Amazon's Kindle Fire HD: The other side of the story

Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Whew! Reading over tech tweets and headlines this morning, I damn-near became convinced that Amazon's new Kindle Fire HD tablets are game-changing, Nexus-slaying devices.

It's amazing how good companies are getting at eliciting that kind of reaction. Like with any launch, though, it's important to look beyond the hype to get the full picture before reaching any conclusions. And in the case of Amazon's new Kindle Fire devices, it turns out there are some significant caveats to consider.

Amazon Kindle Fire HD: The background

First, a quick primer, in case you've been hibernating these past 24 hours: Amazon announced a series of new second-gen Kindle Fire devices at a media event on Thursday. The tablets offer improved hardware and software over last year's Kindle Fire, which seemed to sell well but got dinged by users and reviewers alike for its clunky form, subpar screen, and less than admirable performance.

The new Kindle Fire HD devices attempt to address those weak points with slimmed down designs, improved displays, and more powerful processors. Amazon claims the devices provide Wi-Fi downloads that are 40 percent faster than competing tablets. The new models also boast dual stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus optimization as well as a handful of unique software features, such as "X-Ray," which lets you easily pull up contextual information about books and movies, and "FreeTime," which allows parents to set time and content restrictions for kids.

The prices are impressive: Amazon will sell its 16GB 7-inch Kindle Fire HD for $200 and its 16GB 8.9-inch model for $300. It'll also offer a 4G-capable 32GB 8.9 version for $500 (with that model, you get the option to buy a special 250MB/month data plan through AT&T -- which includes 20GB of cloud storage and a $10 Amazon app store credit -- for $50 a year).

But specs aside, what kind of experience are you actually getting for those prices? That's where you have to look past the press release to find the full story.

Some important counterpoints:

1. Performance

Despite the hardware improvements, many early hands-on reports suggest Amazon's new Kindle Fire HD tablets still aren't up to snuff.

NBC News said: "Perhaps our expectations were too high or perhaps we'd been spoiled by the Nexus 7 and iPad, but the Kindle Fire HD seemed downright sluggish at times, lagging at odd moments."

• The gang from Gizmodo said: "It's just not nearly as smooth as the Nexus 7 on Jelly Bean. ... It's bad enough that when you tap an icon, you wonder if you did it wrong, if maybe you didn't tap firmly enough."

• And the good folks at Droid Life noted: "The UI itself is almost identical to the original Fire, including the consistent presence of lag from the home screen. Jumping between sections like Books or Videos takes a few seconds, making the overall experience feel cheap."

I'll wait until I've had the chance to test-drive the device myself to pass any final judgment (Amazon didn't invite me to its little shindig -- please pause whilst I shed a tear), but there are certainly enough red flags out there to make me concerned, to say the least, about these products' performance.

Remember: Last year's Kindle Fire seemed awfully impressive, too...until people actually started using it.

2. Advertising

One thing Amazon didn't mention at its event is that all the new Kindle Fire HD models are going to be ad-supported. Yes, ad-supported.

From the company's press materials:

Special Offers

The new Kindle Fire family comes with special offers that appear on the lock screen. Examples of special money-saving offers that customers will enjoy include a $5 credit in the Amazon MP3 Store and a $5 credit for select titles in the Amazon Instant Video Store. Customers will also receive special offers and screensavers from brands like AT&T, Discover and Intel, such as a special offer of a $10 Gift Card when a customer uses their Discover card to purchase a digital product on Amazon.

Whether or not that's a problem is up to you, but when you're dropping $200 to $500 on a device, you deserve to know it's going to be plastered with ads.

3. Platform

Amazon's Kindle Fire HD tablets are based on Google's Android operating system -- Android 4.0, according to statements attributed to an Amazon spokesperson -- but it's really a stretch to think of them as "Android tablets." Amazon has essentially created its own platform that revolves around its custom applications and content.

Good? Bad? Again, that depends on you. The Kindle Fire's carousel-centric design is far less flexible and powerful than the standard Android setup, but it's also far more straight-forward and focused. 

You should know going in, though, that you won't have the typical customizable Android home screen with widgets, live wallpapers, and all that sort of stuff. You also won't have the standard suite of Google applications, such as the Android Gmail app, YouTube app, Google Maps app, or Calendar app (with native Google Calendar syncing). You won't have Google's Voice Actions, either, or the newer Android 4.1-level Voice Search and Google Now functions. There's actually no indication Amazon intends to upgrade the device to a base of Android 4.1, which -- features aside -- provides noticeable performance enhancements over the 4.0 platform.

And speaking of that...

4. Applications

Amazon's Kindle Fire HD devices don't include access to the main Google Play Store for applications; rather, they're built to utilize Amazon's own Android app store, which has a far more limited selection. It also tends to be far slower in terms of processing and pushing out developer-made updates to apps (which generally come fast and furiously when unfettered).

To be clear, Amazon's app store does have a lot of big-name applications available -- but plenty of popular items are M.I.A., including most apps that are tied to Google services (Google Voice, Google Talk, Google+, Google Drive/Docs, Google Play, Google Earth, Google Authenticator, and so forth) as well as Google's Chrome for Android browser. Numerous third-party applications are absent as well; it's really just hit and miss.

Another side effect: Since the Kindle Fire HD doesn't have access to the Google Play Store, any apps you've purchased on a regular Android device won't carry over (as they would when you signed into any regular Android tablet). The reason: App purchases are recorded and stored within the Play Store and linked to your Google account, so Amazon's independent store has no record of them. It's something I referred to as the "hidden app tax" when the first Kindle Fire came around, as existing Android users may end up having to repurchase apps in order to get them on their Amazon-made tablets.

(One note: If the Kindle Fire HD tablets are like the first-gen model, advanced users should be able to "sideload" apps onto the devices using APK files -- legally or illegally -- but let's face it, that isn't something the majority of users are going to do.)

5. Connectivity

Amazon's Kindle Fire HD tablets do have HDMI out-ports -- something Google's $200 Nexus 7 tablet lacks -- but they don't have GPS functionality, which limits not only mapping and navigation but also app-based location features. They also don't have NFC for contact-free sharing.

Bottom line

Amazon's new Kindle Fire HD devices certainly have a lot of eye-catching qualities, not least of all their price tags. But slapping on the "game-changer" label and declaring all similar devices "dead" based solely on a corporate presentation seems both silly and sensational.

Android Power Twitter

Like the first-gen Kindle Fire model, the Kindle Fire HD tablets provide a distinctly Amazon-centric media experience that has its own set of advantages and drawbacks compared to the regular Android platform. The ultimate question is if that's the kind of experience you want -- and that, my friends, is a question only you can answer.

COMPARE: Google's $200 Nexus 7 tablet (hands-on impressions)

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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