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Tech Lab | First Take

Amazon’s Kindle Fire is too cool to change the world

Editor’s Note: This is a sneak peek at Thursday’s Tech Lab column. Read the full Kindle Fire review Thursday.

The new Kindle Fire from Amazon.com has finally arrived, and it’s a pretty cool device -- which is too bad.

It was supposed to be red hot, a low-priced tablet computer good enough to become the first serious rival to Apple Inc.’s iPad. And that could still happen, but only because it’s a lot cheaper and a little smaller than the Apple tablet, and delivers decent performance.

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But the original Kindle, the first successful electronic book reader, was different. It changed the world, altering the literary habits of millions. The Fire, colorful and powerful as it is, won’t have nearly as much impact.

The Fire is a seven-inch tablet, suitable for clutching in one hand, but far heavier than standard Kindles, weighing almost a full pound. That’s because it abandons the monochrome E Ink screen technology, which uses very little electricity. This tablet uses a standard color LCD screen, and packs a bigger battery to provide the needed juice.

With its comfy rubberized back and solid feel, the Fire reminds me of the ill-fated, but well-made, BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Unlike the PlayBook, and most other tablets, there are no built-in cameras. Then again, the Fire’s got a beefy dual-core processor. So everything happens fast.

But not as fast as Amazon claims. The company brags about its new Silk Web browsing technology, which is supposed to deliver pages much faster than rival systems. I don’t see it. I grabbed an iPad connected to the same wireless network as the Fire, and ran speed tests at the Washington Post, CNN, and the Huffington Post. The Kindle Fire took first place at the Huffington Post site, but barely. Meanwhile, the iPad was significantly faster at displaying CNN and the Washington Post. Maybe further testing will deliver different results, but for now, I’m unimpressed.

Still, it’s a pretty good tablet overall, especially if you already spend lots of money at Amazon.com. The Fire is basically a portable storefront for Amazon’s millions of products. If you pay $79 a year to join the company’s Amazon Prime service, you can use the Fire to watch free movies and TV shows, and electronically “borrow” books instead of purchasing them outright. Throw in the price -- $300 less than the cheapest iPad 2 -- and the Kindle Fire is a good deal for Amazon loyalists. Since there are 10 million of those avid online shoppers, the Fire’s going to be a solid success, and probably the number-one non-iPad tablet. But I doubt it’s the market-shifting game changer so many people expected. It’s much too cool for that.

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