Kindle Fire HD review: A big improvement from Amazon
At a Glance
Amazon Kindle Fire HD
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The Kindle Fire HD is a tremendous improvement over its predecessor, and has a sharp, pleasing display. However, its heavy integration with Amazon's services is a strength, but also a limitation.
The 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HD goes far to correct many of the issues that plagued Amazon's first foray into tablets nearly a year ago. The Fire HD also introduces several tech enhancements over competing tablets, and while in the end the Kindle Fire HD falls short of Amazon's goal of being the best tablet at any price, it does excel on many metrics—and at $199 for the 16GB version and $249 for the 32GB version, it delivers a strong, value-priced experience that's optimized for consuming stuff from Amazon.
How the hardware and software comes together is the key, and that's a big part of why Amazon has chosen to differentiate itself on its retail and Web services strengths. In so doing, Amazon diverges from the open and straight path of stock Android 4.0, which serves as the core of Kindle Fire HD's software. Instead, it veers in the direction of Apple's walled garden, but with more meandering paths in and out than Apple's fortress-like garden provides. That's perhaps the best way to describe the distinction, given Amazon's support for only a subset of the greater Android app universe, limited file handling abilities, and the way Amazon saddles the Kindle Fire HD with in-your-face advertisements (you can eliminate these for an extra $15).
The result is a tablet experience that will appeal less to experienced tablet users, and more to the casual newcomer who values consuming movies, TV, books, and music above a full-featured tablet. What Amazon succeeds in, though, is delivering a capable device with a 28 percent smaller display than Apple's 9.7-inch iPad, and it does so at 60 percent of the price. And for these reasons, the Kindle Fire HD may just be enough tablet to satisfy many shoppers in the coming holiday season.
Whereas the original, boxy Kindle Fire showed no inspiration, the Kindle Fire HD's design is more svelte and polished. Its corners are rounded, and the edges have an elegant yet subtle curve, giving the tablet a distinctive look. The back has a smooth, rubberized finish, with a decorative plastic accent running horizontally across it. At either side of the accent are the tablet's dual-driver, rear-firing speakers.
Surprisingly, while the Fire HD feels solidly constructed, it fails in two respects. There's a minute gap between the glass and the plastic around the edge, and this fingernail's width spacing is annoying catch-all for attracting dirt and crumbs in the course of everyday use.
Amazon adds physical volume buttons to the right-hand side of the tablet, with a flat power button beneath those. The volume buttons are a welcomed addition (the original Kindle Fire lacked this basic feature) though they are hard to find by feel. Furthermore, the power button has been redesigned, improving upon the raised power button on the original Fire, but now its awkward to press.
The front of the tablet has a wider-than-usual glossy black bezel, making it a little wider than comparable 7-inch tablets. It measures 7.6 by 5.4 by 0.4 inches, which makes it 14 percent wider than the Google Nexus 7, but makes it about as thick as the Nexus 7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.
The Kindle Fire HD's weight is practically the same as before, and it's still on the heavy side for a 7-inch tablet. It's 16 percent greater than the Nexus 7, and while I find the Kindle Fire HD is fairly well-balanced and adequate for one-handed use, I prefer the lighter weight and narrower size of the of the Nexus 7.
Along the bottom edge of the display sits Mini-HDMI and Micro-USB ports. The Micro-USB is used for data transfers as well as charging. Amazon doesn't include its aftermarket power brick; that's a $20 extra-cost (and, sadly, requires more space than its small footprint belies, since the USB cable attaches on the side instead of the top of the power brick).
Cosmetics aside, the Kindle Fire HD's most visible improvement lies with its display. The Fire HD has a bright 1280 by 800 display with optical bonding. As on other tablets with bonded displays—including Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, Acer's Iconia Tab A700, Toshiba's Excite 7.7, and Google's Nexus 7—the process eliminates the pesky air gap that causes greater reflectivity and reduced contrast. That makes for clearer text and better colors.
In side-by-side tests, the display compares very favorably with the Nexus 7 and Excite 7.7. I prefer the color reproduction on the Nexus 7, though: Blacks are deeper, whites are whiter, and images look sharper. Mind you, some of that may be due to the Kindle Fire HD's software (more on that later). Text, reproduction, however, is universally better on the Kindle Fire HD, which may be attributable to Amazon's font optimizations in its operating system.
I'd say that these display enhancements alone make the $199 Kindle Fire HD a well worth the upgrade over the 1024 by 600, $159 Kindle Fire, especially for anyone who will to use a Kindle tablet for reading books, periodicals, and Web sites.
Performance: mostly fluid, but no speed demon
Amazon made some very bold claims about the performance of the Kindle Fire's dual-core 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 processor as compared with Nvidia's Tegra 3 platform, which is found in the Nexus 7. In order to quantitatively measure the Fire HD's performance, we had to sideload our benchmark tests, simply because they weren't offered in Amazon's Appstore. While the benchmarks worked on Kindle Fire HD, it's not clear whether our mixed results had anything to do with any potential incompatibility with Kindle Fire HD.
In the benchmarks, Kindle Fire HD was positively slothlike on the Geekbench test, scoring a 510 compared with original Kindle Fire's 932 and Nexus 7's 1550. On AndEBench's native test, the Fire HD perked up, scoring 4311; that topped the first-generation Fire's 3462, but was notably slower than the Nexus 7's 8716. The Fire HD's performance was similarly positioned on the AndEBench Java test.
It was on our Web speed tests that Kindle Fire HD showed more signs of life. The Fire HD was statistically tied with the Nexus 7 on Sunspider, and it logged the second fastest time we've seen on our custom-built Web page load test., ending in a statistical tie with Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1. (We tried BrowserMark, but it ran consistently and with oddities, so we're not counting it here.) Amazon says its updated Silk Web browser includes an new 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, a range our custom Web page load test bore out, but not our Sunspider results.
On GLBenchmark, the Fire HD performed respectably, logging 33 frames per second on Egypt Offscreen, and 53 frames per second on Pro Offscreen. Those numbers were notable improvements over the first-generation Kindle Fire: 43 percent and 29 percent, respectively. And they are better than what we typically saw from tablets running Nvidia Tegra 2 , but not as good as what we've seen on Tegra 3 models. For comparison, Nexus 7 scored 64 frames per second on the Egypt Offscreen test, and 83 frames per second on the Pro Offscreen.
My real-world tests engendered only a few complaints. I sometimes experienced a bit of lag, especially when accessing cloud content, but that could just as well be on the server side as it is on the device's side. The Kindle Fire HD menus seem responsive, whether I was moving among apps, playing games, or opening up and fast forwarding through the high-definition movie The Hunger Games. Some Web pages did seem to take a while to load, and I could only load the mobile version; there's no option to view the desktop version of web pages in the browser. I saw some sharpness and rendering issues—and a weird screen blip—when viewing high-resolution images, but I believe these issues have more to do with the Amazon software than with the hardware.
In our battery life tests, the Kindle FIre HD didn't deliver on Amazon's estimates. The battery lasted 8 hours, 41 minutes, about 30 minutes less than Google's Nexus 7, but better than the previous Kindle Fire. The battery test plays a 720p video with Wi-Fi disabled, at 200 cd/m2 brightness.
Ultimately, I'd call my hands-on experience mixed, just like the benchmarks. Sometimes my experience was responsive, sometimes it stalled. Sometimes I'd open an app immediately, other times I'd see Amazon's spinning circle while I waited the extra few seconds for something to open. The Nexus 7 has the performance edge, but the Kindle Fire HD is ahead of a vast number of nameless $200 and less tablets, too.
For games, I didn't see many in Amazon's Appstore that were truly optimized with high-definition graphics at the time of my review. But I did load up Riptide GP and try it on Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7. In terms of game performance, the experiences are close. Fire HD is highly competitive, but it lacks some finer shading in the water and the fancy splash effect that Riptide GP displays for Tegra 3 tablets like Nexus 7.
Interestingly, Riptide's soundtrack was the first sign that audio on Fire HD is a different experience than what I've heard from other tablets. Amazon talked up the fact that they have dual-driver stereo speakers on-board, and it mentioned it exclusively offers Dolby Digital Plus audio (technically, this Dolby technology isn't exclusive to Amazon; the company is just the first out of the gate). But until you truly hear the difference side-by-side, with an array of content, it's hard to appreciate what Dolby Digital Plus and improved speakers does for the Kindle Fire.
Dolby's new mobile platform, which brings the audio format introduced with Blu-ray to tablets, proves most effective on content that is in need of a fix to even out the frequency response. For example, I could hear more range in the game soundtrack on the Kindle Fire HD than on the Nexus 7. Same with music tracks from Lady Gaga, Owl City, and Mary Black. In an A/B with Dolby Digital Plus on and off, I heard instruments and strains of music that were not evident when the feature was turned off (it's on by default) . But an R.E.M. track didn't get as much benefit, simply because, Dolby said on hearing the track, it just didn't need as much help to begin with.
Overall, I was pleased with the audio quality, and found it to be one of the best tablets I've heard for audio output via the built-in speakers. My one complaint with the Fire HD's audio was that the volume level needed to be turned up high to be heard; granted, this is a common trait on other tablets, but I hold the Fire HD to greater scrutiny here just because Amazon clearly was paying attention to the audio, yet chose this lower volume level.
No movies at Amazon currently support Dolby Digital Plus, but Dolby expects releases to come shortly. Meanwhile, even the movies and TV shows I listened to benefited from the Dolby Digital Plus boost, in a way that I don't usually experience from audio enhancements on tablets.
Speaking of movies, HD movie playback is a mixed experience. By far, the Kindle Fire HD is superior to the original Kindle Fire. Less pixellation, better color and defintion to the image. That said, Amazon's streaming video still showed some artifacts in my use on several Wi-Fi networks. Amazon says HD purchases are streamed at the highest bitrate your network can handle, up to 6Mbps at 720p; this may account for my experience, but I without a doubt preferred the quality of downloaded video as opposed to streamed video.
As for the rest of the guts inside, Amazon had a few more component boosts up its sleeve. For starters, the company thankfully boosted the internal storage to 16GB for the $199 version. That's twice what the Nexus 7 offers, and the same amount as found on the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet (2011). Add $50 for the 32GB version, which is twice what Google offers at that price. The 16GB model has 12.6GB of usable storage—certainly better than you got on last year's 8GB model, and a reasonable amount considering how easy Amazon makes it for you to store content in the cloud. If you plan to have lots of high-definition content, I'd suggest going with the 32GB version, though, since there's no memory card expansion slot on the Kindle Fire HD.
Hardware-wise, the new Kindle has a front-facing 720p camera and adds Bluetooth, which the original Kindle Fire lacked. Amazon says its Wi-Fi radio's design boosts performance significantly, but in my casual use I didn't notice any particular benefit.
However, the Kindle Fire HD lacks what are oft-considered standard inclusions for a tablet. There's no rear-camera (to be fair, the Nexus 7 lacks this as well), and no GPS for directions. Perhaps the omission of such features could be acceptable if the tablet were only targeting the value market, but Amazon claims that this is the best tablet at any price. Even the value-priced Nexus 7 has GPS and Google's Navigation features intact.
Software: Streamlined and visual OS
The first thing you'll see when you power on your shiny new Fire HD, in fact, will be an ad. And in their full-color, HD glory, the ads feel much more intrusive than the grayscale advertisements on the Kindle e-readers. The Kindle Fire HD's adverts annoyed me to no end. Tell me where to sign up to opt-out for $15 extra...that is possible, if you can find it buried amidst Amazon's options.
Amazon has spruced up its Kindle Fire OS with a noticeably improved interface. Let's start with the home screen: It's simpler, with a black background and large, bold icons in its carousel menu, each for recently accessed content. In the portrait mode, beneath the carousel your content will show recommendations of things other customers bought. I didn't like this being front-and-center, though: While I don't mind Amazon passing me suggestions, having those suggestions appear on my home screen is unappealing. I liked the new shortcuts to some apps; for example, directly from the home screen you can now launch a new mail message.
In the carousel, you get control over what's shown; if you don't want something there, you can tap and hold to remove something from the carousel, or to add it to your favorites list. This is buggy; items keep returning unbidden to the carousel, a glitch that Amazon says it will fix in a future update.
Favorites work fine; all you have to do is tap the star on the bottom right corner to access favorites anywhere on the device. If the content occupies the full screen, the nav menu now pops with home, back, search, and favorites now slides out from the right side, as opposed to popping up from the bottom.
Amazon streamlined and rejiggered the order of the top navigation bar to provide quick access to the Amazon store—now in the primary spot—as well as to books, apps, music, video, newsstand, docs in your Amazon CloudDrive, and more. (CloudDrive syncing was a bit wonky when I used it with my Windows CloudDrive app; Amazon is investigating the issue.) Amazon enhanced its notifications and settings shortcuts navigation to now be a pull-down shader, in the style of Google's Android notifications shade.
Streamlined and clean are the two running themes throughout the interface. Amazon's sans-serif fonts stand out for being smoother than those in stock Android 4.0 on the Google Nexus 7. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Kindle books section, where I found text sharper, with less aliasing on Game of Thrones than it was in the Kindle for Tablet app on the Nexus 7. The reading experience on Kindle Fire HD is vastly improved over the original Fire. Oddly, though, there's no way to adjust brightness directly from within the book app, as you can on Kindle app for Android tablet; and, there are no page numbers in sight.
It's not to say that Amazon's reimagining of Android isn't arcane at times. Or a misfire: The way images are presented in the Photos app looks cool when it interprets an image's rotation data correctly; but as you can see by the screenshot below, Amazon's software struggled with a folder full of mixed portrait and landscape images.
All of this said, Amazon has increased the functionality and practicality of the Kindle Fire HD as compared with its first tablet. For example, I can receive an attachment, open it, edit it in an app that supports the file type, save it, and then send out again—all from the tablet.
The new software has Facebook and Twitter integration, to make it easy to share passages of books. And with Facebook, you can also pull images down to your tablet, and share Amazon Gamecircle scores.
Meanwhile, Amazon continues to omit some basic built-in apps, like a to-do list or a notepad.
Ecosystem: Missing, messy apps
The Kindle Fire OS is now 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 suggests Amazon will amass more tablet apps optimized for larger displays, and optimized for tablet, period.
Unfortunately, I could easily download apps that were not intended for my device at all, including apps for phones, for example. And content optimized for the high-definition screen is in scarce supply at launch. Amazon says it plans for users to find content by calling it HD, but it didn't reveal whether HD apps will be sortable by category. Doing a simple search on “HD” in the app store revealed a messy array of content, some repetitive and not much that was cutting edge or appealing.
And that's part of what you get with the Amazon Appstore on Kindle Fire HD. Like your music, video, and book content, you're buying into Amazon's retail ecosystem for your apps—and that means you're limited to the company's selection, which Amazon says is over 30,000. Compare that to Google's 600,000 apps in the Play store (not all of them made for tablets).
What Amazon does really well, though, is integrate the shopping experience—and cloud-based content—with your local content. In most instances, I found the experience cleaner to navigate than on Google Play.
Without a doubt, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD's greatest appeal lies with those who tend towards mainstream, and less toward cutting-edge. Its strength lies with how the tablet has been integrated with Amazon's numerous and varied services; from shopping to streaming media to storing your documents in the cloud, Amazon has you covered.
One of the many problems with the first Kindle Fire was that it simply didn't do anything well. That's no longer the case. E-reading and music playback are both well-executed, and the e-mail capabilities are more functional than before. You're buying into Amazon's limited app ecosphere, though, so if selection and getting the latest apps are a primary concern, then a stock Android tablet would be a better choice. But for other tablet shoppers, the Kindle Fire HD is a reasonable way to test the tablet waters, while getting a color e-reader to boot.(If you prefer a larger screen, 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.)
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