The Kindle Fire is an unusual device with one of the most extensively modified Android skins available. Amazon might have hit some aspects of the device just right, like the integration with the Amazon cloud, but for every hit there is a miss like the sluggish Silk browser and or limited home screen. Amazon might have altered the look and feel of Android, but there is a lot of the core OS under the hood.
With very little setup, users can “sideload” apps from outside the Amazon Appstore to improve the device. Enough of the Kindle Fire’s software has been changed that many apps won’t work correctly, but with a little trial and error we’ve found some useful additions.
How to install apps
To install apps from outside Amazon’s ecosystem, one need only to take a quick trip into the settings. Under Device, there is a toggle to allow the installation of apps from “Unknown Sources.” That needs to be set to “On.” Once the device is ready to go, you need to find the apps.
Some Android apps can be obtained from their developer’s site, or from various alternative repositories online. This can be a risky proposition as malware is more common in this kind of gray market space. Anyone with an Android phone can download an app from the Android Market and extract the installation package, known as the APK, using apps like Astro File Explorer. Those without another Android device might consider asking around on forums for users to extract the files for them.
The APK files can be emailed to the device, and downloaded from the native email client, then installed from any file manager. There are several in the Amazon Appstore, but I’ve been using ES File Manager. This method is a little ungainly, but there’s an easy way to fix it that will pave the way for faster app installation and more functionality… and it’s actually our first app.
Dropbox is a well-known cloud storage and sync tool that offers 2GB of free space. This is a good place to start because this handy bit of storage will make it very easy to push more apps to the Kindle Fire. Dropbox itself is also a highly useful service that is good to have around in general. Like everything else on this list, it’s not available on the Kindle Fire version of the Appstore.
The free Dropbox app from the Android Market works very well on the Fire. It is essentially a stretched phone interface, but it doesn’t have any controls at the bottom to be obscured by the Fire’s unique on-screen buttons. Both downloading and uploading to Dropbox worked as expected. Any APK files added to Dropbox on another system can be cached and installed with a single tap on the Fire.
Dolphin Browser HD
The stock browser on the Kindle Fire has some issues with speed and page rendering. Luckily, you can sideload an alternative that performs better. Dolphin Browser HD isn’t in the Amazon Appstore, but it’s free and available elsewhere. This browser feels faster loading pages to us, and scales well to the Kindle Fire’s screen.
Dolphin is overall just a little better and smoother to use. The gesture system for navigating also makes more sense here than it does on smaller phones.
The Kindle Fire’s home screen is not the entirety of the system, despite Amazon working hard to make everything feel like an extension of that. In reality, it’s just a launcher app like on any other Android device. To Amazon’s credit, the parts of the operating system that allow users to change out default apps is still intact. That means custom home screens can be used to get a more tablet-like experience quite easily.
After running through a number of incompatible home screen replacements, we found Go Launcher to be fast and completely functional on the Fire. This launcher creates a traditional Android home screen with icons, multiple scrollable panels, and even widgets. Go Launcher is smart enough to place its dock above the on-screen buttons, which still work as expected in this alternate environment.
It also detects Amazon modules like Kindle, Appstore, and Audible as apps that you can access through the app drawer. Any app installed from any source that is designed to have widgets on an Android device will have its widgets accessible in Go Launcher on the Fire.
The Kindle Fire will ask each time the home button is pressed if the user wants to go to the Kindle launcher, or Go Launcher. The check box on the pop-up remembers your choice, but that can be changed in the settings anytime the stock UI is desired.
The Kindle Fire is still a reading device, but reading on an LCD is always going to be a less than ideal experience. A backlit screen tends to be harder on the eyes as it pumps out all those photons. A major issue with the Fire is that even at the minimum brightness setting, it is retina-burning bright in a dark room.
A simple free app called Screen Filter can be had on the official Android Market, and sideloading it will fix the brightness issue once and for all. Just open Screen Filter and everything gets nice and dark. To get to the user interface of the app, check the notification area for the link. Screen Filter has a slider for users to choose how dark to make the screen. Once the right level has been found, tapping the icon to toggle it on and off is easy enough.
Screen Filter can push the screen all the way down to zero backlight, which is obviously not usable, but that just shows how powerful the tool is. This is truly indispensable for night-time reading.
The built-in Movies feature on the Fire is limited tohardware decoding of a very limited range of video codecs. This is actually common for most Android devices, and has created a market for video players capable of software decoding. The Amazon Appstore has a few video players apps, but surprisingly, they don’t work very well on the Fire. A little trial and error, and we found a video player that can play almost anything.
MoboPlayer is a favorite app from the Android Market. The interface is slick and easy to use. This app also recognizes the on-screen Fire buttons and moves its controls just above that. MoboPlayer uses gestures to control several functions, and users may have to manually raise the volume by swiping up on the right side of the screen. There’s some software confusion as the Fire has no physical volume toggle.
The Kindle Fire isn’t perfect, but there is still enough Android in it to allow this kind of customization. Adding Go Launcher makes it instantly feel somewhat like a real tablet. A couple of extras like Screen Filter and MoboPlayer can smooth over some of the rough spots too. All this costs absolutely nothing if you can get access to the APK files.