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.

Kindle Fire HD
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.)

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