There were few things about the Kindle Fire’s release that sparked more attention than the Carrousel home screen. This approach set the Kindle Fire apart from other Android tablets by creating a simpler, more intuitive user experience. Naturally that, alongside Amazon’s locking users into their ecosystem, drew fire from critics who prefer a more configurable, personalizable interface and a device that can tap into Google’s large app selection. The real problem it caused, however, was less bound to a particular view of how the Android experience should be presented and more in its complete lack of user controls.
For the most part, this boiled down to privacy. The Kindle Fire, when it was released, could not reasonably be considered a family-friendly device. In many cases it couldn’t even be comfortably used as a multi-user device. The Carrousel displayed everything that was accessed, in the order it was accessed, along with every piece of media attached to the user’s account. It’s hard enough to overlook the potential for embarrassment in that arrangement among adults, but this made it more or less impossible for parents to use their Kindle Fire while moderating the content that children might be exposed to.
This has since been fixed, of course. The Carrousel offers deletion, parents are able to control more aspects of their child’s access (with even more coming soon thanks to Kindle FreeTime), and privacy is restored. Barnes & Noble, possibly in response to precisely this debacle, has come up with what is probably an even better set of user-profile features than the Kindle Fire HD now offers or can be expected to offer with the release of Kindle FreeTime.
The details are understandably vague at this point. The Nook HD is not out until November 1st and some of the software is clearly still being fine-tuned, making over-promising a real possibility if they aren’t careful. Still, what we know now is enough to declare this a highly family-friendly feature.
Each Nook HD owner will be able to create up to six Nook Profiles. These will be theoretically autonomous, including their accessible content. Each profile will have its own private library, though clearly the owner will have override control to a large extent that should allow simple sharing between these. In addition to personalized content collections, users will be able to tailor all personalization options independently. The Nook Tablet doesn’t offer much in the way of visual customization, but it doesn’t offer as little as the Kindle Fire either so this could be quite handy.
This makes the situation for parents a bit better as well. Barnes & Noble is pushing the children’s eBook market fairly hard still and the Nook HD is no exception. Using Nook Profiles, parents will be able to separate their kids’ books from the main library so that they won’t have to worry about them while looking through more adult-friendly content. The parental controls will still apply to a child’s profile, of course, but should be able to be bound specifically to that profile. If you password protect your personal profile, this means that it’s reasonable to use the Nook HD normally without entering in a PIN constantly.
The Kindle Fire HD now has some great parental control options, soon including a finer level of control than anything offered by the competition right now if the FreeTime claims are to be believed, but this is a case where the Nook HD is noticeably superior. Barnes & Noble really wants the family-oriented customers and it shows.
The most obvious improvements coming in with the Kindle Fire HD are in the hardware. It’s hard to get more attention-catching than the increased screen size provided by the 8.9” model. Most of the really interesting stuff seems to be coming through the software side, though. It’s somewhat harder to lay out in simple graph form, but it’s a lot more interesting.
Where the original Kindle Fire ran a modified version of Android 2.3, the new Kindle Fire HD will be using version 4.0. This is the first version of Android made specifically with tablets in mind as well as smartphones, so the inclusion on a larger device is probably an obvious move on Amazon’s part. Between performance improvements and general compatibility issues, however, this is a big improvement.
Maybe the parental controls weren’t the biggest issue that the Kindle Fire had in its software design, but the people who needed them were among the loudest of Amazon’s critics. Over time there were various controls added in that more or less meet most needs, but this new version takes things a bit further. FreeTime, as the new service is being called, will allow parents to set specific time restrictions on their devices. This means finely grained control over all sorts of things. Want your kids to be able to read on the tablet and watch the TV shows you’ve downloaded but not run games except from 6pm to 8pm? You can do that now.
The X-Ray feature included with the Kindle Touch at its release was an interesting way to access details about your books at a glance. It pulls up things like character names and bios, important locations in the plot, and an assortment of other information. Useful for anybody who needs a refresher after putting down their reading for a bit, even if you don’t factor in the links to Shelfari and Wikipedia.
Now the Kindle Fire HD will have that feature for both books and movies. Amazon is touting the ability of their X-Ray for Movies service to tell you who’s on the screen at any given time, link you to their other films, see anything related to the film or actor from IMDB, and more. It’s a fun concept that might win you a Trivial Pursuit game some time.
One of the most anticipated hardware improvements in the Kindle Fire HD has been the camera. To make use of this, every device will include a copy of Skype pre-installed. This means instant access to that complete network. Naturally this won’t be the only service you can take advantage of the hardware through, but it is almost certain to be the biggest.
Test to Speech software is back thanks to the Kindle Fire HD. It was confusingly missing in the first Kindle Fire and there seems to be no way to get it out of any of the new Kindle eReaders either. Fortunately now it will be present through the tablets, wherever agreements with publishers allow.
The lack of intricate parental control options has been a popular complaint about the Kindle Fire since about the time it was released. Amazon has made some moves to address the most pressing issues. We haven’t heard any horror stories about people going into debt over Smurfberry purchases, for example. Still, until Amazon comes up with more options that allow parents to manage how these devices are used, there is going to be a steady stream of complaints. Funamo has stepped up to handle that need in the meantime, for a small fee.
At $20, this is not a cheap application. Not only that, Funamo is not yet available in the Amazon Appstore for Android. This means that it needs to be purchased through the developer’s website. The hassle and expense may be worth it considering what can be accomplished by having it around.
The default settings are fairly straightforward. You install Funamo and log in, after which the device settings will be completely locked out. It comes with its own web browser, which has all the usual things one would expect parents to want to keep blocked already cut off, and encourages users to put the Silk browser onto the “Protected Apps” list. Besides that, everything else is up to the user.
This isn’t just a matter of locking out certain content, either. Yes, it is likely that many parents would approve of the ability to block porn viewing from their child’s tablet. Using Funamo, it is also possible to say that the same child’s favorite games will only be available between 9am and 11am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Parents can set limits on everything from media viewing time to reading. Many will even be quite encouraged to note that it is possible to block the Kindle Fire’s access to the Appstore entirely when desired.
Any of these settings can, of course, be overridden with a password. You never know when exceptions to the normal rules might be in order. They can also be changed on short notice as well, and not only from the Kindle Fire itself. Nightly syncing allows parents to maintain control through any internet-connected browser.
Through this web interface, it is possible to add, change, or remove access restrictions. It is also possible to view a detailed history of everything that has been done on the tablet recently. If a child does something unexpected that the parent never thought would come up, it is a simple matter to adapt the rules to cover the new situation. While the Kindle Fire does not support Push updates, Funamo is set to sync up nightly by default.
At a glance, this seems to be slightly overprotective. Users are encouraged to take control of literally every aspect of their kid’s tablet experience. That sort of control is precisely what many parents are looking for, however, and if this allows the child to enjoy ownership of their own Kindle Fire where it would otherwise not be allowed, it is probably worth the hassle for everybody involved.
The most inexpensive member of the Kindle family has just been upgraded a bit. Amazon has released the new 4.1.0 software update for the Ad-Supported $79 Kindle. It comes with a few useful features that customers have been asking for as well as compatibility improvements that get the device ready for upcoming developments in Kindle books.
The update includes a new high contrast font meant to improve the reading experience. Supposedly this will create a more “paper-like” appearance and address some of the concerns that customers have had about the basic Kindle’s display quality. How much of an improvement it is will be for you to judge.
In an effort to make the Kindle more family-friendly, Amazon has also finally introduced some Parental Controls. These controls will allow parents to restrict access to the web browser, Kindle Store, and the account’s Archived Items. This will be a big help for anybody who keeps their family on the same account. It should also allow for less caution in purchasing for customers otherwise worried about privacy and propriety.
Dictionaries have been given their own category by default. This makes organization a bit simpler. Look for “Dictionaries” in your Home and Archived Items.
Everything else that has been included in this update is meant for supporting new book features.
In book that support such things, Amazon has added improved functionality for viewing images and tables. Panning and Zooming should be somewhat smoother as well.
More complex layout options, largely related to Kindle Format 8, are now supported. While KF8 is still in Beta, it is already supported on the Kindle Fire and Amazon seems serious about making the transition in a timely manner.
Possibly connected to the Kindle Format 8 compatibility is the inclusion of support for Kindle Text Pop-Up and Kindle Panel View. Children’s books in the near future will begin to feature Kindle Text Pop-Up, though it is still in question whether these will be optimized for E Ink Kindles. Color is usually the preference when we’re dealing with kids.
Kindle Panel View is intended specifically for comics, which have not as yet had a major presence in eReading. Assuming Amazon can persuade comic publishers to adopt a format so rigid as to allow each individual panel to be viewed sequentially rather than as part of a page, this will change things a bit. In many cases the feature will already work and Panel View titles are already available through the Kindle Store.
Kindle owners should be seeing the update arrive on their device in the next couple weeks via WiFi. If you do not have access to WiFi, keep it turned off the majority of the time, or simply don’t feel like waiting then you can download the update manually.
Check out the Kindle Software Update page for more detailed instructions. Any side-loaded updates will require a USB transfer cable and a computer with an internet connection.
Amazon’s Appstore for Android is not exclusively available for the Kindle Fire, but at this point that is the device that matters. The relatively new media tablet already holds the majority share of the Android tablet market and has proven more or less untouchable by comparably priced hardware competition so far. The secret, if it can really be said to be one, is in the content. Amazon has just about anything one might want to consume through the Fire ready to go at a moment’s notice with the push of a button. Nobody else can come close for the price.
When some major shortcoming is addressed in the design of their ecosystem, it is therefore worth taking note of. Like the recent announcement that developers now having access to the option of in-app purchasing, completely changing the potential for ongoing revenue from Kindle Fire owners. This is a long-time staple of iOS app market that is well overdue here.
Until this point, Amazon affiliated app creators have earned a reported $0.89 for every $1.00 they earn selling the same offering through the iTunes App Store. That is despite the lack of ongoing microtransactions supported by Amazon. For comparison, the same app being sold through Google Play will earn an average of $0.23 for every dollar its creator catches via iTunes.
Opening up more possibilities for developers to make money through Android will put Amazon in a better position to build the best app selection available. Currently, in sheer numbers, they are lagging behind both Apple and Google significantly. By allowing options that don’t involve advertisements or unpopular third party tools, Amazon is making the Kindle Fire an even more attractive option.
This does open up some potential drama for Kindle Fire owners, of course. The biggest draw of Amazon’s 1-Click purchasing system is that it is so easy you almost don’t notice you’re spending money. Combine this with apps that are designed to offer quick and easy purchases and you may well have a recipe for personal financial disaster.
Many will recall an incident in the earlier days of the iPad when an eight year old girl made news buying Smurfberries to speed up her in-app play. The bad publicity from this and similar events is what brought about the iPad’s detailed array of Parental Controls.
Amazon hopes to avoid similar efforts by having fewer loopholes in their existing restrictions. Kindle Fire users have the ability to block in-app purchasing entirely, password protect the process using their Amazon account password, or create a PIN to unlock purchasing. Between these choices, there should be little room for complaint about accidental shopping unless users simply don’t know how to access the controls.
For reference, you can manipulate Kindle Fire In-App Purchasing settings by going to the Apps tab from the Home screen, clicking on the Store, and opening the Settings menu. Since all purchasing appears to be routed through this store app, it makes sense to find these settings here.
I was browsing through some random reviews, recommendations, and complaints about the Kindle Fire a bit earlier, trying to get a feel for the reactions as people get used to them, when I came across the truly unbelievable claim that the Kindle Fire‘s major flaw as a family device was its lack of parental controls. Now, there are a few reasons to get something besides the Kindle Fire for use with kids, such as some games not yet being available through the Amazon App Store or wanting to avoid the guilt of competing with your own children over the use of a favorite toy, but Parental Controls just don’t make the list. In an effort to help people better understand their device, let’s go over how this works.
How to Turn On Parental Controls
Open the App tab on your Kindle Fire
Load the integrated Appstore
From the menu bar on the bottom of the screen, select “Settings”
Edit settings under both “Parental Controls” and “In-App Purchasing” as desired
What Parental Controls Do
By enabling Parental Controls on your Kindle Fire, you can prevent unauthorized purchasing. This works in two ways. Simply switching the setting to “On” will require entry of your Amazon account password before any purchase of anything in an App. There is a second setting in the same menu tree that blocks in-app purchases entirely. You also get the option to set a four digit PIN that can be used in lieu of your password, which can be convenient and is always going to be faster than entering a really secure password.
What Parental Controls Can’t Do
The most important things that the basic settings will fail to do are prevent purchasing and prevent app access. The former is simple enough. You can disable Mobile 1-Click Purchasing from the “Your Apps & Devices” settings on Amazon.com.
Under the main drop-down menu, select Appstore for Android>Your Apps and Devices
From there, select 1-Click Settings
Your primary payment method will be displayed. Click “Edit” to the right of it
You will then see a button saying “Turn off 1-Click” under the heading “Mobile 1-Click: Kindle Fire”
Simple enough, you just can’t do it easily from directly inside the Kindle Fire‘s menu system.
As far as the app access goes, to the best of my knowledge there is no work-around. If you have an app that doesn’t require a password, anybody can use it.
Why Bother With Parental Controls?
There was a great deal of controversy over some of the iPad’s apps earlier this year when their micro-transaction model, coupled with an emphasis on entertaining small children, resulted in ridiculously large charges being run up without parental consent. There are always going to be games on the Appstore, of course, and it would be silly for us to expect them to avoid something as profitable and tempting as micro-transactions, so it’s probably best to be prepared. Amazon admittedly seems to be doing great at keeping on top of all of their potential customer service disasters so far, but something is going to slip through eventually. Don’t be the one to find out too late that you owe $10,000 over digital Smurf accessories after leaving a child alone with your Kindle Fire.