Kindle Fire HD review: A better Kindle, but not a better tablet

The latest 7-in. version of the Kindle Fire is great if you play in the Amazon ecosystem, but it isn't really a full-fledged tablet.

The new Kindle Fire HD, which goes on sale today, is a worthy successor to the Kindle Fire. It offers significantly improved hardware, useful new features for watching movies and reading books, and the same access to the Amazon content universe as the original Kindle Fire. Those who buy into the Amazon entertainment ecosystem will welcome it.

However, after trying it out, I feel that the Kindle Fire HD falls short as a general-purpose Android tablet, lagging behind what looks like its main competitor: Google's 7-in. Nexus 7.

The Kindle Fire HD is a worthy successor for those who are active in the Amazon ecosystem.

The $199 device's hardware specs are solid, if not overwhelmingly impressive. The 1280 x 800 resolution 7-in. screen offers high contrast, rich colors and excellent video, and it does a nice job of fighting glare -- it's a superb display.

The basic Kindle Fire HD comes with 16GB of storage, double the 8GB you get on the base models of its main competitors, the Google Nexus 7 and Nook Tablet. If you want additional storage, you can get a 32GB version of the Kindle Fire HD for $249.

(In contrast, the Nexus 7 costs $199 for 8GB and $249 for 16GB, while the Nook Tablet recently dropped to $179 for the 8GB version and $199 for the 16GB. The Nook Tablet also comes with a memory card slot, something the Kindle Fire HD doesn't have.)

The Kindle Fire HD has a mini HDMI jack, which means that you'll be able to connect it to a TV. (No HDMI cable is included.) Unlike the original Kindle Fire, the Kindle Fire HD comes with a front-facing camera.

I thought the sound generated by the device's stereo speakers was far better than what you get on the tinny speakers that the Nexus 7 and Nook Tablet sport.

This is a Wi-Fi-only device that Amazon has packed with dual antennas, support for MIMO and reception in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands in an attempt to speed up the connection. Despite that, I found Web browsing to be noticeably slower than on the Nexus 7 -- so in my experience, at least, that hardware addition is for naught.

The device is missing some prominent hardware features that its competitors have, such as GPS. The Kindle Fire HD's processor is far from leading-edge: a 1.2Ghz dual-core OMAP 4460 Texas Instruments processor, compared to the more powerful quad-core Tegra 3 processor that powers the Nexus 7. After several hours of use, I found the tablet seemed to suffer occasional lags when opening apps and on occasion when using apps. Restarting the device solved the problem, but then the lags eventually reappeared.

The middling-level hardware isn't as surprising as you might expect, because the Kindle Fire HD hasn't really been designed to be an all-purpose tablet -- despite Amazon's claims to the contrary. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos summed up the purpose of the Kindle Fire HD succinctly during the product announcement when he said, "The Kindle Fire is a service."

That service is the Amazon entertainment ecosystem. The Kindle Fire HD is a mechanism for buying and consuming Amazon entertainment content -- and it does a great job of it. The interface makes it simple to find, buy and consume the content, and new built-in features such as X-Ray for Movies (more on that in a bit) enhance the viewing or reading experience.

That's also why it doesn't have GPS or a back-facing camera -- but there is an HDMI mini-jack so you can extend the Amazon ecosystem onto your television. That's also why the Kindle Fire HD doesn't have the equivalent of Apple's Siri or the Google Now speech recognition/artificial intelligence technology.

Revising the interface

As with the original Kindle Fire, Amazon has buried the Android operating system deep under its own interface. However, if you liked the original Kindle Fire, you'll be pleased to know that the interface has been tweaked to good effect. The carousel-like main screen now functions much more smoothly than in the original Kindle Fire. The familiar "bookshelf" feature is now gone, replaced by a "favorites" drawer. All in all, the interface for accessing Amazon content is smooth, well done and simple to navigate.

However, the built-in apps remain an afterthought at best. For example, although the Kindle Fire has a camera, there's no app for taking photos (perhaps because the front-facing camera is mainly meant for face-to-face communication). The email client and contacts app both work fine, but don't expect any extras, such as the ability to turn email header displays on and off.

As for the built-in browser, you can't even open your Favorites list when you're on a Web page. Instead, you have to navigate your way back to the browser's Starter page. And don't look for basic apps such as an alarm, task list maker or note-taker, because they're nowhere to be found.

Once again, to add apps to the Fire HD you have to use the Amazon Store rather than the Google Play Store, which means access to only around 30,000 apps. (Back in late June, Google announced that Google Play had 600,000 apps, and it has certainly grown since then.) Many useful apps are missing from the Amazon Store, such as Google Voice or Dropbox.

(There is a work-around for Kindle Fire HD users if you want to install some apps by downloading them directly as APK files instead of going through Google Play: Go to Settings --> Device and turn on "Allow Installation of Applications from unknown sources." However, most apps aren't available that way.)

X-Ray for Movies

Apart from the upgraded hardware, the biggest news about the Kindle Fire HD is its new features for watching movies and reading books.

X-Ray for Movies is particularly welcome. It integrates content from the IMDb website into the movies you play on the Kindle. As you're watching, you can tap the screen, then tap the X-Ray for Movies icon that appears to see a list of all the actors in the current scene. You can then tap any of the actors' names for more details about them, including their biographies, other movies in which they've appeared and more. And by tapping "See Full Cast," you can see a list of the entire cast and get more information about anyone in that list.

That's useful, but not as useful as it could be. The feature lists only the film's actors and doesn't offer access to IMDb's vast amount of other information, such as the director, writer, producer, cinematographer and other details.

In addition, X-Ray for Movies isn't available for every movie, and while it works with most new movies, it tends to be a hit-or-miss affair with older and foreign movies. So you'll find it's available for Casablanca, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, but not for one of the greatest musicals of all time, Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. As for foreign movies, Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows has it, for example, but his Jules and Jim doesn't.

New features for e-books

The original Kindle was first launched as an e-book-reading device, so it's no surprise that this newest member of the Kindle family includes several new features for enjoying books.

The first is called "immersion reading," in which an audiobook is essentially fused with a traditional book. As you're reading, you can tap the screen and have the book read to you. As the reading proceeds, the text being read is highlighted. According to Amazon, the feature is currently available for about 15,000 books.

I find the act of reading thoroughly immersive on its own, and so the benefits of this feature are lost on me. It took away from my reading experience, rather than adding to it -- I can read to myself far faster than someone can read to me, and so I found myself reading ahead in a book while listening to a narrator read passages that I had already read, making for a confusing, dizzying, distracting experience. But as the saying goes, your mileage might vary. (For example, it could be handy if you're learning another language.)

The new Kindle also has a version of X-Ray for Movies for books, called (fittingly) X-Ray for Books. Tap the screen and then tap the X-Ray button, and you'll get a great deal of information about the characters, historical figures, ideas and other details mentioned in the book. There are also links to every page where a specific character is mentioned. Information for this is pulled in from Wikipedia and from Amazon's Shelfari community book site.

I found X-Ray for Books to be quite useful, and it would be especially welcome when reading a sprawling novel with a sizable cast of characters that you're having trouble keeping track of. But as with X-Ray for Movies, it's a hit-or-miss affair. When it came to classics, I found it in Alice in Wonderland, but not in the monumental series of biographies of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro or in The Collected Works of Charles Dickens. (It would have been particularly welcome for Dickens' doorstop-size Bleak House, with its massive cast of characters and the convoluted legal case at its core.) Generally, though, I found it available on newer books.

Missing or unwanted features

I found several features that are -- surprisingly -- rather badly implemented on the Kindle Fire HD.

For example, the physical controls for turning the device on and off and for adjusting the volume are very difficult to find and use. They're small, black and flush with device's edge, and even when you know where they are, there's so little physical indication of their presence, you'll spend time locating them. The first Kindle Fire didn't have physical volume controls; it's almost as if these were put in as an afterthought.

At a Glance

Kindle Fire HD

AmazonPrice: $199 (16GB), $249 (32GB)Pros: Excellent integration with Amazon's content ecosystem; vivid, low-glare screen; high-quality stereo speakers; X-Ray for Movies and X-Ray for Books add valueCons: Limited app choice; occasionally sluggish performance; no GPS or wall charger; Amazon-customized interface not as good as Android 4.01 (Jelly Bean)

Even more annoying is the "Special Offers" advertising that greets you every time you turn on the device. One would expect that if you spend $199 for a piece of hardware you wouldn't have to deal with targeted ads. But that's exactly what happens every time you turn it on. Soon after announcing the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon decided to allow users to turn the ads off permanently -- for a $15 fee.

Curiously, there's no wall charger included with the device, just a USB cable. Worse yet, the Fire HD won't charge while it's in use. You can, if you want, pay extra for a wall charger: $10 if you buy it when you purchase the device, and $20 if you purchase it after that.

So that $199 purchase price is a bit misleading: If you want to avoid ads and charge your device from a wall socket, it can really cost up to $234.

The bottom line

The Kindle Fire HD is not a general-purpose tablet, despite Amazon's claims that it's "the best tablet at any price." It's not.

Instead, despite some shortcomings, the device is a simple, elegant way to tap into the vast Amazon ecosystem of books, media, movies, music and video, and it does a superb job of it.

If you're looking for a true general-purpose tablet in the smaller 7-in. size, you should look elsewhere, especially to the Google Nexus 7, which takes full advantage of the latest Android iteration, Jelly Bean. But if you're a fan of Amazon and its entertainment services, buying this tablet is a no-brainer. Even if you already have a first-generation Kindle Fire, you may want to try it out. Once you see the improved screen and new features such as X-Ray for Movies and X-Ray for Books, you may well decide it's time for an upgrade.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.

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