Amazon hopes to ignite some real competition with the Kindle Fire, but is there anything new under the bonnet?
Amazon's Kindle Fire is a 7in touchscreen tablet that went on sale in the US late last year at the very low retail price of $199. The company is expected to announce European launch dates shortly with pricing in a broadly comparable range.
Backed by the popular Kindle e-reader brand, access to the online retailer's stock of digital media and a huge marketing campaign, the colour tablet achieved sales of about one million units per week in its first 11 weeks on the market. It is Amazon's most successful product to date.
The focus for the Fire is explicitly on content consumption. It is, in many respects, a shop window. Unlike other Kindle e-readers, there is no option for connecting to either 3G or 4G mobile communications networks. This is possibly a reflection of the Fire's focus on music, apps and streaming video with their larger file sizes rather than e-books. Although it is based on the Android operating system, all content must be purchased through Amazon.
The Fire has no Bluetooth option, so whilst it offers both Web browsing and email there is currently no way of connecting a keyboard so that productivity software can be used efficiently. There is also no camera.
According to IHS iSuppli, while Amazon is selling the Fire at below cost and looking to turn profits through content sales, the specifications and other design choices show it to be an example of a tightly controlled spec.
The component and manufacturing cost is $187.56. This excludes its bespoke Android build and software as well as marketing and packaging costs, so the Fire is undoubtedly a loss leader.
"Immediately, one notices the 7in display compared with the 9-10in displays on other products. Housing components are mostly plastic. There is no aluminium unibody as in the iPad, although there is a magnesium frame internally," says Andrew Rassweiler of iSuppli.
"Beyond that there are some areas where the actual specifications are a bit lighter than initially thought. For example, we had assumed originally that the Kindle might have as much as 8Gb of low-power DDR2 DRAM memory, as is increasingly common with newer handset and tablets. In fact, the Kindle Fire ships with only 4Gb."
Beyond that, the Fire also eschews the WLAN 'combo' module – typically featuring 802.11, Bluetooth and FM radio – usually seen in tablets, in favour of a WLAN-only one. Meanwhile, the battery was expected to have roughly the same capacity as Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook, 3.7V/5400mAh giving about 20Wh, but is in fact 3.7V/4400mAh which gives 16Wh.
Amazon's choice of suppliers also points to tight cost-control. Texas Instruments dominates the design, providing the Fire's 1GHz dual-core ARM Cortex A9-based OMAP4430 applications processor (also seen in the Droid Bionic XT875, LG Optimus 3D P920, and RIM PlayBook RDJ21WW), as well as many other key components and the WLAN-only chip used in a module from a previously unheard-of supplier, Jorjin. The touchscreen controller is also from a new player, Illitek.
"Amazon's relative purchasing stature has grown as other tablet launches have simply not lived up to suppliers' volume expectations," says Rassweiler. "Suppliers are interested in finding the next 'rockstar' tablet that will allow them to sell millions of widgets into a single or a handful of different SKUs [stock-keeping units] and are likely willing to cut Amazon better deals as a result."
Nevertheless, Amazon has ensured that the display delivers 'on-par performance' with that of the iPad. The teardown Fire had a 7in 1024x600 pixel module from LG Display but these are also being sourced from E Ink Holdings, which owns the proprietary wide-viewing angle fringe field switching (FFS) technology used in either version. The touchscreen element appears to be conventional capacitive glass-on-glass.
'"The cost of these displays and touchscreen elements collectively represent nearly half of the total BOM costs, yet Amazon has still been able to draw some cost benefits as a result of market evolution," says Rassweiler.
"Improved FFS production yields and efficiencies have assisted greatly in bringing down the price of FFS tablet displays. Touchscreens have made big strides in pricing reduction for the same reasons over the course of 2011." *