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Review: Kindle Fire – How usable is it outside of the US?

Having used the Kindle Fire for some months now it’s time to evaluate how much sense it makes to get the latest Amazon tablet as a non-US customer. Since the major selling point of the Kindle Fire isn’t only the price tag but also easy access to all Amazon services i want to explain what you have to keep in mind if you think about getting this product outside of the US and without a real Amazon US account. It’s very tempting to get an Dual Core 7 inch Android 2.3 tablet for only 200 bucks, but at the end of the day you want to have a fully functional device that does what you need.

The Kindle Fire stock rom experience

Let’s start with the most basic case, using the Kindle Fire without any rooting or hacking. After the first boot you’ll be able to provide your Amazon Account credentials or create a new one. It’s possible to use your regular non-US credentials too. Amazon created their own bookshelf like launcher which is separated into four areas. There is a search bar located at the top, and beneath you’ll find shortcuts to different Amazon services like Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, documents, an apps list and access to the web with the Kindle Silk Browser. At the bottom you can define 4 fix app shortcuts, and swiping up the shelf will show more of them.

Going through the offered services it’s obvious that you won’t be able to use most of them as non-US customer. There is no streaming service available in the rest of the world, and the same is true for newsstand. And while you can buy music in Germany you won’t be able to sync it with the Kindle Fire.

Another problem is that you won’t be able to download apps from the Amazon Market with a non-US Amazon account. And there is also no official way to access the Google Android Market too. This really lessens the functionality of the Kindle Fire out of the box.

At least the browser is working fine and you can use the Kindle Fire to surf the net without any problems. Flash is supported and you have the option to let the Amazon Silk browser pre-render webpages on their servers to gain speed. The effect is not very big, and i wouldn’t really want my data to be processed on Amazon servers first so i deactivated the feature in the browser settings.

There are also a handful of other Kindle Fire optimized apps pre-installed like the Amazon Marketplace app, Kindle Reader or an email client.

Most of them really work well and i especially like the Kindle Reader app for comfortable ebook reading. But there are also some flaws, like the fact that you can’t even add an exchange email address in the email app.

Using the credit card workaround

Normally you wouldn’t want to use only pre installed apps, so the question is how to install apps from the market even though you live outside of the US. One workaround is to create a new amazon account and provide random created credit card information alongside a virtual US address. This way you will be able to install apps from the market. But handling with fake credit cards is illegal and therefore i will not provide any links or further information. If you don’t want to bother with rooting your device you’ll be able to easily find instructions for this approach using any web searchengine.

Sideloading apps

An even simpler method is to download the install files of apps (APK Files) and manually install them on your Kinde Fire. You just have to change the security settings and allow installations from unknown sources. But using this way you won’t be able to get many paid apps legally or receive updates automatically, so it’s not a comfortable solution.

Rooting the Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire is a very solid piece of hardware out-of-the-box but a little bit hampered by the software it’s shipped with. And for customers outside of the US there is basically no better way to fully unleash the potential of this device than rooting it. There are many rooting tutorials out there but i can recommend Android Police as a good source to get going. It’s important that you are a little bit tech savvy as rooting the Kindle Fire includes working with a tool called ADB (from the Android SDK) as well as some command prompt usage. This is no rocket science but neithertheless you shouldn’t be somebody who is afraid of technical vocabulary. By rooting your device you will lose warranty as well, so you should be very sure about what you are doing before taking any action. And there is always the chance that you brick your device without being able to restore it, so you have been warned.

It was a pretty much straightforward experience for me to root the Kindle Fire, the only real problem i had was the fact that ADB (which is the tool you use to communicate with the connected Android device via command shell) didn’t find my device. Only changing some USB driver settings manually helped to solve this issue. But after that it was not that complicated to follow the guide from Android Police.

The first thing you will probably want to do is to replace the pretty boring and inflexible default app launcher. Finding the apk file from a free launcher with any search engine isn’t hard, and i started off with Go Launcher which instantly made the Kindle much more usable for me. But having the best launcher doesn’t help if you have no access to apps.

Installing the Android Market

As using the Amazon market is not possible without going the fake credit card route, the best alternative is of course the official Google Android Market. Getting the market to work on the Kindle involves installing the framework APK as well as the Google Market APK. Taking a look at the tutorial on XDA Devs should get you covered.

This is really a big step forward for all non-US customers, as having access to the huge Android Market app selection will finally make good use of that great hardware you just got for 200 bucks. Most apps install without much problems, but there is a little issue since the Kinde Fire never was supposed to access the Google Android Market. It’ won’t be identified correctly by the market, which will think that this is an incompatible device for some apps. So you probably won’t be able to install all apps you already got used to on some other device. There is always the option to sideload apps (by downloading their APK files and installing them manually), but this way you won’t get automatic app updates which is annoying. For full market compatibility you have to install a custom ROM which uses the ID of other tablets.

Amazon pushes out updates to the Kindle Fire pretty often, which would normally be a great thing, but not so much if you are using a rooted device with the stock ROM. Updates are forced and there is no way to deny them, other than using the Kindle Fire only offline which of course makes no sense. The problem is that each update could break your root access so you have to wait for the community to root the new version and provide an walkthrough for it. This cat and mouse play can get very annoying. Chances are that you don’t really need to stick with the stock Kindle Fire ROM anyway as most Amazon services can’t be used outside of the US. This is where custom ROMs come in handy, as using them will prevent the Amazon OTA updates to happen.

Amazon Kindle Fire Custom ROMs

In order to install a custom ROM you will need the FireFireFire bootloader and a custom recovery which you can use to create full backups of your system and flash ROMs. I strongly advise to read through the XDA Devs threads to really understand what you need to do before proceeding.

There are many different custom ROM options out there ranging from Android 2.3 to Android 4.0.3 ICS. When deciding which way to go you should consider a few important aspects. Android 2.3 and all versions before that weren’t meant for tablet usage. On tablets running Android 2.3 every app will look exactly like on a phone, albeit zoomed to fit the screen. Text will still be too small on many cases and since the Kindle Fire doesn’t sport any regular Android 2.3 hardware buttons you can’t use a stock Android 2.3 ROM.

There are some (unofficial) Cyanogen Mod Android 2.3 ROMs available which have been enhanced with soft buttons to cover all basic navigation options like home, back, menu and search. Using this ROMs you’ll have a fully featured device which is quite usable. But there is a reason why Google worked on Android 3.0 Honeycomb and subsequently Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to optimize the UI for tablets.

From the new position of the notification area to new split views in GMail and many other apps the full potential of the Kindle Fire hardware can only be utilized with an Android 4.0 ROM.

On the XDA Developer message board you can find a thread where the work of a few developers on an Android 4.0 ROM is documented and discussed. Currently the ROM is already pretty stable and the only major topic which needs to be fixed is hardware acceleration which will help making the whole experience much more fluid.

Even though there will be some lags an random reboots every now and then i already use this ROM on my Kindle Fire and never looked back to the old Amazon ROM. The whole UI fits so much better to all tablet use cases, and it’s great to see apps using the tablet display fully. I also love the new homescreen concept as well as widget resizing and folder management features.

Google did a great job in streamlining the user experience and revamping nearly all Google apps. The contacts app is finally looking professional with a much better layout. Gmail as well as the regular email app share the general UI, while they were looking completely different on previous versions.

There are many other new features Google added with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. You can find more details on my Nexus S Android 4.0 review or the upcoming Asus Transformer TF101 review based on the latest Android 4.0 update that has been rolled out very recently.

Verdict

The Amazon Kindle Fire is a great Android tablet with solid specs as well as impressive build quality, and one of the biggest features is the tight integration of Amazon services. Most of them are not available outside the US though, so taking this into account you have only a small fragment of the whole functionality the tablet originally provides out of the box. Getting a Kindle Fire as non-US customer only makes sense if you are willing to learn a few things about rooting and unleashing the full potential of the Kindle Fire with custom ROMs. This is something which will take some time and effort, especially if this is the first time you are rooting a device, and there is always the risk that something goes wrong. Still the 200 $ price tag is very attractive and I’m perfectly happy with the Kindle Fire as my main Android tablet running an alpha Android 4.0 ICS ROM. Even though I have an iPad 2 I find myself coming back to the Kindle Fire more often because of the form factor and the fact that the iPad 2 is too heavy.

So can I recommend the Kindle Fire to anybody searching for a good and cheap tablet? Well, after Amazon entered the market with a very affordable device, other manufacturers also started to work on similar products. Recently Asus announced some very impressive 7 inch tablets with Quad Core CPUs and high end specs having price tags starting from 250 $, so I believe that there will be no need anymore to get a Kindle Fire only to root it and install a custom ROM. You will have other options which ship with Android 4.0 and work right away anywhere in the world. So even though I really love the Kindle Fire I would suggest to wait for 2-3 months and see what will come up next. It won’t take long until many new, and much more powerful, 7 inch tablets are released. And since the only real unique feature of the Kindle Fire doesn’t even work outside of the US, there is no reason why you shouldn’t opt for one of those new 7 inch tablets. If you absolutely must get a device now, and don’t want to wait any longer, the Kindle Fire is currently the best 7 inch tablet around.