Kindle Fire HD review: A better Kindle, but not a better tablet
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
Price: $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 value
Cons: 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).
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