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Review: Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7″

| October 13, 2012 | 0 Comments

Review: Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7

Introduction and design

Amazon changed the tablet game late last year with the introduction of the Kindle Fire, a $199 7-inch tablet that – while limited by a slim offering of apps and lower-end hardware – really upended the lower end of the market and proved a dramatic success.

Kindle Fire HD Review

No other manufacturer could compete on both price and features until Google and Asus dropped the similarly priced Nexus 7 this summer. The gorgeous screen, sleek form factor, and pure Android 4.1 UI made Amazon’s once-impressive entry seem immediately antiquated, but we all knew the online retail juggernaut wouldn’t rest on its laurels for long.

While the standard Kindle Fire has been lightly revised and reissued for a mere $159, the new Kindle Fire HD is Amazon’s true effort to fight off the Nexus 7 and upcoming Nook HD. With a totally new build, notably enhanced display, and front-facing camera, it’s a marked enhancement over the original Fire model, but are Amazon’s custom UI and ecosystem still holding it back for power users?

Whereas the base Kindle Fire model sports a rather clunky, utilitarian build, the HD feels smoothed out – it’s a little taller (7.6 inches vs 7.44) and notably wider (5.4 inches vs 4.72) when held in portrait orientation, though it’s also slightly slimmer (0.4 inches vs 0.45). Weight-wise, it drops only .2 oz to 13.9.

Kindle Fire HD Review

The larger bezel all around means that while the tablet takes up a bit more real estate on the whole, it’s an easier device to hold while reading or watching videos without covering up the actual screen – a far cry from the compact Nexus 7 in this regard.

From the front, it looks a bit like a smaller black iPad without a physical button, albeit one with the 1.3 megapixel camera – used solely for Skype video chats at this point – placed on the left side for use in landscape. A hard and slightly cheap-feeling plastic border surrounds the bezel, though it’s the back of the Kindle Fire HD that won’t be mistaken for a competitor.

Sleek and stylish, the rubberized slate-color back is marked by a deep black racing stripe of sorts, which Amazon not only uses to mark its territory with an etched "Kindle" logo (standard Amazon branding is below) – it also houses the speaker grates, which allow the Dolby Audio dual-driver stereo sound to come through. Or blast through, rather, as we’ll detail later on.

Kindle Fire HD review

The Kindle Fire HD does have physical buttons blended subtly into the top of the frame near the 3.5mm headphone jack – a power button and a volume rocker, the latter an appreciated addition over the standard Fire.

However, they’re a little too subtle in the build. We still fumbled to locate them naturally after several days with the device, and without more obvious placement, it’s easy to lose track of which way is up on the tablet. Yes, even with the camera lens on the left side bezel.

Kindle Fire HD Review

The base 16GB model of the Kindle Fire HD (which we reviewed) sells for $199, while a larger 32GB version retails for $50 more at $249. Expandable storage is not an option with any model of the Kindle Fire, and don’t expect to get a power adapter in the box – you’ll need to buy that separately, provide your own from another device (the Nexus 7′s works), or charge only via USB.

Additionally, Amazon has larger 8.9-inch models coming in November for $299 for 16GB and $369 for 32GB, while a 4G LTE-enabled model sells for $499/$599 at the same capacities.

Display and interface

With a 7-inch display that weights in at 1280×800 resolution and can run 720p HD video, the Kindle Fire HD sports a massive upgrade over the original model, which has a lowly 1024×600 screen. The difference is immediately noticeable, though the specs are on par with the Nexus 7.

Kindle Fire HD review

As much as the Nexus 7 screen impresses with its 216 pixels per inch (PPI), the Kindle Fire HD manages to one-up it in terms of contrast and color saturation, with deeper and more vivid colors on Amazon’s device. It makes the Nexus 7 screen look a bit blue-heavy by comparison, but its contrast qualms are well documented.

While certainly not on par with the new iPad, the Fire HD’s display is definitely impressive for a 7-inch, budget-friendly device, with its bright colors and sharp images popping during games, movies, and more.

Interface

Kindle Fire HD ReviewAmazon’s custom UI overlay returns on the Kindle Fire HD, but it’s been significantly overhauled since last fall’s debut – and now it’s running on a base of Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich, allowing for zippier overall performance. Once again, though, it’s a smooth and user-friendly interface, but one that’s not very flexible or customizable.

Running in either portrait or landscape orientation, the center of the home screen is highlighted by a constantly updated carousel of recently used items, be they apps, games, movies, books, magazine, or even the Silk web browser. Items can be tapped and held to remove them from the carousel or add them to favorites.

Serving Amazon’s needs, below the carousel in portrait orientation is a "Customers Also Bought" bar of recommendations for the top item, showing other apps, games, or media that you can purchase. In landscape, the larger carousel icons simply dominate the view.

Above the carousel, you’ll find a list of categories – Shop, Games, Apps, Books, etc. – to find your purchases and enter individual stores, as well as a search bar (portrait view only) that can scan your items, Amazon’s stores, or the web.

Kindle Fire HD review

While using apps, you’ll find a small navigation bar on the bottom or side of the screen, which includes home and back buttons, a settings pop-up, a search icon, and a small star that allows access to the favorites pop-up.

Tapping the little star on any screen serves up the favorites, bringing up a list of app, game, and media icons that you’ll designate. Though nice to have this accessible from nearly anywhere, it’s in no way preferable to an always-on favorites bar. As such, finding items outside of the carousel means browsing the individual categories.

Kindle Fire HD Review

Each category dials down into a separate library of both local items and those that can be downloaded from the cloud. It’s also here that you’ll find links to the individual stores for apps, videos, music, books, magazines, and more, and Amazon certainly isn’t shy about pointing you towards its myriad digital offerings.

Sadly, much as the home screen interface scrolls more smoothly than on the last-gen Kindle Fire, the store menus are at times remarkably sluggish, bringing you to half-blank pages that take several seconds to load up icons. It’s unclear why the stores creep along at times, but it’s a noticeable and recurring issue.

One of the most divisive features of the new Kindle Fire models is the initially unavoidable Special Offers that appear on the lock screen. These oft-colorful full-screen ads attempt to sell everything from movies to laptops and credit cards, but you can pay a one-time fee of $15 to eliminate them from the device.

Kindle Fire HD review

We imagine power users will feel inclined to cut the ads right away, but we didn’t mind them. They’re unobtrusive, and from the ones we saw, they can actually be fairly beneficial. We tapped one and got a free credit towards nearly any TV episode download – well worth our few seconds of time and lock screen real estate.

Internet and connectivity

Amazon’s innovative Silk browser – which uses cloud data (thanks to the company’s vast web hosting capabilities) to speed up page rendering – started off pretty strong on the Kindle Fire and only improved via a series of updates over the past several months. Unsurprisingly, it proves an impressive browser on the Kindle Fire HD.

Is the performance head and shoulders ahead of what we’ve seen on the Nexus 7, the new iPad, or other tablets? Not really – but it is a reliably smooth and capable browser that rarely gets bogged down or fumbles elaborate web layouts. Flash is no longer available, disappointingly, but that’s becoming more and more common with modern mobile browsers.

Kindle Fire HD review

In practice, Silk isn’t remarkably different from the browsers we’ve seen on other Android devices. It supports multiple tabs and bookmarks, plus you can nix the task bar on the bottom (or right in landscape view) for a more full-screen look. Pinching or double tapping on text to zoom are both expected features that work well here.

Email

One of the more desired enhancements in the Kindle Fire HD software lineup is that of an enhanced email client, which does end up being pretty capable. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, AOL, and Exchange accounts are expressly supported, though you can add your own if your provider falls outside of that list.

Loading up our Gmail account, we were able to star, move, and mark unread emails, as well as access all of our folders. Swapping between emails is a smooth process in portrait view, with "Newer" and "Older" buttons at the bottom of the screen, while landscape view splits the screen with a message list pane on the left.

Kindle Fire HD review

Likewise, the virtual keyboard worked well in both email and Silk, with responsive keys that are nicely large in landscape view – though that perspective does deliver one nagging annoyance. The back button is located to the right of the keyboard, right where we’d expect a Delete key (which is actually below, above Return), so don’t be surprised if you accidentally flip back a few times on mistake.

Connectivity

The Kindle Fire HD is the first tablet with dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi, which uses MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) tech to allow simultaneous transmission over both antennas to improve speed and reliability. Amazon claims it to be the fastest tablet around – reportedly up to 41% faster than the new iPad’s dual-band, single-antenna design.

In our testing, the device did indeed perform admirably during everyday use, from web browsing to large downloads (like apps and HD television episodes) and video streaming. Moreover, we tested the strength of our Wi-Fi signal on both the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 and found that it deteriorated at a noticeably lower rate on Amazon’s device the further we walked from the router.

Much like the Nexus 7 and most other tablets in this price range, the Kindle Fire HD does not support cellular connections. It does, however, include Bluetooth support this time around for keyboards, speakers, and more, plus the HDMI-out port can be used to display your video clips and other media on a TV or other secondary screen.

Battery life and storage

Amazon pegs the Kindle Fire HD as offering 11 hours of use via its 4400 mAh internal battery – a step up from the 8.5 hours listed for the standard Kindle Fire. In our use, we found it landing more in the still-impressive range of 9-10 hours; and with the brightness cranked to maximum, it came in closer to about eight hours.

Kindle Fire HD review

That’s a very respectable sum for a tablet of this size, and 10 hours still puts it ahead of the Nexus 7, though it’s roughly on par with the much pricier new iPad. You’ll get a lot of on-the-go media viewing from the Kindle Fire HD.

Media storage may be another issue, based on what you’re storing. As noted earlier, the device ships with 16GB of internal storage in the $199 model, while another $50 doubles that to 32GB. Both sums are double what is offered in the Nexus 7 – a definite perk, whatever your choice.

External storage is not an option here, though Amazon assumes you’ll be using the device with a steady Wi-Fi connection as to make the most of the benefits of the cloud. Otherwise, be prepared to keep a close eye on the storage usage tally as you pick and choose your media and apps.

Media

No surprise: the Kindle Fire HD is designed as a media consumption device, seeing as Amazon stands to profit immensely from your digital dalliances, and it proves a much more capable device than its predecessor at fulfilling such needs.

Kindle Fire HD review

Beyond the seriously impressive display, the Kindle Fire HD also offers perhaps the loudest speakers we’ve ever heard on such a device, letting you prop it up to enjoy a flick with friends sans external amplification.

And it’s not just a booming signal, but a pretty clear one, as well. The stereo sound is head and shoulders above what we’re used to from handheld devices, and while you’ll likely always find better results with headphones or external speakers, the build-in option is a surprising standout here. No wonder Amazon made it so visually prominent on the back plate.

Kindle Fire HD review

Naturally, Amazon is no slouch when it comes to offering a huge array of digital media, be it full-length films, television episodes, music albums and songs, eBooks, digital magazines and newspapers, or audiobooks. If you’re firmly entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem, the Kindle Fire HD will be a very beneficial portable companion.

Amazon Prime subscribers naturally get the best deal of all, though, thanks to the double-punch of ample access to its Instant Video collection – for Netflix-like streaming movies and television shows – and the Kindle Lending Library, which lets you choose one free book to read each month from a list of many thousands.

Kindle Fire HD review

What’s impressive about the Kindle Fire HD is that Amazon isn’t simply trying to compete on physical features and price, but also helpful digital perks. For example, the X-Ray feature for streaming movies shows you IMDb-provided actor and film info, while a similar function for eBooks lets you find info and biographies. [Just imagine that Shaun of the Dead is playing behind the overlay in the screen below.]

Kindle Fire HD review

Immersion reading also lets you sync up Kindle book text with Audible audiobooks to experience real-time highlighting, and you can use the Whispersync function to pop between the audiobook and eBook without losing your place. Amazon aims to wrap you up with its interconnected media ecosystem, and such features certainly go a long way towards furthering that intent.

Apps and games

Beyond Silk and the email client, the Kindle Fire HD comes with a handful of other apps preinstalled, such as Skype (which utilizes the front-facing camera), OfficeSuite (for opening Microsoft Office docs), and IMDb for… well, movie trivia.

Kindle Fire HD review

Many thousands more are available via Amazon’s built-in storefront, though it’s still a pale shadow of what’s on offer on Android devices that utilize Google Play (formerly the Android Marketplace), which is not featured on the Kindle Fire HD.

Apple may lead the field by a wide margin when it comes to new and useful apps and games, but Google Play is a fair runner-up. Amazon’s store, by comparison, lags far behind in its selection of both, which proves disappointing all around.

Kindle Fire HD review

Many of the top headliners are here: Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard, Evernote and more on the apps side, along with games like Angry Birds Space, Skylanders Cloud Patrol, Minecraft Pocket Edition, and Temple Run. It’s what’s found – or rather, not found – beyond those known quantities that disappoints, as you’ll see a lot of off-brand takes on familiar themes or otherwise underwhelming experiences.

And though simpler, more casual games run perfectly fine on the dual-core 1.2Ghz processor, more advanced entries can show why this is still a budget tablet. Top racing game Asphalt 7 Heat in particular looks downright silly on the Kindle Fire HD compared to the new iPad or even iPhone 4S, as textures and buildings just on the horizon sloppily pop into view.

Getting around the app storefront is not a fluid or well-organized process, either, which is part of the reason why finding the apps you want often proves fruitless. As noted before, the search results and chart listings creep along with regularity.

Kindle Fire HD review

And nothing has changed on the Google front since the original Kindle Fire: despite Android 4.0powering the ship, the Fire HD still doesn’t offer Google Maps, Voice, Earth, Navigation, and other flagship apps. Hey, iOS 6 devices aren’t the only ones to lack native access to the company’s mapmaking prowess.

Verdict

Kindle Fire HD review

The Kindle Fire HD offers a significant step up from the original Fire model, with a new build and a fantastic display, though it’s not the only notable $200 tablet out there. Considering the super-streamlined interface and limited app and game selection, can Amazon’s best-yet effort compete with the Nexus 7?

We liked:

An excellent 1280×800 display is a huge improvement over the fuzzier screen of the regular Fire, and it even bests the similarly-specced Nexus 7 in terms of contrast and color saturation. It shines with movies and vividly animated games.

You’ll get roughly 10 hours of use from the device – without the brightness cranked up all the way, of course – which is really stellar for the price point. Paired with the slick display, you’ll want all of those hours to watch and play everything in sight.

With dual-band, dual-spectrum Wi-Fi, the Kindle Fire HD aims to offer simultaneous transmissions, faster speeds, and more reliable connections. In our testing, we saw consistently stellar network performance, and the cloud-enhanced Silk browser still offers a quality web browsing experience (for the tablet size).

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Amazon’s media offerings are still hugely appealing, between its book, movie, TV, music, and magazine selections. Beneficial features like X-Ray make these digital releases even more alluring, and the booming speakers mean you can kick back and watch a film without needing external amplification or headphones.

It’s a really great value, too. At the same price as the Nexus 7, you get double the storage with a slightly better screen and myriad other helpful features. And overall, the build here is rather nice, especially with the distinctive plastic strip on the back.

We disliked:

Amazon’s app and game offerings have no doubt improved since the original Kindle Fire release, but they still lag way behind what you’ll find on Google Play or the iOS App Store. Google Play access would go a long way towards appeasing such issues, but Amazon isn’t likely to give up its potential share of the profits anytime soon.

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The interface may run on Android 4.0, but unlike a pure Android install, there’s no real way to customize the look and feel of Amazon’s overlay – which is streamlined and simple. That’s perfect for casual users and tablet newbies, but others will feel stifled here. And the app storefront curiously runs rather slowly.

We appreciate the addition of a physical volume rocker, but both that and the power button are difficult to locate along the plastic frame. Subtle placement can go a long way, aesthetically, but the usability suffers in this regard.

As with the Nexus 7, external storage, cellular connections, and back cameras are MIA here. No surprise, considering the price, but they’re worth noting.

Verdict:

For casual tablet users or those already knee-deep in Amazon’s digital media abyss, the Kindle Fire HD is a fantastic option, especially at that entry price. It offers a simple and uncomplicated experience through and through, and is built to support the digital media it aims to sell you, with an excellent screen (for a seven-incher) and surprisingly ample speakers. Considering the $199 starting price, even existingKindle Fire owners might want to think about upgrading – yes, already.

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Still, despite some notable perks over the Nexus 7, it doesn’t quite compare to the full package that Google and Asus offer for the same cash, which ultimately comes down to its use of Android 4.1: Jelly Bean and Google Play. Amazon’s locked-down UI and limited app offerings make it a tough sell for power users and those who wish to exert some control over their devices.

But for everyone else, the Kindle Fire HD is an impressive option, a big leap over the first Fire, and likely to be the stocking-sized tablet of choice this holiday season – well, unless Apple really does throw its hat into the tiny tablet ring with the iPad Mini.



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