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I should have known better honestly.  I’ve had one strike with cloud billing catching me by surprise and I’m not sure why I’m shocked it happened again.  This time, however, I thought I really did plan it out, pay attention to things and asked what I thought were the right questions.  Unfortunately I didn’t get the full answers.  This time I was stung by my shiny new SQL Azure service choice.

UPDATE 12-APR-2012: Based on comments I've received I feel the need to clarify that I'm not bashing Azure or cloud services in general here.  I don't think anywhere I indicated Azure was a crap product or that I hated it at all.  In fact, I indicated I was completely happy with the service offering.  My frustration was *only* with the fact that the pricing was unclear to me based on how I researched it...that is all and nothing more.  As many have pointed out, cloud services like Azure are extremely important in the marketplace and the ability to scale real-time with minimal effort is an exceptional feature.  *FOR ME* I currently don't have those needs so I couldn't justify the charges beyond what I had planned...that is all, nothing more.  My experience with SQL Azure was a positive one as a product.  Quick setup, familiar tools to manage, worry-free database management, great admin interface and a reliable data storage solution.  My architecture, however, just didn't prove ideal currently with my site not being in Azure as well.  When VM roles come out of beta I will be sure to evaluate moving sites there and plan better.

A while back I heard about the change in price for some Windows Azure services and the one that piqued my interest was the SQL Azure.  At the time it hit me right as I needed to move around some of my hosting aspects of my site.  The lure of the $5/month SQL Azure database (as long as it was < 100MB) was appealing to me.  The SQL server aspect of my site has always been a management headache for me as I don’t want to have to worry about growing logs, etc.

Stung by marketing

I followed the announcements to the http://www.windowsazure.com site and read the descriptions of the services.  I was immediately convinced of the value and heck, it was a service from my company so why shouldn’t I give it a try and support it?  When I began to set it up, however, there were questions being asked during setup and I started to get concerned.  I asked around about if this $5 fee was really the only fee.  I didn’t want to get surprises by things like compute time.  Perhaps I wasn’t asking specific enough questions, but all answers I got was that signs pointed to yes, that would be my only fee.

NOTE: As of this writing yes I am a Microsoft employee, but this is my own opinion and I realize that peoples’ expectations and results vary.  This is only my experience.  I’m not only an employee but also a customer of Microsoft services and in this instance a full paying customer.  No internal benefits are used in my personal Azure hosting accounts.

Yesterday I learned that wasn’t the case.  I received my first Azure billing statement and it was way more than I expected.  Yes my $5 database was there as expected, but also was suddenly “Data Transfer” charges of $55.

Trying to make sense of billing

I immediately tried to make sense of this billing.  I immediately remembered that I had created a storage account as well for a quick test and perhaps I forgot to disable/delete that service.  I logged into the management portal and saw that my storage account was properly deleted and nowhere to be seen.  But how to make sense of these charges from the past week then?  Luckily Azure provides detail usage download data so I grabbed that.  The CSV file I download did indeed provide some detail…perhaps too much as some of it I couldn’t discern, namely the one piece that I had hoped would help me: Resource ID.  This ID was a GUID that I thought pointed to a service that I used.  It did not, or at least that GUID was nowhere to be seen on my Azure management portal.

I contacted the billing support immediately to help.  I was able to talk with a human fairly quickly which was a plus.  The gentleman explained to me that I had a lot of outgoing data leaving the Azure data centers and that was the source of the costs.  He asked if I knew if anything was connecting to my SQL Azure instance externally.  Well, duh, yes it was my site!  He went on to explain that this constitutes “Data Transfer” and I’m billed at a per GB rate for any data that leaves the Azure data center. 

I took a deep breath and asked where this was documented in my SQL Azure sign-up process.  We walked through the site together and he agreed that it wasn’t clear.  After being put on hold for a while, I was assured I would receive a credit for the misunderstanding.  Unfortunately for Azure, the damage was done and they lost a customer.

Where the failure occurred

For me the failure was twofold: me for not fully understanding terms and Azure for not fully explaining them in context.  I say “in context” because that was the key piece that was missing in my registration of my account.  Let me explain the flow I took (as I sent this same piece of internal feedback today as well) as a customer once I heard the announcement about the SQL Azure pricing changes:

  • I received notice of updated SQL Azure pricing
  • I visited the site http://www.windowsazure.com for more information
  • I clicked the top-level “PRICING” link provided as that was my fear
  • I was presented with a fancy graphical calculator.  I moved the slider up to 100MB and confirmed the pricing on the side (no asterisks or anything)
  • I notice a “Learn more about pricing, billing and metering” link underneath the calculator and click it to learn more
  • I’m presented with a section of 10 different options all presented at the same level giving the appearance as unique services.
  • I choose the Database one and again read through and confirm the charge for the 100MB database option.
  • I click the “More about databases” link to double-verify and am presented with another detailed description of the billing

Not once during that process was context provided.  Not at any of the steps above (3 different pricing screens) was there context that additional fees could also apply to any given service.  Data transfer, in fact, doesn’t even describe itself very well.  As I was assured in asking folks involved in Azure about my concern on pricing, this “Data Transfer” wasn’t brought up at all.  I’m not sure why at all it is listed along side services and almost presented as a separate service as it appears all Azure services are subject to data transfer fees.  This is not made clear during sign up nor marketing of the pricing for each service.  SQL Azure should clearly state that the fees are database *plus* any additional fees resulting from data transfer.  Heck Amazon does this with S3 which also makes it so confusing to anticipate the cost of billing there as well…but at least it is presented that I need to factor that into my calculation.

I’m to blame, so why am I whining

I said I’m to blame as well for not understanding better what I’m getting into.  It is unfortunate because I really did like the service and felt an assurance of more reliability with my database then I had before.  The management portal was great and the uptime and log management was something I didn’t have to think about anymore. 

So why, you might ask, am I complaining about a service fee for something that was providing me value? 

NOTE: You may ask why I didn’t just move my site within Azure as well so that no data would be leaving the data centers.  This is a fair question, but unfortunately my site won’t run on any Azure hosting services and additionally I manage a few sites on a single server so it is cost prohibitive to have multiple Azure hosting instances for me right now.

Well it is simple.  I’m not made of money.  This blog has no accounting department or annual budget and such, I have to be smart about even the smallest cost.  I already have sunk costs into the server that hosts this site as well as a few others.  A $5/month database fee was nothing and justifiable easily with the value I was getting and the minor additional cost.  $50 (and growing) just wasn’t justifiable to me.  It was already at the same cost as my dedicated server and just no longer made sense for my scenario here.  In this instance I’m the “little guy” and need to think like one.  Perhaps cloud services are not for me.

Summary

So what did I learn?  Well, I really need to understand bandwidth and transfer data better for the sites I have.  Unfortunately this isn’t totally predictable for me and as such if I can’t predict the cost then it isn’t something that I should be using.  If you are considering these types of services regardless of if they are from Azure or Amazon (or whomever) you need to really plan out not only the service but how it will be used.  Don’t be lured by those shiny cost calculators that let you use sliders and show you awesome pricing but don’t help you estimate (or alert you) to that some of those sliders should be linked together.

I think Azure (and other similar services) have real customer value…there is no doubt in that.  For me, however, it just isn’t the time right now.  The services, based on my configuration needs, just don’t make sense.  Had I had a clearer picture of this when signing up, I wouldn’t have been in this situation of frustration.  Choose your services wisely and understand your total usage of them.  For me it currently doesn’t make sense and I’m moving back to a SQL Express account on my server.  Yes I’ll have to manage it a bit more, but my costs will be known and predictable.

Hope this helps.

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I wanted to believe, I really did.  It has been over a month since my first impressions of the Amazon Kindle Fire.  Over the holidays, I processed a return for my Kindle Fire.  When the Fire was announced I was intrigued and excited as I thought that Amazon had the real potential to make a great product and the customer base to capitalize on that potential.  For me, it just didn’t live up to the hype.  I’ll stress that last sentence…this is my opinion based on my experiences/desires.  As with anything in life, your mileage may vary.

So what went wrong?

I used the Fire a lot.  I watched videos on it daily (my evening ritual of getting caught up on TV) via Netflix and Hulu apps.  I rented about 10 movies via Amazon on the device.  For video, it was great.  For everything else, it was pretty much frustrating for me.  I’ve been able to isolate it to a few areas: apps, user experience, prejudice.

Apps

I downloaded the free daily app from the Amazon Android store daily…and ended up with a device full of sub-standard products mostly.  The Hulu app really was the only 3rd party one that I felt was designed for the Fire and did most things well.  Even then it had quirks, but mostly it was fine.  Netflix’s app is horrible, lagging, confusing and not enjoyable to use before you get to the playing content.  Most other apps just weren’t doing anything for me.

The lack of a Mail solution *provided by the device* for my mail configuration led to a decreased usage in the device to me.  The responsiveness in the games that I acquired was just not there as well.  Overall I felt the only “app” I was using was video playback.  Everything else wasn’t cutting it…even the Kindle reading app was just too bright for me for long periods of reading.

User Experience

Large area of failure here for me.  Here’s my list of areas that lacked polish and just failed:

  • Hardware home button – I’m realizing how important this really is.  My kids couldn’t figure out how to get back to the ‘start’ screen.  On the iPad, they know immediately.
  • Software ‘home bar’ (not sure what to call it) sometimes appeared, sometimes didn’t.
  • Touch responsiveness – I felt like I had to do gestures multiple times to get it to respond.  The first update was said to fix some of this, but it didn’t do anything noticeable for my use.
  • Touch feedback – I know this seems odd, but there were times I couldn’t tell if I had actually completed a touch interaction…visual state changes didn’t happen, etc.
  • Orientation changing – general inconsistency here in what was supported or not within the own set of experiences delivered by the Fire.  But the transition from one orientation to another was jarring, like a snap rather than a smooth transition.
  • Apps experience – no consistency.  I’m not looking for lets-make-every-app-the-same consistency, but as a user there was know real reliability in controls usage, visuals, responsiveness, action expectations, etc.  This is the good/bad of the Android platform – ultimate freedom but at the price of confusion and quality sometimes.
  • Application lifetime – the management of the state of an application was horrible for an end-user.  The parts of Android really showed through here.  I would occasionally get “not responding” windows in an application or when trying to start one.  These types of things do not pass the mother-in-law sniff test for me.

These were some of the things that continually frustrated me.  There were other nits, but not always in my face. 

Prejudice

Aside from any technical reasons the biggest factor for my return is prejudice.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Amazon.  I’m a Prime member, and only get my purchased digital media from them (i.e., video rentals and MP3).  They have great service offerings and catalog of goods.  These are all the reasons I thought they could execute well out-of-the-gate with the Fire.

However, I also have an iPad.

Make no mistake about it: if you use an iPad for the same amount of time you use a Kindle Fire, you will likely share the same experience that the iPad just is an all-around better product currently.  Now the media (and users like myself) are the ones drawing the comparisons of the Fire to an iPad.  Amazon itself hasn’t done any comparisons side-by-side or even remotely close.  They have never marketed (to my knowledge) the Fire as an iPad competitor.  But that doesn’t matter…because consumers rule the world and we have already drawn that conclusion.  Bottom line is that if you are making a touch device I can travel with that has media and a store where I can get application and content – you’re competing with the iPad.

Since I already am an iPad user I could not erase the experience that I have with my iPad when using the Fire.  All my user experience annoyances around touch are because it is just better on the iPad.  If I didn’t have an iPad, maybe my perception would be hugely different.  But since I have one, my prejudice is set and the comparison bar as well.

Holiday gift taste test

When I arrived to the in-laws for the holidays they mentioned they were getting my wife’s ~80yr old (*very* active) grandmother a Kindle Fire because that is what she wanted.  I shirked a bit (and probably commented too much) at the idea and told them I didn’t think this was a good idea.  GG (as we call her since she has 12 great-grandchildren) is not technically savvy and has never had anything remotely considered “new tech” in her life.  I knew that it would fall on me to be the resident Nick Burns and trainer for the holiday week.  And the time did come where I had to do that.  It went something like this *before* we started configuring her Fire…

Me: GG, why do you want a Fire?
GG: I want to get ‘with the times’ and this seems to be a hot item.
Me: Do you have an Amazon account or have ever bought anything on Amazon?
GG: No, never. Can’t I put books on it?
Me: Yes, but where do you plan on getting those books?
GG: Can’t I get them anywhere?
Me: No, you’ll be buying them through Amazon.

NOTE: I didn’t want to explain that technically you could put other publications on there as I knew that would be an action never accomplished.

GG: You mean I can’t get something from Barnes and Noble and put it on my Fire?
Me: No. But why would you, Amazon has a massive content library.
GG: Well, that seems monopolistic. What about movies?
Me: Yep, you can get movies, but through Amazon.
Me: Most of the time anything you put on there you will be buying from Amazon

This point seemed to have been lost on GG when desiring this device.  Regardless we proceeded with the setup.  Now since the device was purchased from the mother-in-law, when powered on it was attached to her account and we had to set up a new account for GG.  This was going to be fun, I thought.

The first step was to create an Amazon account since she didn’t have one.  The first screen on the Fire to do this asks for 4 simple bits of information: email, username, password, password confirmation.  This was the first introduction GG had to a software keyboard and it did not go well.  The first mistake made was to “press” the keyboard and I had to educate that click, press, push are no longer useful but rather tap, swipe, tap+hold are the new ways she needed to think.  This took some training as she continually hit wrong keys, held the key too long which produced duplicates, etc.  I am not sure if it was her bifocals or what but GG was continually ‘off by 1’ on the keyboard and we had many times to The password field was the hardest because it obfuscated the letter after typing it, providing minimal visual time to see if what was typed was correct.  Now I timed this exercise myself so I could see how long this really took.  With no exaggeration the time to complete this screen was about 30 minutes.  The password/re-enter password took up most of that time.  The next screen was address information…to which I offered to enter this data for her :-).  After that was credit card data.

GG: Why do they need my credit card?
Me: How do you plan on buying anything, money order?

In seriousness, this pointed to a generational gap of this concept of stored account information for one-click purchasing that is available on things like Amazon, Apple, anywhere.

We moved on to a review of the Fire and notable me mentioning that the user guide itself was a Kindle book.  This did not please GG as she was used to a manual.  Since she is a Scrabble lover and other folks in the house were playing Words with Friends, we downloaded that app, set her up an account, and taught her how to play that.  Again, the touch interaction here was painful to watch.

My bottom line for sharing this anecdote is that I don’t think the Fire is an every-generation device.  Contrast that to the iPad, where I think she would have had a much better on-boarding experience.  I left GG alone for the day with her device and the next day she shared her frustration that things didn’t seem to work and it was hard to use the touch keyboard and understand what to do.  Now I can easily (and will) chalk this up to a generational thing and a first-time ‘device’ user in GG.  However, it pointed to a fact to me that the Fire is only for a class of folks who are familiar with computers in a more-than-one-time-usage manner.

Summary

I will stress that again, for me, the Kindle Fire was a bust.  I still faithfully have my own Kindle reader which I will still hail as the ultimate in reading devices (and think that is what GG should exchange her Fire for).  The Fire, in current form, however is a bust in my opinion.  I think Amazon *can* get this right if they put some muscle behind it and tighten up the Android edges that show and concentrate a little more on experience refinement.  I absolutely loved the size of the device (hoping Apple takes note) and think that in a few versions they might get it right.

But for now, the Kindle Fire has been returned…and with a great customer service policy, my money fully refunded, satisfaction guaranteed.

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Well, today I received my Kindle Fire.  I pre-ordered this on Sep 28 when they were announced.  I’ve been eagerly awaiting to see if there is anything that can be a better-priced tablet-like consumption device like iPad.  I absolutely love my existing Kindle reading device.  Love it.  If you are looking for an e-reader device only, you should look no further than the Kindle reading-specific devices.  They are priced so good now that there is no excuse if you are an avid reader and have always wanted one.

Before I get to my “review” I wanted to share a little bit about myself, my usage and my reality with these types of things.  I hesitate to even call this a review because I’m not a gadget reviewer, paid jaded journalist or a fanboy of any kind when it comes to these things.  My allegiance is to awesome products that are practical for me.

I currently own an iPhone 4, iPad 2, MacBook, Lenovo, Roku, XBOXen and a Windows Phone.  In the past I’ve also had an Google Nexus One device but no longer have that (or other Android device) in my possession…until now.  I use my devices for personal use mostly, but as a super nerd…it is hard to say that I don’t use my phone as my communication device for work either.  My usage is mostly consumption.  I look at my calendar/contacts, watch movies, listen to music, read books, take pictures, play some casual games, watch television shows and other Internet TV and read/compose email content.  I am not creating large content, movie trailers, etc. with any of my devices.  I like when things work, are easy to use (or easy to figure out how to work around things when they aren’t easy to actually use) and are responsive to my needs.  I don’t care/know about any clock-speed benchmarks on performance stuff between any devices that I’ve ever owned/used because, frankly, it doesn’t matter.  What matters to me in performance is my perception and expectations…now what a high-speed camera says. 

With all that said, here are my initial impressions after a few hours (not an exhaustive use, agreed) with the device from opening to writing this.  Forgive the thoughts if they seem random…they are in order of my thoughts and usage.  Also forgive some of the Apple comparisons…but I trust you’ll understand them to be valid as they are the king of user experience.

Packaging

I friggin’ love Amazon packaging.  It is industrial but easy to use, no tools required, and just ‘get to the product’ fast.  I’ve often said I’d love to sit in a focus group and watch all the executives from cereal companies open their product boxes.  The Kindle Fire packaging is just what you’d expect from amazon and with a pull of the cardboard ‘zipper’ I was at my Fire.

Kindle Fire strapped in MoleskineI pulled it out and my gut reaction was huh, this feels heavier than I’d expect for the size.  The size also struck me as small initially…even knowing what the dimensions were.  It is just a bit smaller than my Moleskine that I use…which, in fact, is kind of an advantage as I can carry the two together (surely someone will latch onto this and make an awesome case). 

 

The one thing that disappointed me was the power cord.  The current Kindle’s that I own have a well-designed power cord.  It has personality, compact and just has that just here to give you power kind of attitude.  The Kindle Fire one feels like I just bought a ThinkPad laptop.  Disappointing.  But I realize this is a power cord…still, just feels like a step back in product design when compared to their existing platform.

First power-on experience

Sorry Amazon, you colossally failed here.  Now I’m not complaining about the speed because my iOS devices take forever from a cold boot.  But I could sense the Android-ness of the boot here.  The logo flashed a few times rather than a consistent image on screen.  This just made it feel unpolished a bit.

But that’s not the part that bothered me.  Immediately upon getting to the first screen, I was greeted with a list of wireless networks.  Very nice start.  I selected the one for my house which is WPA-2 protected and I have a long passphrase.  I was prompted quickly to enter the phrase and presented with a keyboard in portrait orientation (more on orientation in a minute).  The keyboard really felt comfortable in the portrait orientation and I could use it quickly. 

Once I entered my password and clicked next, it immediately recognized me…as the Kindle owner.  And by this I mean it said “Welcome TIm Heuer” and connected to my Amazon account.  I suspect they associated my serial number with my account pre-ship and this was a good touch.  I had the immediate impression that my library of content would be immediately available (more on that in a bit too).  However, this is where it went downhill…fast.

The screen then said it was downloading updates.  W.T.F.?! 

My first impression of a brand new device that hadn’t been on the market was that an update was already needed?  Big time un-polish.  I was not even able to get to any user screen and this update is in my face.  I figured it wouldn’t take that long though…after all, what could need updating already.

I was wrong.

I didn’t clock-time it but I was able to complete the following before the 100% mark was hit: eat a bowl of cereal (already poured), wash my bowl, vacuum my kitchen wood floor with a quick sweeper, go upstairs to take off my shoes and put some slippers on (yes, I wear slippers when I get home…don’t be jealous), come back downstairs, get a drink, get a pad of paper to start taking some notes, and then sit down in the living room.  There are a lot of factors here that could be in play like WiFi strength, bandwidth, etc. but the bottom-line for me was that this was a horrible first impression.

All that aside I figured it was done.  After all, I hadn’t even got to a real user screen yet.  Nope, it rebooted.  Ok, fine let it reboot.  After the reboot I was then presented with an Installing Updates screen.  Seriously?  Man, this was frustrating.

It applied the updates and brought me to the start screen.

Start screen organization

FIrst a note on the lock screen.  This appears to be a portrait-only orientation thing.  This seems odd, but not a deal-breaker by any means…just odd.

After a quick little walk-through on-screen of where things were, I got presented with the start screen.  There wasn’t a ton there but the Facebook logo was prominent as was some simple navigation that was obvious: Music, Video, Docs, Books, Apps, Web. 

Your 'recently used’ items are presented in sort of a bookshelf flip view thing.  Then there is another ‘shelf’ of where you can put favorites.  Fine.

The device doesn’t seem to respond fluidly to orientation changes and the change is abrupt feeling.  There were times I did the shake it a bit because that is supposed to wake up the gyro move to get it to flip.  This is slightly annoying.

The presentation of items in the shelf-flipper-thingy is pretty responsive to navigation in touch, although I felt the number of items it scrolled on a small touch gesture was too much.

Navigation

Kindle Fire touch pointsI didn’t think I’d mind not having any hardware buttons, but I do.  The lack of a ‘home’ button is kind of annoying especially since the device itself is hard to distinguish the top of it.  Having a hardware home button I think is key.  It is the eject button to get you back home no matter where you are in the device.  Kindle Fire doesn’t have one.

Instead they maintain navigation through a toolbar on the bottom, which does have a home button.  When in apps it can be visible or will be subtly hidden and you have to tap it to bring it up.  It isn’t always obvious, but it is there.  Still a hardware home would be nice.

There are also no volume hardware buttons.  This bothers me less actually.  Most of the time when needing to change volume I’ll be in an app that has these controls or me.  It’s one of those nice-to-have features but I don’t think it degrades the experience too much.

The picture presented here in this section shows you my touch points on the screen used after a few hours…this should give you an idea of all the places I had to touch to navigate in different areas.

Mail, calendar, contacts

I quickly went to configure mail.  Colossal fail #2 for the Kindle Fire.

I was presented with a screen asking what type of account I had.  Sweet, I picked Gmail.  I was then asked my login information, which I provided.  Then I was presented with What kind of account is this? screen and asked to choose POP or IMAP.

W.T.F.?!

I am currently awaiting a phone call from my relatives who bought one of these to have me help walk them through this phase.

This is horrible.  POP/IMAP is not user-friendly things to put in front of users unless you absolutely have to.  I’m not convinced for the major email providers they present as options this is at all necessary.  The problem is clearly that I use Google Apps for my domain and Fire doesn’t understand that.  This is a shame.  I was unable to complete my email setup without looking up settings.  Fail.  Fail.

I then also noticed explicitly on the mail screen that it calls out that you will not be able to connect to a Microsoft Exchange account without buying an app separate for this.  Fail #3 in the mail experience.  Seriously, I realize that they may not cater to Exchange, but iOS supports this as well in their platform!  My suspicion here is licensing…but that is just a guess that Amazon just didn’t want to do work here and rely on the Android app ecosystem…which will fail them.

So in the end I did not set up mail…it is just too cumbersome and is not going to fit my needs.  This is a minor problem as I can use web mail, but still annoying.

There doesn’t appear to be a calendar app at all.  Not just to sync with my actual calendar (which won’t work anyways since I use Exchange), but not a calendar to even look at.  This seems odd.

Contacts is there, but again, no sync. 

Basically this will not be a mail, calendar, contacts device for me.  This is a problem for my usage.

Media content

I do use Amazon media content and am a Prime member.  I have a set of music in Amazon Cloud player and also regularly rent/view movies from Amazon.  The video and music experiences are acceptable to me here for the Amazon-based content.  I have no real complaints.

As I noted earlier when I turned on my device it automatically recognized me as the user.  These media areas are tightly integrated with your account so I didn’t have to “log in” anymore to use them.

There is a Pandora app that came pre-installed and I configured it with my account.  The interesting thing is that when I launched it I was warned about data usage fees.  I realize this is because this is an Android app that is used elsewhere, but it shows the lack of customization tailored to the device.  This is a WiFI only device right now…I shouldn’t have seen that warning.

Hulu and Netflix were my next tries.  I had to go to the Store to download these apps first.  These both installed fine and I was able to configure my accounts quickly.  I actually like the Hulu app.  I think it feels right from a UX perspective and the playback was fine.

Netflix app needs some work.  Frankly it feels like they are wrapping their web site.  It sucks.  It most closely resembles their Roku app, which sucks just as equally.  Part of me suspects it actually is the same app.  The input controls, etc. just didn’t feel like they belong.  Regardless I was able to watch movies.  That’s what counts I guess.

Store

If you’ve never used Android before, then the store will appear unfamiliar in some ways.  I’ve seen this before and was able to quickly navigate, understand how purchases are queued in the background, etc.  I had no real problems here.

What I find interesting is the lack of consistency that Amazon is enforcing in the Fire.  The Facebook, Pandora, Hulu and Netflix app icons are all different sizes.  The Netflix one is clearly their iOS one…as does the Pandora one feels the same.  When these are all next to each other on the home screens in the ‘shelves’ they really do look inconsistent (size, rounded, square, etc.) and some are just blurry.  No attention to detail here.

The other thing I didn’t like about the store was the amount of email receipts in my inbox!  Amazon hasn’t figured out how to batch things.  This is only slightly annoying but after getting used to the fact I can make 10 purchases over the course of 2-3 days on iOS and get a unified one-receipt mail, this is another lack of attention to detail.  Not a show-stopper, just an observation.

Reading experience

This is a Kindle after all, right?!  I’m not an avid reader, but have been reading a lot lately.  My Kindle 3 works great for reading and is easy on the eyes.  I don’t think you can really beat e-ink.  The reading experience on the Fire is much like the iPad.  It’s a glossy screen, very bright, and for long reading intervals probably won’t be great.  I have changed my colors and font sizes to adapt to this.

Other than that the reading experience is fine.  Touch to page flip, etc.  No complaints here.

Be sure to protect your Kindle Fire with a case. Caseable allows you to create a custom case for your Kindle

“Other” category of feedback

Here are just some thoughts on some other areas of feedback

  • touch performance seems inconsistent from app to app and even within the Kindle’s own apps
  • Keyboard doesn’t auto-dismiss in areas where it should for me
  • auto-complete/correct are annoying – this is not a Kindle-specific problem as I realize every system needs to be trained
  • since the speakers are on the ‘top’ of the device, when lying on a desk to listen to music I prefer the landscape orientation and the music app actually looks better in that view, IMO
  • web browsing seems fine. it doesn’t feel as fast as they keep talking about, but so far frankly no browser seems fast to me. I wait for pages to load and deal with it. The Fire browser isn’t fast to me, but doesn’t feel terribly slow either when compared to my real use on iOS Safari as well.
    • Note that YouTube defaults to their mobile site, which royally sucks (unless iOS)
  • Web pages as apps – Facebook and Twitter actually give you icons as “apps” but really just launch the web browser to their mobile site views…nothing special as an app.  If you want a better Facebook/Twitter app experience I recommend the Seesmic app as it will do both in one app quite well
  • The Amazon settings seem to be broken on my device
    • It gave me the option to name my device, which I did, but despite that the upper left corner of my device still reads “Tim’s 3rd kindle” which was the default name…and yes I’ve rebooted a few times.
    • The app has a “Your Account” tab on the top that no matter how much I stare at it or tap it, does nothing.  No idea.
  • No opinion of battery life yet
  • The lack of camera, microphone don’t bother me.  My iPad has these and the camera sucks and I don’t use it anyway.

Overall impression

The thing that frustrates me is that Amazon cut corners here.  They have one Kindle Fire device.  They aren’t saying that Kindle Fire is available on Android tablets…they made one.  Because of this I expected a really tailored experience…and am not seeing it.  You had one platform to optimize perfomance, you owned the implementation of certain things, etc…and you took advantage of little of that.  You put a good start screen on content…but didn’t tailor the other portions…this is a shame.

If you also want to be a serious contender there are also areas you shouldn’t rely on the app ecosystem to fix for you.  I am primarily talking about the ‘work’ side of things.  Seriously, invest in a good Microsoft Exchange story here.  Get the mail client to work with it, make it better than 3rd party apps and create a calendar app too.  Give me, the user, the integration that feels right.  Don’t make me install 2 apps to get mail/calendar and then I have 3 separate apps that don’t integrate with each other *at all* – not good for the user.

For the price point, this feels like a good device for those who want to consume media and books but don’t want to shell out for an iPad.  After using it I am liking the size a bit more.  I think all the arguments of the amount of apps available for the Kindle Fire is a bunch of BS.  It isn’t about the number of apps…it is about the amount of apps that matter.  They big name casual games are there, the big media apps are there, etc.  So far there is only a few niche things that I “miss” but can still live without. 

Will I keep this device?  Not sure yet.  The mail/calendar/contacts thing bothers the heck out of me.  I’ll use it for a few weeks on my normal consumption to determine the realism of if I’ll use it.  I think I will, but need some more real-world usage on may day-to-day life to determine.

If you only want an e-reader, don’t get this.  Get the $79 Kindle or Kindle Touch.  This will be over-kill, confusing and not great on the eyes for *lots* of reading (neither is the iPad).  If you use Amazon services already and want an Amazon-driven experience for that content (books, Amazon MP3/Cloud Player, Amazon Prime, Amazon Instant Video) then this device seems reasonable to acquire for the price.

Hope this helps!

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My family and I do not have traditional television in our homes (see My move to free HDTV Part 1 and Part 2).  In our home for “live” TV (which of course we have none) we rely on services like Hulu (which has been working perfectly fine and we haven’t felt we’ve missed anything).  We get Hulu, Netflix and Amazon media through our XBOX.  It works for our needs for things that are mainstream.

This weekend we wanted to watch a conference that wasn’t on any of these outlets and the stream provided wasn’t working on their website.  A friend pointed out to me that they did, however, have a channel on Roku.  I had been wanting to try out a Roku for a while but never really pushed over the edge because the main content I cared about I was already getting through my other devices.  This gave me a good excuse to try it out and the content was convincing enough for the wife to not wince at the purchase.

First impression and setup

Roku 2 XSThe box itself states “Plug it in.  Add to home network.  Enjoy” in a 3-step instruction on the box.  It also states “no PC required.”  Both of these statements actually couldn’t be further from the truth. 

First, I got the Roku XS because I wanted the wired network option (call me silly).  I also have an HDTV so I was pleased to see that it had HDMI.  I thought I read that it came with an HDMI cable, but it doesn’t.  For something that touts a feature for 1080p streaming, they should really own up to that and provide one.  It comes with standard (not even composite) a/v cables only.  No worries there, but just kinda lame in this digital age.  I mean, ship a cheap HDMI cable and make customers happy.

The “plug it in” was just as it sounded.  There is no power button for Roku, it’s like a little smart box…goes in and out of standby mode.  The “add to home network” step was, in fact, easy.  But I had a wired network, so no brainer there.  I tried the wireless just to make sure and if you are going that route be ready to be annoyed to type that long passphrase of yours using a remote with no keyboard (this is one thing that annoys me about XBOX as well).  Easy enough though and I was connected to my network.

The “enjoy” step took longer to get to.  And requires a browser.  You need to activate your box.  You can’t do anything until you do so.  I needed to create a Roku account and provide payment information.  What?! you may be asking is the payment information for?  It is for in-device purchases.  Roku is set up with “channels” and some are premium that you can pay for straight from the box.  Nothing gets charged during payment info setup, they are just trying to provide a seamless experience.  Whatever, I’m not bothered by this but did catch me off guard.

The physical size of the device is appealing but honestly I chuckled that after plugging in my Ethernet cable and a decent quality HDMI cable, the cables tipped the box up.  It’s almost too light and small.  But it definitely doesn’t take up space nor does it have any noise emitting.

Channel setup

The next thing you have to do is set up some channels.  This is offered during your account set up on their website pointing to the free apps like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, etc.  Notice I didn’t say free “services” – these are just their channel apps.  You don’t get Netflix for free here if that is what you were thinking.  I set up my most popular and figured I’d do the others later.  I was off and started.  The Roku device started downloading some updates and I took the time to figure I’d add my custom channel we got the device for.

Turns out, this is not intuitive IMO.  Since it let me set up the Hulu, Netflix, Amazon during my account creation I thought I’d be able to add other channels via the website and my profile.  Nope.  You can browse all the channels but there is no “add to my device” option.  In fact, I had to search the help FAQ to even find out how to do that.  It would have been at least nice to have that prompt in the areas where you’d expect to add a channel.  I found this to be incredibly lame and my first area where I think Roku can improve.

Nonetheless I searched for the channel on the device and added it no problems afterwards.

For the other channels that required authentication (i.e., Netflix, Hulu) it was a mixed bag.  With Netflix I had to log into my account on the device.  Again, “typing” with a remote is extremely annoying.  The others pointed me to a website with a code.  While I needed a PC, it was much quicker to set up than things like Netflix.  I went to the site, logged in, entered the code on screen, then the screen realized I was linked and proceeded. 

Games

One quick word here.  I think games on these types of devices is quite lame.  But take that from someone who isn’t a gamer.  The Roku XS came with Angry Birds and I just found it lame to play on the remote.  Casual games are for casual use, not my big HD screen…that’s for “real” games.

Bottom line: don’t let the games thing sway you.  In fact if you don’t care about games or don’t care about wired Ethernet access, then you should get the Roku XD for less money.

Content Quality

Impressive.  Of course this depends on the source of the content but my quality was very good HD quality and no buffering experienced.  I have no complaints here.

Content Acquisition

“Acquisition” is the best word I can think of for this experience – that of finding and the start point of your desired content.  The Netflix interface is horrible.  For an avid Netflix user (on XBOX) this needs to be improved, seriously.  Same with Hulu Plus actually.  I don’t have solutions other than “make it more like XBOX” because that is what I’m used to.

The Amazon app is a welcome one to me because, while I can get my Amazon content on XBOX it isn’t the greatest experience I’ve set up…and I can’t get my rentals easily without an extra step.  The Amazon app gives me direct access to my purchased and Instant Video content (for Amazon Prime members) on the device.  I anticipate I will like this feature the most for my Roku usage.

Pandora is a welcome app.  Although admittedly it seems lame to “listen” to music through your TV, it’s nice to have that option.  I think Pandora can step it up as well on their UI for their app…at least make it a bit more engaging to me.

Parental Controls

Stop looking, there isn’t any.  The FAQ points to the fact you can set up a PIN to prevent anyone from purchasing in-device content.  Um, that’s not parental controls at all.  I don’t consider myself a prude but I also don’t think my daughter needs to browse through Netflix and see movie covers with gore or half-dressed folks on them.  She’s 9.  And same for my son browsing his Inspector Gadget videos…he doesn’t need the occasional NC-17 cover passing him by.

Seriously, if Roku wants to be a serious family device, give me *some* throttles.  XBOX does this well and it flows through their apps.  I set permissions on the device and the apps flow.  I can set a limit of PG movies/content and anything above that isn’t showing pictures (it still lists the titles) and requires a PIN to play.  That’s all I’m asking.

Developer story

One of the things that bothered me about TiVo was the lack of an initial (and even later) good developer story.  Roku puts a developer link on their home page and has a whole section complete with SDK, design guidelines, Photoshop templates for screen designs, etc.  I’m just now digging into this to play around, but it is pretty cool to see the company encourage this.  There is a free and premium developer account and I suspect the free allows very basic RSS type feed insertion where the premium allows you to be more of an app.  I’m still checking it out, but while deep it appears not to be entirely intuitive as well.  Some searches showed some Roku/C# forum posts so I’ll be checking those out.

Overall

Good purchase so far.  Annoyances exist for me as does any product but nothing I can’t get over for my specific use case.  I’ll be looking at the developer platform, but I think for now the inexpensive purchase for our immediate need paid off and we’ll see how much I use the little thing over the XBOX for the mainstream content we already get.  I suspect that I’ll be more annoyed by the apps’ user interfaces and revert to XBOX, but we’ll see.

If you’re in the market for a single device to get things like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, etc., etc. and don’t have an XBOX, Playstation or a TV that has those built in, then the Roku might be for you and at $79 or $99 it’s well worth the investigation at least in my opinion.

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When I first saw the Kindle 3 (is that even the new name?) was going to be offered with WiFi, I thought that was cool.  Then when I saw the price (USD $139) I figured it was a no-brainer to explore.  I had bought my wife a Kindle 2 a while back ($249 when I purchased it) as she is a reader and I thought she’d like it.  She does.  It turns out though, so do I!  I’ve found myself reading a LOT more lately and I really like the versatility this provides me in switching between books.  (If you are interested in seeing what I’m reading or just finished you can see my list on goodreads.com.)

Anyway, back on to the Kindle 3.  I just got mine today and wanted to share my first impressions/comparisons.  By no means is this an exhaustive review, but I compared for my own edification and thought I would share.

First Impressions

Amazon’s packaging of the Kindle since their first versions are great.  The self-contained box is awesome…unzip the recyclable cardboard and there it is.  No additional box to open.  It’s simple, and puts the focus on the device.  The box includes 3 things: Kindle, power cord and a user guide (that I almost mistook for a Field Notes large notebook).  The new device is compact, well-designed and attractive.  My first impressions were very good.

Power-on experience and WiFi connectivity

I powered it on and was instantly ready to go.  The user guide popped up with some initial information.  Having had a Kindle before, I ignored it all of course.  The next screen encouraged me to register the device and change the device name.  Before I could do that I needed some level of connectivity.  My home has two stories and my wireless router is upstairs behind a structured wiring panel.  For my laptop, mobile devices, etc. this hasn’t been a problem.  It isn’t the strongest signal, but it has done well.

The Kindle saw the wireless network fine and showed an adequate representation of signal strength.  I entered my password (WPA2) and it failed to connect.  And then I entered it again and it failed.  And again.  Then I tried “manual” and essentially just verified the information and clicked connect (my WPA2 password was already filled in the manual registration based on previous attempts).  This time it connected.  My gut tells me that the WiFi antenna isn’t the strongest on the Kindle device, so keep that in mind where you plan on using it.  I don’t see this as a huge issue as generally when you’d use it you are likely to be in a good range.  But so far my experience is that the range is much less than normal for Kindle than for other traditional devices.

Transferring content

There was an option for “transfer” of existing data (email profile and data).  Since I was planning on keeping both of them I chose to skip that.  There was an option to transfer Collections created from another device.  It showed me my device list, I selected it and the collections were transferred.  Simple.

Hardware

The hardware is physically smaller than the Kindle 2:

If you look at the second picture above you’ll see how they were able to reduce some width and height.  NOTE: While I’m sure there are some millimeter measurement differences in the thickness, I found it to be negligible…the blind eye wouldn’t notice much of any difference.

I tried to line up the screens (which is the same size) so you could see where the reduction is.  The keyboard keys are spaced the same amount apart (again maybe millimeter closer), but notice the removal of the numbered keys.  That eliminated an entire row from the keyboard.  On the width side of things, the next/previous page buttons are no longer labeled and are much thinner – this is noticeable, and welcomed.  There is now matching next/prev buttons on both sides of the Kindle so no matter how you hold it. 

The home, menu and back buttons are moved into the keyboard area along with a d-pad like replacement of the Kindle 2’s knob, again a welcome replacement in design and usability for me.

The Kindle 3 also seems to weigh a slight bit less and I think this is due to a more plastic design than the metal backing on the Kindle 2.  I like the new Kindle material as it feels a little less industrial and more stylish. 

Be sure to protect your Kindle with a case. Caseable has a good set of them and allows you to create custom Kindle cases

Software

One of my nags about the Kindle is not in the reading responsiveness, but rather in interacting with the menu system, the store, and navigating the device.  I was pleasantly surprised on the new Kindle 3 at the speed and responsiveness in everything I interacted with.  For me, this was very noticeable improvement on my previous experience.  The Kindle 2 isn’t bad, but it’s like driving a 200 horsepower engine after just driving a 550 horsepower engine.  The former isn’t bad and is adequate, but now that you’ve had more power, it’s hard to enjoy the adequacy. 

I think that this will greatly improve my overall experience on the device and for others.  The knob on the Kindle 2 may actually be the issue as I’ve always felt a delay in response after issuing a command.  Not so on Kindle 3 as interaction with the d-bad/arrows has been immediate for me.  Page turning comparisons between Kindle 2 and 3 is about the same in my book.  I want to believe the new one is faster, but honestly I can’t tell much of a difference.  It wasn’t bad for me before.

The software on the Kindle 3 reads “3.0” whereas my Kindle 2 is 2.5.6 right now so understandably there are some differences.  Perhaps the Kindle 2 will get an update that results in better responsiveness.

Browser

This was the biggest surprise to me.  The browser (which is actually in the “experimental” area of the Kindle OS) on the Kindle 2 sucks.  It barely works.  Lynx is a better browsing experience.  Seriously.  Knowing this I fired it up on the Kindle 3.  Wow.  I was impressed.  Here is Amazon’s home page on Kindle 2:

and on Kindle 3:

Most other sites are able to render well also.  Sure it is still monochromatic, but I don’t expect to be watching Hulu or anything on my e-reader.  It’s a primary-purpose device for me with ancillary benefits…and a MUCH better browser is a welcome experience for the few times I’ve actually wanted/needed to use it.  Bravo Amazon, bravo.

Wireless connectivity

Now the Kindle 2 always came with “3G” connectivity…that was the only wireless option.  The Kindle 3 offered a new option, WiFi only (in addition to WiFi+3G for a larger price).  I chose the WiFi only one because the times I’ve actually used the wireless connectivity (to buy a new book and to sync pages for my other reading devices) has been in areas where I would have had WiFi anyway.  The cost savings made it even easier of a decision.

The WiFi seems adequate speeds when connected to an access point in good range.  Again, this isn’t as big of deal for me because I don’t use it that much.  My Kindle 2 sucked down battery like crazy when I kept wireless on.  I’m keeping WiFi on my Kindle 3 initially to see the battery life.  Honestly though, unless I’m actually interacting with connectivity, I turn it off anyway…there isn’t a need for it on otherwise in my opinion.

Summary

If you’ve been holding back on getting a Kindle, the $139 WiFi only version just released should remove most, if not all, barriers in your decision.  For what you are getting on that price in an e-reader is amazing.  Sure I can get an iPad for 3x the cost and have Kindle on that, but I’m not sure it would make a good e-reader as a primary purpose device.  Also, take a look at this comparison of quality for reading purposes between iPad and Kindle.

UPDATE: Look at the microscope comparison of quality from Kindle 2 to Kindle 3

My initial impressions of Kindle 3 as a previous Kindle user are awesome.  I’m impressed above the existing device I have and would recommend Kindle 3 to anyone on the fence about getting one.  If you think it is an iPad competitor, then you won’t be happy with it, but compared to other reader-specific devices out there, the price, the design and the available library of books is unmatched.  Go buy it now.