Introducing Amazon Coins: A Digital Currency for Kindle Fire Owners

Amazon’s most recent Kindle Fire marketing effort is the introduction of Amazon Coins.  They’ve released their own digital currency that can be used to purchase apps and games from the Amazon Appstore.  On the surface it’s a confusing move, given the larger trend of companies moving away from internally controlled currencies, but there’s a lot to be said for the idea if it is handled correctly.

Most users should already have received the email informing them that 500 Amazon Coins have been added to their account.  That will hopefully give people a chance to get interested in the idea.  This will not be blocking off real currency-based purchases, of course.  That’s going to be an important consideration, since systems that completely replace all other forms of money with their own tend to enjoy little enthusiasm.  One mistake easily avoided.  Even Microsoft has been forced to begin removing their digital currency thanks to that approach despite a large and dedicated user base.

Most likely, the goal here is twofold: Encourage more frequent spending and allow for more options where children are concerned.  The addition of an alternate currency model that can be used for these tasks makes perfect sense so long as they are not forced on the customer without their input.

Consider the potential for the Amazon Coin as a micro-transaction currency.  Rather than needing to enter a password for every payment, a customer can purchase 100 coins for a dollar and spend them at their leisure with no hassle.  Abuse is limited since there is a hard limit to how much of the currency is present at any given time.  Annoying lists including dozens of $0.05-0.10 transactions are removed from statements.  Customers even feel more free to make the occasional transaction they might otherwise have avoided, since the Coins are already sitting there.

When it comes to children, this has the additional benefit of security.  Nobody wants a repeat of the early iPad problems that resulted in thousands of dollars worth of purchases being made by those too young to grasp what they were doing, but at the same time parents often want to be able to allow free use of the devices.  By setting up a separate wallet for this sort of thing, Amazon could allow these parents to offer an allowance of sorts that doesn’t require regular input of a password or PIN.

Amazon is known for offering frequent promotions with purchases.  This will certainly continue to be the case.  While the occasional free MP3 or video credit might be beneficial for some and overlooked for others, it’s going to be easier to encourage people to make use of these freebies if they have a wallet to fill up with Amazon Coins.  This will encourage app purchasing and use while giving developers even more incentive to join the platform.  Considering the fact that Amazon’s Appstore for Android already shows superior returns when compared to the Google Play app store, it’s only going to get harder for anybody to justify staying away.

Amazon Joins With HTC to Enter Smartphone Market

It appears that the long-rumored Amazon smartphone will become a reality at some point in 2014. We have heard talk and speculation about it since as early as 2011, but now it seems that HTC has been tapped to help Amazon put together a real contender to stand up to Apple and Google.

People familiar with the project recently mentioned to FT that at least one device is in an advanced stage of development and that if things don’t change in the meantime there is every reason to expect a launch sometime next year. Amazon, of course, declines to confirm these rumors.

If Amazon were to release a device using the same sales philosophy as it employs with the existing Kindle line – sell near cost and make your profits through use – then there is little doubt that adoption would be strong.

This would put HTC in a bit of a bind with Google, who has proven to be proficient at protecting their brand over the past couple years. Given the release of HTC’s less than successful Facebook Phone, though, they probably have the details about that already under consideration.

Watch for more news toward the end of this year. Amazon might not be willing to confirm, but a Kindle smartphone is going to have leaks along the production line and it should be particularly interesting to see what these reveal along the way.

Amazon’s Updated Kindle Line Adds HDX For an Even Better Selection

Kindle Fire HDX comes with Mayday button supportAt this time Amazon has expanded their hardware offerings to include three types of Kindle. The Kindle eReader is still going strong, while the Kindle Fire HD and new Kindle Fire HDX justifiably occupy their space atop the Android tablet market. The release of the HDX also beings in a lot of great features that users have been requesting since Amazon’s first foray into tablets.

Improvements added to the Kindle Fire HDX over the Kindle Fire HD go beyond the incremental changes that we would take as a matter of course. There is the expected power increase, bumping it up to a 2.2 GHz Quad-Core CPU, as well as slightly improved battery life, but that is only the start of things. The HDX is also lighter, has more cameras (Front-facing added to the 7” model, Front- and Rear-facing now included on the 8.9”), and features a higher resolution screen with greater pixel density than the iPad 3.

The biggest benefits aren’t available from hardware specs, though. Fire OS brings a lot to the table. The most-hyped addition is the Mayday button. This will connect you instantly with tech support and allow they to walk you through any problem you might have, giving them access to your screen and the ability to highlight various portions of it to point out important functions.

Perhaps most important to device adoption is the expanded enterprise support that Amazon has put in place. A lot of people have been using the Kindle Fire at work and Amazon has taken steps to make it more useful for that purpose. There is now VPN support and MDM available through companies like Citrix. It makes for a much friendlier BYOD offering.

The existing Kindle Fire HD remains an excellent tablet in its own right, despite not measuring up on paper to its successor. The fact that the HD remains only $139 (8.9” – $229) compared to the HDX’s $229 (8.9” – $379) helps to assume that it isn’t going to be abandoned right away. Still, if you have the money and the inclination then the HDX is definitely the superior product.

New Kindle Paperwhite has greatly improved lighting and contrastThe eReader side of Amazon’s Kindle line has been fading away in the last year or two. It doesn’t get much spotlight now that there isn’t much room to grow. Still, they did recently update the Kindle Paperwhite to a new version and find a few ways to make it even better.

The improvements in the new Paperwhite are small, but noticeable. It is a bit faster, somewhat more responsive, and contains a better light than the original version. Most importantly they have evened out the lighting a bit around the edges. There are unlikely to be any complaints about the way things look now. While they may not be betting everything on eReaders anymore, Amazon hasn’t left Kindle readers behind.

Reviewing ColcaSac Uintah for the Kindle Fire

ColcaSaclogoI recently got the opportunity to try out a ColcaSac sleeve for my Kindle Fire and thought that it might be useful to share my thoughts.  It’s proven to be an interesting product.


ColcaSac Uintah for Kindle FireFirst impressions

The sleeve I ended up with was the $29.95 Uintah style for the Kindle Fire.  A fairly minimal design made of undyed hemp canvas and lined with a surprisingly soft recycled polyester fleece.  This fits together with the company’s environmental concerns without sacrificing quality.  There is absolutely no question, holding the sleeve in my hands, that this is a durable product.

Getting the device into the sleeve for the first time was somewhat daunting.  The packaging actually instructs you to brace the device against your body while pulling it on and the instructions mention that the fit should be tight fitting, but that doesn’t get the idea across well enough.

It is very clear that my Kindle will not just fall out of this sleeve even if I leave the flap at the top closed.

After some use

ColcaSac InteriorOk, the horrible snugness that made me fear I might never be able to retrieve my tablet again has faded somewhat.  Now that I’ve been using it for a couple days, things have stretched out enough that while there is still no danger of the Kindle falling out I will at least never have a problem sliding it in and out.  It’s clearly a case that has to be broken in.

In terms of other performance, the Uintah sleeve has held up well.  A spilled drink left no stain on the canvas, and it was thick enough to prevent quickly-cleaned liquid from making its way through.  The fleece lining is thick enough and soft enough that there is no reason to suspect anything has a chance of scratching through it.

The stitching holds up quite well and nothing seems to be glued together.  I tested a fair amount and honestly can’t tell whether the canvas itself wouldn’t give out before the seams.  It’s a well put together product.

The one concern I have is with fall damage.  As with most sleeves, the shock of an impact will translate directly through to the device.  This one is better than most in that regard, but the edge with the closure flap is particularly vulnerable.  You would have to be unlucky enough to drop it just right, but these things can happen.

Final Thoughts

I’m a fan of folio cases for eReaders and tablets.  To me they offer the least inconvenience during frequent use while still providing protection.  That said, if I were to switch to a sleeve for regular use I would definitely make it one of these.

The ColcaSac Uintah design is as utilitarian as I could hope for without being unattractive or bulky.  While it’s true that there could be some damage during falls, that’s going to depend on the situation and the device you’re holding in one.  The Kindle Fire has already proven itself fairly resistant to fall damage from under four feet or so.  The Kindle eReaders weigh less and would get even more benefit from the use of a sleeve with this kind of padding.  It seems like a pointless concern unless you’re really hard on your electronics.

Remember that it will take some time to break in.  I’m not exaggerating the tightness of a freshly shipped Uintah sleeve.  It took a good week and probably 20 insertions/removals before things finally stretched just enough to be comfortable.  Definitely worth it to avoid stretching to the point of looseness later, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

In addition to sleeves for the Kindle Fire, Kindle Touch, and Kindle Paperwhite, ColcaSac makes sleeves for the iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone, and Macbook.  I’m also told that a Kindle Fire HD design is on the way.

Check them out at http://www.colcasac.com/

Amazon Prime Monthly Option Silently Added in US

While it won’t show up for everybody just yet, some people are beginning to see a new option for Amazon Prime subscriptions.  Instead of the long-running annual fee option, it will now be possible to subscribe to the service for just $7.99 per month.  This might be a premium when you compare the annual total to the more expensive initial investment, but it will be a huge factor in increasing adoption this holiday season.

There has been no official release from Amazon confirming the details about this new subscription plan.  Even seeing the advertisement for it seems to be difficult for some people, though logging out of your Amazon.com account and trying a variety of browsers tends to eventually result in a productive combination.  It is possible that we’re looking at a limited test phase as the company gets ready for a rush of Kindle Fire HD users over the holidays that the company needs to hook on the service as quickly as possible.

Starting…well, whenever this goes more public…the monthly option will put pressure on competing video services like Netflix and Hulu.  While Amazon Prime still lacks the depth of selection that the competing services have available it is still building up a huge library of subscriber-friendly media.  Tie this into the other benefits like the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library and the unlimited free two-day shipping to anywhere in the US and it’s a huge bargain that video-only services can’t equal.

So far we haven’t heard from anybody outside the US who has been able to view the ad that gives us the current pricing.  This could mean that it’s going to be a later rollout or it could mean that the offer will start out as exclusive to the US.  The monthly option does seem to be built as an imitation of Netflix’s pricing scheme and as such might not be considered appropriate in markets where the Prime video selection isn’t as robust yet.

Expect to hear about huge increases in subscription sales in the first quarter of next year.  The Kindle Fire HD is the top Android tablet in its size/price bracket and comes with a free month of Amazon Prime membership.  The formerly daunting $79 subscription fee that comes up after that free trial ends was definitely worth it for anybody who shops the site regularly, but the $7.99 monthly fee will be even harder to argue against.  It might be almost $17 more per year than the annual option, but if you buy at least two things per month from Amazon the math becomes quite easy to follow based on shipping savings alone.

Kindle Fire Accessory Review: Plantronics BackBeat 216 Stereo Headphones w/ Inline Mic

I was recently offered the chance to try out a pair of Plantronics BackBeat 216 headphones and figured they were worth a shot.  The Kindle Fire practically demanded good headphones to get good sound and while the Kindle Fire HD has more than made up for its predecessor’s shortcoming there are still plenty of times when you’re going to want to watch a movie on your portable device without filling a whole room, car, or train with the sound from it.

First Impressions

At a glance these seem to be a nice enough purchase.  For $37.99 they’re not going to break the bank compared to high end options, but the build quality seems high and the cloth-covered wire makes a nice aesthetic touch.  The silicone earbuds left me slightly nervous since those are not my preference, but it was worth a try.

Listening Sound Quality

As far as earbuds go, I’ve rarely found a set that offered better sound.  They seemed quite tinny at first, but after changing to a slightly smaller set of silicon tips and seating them more firmly in place I found the experience excellent.  My usual listening preference involves a fairly bulky set of Sennheisers, but these could easily stand in temporarily when more mobility is needed.

Skype Sound Quality

My experience with the conversation applications of the BackBeats has not been so positive.  As far as hearing a conversation goes, you get a mixed bag.  The silicone earbuds cancel out a lot of the noise that otherwise interferes with calls, but the cloth wire transmits every bit of friction straight to your ears.  Shifting slightly in your chair can result in enough wire on shirt contact to drown out the person you’re talking to.  The mic is also less than impressive.  Stick with the Kindle Fire HD’s built-in and you’ll get better recording.

Usability

As I mentioned, the comfort was better than expected.  For people with particularly small ears they will likely be uncomfortable, but other than that I would expect no complaints.  Using these for stretches of 3-4 hours at a time has caused no problems.

The in-line controls are useless.  I tried to use them on multiple occasions and got nothing.  Plugging in an iPhone, since that’s what Plantronics was designing for, didn’t improve things much.  I got erratic volume changes and track skipping on music but no reliability.  Overall it was actually better to use on anything but the iPhone it was designed for.

The Verdict

As far as listening to music or movies goes I don’t hesitate to recommend these headphones to any Kindle Fire user.  The experience is more than worth the money and they will be kept with my tablet for as long as they last.

If you’re looking for a headset with in-line mic for Skype then these probably aren’t the best.  There is too much noise transfer when listening to conversation and the mic is not very good.  The noise from cable friction doesn’t come through except in such quiet situations, so I don’t think it’s a factor for other applications.

If you’re interested in these, the Plantronics BackBeat 216 Stereo Headphones w/ Inline Mic can be found with a large selection of other Kindle Fire HD Accessories at:

http://www.mobilefun.com/29053/electronics/kindle-fire-accessories.htm

Paperwhite As Christmas Gift? Better Hurry!

The Kindle Paperwhite is a big step forward for its whole product line.  It provides a way for the user to read a book in a dark room without providing their own external light or straining their eyes.  That’s something people have been hoping for out of eReaders since the day they started hitting shelves.  It’s probably to be expected that the response has been enthusiastic.  Even Amazon appears to be surprised by how enthusiastic people are getting, though.

While it’s only the beginning of November, we have already seen Kindle Paperwhite shipping dates slip back twice.  First they were pushed back to the beginning of December and now as I’m writing this they are set for the week of December 17th.

The most popular reading device on the market experienced such a surge of consumer interest that Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer and producer of the previous millions of Kindles sold, was taken by surprise and left unable to ship promptly.  That’s good news for fans of the Kindle and great news for eReaders in general, somewhat putting to rest the recurring speculation that it’s a market on the way out due to competition from tablets.

Unfortunately, it also calls into question Amazon’s ability to meet holiday sales demands.  While their track record indicates that there’s a good chance many of those orders will ship well before the 17th of December, that date wouldn’t be on display if they could guarantee things sooner.  If we’re already pushing orders back until a week before Christmas with seven weeks to go before the holiday, Amazon will have to be producing to exceed current high demand levels.  Nobody really believes that demand will drop abruptly before the end of the year at this point.

A month is a long time to get production sped up.  Maybe it’s premature to be talking about this.  The fact that the orders put in today are being set back so far is strange, though.  If you’re hoping to make the new Kindle a big stocking stuffer for your family and friends, it might be best to get a jump on shopping.  At this point I think the best we can hope for is last minute deliveries and nobody likes gambling on FedEx and UPS being prompt at that time of year.

Kindle Paperwhite Update Improves Overall User Experience and Comic Reading Specifically

We already know that Amazon intends for the Kindle Paperwhite to set the new standard for eReader hardware in every way they could manage.  Some people might still wish for physical page turn buttons (I certainly do) but other than that it is a clear step ahead of all of the competition right now.  That’s referring entirely to the US markets, of course, which may be a good reason that they have decided to update the Paperwhite firmware with some specific comic-related improvements in mind.

On a November 8th release, the new software improvements were made available for download.  If you have a Paperwhite and haven’t gotten everything automatically delivered to your device at this point, check out the side-loading instructions located here.

Foremost in the advertised improvements is the list of optimized fonts.  Palatino, Baskerville, and Futura have all been made sharper and smoother.  It’s a small thing in many ways, but the change will stand out for anybody who prefers to use these fonts regularly.

The ability to remove Recommended Content from your Paperwhite’s home screen is now also included.  This has become a point of annoyance for many users, but the ability to remove this particular advertising stream was added not long ago to new Kindle Fire models and was inevitable here as well.  A more interesting update would have been producing the same stream for older models on demand, honestly.

The settings menu has been brought to the front of things a bit more as well.  You can now jump straight into this menu directly from the menu while reading a book with no need to return to the home screen.

Perhaps most importantly, given the recent push into Japan, is the improved manga/comic display capability.  A new Fit-to-Screen option will stretch images to fill the entire screen, addressing many situations where small panels were practically unreadable previously.

The Paperwhite is also now able to retain a manga/comic specific setting for page refresh preferences that is completely separate from the same options for book reading.  This makes it easier to choose the proper setting to maximize both battery life and reading quality in two areas with distinctly different visual representation needs.

In preparation for a move beyond Japan into China, Simplified Chinese is now included as a font option.  It’s a small note now, but could be vital in the long run.

The only other really notable change is in book samples.  When picking up the full version of a given book after reading the sample you will now start off at the last position accessed in the sample.  The sample itself will be removed from the library.  Organization will be greatly improved as a result for anybody who regularly samples their books.

Many of these updates are small things, but added together they make for a great update.  There is more than can and likely will be done to improve things, especially with regard to comic-reading.  Now that we’re seeing a much bigger effort to get graphic storytelling into the Kindle marketplace, however, it’s safe to assume that a wider audience will demand attention and genre-specific features that will quickly optimize the eReaders as best a black and white display can be optimized.

What Happened To The Kindle DX?

With the emphasis on portable electronics always tending toward smaller and/or thinner it isn’t surprising that the Kindle DX was never quite as popular as its smaller counterparts.  The extent of its failure is a little strange, though.  The 9.7” version of Amazon’s Kindle eReader now seems to have been quietly pulled from the virtual shelves and left without a successor.  Why did it fail to catch on and is there even a market for a device like this?

As has been demonstrated in both tablets and eReaders, bigger doesn’t always mean better.  There have been many eReaders attempted with larger screens and the variety of Android tablets is quite a bit more impressive.  The iPad is still going to be the bestselling tablet in the world for years to come, however, and it is quite a bit larger than many options.  One would think that screen size would be a valuable enough asset in the reading experience to make something similar possible for the Kindle DX.

There are plenty of reasons why that comparison is lacking.  Mostly it comes down to the fact that Apple put out a well-designed product and Amazon screwed up a bit.  What did they need to do better to keep the DX a viable option for customers?

Price

When it was released, the Kindle DX cost just about 30% more than the Kindle 2.  That made it $489.  While I remember spending $300+ on an eReader and being satisfied with each one, whether it was the Sony PRS-500, the Nook, or the Kindle 2, that wasn’t a sustainable sales strategy.  The Kindle is now under $70 per unit.  The Kindle DX at its lowest never got below $299 new.

Function

The fact that the Kindle DX only had navigation buttons on one side was a major shortcoming.  It hampered one-handed reading and landscape-orientation reading in general.  The keyboard, while nice to have, was also less usable than it needed to be.  The larger screen would have benefitted more from a touchscreen than any current Kindle does by far.

Durability

E Ink screens aren’t known for being the most durable things in the world.  The Kindle DX, however, used the only one that I have ever had break on its first fall.  Twice.  I understand that a combination of the larger size and higher device weight make it more likely to have problems, but this is a big issue in light of the tendency for people to read one-handed.

Software

The Kindle DX never really saw much attention in terms of software updates.  It needed to.  Many of the issues that users reported, especially with regard to PDF viewing, could have been addressed.  Amazon gave the impression of having given up on the device within months of its release.

All told, it’s safe to say that this doesn’t really prove anything about the niche.  Yes, the Kindle DX is gone.  That could be because customers just don’t like large eReaders, sure.  It could also be because customers aren’t interested in incredibly expensive eReaders with design flaws and a lack of software updates.

Don’t misunderstand, I love the Kindle DX.  Until giving mine away to a friend, it was used on a regular basis.  It just happened to give the impression of being a product that still needed work.  A larger version of the Kindle Paperwhite priced at $179 would fly off shelves, in my opinion.  As much as I wish that would happen it seems to be time to give up on the idea.  The Kindle DX is no longer relevant.

Kindle Fire Father’s Day Sale Going On Now

Going on now through the end of June 8th, Amazon is offering a $20 discount on any Kindle Fire HD, Kindle Fire HD 8.9”, or Kindle Fire HD 8.9” 4G if you remember to use the promo code “DADSFIRE” when you check out.  Supplies will probably hold out through the end, but you might want to get in early if you’re interested.

There are a few things to keep in mind when you take advantage of this offer.

Kindle Fire HDThe most important is probably that each of these models includes Special Offers from Amazon and its affiliates.  These can be removed, but it requires a $15 fee to be paid in addition to the purchase price.

Not a huge problem, but it’s worth being aware of since this is a sale centered on a gift giving holiday.  To be fair, the only time you’re likely to notice the ads is when you’re first turning on your tablet.  They mainly take up the lock screen.

It’s also important to note that none of the Kindle Fire HD options involved in this sale come with their own wall charger.  They will instead have a Micro USB cord to connect to any convenient computer.  If you have a phone charger with a removable USB cord, chances are good that you can simply plug your Kindle into that using the included cord.  Amazon doesn’t recommend that, but they’re selling independent wall plugs for $20 apiece so they might be biased.

The hardest part of this deal is really just deciding which model is the right one.  They are all fine devices, but they excel in different ways.

The Kindle Fire HD is the obvious choice in terms of price.  $179 for the 16GB model is a great deal.  You get a highly portable tablet with a great screen and some of the best sound available for the best price anywhere.

Of course, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” is even better in its own ways.  At just $279 you’ll be able to pick up a significantly larger tablet.  Watching video on the larger model is much more pleasant, even if it means that you’re not going to be fitting it into even the largest pockets.  The sound is also much improved here since the speakers are able to sit even further apart.

The Kindle Fire HD 8.9” 4G is basically the same thing.  It’s a lot more expensive at $379, though.  Really this should only be considered if you’re giving it to somebody who travels outside the range of wireless networks on a regular basis.  The extra $100 won’t bring nearly as much benefit as you would think to most people.

While you’re shopping for Father’s Day, keep in mind that the Kindle is only as good as its media.  There are all sorts of books that are free or cheap enough to be easy to include with the tablet itself.  The app selection over at Amazon is also quite a bit more impressive than it used to be.  It’s easy to make a good gift great with just a little effort.