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Amazon Kindle Fire HD review (7-inch)

Amazon brings the fight to Apple's iPad and the Nexus 7, but is the beauty more than skin deep?

To put a review of the Kindle Fire HD in perspective, you have to peer just a tiny bit into the past. It was barely a week ago that the world watched Amazon begin a magical transformation from that of a humble multinational that retails every product ever made in the world, to that of a consumer electronics powerhouse that wants to bring the fight to Apple on the tablet front. During its event last Wednesday, CEO Jeff Bezos was focused on not just the new products, but about what they mean to Amazon and its customers. These aren't just tablets — they are portals to all the company is, whether it's the cloud services on the backend, retail tie-ins up front, or that new part of Amazon: the one that makes high-end consumer hardware.

The original Kindle Fire felt like an experiment, a 'can we do this?' moment for Amazon. The new, $199 Fire HD feels like something very different. A product with an attitude, a directive, a plan. And that plan seems to be something like this: hit them on price, hit them on ecosystem, and hit them where it hurts the most — product design. Amazon also wants to hit them where only Amazon can: retail. But are the hits going to keep coming, or is the new Fire HD a swing and a miss? Find out in the full review below.

Video review

Video review


Design

Design and hardware

The Fire HD feels comfortable in your hands
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At first glance, the Fire HD isn't exactly something that you'd notice in a lineup of tablets. These days, it's not really art or science deciding how slabs look, but more like a kind of desire for familiarity. In that sense, the Fire serves its purpose fabulously. The device is little more than a matte black rectangle with the requisite rounded corners. The front of the Fire is eaten up by its display and a small camera peering out through the black bezel which runs around the screen. The sides of the device are downturned from front to back, broken only by a headphone jack, volume rocker, and power / sleep button integrated into the top (or right side in landscape) of the device. Along the bottom you'll find a Micro USB and Micro HDMI jack (you can mirror content to a big screen). The Fire has a soft-touch black backing, with a thin plastic strip spanning the length of it that houses a set of stereo speakers.

One longs for the details of the iPad

The device is slightly thinner than the Nexus 7 (an almost imperceptible .01 inches) but not as thin as the new iPad. It weighs just under a pound, and is both taller and wider than the Nexus 7 by small amounts. The Fire HD fits comfortably in your hands in either landscape or portrait — and just as I noticed with the Nexus 7, the 7-inch form factor seems generally better suited to transportation and light use, like bedtime reading. It's a big improvement over the first Fire.

Overall the design is utilitarian, but not unwelcome. The tablet is thin enough and light enough that it feels comfortable in your hands, and is particularly well-suited for book reading in portrait mode. One quibble I have is the placement and depth of the power button and volume rockers. They are not only too closely positioned, but their extremely low profiles make them hard to distinguish and sometimes hard to press, depending on which direction you've got the device situated. This is one of those areas where one longs for the details of the iPad, with its clear-to-the-touch placement of switches and buttons.


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Specs

Display and specs

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The 7-inch, 1280 x 800 display on the Fire HD is fantastic. The IPS, LCD screen looks better than probably any other tablet display I've seen, save for the new iPad. While the pixel density is the same for both the Nexus 7 and the Fire HD (216 compared to the iPad's 264), the Fire blows away the Nexus in terms of color richness, black levels, and general brightness. It definitely looks more like an Apple-quality display, and it's clear the company put a lot of effort into making an impression here. Though Amazon has touted the anti-glare coating of the screen, it can still be plenty shiny when viewing content in a decently lit room.

Touch response was good in most cases, and very good in some, though I believe there are some fundamental issues with Amazon's software that create subpar experiences in various areas of the Fire HD OS. I'll touch on that in detail in the software section of the review. No pun intended.

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In all, it's a tidy package, but not unexpected

As part of Amazon's fight to prove it can do hardware right, it's equipped the Fire HD with a fairly modern set of specs, and even boasts about its GPU prowess and CPU speeds. Inside you'll find a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, a PowerVR GPU, and either 16GB or 32GB of storage (I tested the 16GB version). There's also Bluetooth, that fancy MIMO Wi-Fi that Amazon made a big deal out of (more on that below), as well as an accelerometer, light sensor, and gyroscope. The camera mounted under the screen on the front of the Fire is listed as an HD lens, and it appears that it takes photos at a 720p resolution. If you dig enough in some apps, you can find the stock Android camera, but I couldn't get it to do anything but change my photo in Skype.

The speakers I mentioned earlier are Dolby Digital-blessed and dual-driven. The wildly hyperbolic Amazon PR page for the Fire HD describes "loud, rumbling movie soundtracks," and "room-filling stereo sound." You won't get anything near those lofty renditions, but they do sound quite nice, and it's a welcome change to have stereo sound (at least in landscape orientation).

In all, it's a tidy package, but not unexpected, and not necessarily the cutting edge. It's a modern chipset, an adequate amount of storage, and the required radios for most of what you'll do (though it's missing a GPS chip and NFC, if you're worried about future-proofing). It is disappointing to me that there's no 3G or 4G option here, but one could make the same complaint about the Nexus 7 and most other tablets in this range.


Performance

Performance, Wi-Fi, battery life

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From a standpoint of horsepower, the Fire HD seems more than capable at handling pretty much anything you throw at it (or at least, anything that's available in the Amazon Appstore). Games like Dead Space and Angry Birds played with no slowdown or lag, lists scrolled quickly and smoothly, and books and magazines didn't hesitate when the pages were turned. Movies streamed solidly in HD, and music playing worked without a hiccup in the background. As I said, however, there are software issues which I believe are unrelated to the actual CPU performance of the device.

Wi-Fi

Jeff Bezos got on stage last week and made a big deal (a weirdly big deal) out of the Wi-Fi on the Fire HD. Amazon claims that using MIMO dual-antenna technology, it's able to best Apple's latest tablet in download speeds.

In my testing, I noticed no real difference between the speed of the Wi-Fi on the Fire HD versus that of the new iPad. Of course, there are many variables at play, and I suppose in the most pristine settings it's possible you'll see a winner and a loser in that race. What I observed mostly, in actual use, was that the Fire's more sluggish browser and less intuitive software made the device feel that is was reacting more slowly than the iPad, so even if it was able to pull down data faster, it wasn't clear to me that's what was happening.

Battery

I've had just under a week to test the battery performance of the Fire, and my results have been largely favorable. Amazon claims you can get about 11 hours of use out of a single charge, split amongst web browsing, video viewing, music streaming, and various other casual activities. I found that this number mostly holds true, but you certainly start to see a burn when using the Fire for something like Skype video calling. In fact, in an activity that puts all of the hardware and software into play, there was a clear dip in battery life.

That's to be expected, and the Fire certainly didn't feel like it was overly cranking through its charges — it does what the company claims it does, so there's little room for disappointment here.

The Fire HD seems capable of handling pretty much anything you throw at it
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Software

Software

It's software vs. services
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The software on the Kindle Fire HD may well be the product's Achilles Heel, while the services the software provides are clearly its winning edge. It's an odd dichotomy, to have one half of a product be so uninspiring, while the content that uninspiring half is used to get at is so key to the success of the device.

Let me explain. The operating system of the Fire HD is based on Google's Android 4.0.3, better known as Ice Cream Sandwich. As a standalone, stock experience, Android 4 is one of the best mobile OSs on the market, and perhaps the very best for many, many things. Amazon has chosen to wipe nearly all traces of that core OS away from the Fire in order to make a more pleasing consumer experience, replacing almost all of the visual and functional language of the software with its own take on the modern mobile operating system.

That's good in some ways, because Android can be very confusing and very technical at times (even if version 4 goes a long way to correcting this behavior). But, it's also bad in many ways, because it puts a jerky, sluggish barrier between the OS as it was intended, and the OS as Amazon would like to see it work. Furthermore, I'm not entirely convinced that Amazon has such good ideas about functionality and workflow, which makes for some confusing moments when trying to get around.

Let's start with the basics — navigation around the device. In most areas, Amazon provides a menu which can be called up to get to your home, back, or menu buttons. Since a lot of apps (Amazon or otherwise) utilize these items in a "hidden" state, you do a lot of tap-tapping to get to your nav, which can be annoying. Furthermore, Amazon has moved the home button to the far left, and put a back button in the center. It's a bizarre and frustrating placement, considering the most used button seems to be demoted. It's also vexing because on the ad-heavy stock Fire, you're prone to tapping quickly on that home button only to end up tapping on tiny ads which populate the same exact spot on your homescreen. Coincidence? It doesn't feel like it.

Amazon provides no clear multitasking functionality, but it does have a "favorites" drawer which can be pulled up with a touch on a star icon in the corner of the bottom menu bar. On the homescreen, the software also provides a thin row of text to navigate to the sections of the device: Shop (first of course), Games, Apps, etc.

In general, that list is a pretty unintuitive method of moving from place to place. For instance, you have to scroll to the far right on the list to find you web browser. Amazon does additionally provide a big carousel of recently-used applications or content, but that menu is always rearranging itself based on what you've been doing on the device. On paper that sounds like a great idea, on a tablet, it's like searching for your lost car in a crowded mall parking lot.

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The general feeling when using the Fire HD was that of a kind of light confusion, a low hum of 'where am I now?' Things were never where I expected them to be, or they moved, or they had to be summoned from a hidden menu. A simple home button or persistent navigation element would improve this greatly. There seemed to be too much action, too many options. On the homescreen alone, there are no less than three separate ways to access an application — four if you count the search functionality! Why is it like this?

The other big issue I have with Amazon's OS is that it can sometimes feel sluggish, laggy. The keyboard on the device feels downright delayed when you're typing on it, pressed buttons sometimes seemed to momentarily stall, and moving in and out of applications could sometimes cause a slight freeze, where the content (or worse, nothing) will just sit onscreen, stuck.

If the iPad and the Nexus 7 feel snappy and "present," the Fire HD seems like it's out to lunch sometimes. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does create a sense that there's a thin layer over everything you're doing on the device — it means presses are unsure, typing is laborious. It almost made me scared in a way to move too quickly, like I would end up engaging parts of the tablet that I hadn't meant to engage.

The content offerings soar above the competition, but it's still not there on apps

Prime, movies, music, apps, and more

On the other hand, the Kindle Fire soars above much of its competition because of the content Amazon offers on the device. The sheer volume of movies and TV, music, magazines, and books you have access to on this tablet is staggering. Furthermore, if you're a Prime customer (and you probably will be once you own this device), a lot of that content is free. It's an incredibly enticing arrangement, and one that makes the Fire HD one of the most recommendable products for users who are concerned largely with lean-back experiences. I was actually astounded to discover how much great content was free and ready to watch in both movies and TV with my Prime account, to say nothing of the book selection in the Lending Library. This is the kind of all-encompassing subscription deal that not even Apple offers — and it is fantastic.

The Fire also provides great, seamless experiences for consuming that content thanks to its Whispersync technology, which lets you pick up where you left off on a variety of devices. That means that you can stream a movie on your Fire, then finish it on your Xbox or Roku. You can listen to half a book in audio on the tablet, then start back up on your smartphone; with newer features like Whispersync for games, that will extend even further. It makes the world of Amazon seem much bigger and much more robust than many of the other ecosystems currently battling it out.

Amazon is also trying some new tricks with features like X-Ray for movies and books. The gist of X-Ray is that it will dissect some of the metadata of the content — for movies that means actor and crew lists, for books it's characters and bios. Right now it's an interesting yet largely superfluous concept, however it's not hard to see how Amazon could begin to tie in even deeper connections. The most intriguing, or worrisome, being the ability to purchase items shown in a movie or mentioned in a book from The World's Largest Retailer.

One other big point worth noting: the Amazon Appstore is simply not up to par with either Google's Play Store or Apple's App Store in terms of application offerings. In fact, I found it to be deeply lacking in some key areas, with well known apps like Rdio not even available for download. There are a handful of games and some other usable products present, but it is far from a satisfying experience, at least for me. Amazon's product page may look good with its cluster of titles, but once you get beyond a few of the key entries, things get painfully thin.

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Browser

Amazon first introduced its Silk browser with the original Fire, touting faster download speeds thanks to a bunch of backend, server-side processing. I didn't see much of a kick in my original review, but I must say the browser on the Fire HD definitely feels like it's getting a boost somewhere along the way.

Pages did tend to load faster than I expected, and in side-by-side comparisons with the Nexus 7, though the Nexus beat out the Fire a few times too — so... they're even? Regardless, the performance was quite good, though I did see some odd behavior in pages, like TypeKit fonts rendering sometimes, but not others. Amazon also makes some interesting choices, like including Bing as the default search engine (don't worry, you can change it), and offering "trending" pages to you from your homescreen and in-browser bookmark view. Just like some of the ads on the device, it feels like Amazon is trying to push you somewhere you might not be interested in going.

Email, calendar, and contacts

The company has upgraded its home-grown email client, and now includes a calendar and contacts app as well. All three are serviceable at best, but none are anywhere close to competitive or best in class. In particular, the email app doesn't even support threaded messages, and has no support for Gmail's labeling — though it will star items. After using the Fire HD for a day, I was longing for the full-featured, cohesive experiences of the Nexus 7 or iPad.

Advertising

Much has been made — and much has yet to be said — about the inclusion of advertisements throughout the Fire's operating system. Though you can opt out of these ads for a mere $15, it's likely many people will not choose to pay the extra cash, or not even be aware that the option exists.

With the ads displaying, the Fire HD can at times feel like the most blatantly pushy, consumer-focused, retail-oriented device ever made. There is no shame in what Amazon is doing — nearly everywhere that content lives on the device, the company is trying to push you towards more content. Even in places that might be considered sacred, like your homescreen (a view you see most often), there are breadcrumbs to get back to the store for more buying. And that's to say nothing of the full-screen lock screen ads, and subtle, sneaky text ads that populate the corner of the device.

On the one hand, it's kind of great. Hey, you like content? Here's some more content you might like! On the other hand, it's a little weird, and a tiny bit scary. You want to feel ownership of your devices, and you want to feel empowered by your devices — but the constant and consistent advertising here can sometimes make the Fire HD feel more like a catalog than a tablet. Maybe that's fine for some users, but I thought it was off-putting, and frankly a distraction from an otherwise fine product.


There are two devices in this review. The first is something like an appliance — a window through which you casually view content, a way to listen to music, an e-reader for the train ride home. On that device, things like a big app selection or elaborate user experience take a back seat to content selection, price point, and simplicity. On that device, it's not about going toe-to-toe with the competition in every way (as Amazon seems to want to do), it's about offering a lot of fun stuff to consumers, and getting them to consume more. As that device, the Fire HD is a complete success. A marvel of bottom-line engineering and incredibly clever subsidies. It's a really, really good tablet for doing some very specific things.

But there's a second tablet in the review as well. One that gets compared to the iPad and Nexus 7. One that I expect to do more than just show me movies or help me shop. One that should be a companion for all kinds of things I want to do, that doesn't feel limited, that doesn't respond to my touches slowly, that doesn't make me wait.

As that device, the Fire HD still has a long way to go. I think it can get there, but it isn't there yet.

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