I did some work for a friend of mine in the USA recently and he wanted to pay me for it, but with how difficult it is to get money into South Africa I asked him to buy me a gadget and ship it over to me instead. I am glad to say that he agreed, and a few weeks later I was the proud owner of a Kindle Fire.
The Kindle Fire is understandably very Amazon-centric, which is very awesome if you live in the USA, and/or have a US credit card. You have direct access to the Amazon store from your Kindle, which means that you can do things like buy books and music and have it immediately available on your Kindle. It also comes with a month of Amazon Prime free, which is a service for watching movies and videos streamed to your Kindle Fire.
As awesome as all of this is, I can't take advantage of this because I neither live in the US nor, more importantly, do I have a US credit card. So after playing around with the stock Amazon Android system, I went about rooting and flashing my Kindle Fire.
The stock Amazon spin of Android isn't bad, but as I mentioned before it is very Amazon-centric. The home screen, or launcher, application is centred around the Amazon services, so you have a books view, a music view, a videos view and an apps view. The main screen has a carousel of all your most recently used apps, videos, books and music. Sadly, because this carousel is mostly meant for book covers, applications that do not have vector graphics icons are terribly pixelated.
After playing with my Kindle Fire for a few minutes and being unable to even download a free app thanks to Amazon's non-USA credit card restrictions, I was pretty much convinced that in order to make my Kindle Fire usable I would have to root it, and possibly flash it too. This was a daunting yet exciting prospect, as rooting your device can result in a "bricked" device, but with it brings the possibility of loading a custom version of Android.
For those like me who don't know what the difference is between rooting and flashing, let me explain. Rooting is the process of installing a different bootloader (the little piece of software that starts up the operating system) so that you are able to gain root (administrator) access to your device in order to be able to load software that is able to make changes to the operating system. Flashing is loading a different operating system on to your device, be it another version of Android or something entirely different.
So, feeling very brave one evening, I proceeded to root my Kindle. I searched the Internet for instructions specific to the Fire and found a few on the XDA Developers forums, and then a more up-to-date set of instructions on a blog which actually referenced one of the better forum posts. Those instructions were still out-dated themselves, as I soon discovered, but they got me most of the way there. I was stuck at one point thinking that I had successfully bricked my device, though it was just because my device was stuck in fastboot mode and I had an old version of a command line tool. Once I found that the Android SDK had that tool built-in I just used that version and everything was smooth sailing from there on.
I'll blog instructions on how to root your Kindle Fire in another post.
Once I had rooted my Kindle, I installed the Android market, er, Google Play Store. Now that I could actually install applications the tablet was a lot more useful to me. I installed the very awesome Go Launcher EX to replace the Amazon launcher, and a few other apps, to make my tablet useful to me.
After a few days of this modified Amazon system, of which I was not using any of the Amazon apps beyond the Kindle app, I decided to go the whole hog and flash my Kindle with a "stock" Android system. Once again, XDA forums to the rescue, where I found what seems to me to be the best custom Android build for the Kindle Fire called Jandycane. After downloading all the necessary files I started the flashing process, and about 10 minutes later I had a Kindle Fire running Android 4.1 Jellybean. The first thing I did was to log in to the Google Play store and download a bunch of my apps again.
Overall I'm very happy with my rooted and flashed Kindle. There are a few quirks that I have encountered along the way, but none that actually affected my day-to-day usage. The stock launcher is nothing to write home about, but it works nicely and looks decent. The stock keyboard works OK, but also isn't the best in the world.
After about a week of using the stock keyboard, I was getting a little fed up with it and started looking for a replacement. After reading some articles and blog posts about good keyboards, I went onto the Play store to look for some of the keyboards I had read about and found the GO Keyboard from the same people who make the GO Launcher. After looking at the other options available, it was clear that the GO keyboard was the most popular and, to top it off, it is free. I installed it, and while it took a little getting used to, it is much better than the stock keyboard.
I'm still getting used to the autocorrect functionality, and just typing on the screen in general. My screen seems to be fairly sensitive too, which means that sometimes I type letters accidentally due to a finger or a thumb hovering just a little too close to the screen. The GO keyboard also offers swipe out of the box, and at times that also interferes with my typing.
A few days after installing a new keyboard I decided to install a flashier home screen and installed the GO launcher. Initially it looked a little weird because I had gotten used to the look of the stock home screen, but a little bit of tweaking later and it was more like what I wanted.
I've had my Kindle Fire for about 3 weeks now, and I must say that I am very happy with it. While it doesn't have 3G or any other mobile internet, the Wi-Fi works just fine and I don't really miss being online at those times when I'm not connected.
While most companies seem to be trying to make their tablets as big as possible, the 7" form factor really sets it apart. It is small enough that you can comfortably type on it with your thumbs while it rests in your hands in portrait orientation. It is also big enough that most applications have plenty of screen space to use and things like games don't look cramped or seem to be too big for the screen. I honestly can't put a finger on exactly why I like the 7" tablet so much, the smaller size just works really well.
The thing that still irritates me the most? Autocorrect.