December 14, 2011, 2:58 PM

Some analysts and consumers are grumbling about Amazon’s tablet

But poor performance concerns may be addressed in an impending update.

Lead Photo

More than half of purchasers rate the tablet highly, but some contend it could be a little faster and more responsive.

By most accounts Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle Fire, a 7-inch tablet introduced in November, is a big hit with consumers. Yet some are complaining about the device’s performance, with one researcher claiming it has a “disappointingly poor user experience.”

Born from Amazon’s experience producing Kindle e-book readers, the Kindle Fire was the first tablet computer created and sold by a retailer other than Apple Inc., maker of the iPad, which boasts a 9.7-inch screen. Apple is No. 2 in the Internet Retailer Mobile Commerce Top 300. The Kindle Fire uses the Android operating system from Google Inc. Just days after the Kindle Fire’s November release, Barnes & Noble Inc., No. 27 in the Top 300, debuted its Nook Tablet, which, like the Fire, has a 7-inch screen.

Though Amazon, No. 1 in the Top 300, has had years to hone its Kindle e-reader, the Kindle Fire is a different type of product meant to encourage consumers to buy digital media—such as songs, videos and e-books—and physical goods from Amazon.

But the Kindle Fire has met some criticism. The tablet’s user experience is not on par with what is expected of a company with significant mobile device experience, according to researcher Jakob Nielsen, principal at the Nielsen Norman Group, a research and consulting firm. He cites difficulty tapping buttons on web sites, the lack of physical buttons for turning a page and screen updates that are too slow.

Specifically, Nielsen considers the Kindle Fire’s rendering of web sites as a pain point. “Using designs intended for a full screen on a 7-inch tablet is like squeezing a size-10 person into a size-7 suit,” Nielsen writes. “Not going to look good.”

He lauded the Amazon shopping app, which is designed to fit the 7-inch screen, but was suspicious of Silk, Amazon’s web browser. “If I were given to conspiracy theories, I’d say that Amazon deliberately designed a poor web browsing user experience to keep Fire users from shopping on competing sites. Amazon’s own built-in shopping app has great usability, so they know how to design for the tablet.”

Some consumers reviewing the Kindle Fire on Amazon’s site weigh in that the device lacks privacy controls. As “Zee” writes in a customer review, “Anything you ever used remains on screen. Can't delete history. 1 click order has no security. If anyone has your kindle they can order anything with one click under 10 sec.” The same consumer praises the price, adding, “Amazon is the first company to bring down the tablet prices which will force the competitor to do the same.”

To its credit, the Kindle Fire is averaging four out of five stars based on 5,756 reviews on Amazon.com. Almost half—48.3%—of the consumer reviews are five stars, with 19.6% four stars, 11.6% three stars, 8.6% two stars and 11.9% one star, according to Amazon’s web site.

Amazon says a software update arriving in less than two weeks will address the issues raised by Nielsen and some consumers.

“Kindle Fire is the most successful product we’ve ever launched,” an Amazon spokeswoman says. “We’ve already sold millions of units and we’re building more to meet the strong demand.  As with all of our products, we continue to make them better for customers with regular software updates. In fact, in less than two weeks, we’re rolling out an over-the-air update to Kindle Fire that will improve performance and touch navigation, and give customers the option to choose what items display on the carousel.”

Mimicking a carousel’s movement, users scroll through a horizontally rotating queue of apps and digital goods to select an activity, such as shopping with the Amazon app or reading a book.

If the update doesn’t improve the Kindle Fire’s performance, Amazon risks damaging its reputation, says analyst Avi Greengart, research director of consumer devices at Current Analysis Inc. “When you release a product into the market it had better be a good one,” Greengart says. “The reviews I’ve seen indicate the Kindle Fire as delivered today is lacking.”

While an update will help, Greengart says the larger concern is the potential customer disappointment. “If they’ve disappointed their customer base, that’s a trust issue they’re going to have to win back,” he says. Greengart cites Research in Motion Ltd.’s PlayBook 7-inch tablet that did not ship with built-in e-mail software as an example of that kind of disappointment. “I have tested tablets that were dead on arrival, such as the RIM PlayBook, and they’ve not recovered,” he says.

Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble are all included in the Internet Retailer Hot 100 list, an annual compilation of the most innovative e-retailers. Order a copy of this special issue here.

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