25 November 2016

#Review: Odd #Glitches Plague the 2015 @Amazon Fire Tablet #Fail

During Black Friday last year, a number of stores ran sales on the newly released entry-level Amazon Fire Tablet 8GB WiFi (MSRP $49.99) for ~$34.99. It was an great value at the regular price, but a complete no-brainer at $35. I ordered one, which due to the items popularity, didn't actually arrive until December. Unfortunately, its screen had a few dead/white pixels that made viewing video content which generally has a black background annoying, so I contacted Amazon for a replacement unit. Again, because the item sold so well, Amazon's stock fluctuated greatly, and I didn't get a replacement unit until January of this year. 

I have been a faithful user over the last 10 odd months, as I felt no qualms traveling with my Fire Tablet or taking it out to public spots like the library or coffee houses. I figured if I somehow lost it or it got stolen, I'd only be out of pocket $35. (Funny how we do that. We say well something only cost thus and so, so it's no big deal, if this happens to it... when value often has little to do with price.)

As a long time Amazon customer --- since 2014, on my current default account, but longer in reality --- I have a SIZEABLE digital content library. (By the way, I'm a member of Amazon Preview, a focus group of top digital content customers who are periodically asked to weigh in on Amazon projects in development.) I was buying ebooks long before Amazon had a standalone Kindle and digital copies of TV shows and movies long before the various form-factors of Fire hardware were a glint in Amazon's design engineers' collective eye. So $35 bucks for something portable that was supposed to seamlessly connect with Amazon's robust digital content infrastructure was a win-win. I specifically got a Fire Tablet as an easy way to start taking all the content that I've been accumulating over the years on the go with me.

In my experience, the Fire Tablet works better with third-party apps, than it does with Amazon's own digital content ecosystem.

But this has proved problematic as the Fire Tablet works better with third-party apps, than it does with Amazon's own digital content ecosystem. For instance, I have a print subscription for Sunset magazine that included a digital subscription which I could choose to activate on one of a list of platforms. I activated it on my Amazon account and downloaded the current issue via the Fire Tablet's preloaded Newsstand app which is specifically for digital magazine reading. 

However, when I launched the Newsstand app and attempted to access the magazine, I received an DRM (Digital Rights Management) error --- see the image below --- stating that I didn't have permission to view the magazine on this tablet. Considering the digital content should have automatically been paired to the hardware upon which it was downloaded, I found this laughable (in a "you've got to be kidding me" sort of way).
Newstand App DRM Error
It took some extended back and forth with Kindle support over several months, but eventually this error was corrected and I can now read Sunset magazine on my tablet. It was such an egregious error, however. The whole point of the Newsstand app is to facilitate reading digital magazines and it failed. How'd the software engineers miss that? (Being an engineer, I tend to be touchy when I'm on the receiving end of failed engineering.)

The next problem I encountered was seemingly a combination software/human error that became so frustrating to attempt to get resolved that I simply gave up and as a result Amazon lost an add-on sale. My Amazon Fire Tablet automatically downloaded and installed the Washington Post app the first time the device was synced with my account after registration. I got a notice saying that I could choose to uninstall the app or I could keep it and enjoy a free 6-month digital subscription to the Washington Post. (For anyone who apparently lives under a rock and doesn't know, especially after this past election season, Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. He also founded a little company called Amazon.com.) 

I figured why not? If I hated it, I could easily uninstall it later. I actually ended up quite enjoying it and utilized the subscription almost daily. The featured recipes alone would have made the subscription worthwhile.

At the end of the 6 months, I got a popup notice in-app stating that I could continue my digital subscription a further 6 months for only $1.00. At this price, I was willing to bite and so clicked through to subscribe. However, in spite of all the "6 months for $1.00" notices, the actual checkout page showed $3.99/month. Additionally, even though this was an in-app purchase, the checkout page did not give me the option to use my Amazon coins balance. (Amazon coins are a virtual currency specifically for in-app purchases, a substitute for real money.)
In spite of wording at the top stating that I could extend my subscription at a cost of $1.00 for six months service, the actual charge which appears on the checkout section is $3.99/month.

I contacted Amazon Customer Service via the chat function and entered Dante's Inferno with its attendant Nine Rings of Hell. I was transferred to NINE different agents during this chat, and the ninth tried to transfer me a tenth time before I said enough. Not until the ninth agent did I get an answer as to why I was unable to use Amazon coins for this purchase. (I was told that despite the purchase originating in-app Amazon required magazine subscriptions to be made using your default 1-Click payment method, which is generally a Credit or Debit card.)

Not one customer service agent was aware of the WaPo in-app digital subscription promotions. (Neither the original 6 months for free or the 6 months for $1.00 followup.) Not one could explain the billing price mismatch error, not even the specialized Kindle team members. If I'm told something costs $1.00 for 6 months when in actuality a charge of $3.99/month is processed, I am not going to be a happy camper. The ninth agent, a Kindle team member no less, went so far as to tell me that the promotion about which I inquired did not exist.
WaPo App  Promotional Ad
WaPo App Promotional Ad

Ludicrous! Nice to be told the equivalent of "you're delusional and making things up". I exited the chat with a vow never to go through such an ordeal again. It was a spectacular fail for Amazon Customer Service. Needless to say, I did not continue the digital subscription and promptly uninstalled the WaPo app from my Fire Tablet. Had I received competent technical support, I might still be a WaPo digital subscriber today. As it is, I get my eNews elsewhere.

The third major glitch which I've encountered has yet to be fixed. My Fire Tablet automatically deletes any video content I download for offline viewing (via the Video app) the next time the device syncs. This error started occurring shortly after Amazon pushed out an OS update which included "On Deck". 

When activated, the "On Deck" service is supposed to download Amazon Instant Video content in the background that one can watch for free. Available program content is curated by Amazon. It's basically a sampler program that gives you access to free pilot episodes of TV shows that Amazon wishes to promote. The service states that it will manage any content it downloads and delete items as necessary due to space constraints. It's billed as a way to "never be without something to watch" on your Fire Tablet. In theory, it's a great idea. The user gets access to free content automatically without having to lift a finger and Amazon can promote whatever it likes and (potentially) encourage sales as users discover new series, etc..

However, the "On Deck" content management system seems to be overzealous. Content that I download manually from my Amazon Video Library disappears. It doesn't matter whether or not I've watched the content. It doesn't matter that the Fire Tablet's external microSD card has GBs of space available. It doesn't matter that the content hasn't been downloaded as part of the "On Deck" service (it's content in my video library that I selected to download).

The downloaded video is automatically deleted upon the next device sync. It doesn't even matter whether "On Deck" is activated. (I toggled the service to "Off", but the issue persists to this day.) I have repeatedly contacted Amazon Customer Service to no avail. In spite of resetting the entire device, resetting the Video app, etc, etc., the issue persists and Amazon Tech Support is apparently clueless as to how to correct it.

I stopped downloading content from my video library. Nothing is more frustrating than spending hours downloading multiple videos --- and it takes hours because the Amazon download servers are not optimized as bandwidth for streaming is given precedence --- only to discover you have " zero downloaded videos" the next time you launch the Video app.

It's another spectacular fail on Amazon's part. (And yes, I've also lodged several complaints about the abysmal download times. I currently have video set to download at "good" resolution, because trying to get a "best" resolution HD download would literally take 5 hours for a 30-minute episode. The amount of time it takes merely set on "good" is still atrocious. I can get HD downloads from other services in a matter of minutes, so it's not a network speed issue.) Hopefully, it will be corrected eventually. Meanwhile, Amazon misses out on my buying more video content....

For a device that is supposed to work seamlessly with Amazon's digital content ecosystem and facilitate digital content sales as a result of this ease of integration, the Fire Tablet leaves A LOT to be desired. I continue to use my Fire Tablet because it works well with a plethora of third-party apps, including games, news and productivity items, plus it only cost $35.00, so I'm still winning. Amazon is the one losing out. Amazon failed in implementing its own apps.

1 comment:

  1. About a week ago, Amazon pushed out an OS upgrade for the 2015 Fire Tablet that includes the Alexa app. I laughed, as I recently won an Amazon Echo in a contest. I wanted the Echo to use as a control hub for my home automation network, but I don't know what use I'd have for Alexa on my tablet --- I'm not the sort who would ask it random questions. I almost uninstalled the app, but then decided to wait, in case some use arises I did not foresee. Perhaps, as I travel with my tablet, Alexa (app) will become a remote connection to my home network. Hmm...

    Whether this OS upgrade is a benefit remains to be seen. I'll have to test whether the ghost in the machine still consumes my video downloads.