.
I bought both sizes. My conclusion about version 2.0? Now we're talking. These new tablets have pretty good usability and are actually worth considering. A stunning turn-around.
The original Kindle Fire was like a Ford Model T—you had to start out by hand-cranking it, and it was prone to break downs. Only a true enthusiast would drive one. The Fire HD is more like the 1930s Ford Model A that you see in old gangster movies. It's a real car, and you can use it to smuggle whiskey from Canada.
Granted, the new Amazon tablet is still no 2013 Lexus LS460. It lacks the equivalents of power steering, automatic transmission, antilock brakes, air-conditioning, and so forth. So, even though you can use Kindle Fire HD for your daily commute, your ride won't be smooth as silk — regardless of what Amazon calls its web browser.
Better Hardware: Snappy, Less Glare, Better Legibility
The industrial design has improved vastly. Not only does the new tablet look good, but, more important, it also feels good. The new device is more pleasant to hold in your hand and screen glare has been cut (the first edition was like a mirror).
Pixel density has improved from the original release's lousy 169 pixels-per-inch to a reasonable 216 PPI on the new 7-inch tablet and a pretty good 254 PPI on the 9-inch tablet. Of course, human factors research shows that we really need at least 300 PPI for optimal reading speed, but 254 is close enough; I doubt we could measure the difference in words-per-minutes read without testing thousands of users. For sure, anything above 200 PPI allows for decent typography and legibility.
Perhaps the most important improvement is that the new tablets feel like they actually respond to user actions . The original tablet's sluggishness was one of its main usability flaws. I don't know whether the faster response times are due to more powerful hardware or more efficiently written software—probably both, because the improvement is immense. This is important, because response time is a prime determinant for usability.
Better Software and Easy Browsing
Interestingly, the one piece of Kindle software that's fairly poor is the Amazon.com shopping application. As the following screenshot shows, the app features a clunky layout with very poor utilization of the available screen space. It's almost as if they gave up on creating an optimized tablet shopping user interface and simply repurposed the website.
Product page in the Shop Amazon app on Kindle Fire HD's 7-inch model.
Mainly, though, the software is a dramatic improvement over last year's version.
The email application is very easy to set up and more pleasant to use than email on the iPad. For example, in place of iPad's annoyingly skinny stripe, this inbox fills up the entire screen, making it much easier to scan your mail and pick out messages that need immediate attention. The button to create a new message is not only bigger than on iPad, it's also easier to pick out; instead of an obscure icon, this button offers the stunningly simple label of "new."
Typing and editing are both easier on the Kindle Fire than on the iPad. I particularly like the movable insertion-point slider, which is reasonably easy to move for precise cursor positioning within your text.
The web browser is better than the old version—mainly because it's finally snappy enough to support actual browsing and freedom of movement. One terrible design mistake, however, is the absence of a feature to enlarge the font size. You can, of course, use pinch-zoom, but that makes the entire page bigger, not just the text.
"Make text bigger" has been a mainstay feature of web browsers since Mosaic, so I couldn't believe that I couldn't find it in Amazon's Silk browser. Initially, I fell victim to the "stupid user" syndrome, blamed myself for being unable to find it, and emailed customer support, where I learned that I couldn't find the font size feature because the Kindle browser doesn't offer it. The Amazon's customer service staff was at least quick to respond and provided a clear answer, even if that answer basically shows contempt for any customer older than 40.
Tablets should offer a universal user preference for readable font size and apply this to any text shown anywhere in the system. Users shouldn't have to adjust font preferences in every single application.
The carousel remains a miserable excuse for a home screen with unbelievably low information density. Take a lesson from Windows 8's live tiles (while avoiding its excesses).
Universal Back Button
A particularly useful aspect of the new Kindle software is the ubiquitous availability of a small set of generic commands. Like the "charms" in Windows 8, a bar with these commands is revealed after you touch the edge of the screen. But contrary to Windows 8, Kindle includes a small, constantly visible symbol that you touch to reveal the bar.
This bar is shown in the bottom of the screenshot above. The bar includes general features, such as reverting to the home screen, search, and a Favorites icon that gives one-click access to the web browser, email, and any other apps you designate.
There's also a Back button (and a Forward button, when applicable). The entire platform's usability is much enhanced by the universal nature of this Back button. Consider this typical scenario:
- You're reading an email message that contains a link to an article on a website.
- You click the link and read the article.
- You now want to return to continue reading the email message.
Now what? In most systems, you have to close the web browser and find your own way back to the email program, hoping that it still displays the message as you left it. With the universal Back button, you simply click Back , just as you would when you tire of a web page. Backtracking works across applications, as it certainly should, because that's how users think.
7- vs. 9-Inch Tablets: Utilize Available Screen Space
Kindle Fire HD comes in two versions: a mid-sized 7-inch tablet and an almost full-sized 9-inch tablet (to be precise: 8.9 inches diagonal measurement).
Sadly, most of the 3rd party applications in Amazon's app store have not been designed to take advantage of the two screen sizes and their special characteristics. Instead, most apps are the same whether they run on a 7-inch screen or a 9-inch screen. Hopefully, this is a temporary phenomenon; Amazon offering a full-sized tablet — needing full-sized apps — is new.
Compare the following screenshots of the FORTUNE magazine app on the two different tablet sizes. The two screens are basically identical, except that the font size on the 9-inch screen is too big for comfortable reading of body text copy.
FORTUNE magazine app on Kindle Fire HD's 7- and 9-inch models. The small tab symbol at the bottom of the screen is used to slide up the command bar.
(I've reduced the screenshots, but they're shown proportionally to their physical size on the actual tablets. Also, besides being bigger, the 9-inch version has better type quality due to its higher pixel density—a benefit that doesn't come through in these reproductions.)
Some apps do account for—and take advantage of—the two screen sizes. For example, an article from National Geographic magazine's app presents a different layout for each tablet size:
National Geographic app on Kindle Fire HD's 7-inch model.
National Geographic app on Kindle Fire HD's 9-inch model.
On the smaller screen, National Geographic uses a simplified unicolumn layout, whereas the bigger screen shows a different, more complex, layout. Unfortunately, this app enforces a specific screen orientation on users; for some reason, the designer preferred vertical orientation in the 7-inch layout and horizontal orientation in the 9-inch layout. In any case, it's clear that National Geographic tries to give you more on the big screen, while ensuring usability on the small screen. Nice.
Bloomberg presents another example of different designs for the two tablet sizes:
Bloomberg app on Kindle Fire HD's 7- and 9-inch models.
Again, the smaller screen is better for a one-dimensional layout, whereas the bigger screen affords a two-dimensional layout that makes it easier to scan headlines by category.
Although we need to conduct more research to produce definitive usability guidelines for mid-sized vs. full-sized tablets, two guidelines seem clear from these examples:
- Don't just resize a design, making it smaller for a small screen and bigger for a bigger screen; the larger screen should offer more features or more information.
- Don't just show more on the bigger screen; use a different layout to take advantage of the additional space.
Basically, you should optimize the design for the screen at hand, because pixels are the world's most precious real estate. It's not so much that the customer paid 50% more for 1.9-inches worth of extra pixels. It's that billions of dollars flow through every square inch of screen space. I once calculated that the space on a big company's homepage is worth 1,300 times as much as land in the center of Tokyo.
I'm not quite ready to declare this an official guideline yet, but it does seem that 7-inch tablets are best-served by a single-column layout. As we test more apps with different design approaches, we'll learn more, and I'll keep you updated.
UI vs. UX vs. Value
In a product development project, the design team works on the user interface—that is, on how users operate the product and access its features. As I just explained, Amazon's team did a much better job of UI design this time around.
However, the total user experience (UX) is more important than the UI. According to the definition of "user experience," this broader concept covers not just the UI design, but all other aspects of the user's interaction as well. For a tablet, UX is strongly impacted by the platform ecosystem. Here, 3 rd -party applications are particularly important, in terms of both availability and quality.
Although Amazon's own software has hugely improved usability compared to last year, the same cannot be said for the 3rd-party add-on apps. Most Kindle apps have fairly primitive design and lower usability than the equivalent iPad apps.
You can safely disregard Apple's propaganda about the number of choices in the two app stores. After all, how many weather apps do you really need? One good choice is all. But several useful apps are not yet available for Kindle, and that does degrade the total UX—at least for the time being.
I've already mentioned that many Kindle apps are better targeted for the 7-inch tablet than for the 9-inch tablet. This means that UX quality is relatively good on the smaller tablet. In absolute terms, measured usability is higher on the larger tablet, because bigger touch targets mean shorter task times and lower error rates. However, many apps don't offer extra information or features for the 50% higher price and the hassle of dragging around a bigger, heavier object. This makes the value of the 9-inch tablet a poor deal.
Comparing the Kindle Fire HD 7-inch with the iPad Mini, the Apple product gains several UX points for having many more applications available. Being able to do more things with the device is an obvious plus.
At the same time, iPad Mini loses many UI points because these apps are designed for a 10-inch screen instead of a 7-inch screen. This makes the 7-inch Kindle better—at least when using those few apps that have actually been optimized for this form factor.
On balance, for people who want a small tablet, I prefer the Kindle Fire HD 7-inch over the iPad Mini. (For a full-sized tablet, the iPad 4 is better than the Kindle Fire HD 9-inch.)
After I wrote about the original Kindle Fire's abysmal usability, several critics refuted my analysis with comments like, "what do you expect for $200?" But the original Kindle Fire wasn't even worth $200, because it was outright painful to use, and I don't want to pay any money to be tortured. Today, however, buying the $199 Kindle Fire HD 7-inch offers much better value than getting the $329 iPad Mini, unless you need an app that's only available on the latter.
The full report with all our research into mobile user experience with actionable design guidelines for mobile sites and apps is available for download.