When the first Amazon-skinned Android tablet -- the Kindle Fire, pictured above -- arrives in the US on 15 November, the $200 (£125) device promises to be the smoothest and most seamless gadget for media consumption ever. And that includes the iPad. While the Kindle Fire has yet to spark into life -- there is no UK launch planned yet -- an iPad-busting follow-up is already shaping up.
Some sources say Chinese manufacturer Foxconn is currently building the Fire's successor tablet, codenamed Hollywood. It could even arrive as early as March or April 2012. This raises the tantalising possibility of a spring showdown between Apple's first post-Steve iPad and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos's big screen rival. Read on to find out what we already know about the Fire 2 -- and what we'd like to see.
First things first: the Kindle Fire 2 is not going to be called the Kindle Fire 2. That's because Amazon's next tablet is unlikely to be a replacement for the Fire but a step up from it. In announcing Amazon's most recent financial results, Bezos said that the company was making "millions" more Fires in response to demand -- the last thing he wants is for those to languish on the shelf while a fancier model sells out.
Expect the next Kindle tablet -- the Inferno? the Blaze? -- to take the range up a notch. A 10.1-inch screen is almost guaranteed: there are plenty of them about so the prices are actually better than fussing with smaller custom sizes like the (admittedly lovely) Sony's Tablet S 9.4-inch display.
Talking of price, the chances are very good that we'll see another jaw-dropping loss leader. It might sound crazy today but our money is on a $299 price tag -- say £249 here in Blighty.
Let's start with the display. Seeing how the Fire is all about watching and enjoying movies and TV, here's one place where Amazon can't afford to cut corners. We're counting on a pretty standard multi-touch TFT LCD with a 1,280x720-pixel resolution and in-plane switching -- nothing too fancy, but enough to play HD files without resizing.
Forget what you might have heard about a hybrid colour E-Ink screen. This might well appear in the next iteration of the 6-inch Kindle ebook reader range, but it would be too expensive -- and the technology simply too risky -- for an affordable tablet that Amazon hopes will storm the mass market.
Guts and glory
Some have speculated that the 10-inch Kindle 'Blaze' would be a great launch platform for Nvidia's Tegra 3 chip-set, codenamed 'Kal-El' (Superman's name back on Krypton). This quad-core -- actually, quin-core if you count its low-power mode -- 1.5GHz chip can work up to five times faster than today's Tegra 2. It can run 1080p video without a hitch and support 3D playback.
Kal-El is a lovely bit of silicon, for sure, but it's likely to be over-powered and over-priced for the budget Blaze. There's nothing wrong with the Tegra 2 series found in many Android devices today, or Amazon might stick with the dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP processor in the Fire. A new TI OMAP chip with speeds of up to 1.8GHz is due out with suspiciously convenient timing, early in 2012.
Cloud-crazed Amazon won't go large on memory. In fact, we'll stick our tech necks out and say the Blaze might even have the same 8GB on-board as the Fire. Why pay for more when all your songs, videos and books are safely up there in the cloud? Jeff might even bump up Amazon's cloud music allowances for Blaze owners -- 5GB looks miserly these days.
They may be built on the shoulders of Google's operating system, but you can't think of the Fire or the Blaze as Android tablets. The experience is pure Amazon, from streaming media and downloading ebooks to one-click shopping and the cloud-accelerated Silk browser.
That means the Blaze will miss out on all the goodies in Android 4.0 (nicknamed Ice Cream Sandwich), coming to other tablets next year such as face unlocking, resizable widgets and voice control.
What you will get is a seamless branded experience much closer to Apple's iTunes, except with thousands of films and TV shows to stream for free (the Blaze, like the Kindle, will come with a couple of months' worth of Amazon Prime membership), and newer titles to stream or download. Users will have access to Amazon's App Store for Android though, which is getting better all the time -- and still offers a paid app for free every day.
Android tablets are in a technology arms race as manufacturers are desperate to differentiate their near-identical black slabs with cameras, motion features and wireless goodies. Amazon is not playing this game. It knows its strengths are in its interface and its retail experience.
The Blaze may come with GPS and will probably sport one or two low-res cameras but you'll look in vain for near-field communication (NFC), HD video capture or 3G. That's right: Amazon is opting out of the 3G age.
Because Amazon doesn't want to cede any control to the mobile phone networks, it has always offered cellular data free with its wireless Kindles. But even when beaming just tiny little ebooks (200-300KB each), bundling 3G adds $50 to the price.
To do the same with multi-gigabyte HD video files would give the Blaze a price tag somewhere in the region of a Tesla Roadster.
Will Amazon team up with AT&T to offer free hotspots, as it does on its E Ink Kindles (but not the Fire)? Probably not -- AT&T doesn't want to get hammered with massive downloads either.
Here's a round-up of our crystal ball-gazing for the Kindle Fire 2. We're pretty confident of the following:
- It won't be called the Kindle Fire 2 -- we favour the Kindle Blaze
- A 10.1-inch screen without E-Ink or 3D
- No 3G or hotspot partnerships
- Standard Tegra 2 or OMAP chip with 8GB or 16GB storage
- Free Amazon Prime trial membership with streaming video
And here are a few rather more speculative predictions:
- Price will be under $300/£250
- Extra Amazon Cloud Drive storage for Blaze owners
- GPS and front/back cameras but no NFC