Amazon Kindle Fire HD: Hands on

Amazon yesterday launched four variations of its Kindle Fire, and with these tablets, the company has clearly set its sights on capturing more than just the 22 percent of the tablet market it says it already owns. Where the original Kindle Fire released last fall felt rushed and unpolished, the new models are refined in both their hardware and software. Attractively priced starting at $199 for the high-definition-capable tablets, Amazon is aiming for a cut of your holiday shopping budget, and serves notice to other tablet makers that the game has changed. Again.

From a tablet user's perspective, I found the original Kindle Fire lacking. But Amazon beat other tablet makers -- including Apple -- when it came to integration with Amazon's media acquisition and Web services. Google has since improved how its Play store integrates into the greater whole of the Android OS apps, but I still like aspects of Amazon's smooth approach.

And now, Amazon couples that smooth software integration with dramatically improved hardware, inside and out.

I'll focus here on the 7-inch, $199 Kindle Fire HD. With its September 14 ship date, this is the first of the three HD models to hit the market. It's also the only HD model that Amazon made available for journalists to manhandle at its demo tables (the 8.9-inch tablet only demoed by Amazon executives). The other two HD models, the $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch and the $499 Kindle Fire 8.9-inch 4G LTE + Wi-Fi, are scheduled to ship November 20.

Refined design, punchy performance

The Kindle Fire HD's design is more svelte and polished than the original Kindle Fire. Its corners are curved, and an elegant yet subtle angle along the edges distinguishes it from the plethora of other black tablets on the market. The back has a slight rubberized texture, while the front has a glossy black bezel—a surprisingly wide one surrounding the display.

This bezel makes the unit a little wider than comparable 7-inch tablets. It measures 7.6 by 5.4 by 0.4 inches, which makes it slimmer than the Kindle Fire. I generally liked how the tablet felt in-hand, but I couldn't yet gauge how it feels to use one-handed for an extended period of time, for example.

When you turn on the tablet, you can clearly see the HD difference and the much-needed effort that Amazon put into this Fire's display. The Kindle Fire HD has a bright 1280-by-800-pixel display with optical bonding. As we've seen on other tablets—including Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, Acer's Iconia Tab A700, and Google's Nexus 7—optical bonding eliminates the air gap, which boosts contrast and helps keep text sharp and crisp. I'd say that these display enhancements alone makes the $199 Kindle Fire HD a worthwhile upgrade over the 1024-by-600-pixel, $159 Kindle Fire, especially for anyone who will to use a Kindle tablet for reading books, periodicals, and Web sites.

Inside, Amazon has significantly beefed up the Kindle Fire HD's components, starting with its dual-core 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 processor. We'll know more about Amazon's claims of performance superiority over the Nvidia Tegra 3-based Nexus 7 once we get a Fire HD into the lab. The Kindle Fire HD menus seemed snappy and responsive, whether I was moving among apps, playing games, or opening up and fast forwarding through the high-definition movie The Hunger Games.

Google's Nexus 7 (top) is slightly narrower than the Kindle Fire HD.

But even without formal testing, Amazon trumps Google simply on storage value for your dollar. At $199, the Kindle Fire HD packs 16GB of storage, twice what the Nexus 7 offers. Go up to the $249 version for 32GB of storage, twice what Google offers at that price. Given Amazon's aggressive pricing, I wouldn't be surprised to see Google try to match it by offering specials or a price drop on the Nexus 7 as we head into the critical holiday shopping season.

Hardware-wise, the Kindle Fire HD has a front-facing camera, Bluetooth, micro-USB for data transfers and power, and micro-HDMI-out. It also boosts Wi-Fi performance by adding dual-band, dual-antenna MIMO.

Aside from the vastly improved display, the most exciting new hardware feature is the Kindle Fire HD's Dolby Digital Plus audio processing coupled with dual-driver stereo speakers. Integrated audio on tablets is a longstanding sore spot, with one tablet after another producing pitiful or barely tolerable audio output through its built-in speakers. It was difficult to gauge the Dolby Digital Plus audio in the noisy demo environment, but I also got a private demo and was impressed by how the technology might improve audio on tablets. Amazon is first to implement it, and even though the company says it's an exclusive feature, Dolby says we will hear Dolby Digital Plus on other tablets.

Amazon didn't discuss its Silk Web browser during the launch event, but this Web browser caching technology, introduced last year, operates inside the new Kindle Fires. The browser's new features include an updated HTML 5 rendering engine, a refreshed start page, and both full-screen and vertical reading modes for text-heavy pages. Amazon says the browser is 30 to 40 percent faster, but that statistic that couldn't be confirmed in the demo environment.

Sleeker, more visual OS

Amazon has spruced up its Kindle Fire OS with a noticeably improved interface. The home screen is simper, ditching the visually kludgy bookshelf metaphor. Instead, the OS has big, bold icons in the vertical scroll menu, category access along the top nav, and shortcut icons to functions within some apps (such as mail, which now lets you directly launch a new message from the home screen).

The Kindle Fire OS gets a boost, too: Now, it's a custom skinning of Android's 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, a notable jump up from its previous 2.3 Gingerbread roots.

The update to 4.0 bodes suggests Amazon will amass more tablet apps optimized for larger displays. The extra space makes a difference in how apps display and run. When asked whether the Amazon Appstore will denote which apps are optimized for the larger screen, Amazon Kindle executive Dave Limp offered an oblique answer, saying that the vast majority of the Appstore's apps are already optimized, and that the store will deliver the correct version of the app depending upon the device you're using. It's unclear how many of the apps in the Appstore will properly support that 8.9-inch tablet, but Amazon does have a couple of months to sort out the details before release.

Kindle Fire gets mild makeover

The original Kindle Fire didn't impress me. And while this new version's lower price of $159 helps soften the compromises you make with this tablet, it still feels like you're paying too much for too little.

Physically, the new iteration of the 1024-by-600-pixel resolution Kindle Fire looks nearly identical to its predecessor. The dimensions are nearly the same, although the new version shaves 1mm off the height and 13 grams off the weight. Sadly, the power button remains in the same awkward spot along the vertical edge of the tablet. It was hard to tell from the locked-down demo whether the slight design tweaks are sufficient to mitigate the nuisance of the Fire accidentally shutting down when you simply rest a hand on the edge bearing that sensitive off switch.

Inside, the Fire gains a 20 percent faster processor and twice the memory of its predecessor, according to Amazon's purposely vague specs. I saw no real lag and found the tablet responsive to casual use, although it was impossible to tell whether the revamped Fire is anywhere near 40 percent faster as Amazon claims.

Even at its new, lower price and with its more responsive menus, the Fire still feels pricey for what it is. It has just 8GB of on-board storage, and it's chunky by comparison to its svelte siblings. Once the Fire drops into orbit of $100—even settling in at, say, $125—the standard-def Fire may be worth consideration. But at its current level, the step up to the 16GB Kindle Fire HD is with the $40 price bump if you plan to use the tablet as a media consumption device, as Amazon expects.

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