You can’t see it in this picture, but he’s standing on Samsung’s corpse.
There’s nothing I love like a device that shakes up the elitist gaming crowd. When I hear about any new platform or hardware that is generating controversy because it breaks the industry price standard, I usually can’t wait to get my hands on it. With the AMD Fusion platform, the Onlive service and budget gaming laptops all breaking the surface in the last year, gaming on a budget has come front and center recently.
So when I heard that people were playing Dead Space and successful clones of both WoW and Uncharted on an eReader while iPad and Galaxy owners raged about it, I had to have one. Here’s my full report on the viability of the Kindle Fire as a gaming tablet.
I’m just going to get the negatives out of the way first. You knew there were going to be some when we’re talking about gaming on an eReader. The biggest ones as far as the ‘vs. a full tablet’ category are the lack of a camera and microphone. You won’t be recording any home movies or taking any photos with your Kindle. Since it was never marketed for this purpose, I have a hard time faulting Amazon, even though the iPod Touch and Galaxy Player 4 both have these at the same price point.
The drawbacks that relate to gaming are the lack of a gyroscope and the fact that the Bluetooth function is currently locked in the Fire’s custom OS. The lack of a gyroscope means motion controlled games will respond poorly as they only use the accelerometers. The locked Bluetooth combined with the lack of a microphone means you cannot currently voice chat in games by any method. You also cannot connect a PS3 or OnLive controller to play your games with.
The good news is that the Bluetooth is physically there. By either side-rooting the Fire and installing stock Android 2.3 or hopefully through a firmware update from Amazon, it can be turned on. This means you could connect both a headset and a PS3 controller (which has a gyroscope), solving both of these issues.
The final limitation is the 8GB total memory. Like the iPod, what you buy is what you get as far as storage. The Galaxy player has SD card support, so you can expand up to 32GB. You can always shuffle large apps back and forth between your PC and the Kindle, but you will only be able to hold a dozen or so games at any time.
That out of the way, there are a huge pile of things in the + column that balance those cons. The very biggest one is the fact that the Kindle is not an app-locked device. You can enable the third-party software option in the settings and install any 2.3 compatible app, including the full store. You can also side-load any Android based game that you have acquired through any other site or service. This enabled me to get many games not included in the Amazon app store, even ones optimized for other tablets!
As I’ll explain further below, the Fire has an extremely competent chipset, capable of running every game I tested smoothly. So don’t let it dissuade you that the device comes pre-loaded with only Amazon’s store, it will run anything.
Another benefit is the screen size over the competition in the price bracket. While the competition (iPod Touch and Galaxy Player 4) may have similar gaming performance plus cameras, mics and Bluetooth, they also have tiny 3.5″ and 4″ screens. The Fire has a slightly lower resolution screen than the iPod, but it’s twice as large. It completely blows away the Samsung, which is not only smaller and lower res, but also poorer in contrast and response time. Having compared all three side-by-side before choosing, I would rate the Fire as having a better looking overall screen than either of the others, not by a little, but by a lot.
Although the Fire does not come with headphones (iPod and G4P both do), it’s built in speakers blow away anything but the iPad when it comes to quality and volume. I would put it about on par with the Acer and Samsung 10.1″ tabs (which both cost nearly as much as the iPad).
The performance blows the competition away. Although the iPod and the G4P both have similar (though slightly older) chipsets, they are both underclocked a fair bit to run in such a small metal box. The TI CPU in the Fire runs at the full 1GHz and features the newer graphics core. Overall it benchmarks very comparably to an nVidia Tegra 2, which you won’t find in anything but the newer, pricier tablets. Which leads to our next section.
nVidia Tegra 2 vs. Texas Instruments OMAP4430
nVidia has gobbled up a lot of press with their Tegra 2 chipset and you’ll find it powering many tablets, including the best-selling Samsung Galaxy. While the GeForce ULP core in the Tegra is an impressive design, it’s no longer very unique. All of the other ARM based mobile CPUs in the last year have narrowed or eliminated the gap and the TI OMAP is no exception. It’s PowerVR 540 series GPU cores have been clocked up to 384MHz (the Tegra 2 is @300MHz), matching or surpassing the Tegra in performance. The OMAP4430 also features dual-channel memory vs. the single-channel RAM found in the nVidia and Apple based competitors, meaning that it’s 512MB matches or beats the Tegra 2 with 1GB and unilaterally humiliates the iDevices with their single-channle 512MB memory footprints.
So even at stock performance the Fire should match or beat the performance of anything but the few quad-core tabs out there. The TI OMAP4430 can also be safely clocked up to 1.2GHz per core if needed in the future. I found the Kindle Fire played every game I loaded flawlessly. I was able to install several high-end games that were the versions designed for Tegra 2 based tablets and it played them all flawlessly. I don’t mean the Samsung version of Angry Birds or some such, I’m talking about Dead Space, Order and Chaos, Shadowgun and other intensive 3D apps.
This picture is dark and blurry because I’m playing games before I even get out of bed in the morning. It’s a scary thing.
Is it the right choice for the budget gamer?
Absolutely, yes. To borrow an overused meme, here at BE we represent gaming’s 99% (that’s you), not the 1% who don’t have to buy their games (that’s game journalists and analysts). If you’re looking at a Kindle Fire, you aren’t looking for a full tablet for $200. You’re looking to get into the tablet world, primarily for casual entertainment and you just want to know if you can run the best games from time to time. The answer is yes and surprisingly well. In many ways, you will be having a better experience on your eReader than others are on their phones and tablets under $450. So feel free to dive in, just remember that Bluetooth is still coming and the gyroscope is just plain not there and never will be without a separate PS3 controller or similar motion device.
So if you’re wondering why I don’t list the B&N Nook Tablet as a competitor to the Fire, it’s actually just because the Nook is $50 more. I think $200 is a critical milestone in cost, because it makes the Fire comparable to an Apple iPod Touch. It’s much easier for a parent to look at the iPod and the Kindle side by side and choose the Kindle for it’s bookishness. The Nook’s upgradeable memory for $50 more is arguable only useful for games and movies and therefore hard to justify as something that will help little Timmy at school. It also puts the Kindle in range with an Xbox, cheap netbook or many other comparable devices that are now considered reasonable gifts in Western society. Most people would still consider items above $200 to be too much for anyone but a spouse or elderly parent and I think this is a crucial point. I may be wrong, but I believe the higher price point will be the death of the Nook. Barnes and Noble will be left with the poor choices of dropping $50 and taking a loss to try and recapture the lead from Amazon or riding it out in second place in what is basically a smaller segment of the tablet market. Journalists will always go blah blah blah about more memory and how that’s what’s important. It’s price that wins almost every time. The Playstation was cheaper than the N64, the Sony X-plod stereo was cheaper than a Pioneer. History tells us who was right.
I’m still enjoying gaming on my Fire. Downloaded GTA3 from the Android store and easily sideloaded it onto the Kindle. Works flawlessly.