- Review Date: 09/13/2012
- Bottom line: The 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HD is a great way to consume your Amazon content on a small screen, but it's not the fastest or most flexible $200 tablet any more.
- Pros: Gorgeous screen. Very easy to use. Amazon Prime members get lots of video and book content. Multi-user parental controls.
- Cons: Rigidly locked to the Amazon ecosystem. Sluggish on occasion. Other tablets have more apps.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD ($199/16GB; $249/32GB) isn't a tablet. It's more like a shop window onto the world's biggest content department store. The new 7-inch model from the super-retailer offers up a well-designed interface that provides an easy way to consume Amazon's huge library of content and services and to buy, buy, buy. That makes the Kindle Fire HD (KFHD) highly entertaining, and potentially the best purchase for tablet shoppers who value ease of use over all else. But in an increasingly competitive 7-inch tablet market, it stops just short of earning our Editors' Choice award. That honor remains with the Google Nexus 7.
Physical Design and Battery Life
The Kindle Fire HD feels more solid, well-built, and premium than the original Kindle Fire, which some people thought was made from leftover BlackBerry PlayBook parts. At 7.6 by 5.4 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and 13.9 ounces, it's slightly bigger, but slimmer and lighter than last year's model. The corners are more rounded, and the back is softly tapered with a grippy feel. It's constructed mostly of a matte plastic material, with a shiny black strip along the back housing two powerful, dual-driver, room-filling stereo speakers. The Power button is now recessed into the right side panel, as opposed to the original Fire's unfortunate bottom-mounted button, and there's a hardware volume rocker next to it.
Fire up the display, and—WOW! The 7-inch IPS LCD is only 1,280-by-800—a fairly standard resolution for a small-screen tablet—but it's non-reflective, with great color balance, and a terrific viewing angle. It's better than the Nexus 7's same-spec display. You'll be able to watch this for hours.
Above the screen, there's a 1-megapixel video camera that can only be used by certain apps, such as Skype and Evernote. You get micro HDMI and micro USB ports on the bottom panel, but no memory card slots, and the battery isn't removable. Fortunately, the KFHD has pretty long battery life, with a solid 7 hours of video playback with the screen pumped up to maximum brightness. The Nexus 7, though, scored more than 10.5 hours on the same test.
Interface, Apps, Content, and Ads
The Kindle Fire HD runs Amazon's custom operating system over a base layer of Android 4.0. Call it "Amdroid." While Amdroid is compatible with most third-party Android apps, the user interface is totally unrecognizable from stock Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). The focus is on letting you easily play with the stuff you download from Amazon.
The first thing you'll see when you turn on a Kindle Fire HD is an ad. Amazon feeds these "offers" to your tablet instead of showing a standard lock screen. During my review period, they rotated between one ad for a TV show, three for movies, one for a book, and two offers for $5 Amazon coupons. A two-line text ad also floats at the bottom of every home screen while you're using the tablet. If you hate the ads, you can pay Amazon $15, and you'll never see them again.
Like the earlier Kindle Fire, the KFHD's home screen starts with a horizontal list of clear, text options: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, Docs, and Offers (the aforementioned ads). Below that there's a large, rotating carousel of the most recent icons you've used. There's no easy or obvious way to flip through multiple apps you're running at the same time, although the music player hangs out in the notification bar so you can pause it as needed.
If you're in portrait mode, the sell gets even harder: Many of the recently used icons on the home screen start to display a list of suggested purchases below them, while links to webpages show other trending pages.
Click into any category and you get a virtual bookshelf of your content, divided into Cloud and Device sections. When you have Wi-Fi signal, you can download stuff to move it from the Cloud (where you have unlimited storage space for your Amazon-purchased content) to the Fire itself, or delete it back into the Cloud to free up your available 12.6GB of on-device space. (There's no memory card slot, but you can double your storage with the 32GB Fire HD, which will cost you an exta $50.) When you're outside the reach of Wi-Fi, only the Device shelves are available. All the sections also have a link through to Amazon's store so you can buy more content when you're connected, of course.
The Web comes courtesy of Amazon's Silk browser, which has largely failed to live up to its promises of being super-fast and seamless through cloud acceleration. While it's a perfectly fine browser, Chrome on a Tegra 3-based Android device is faster with smoother scrolling. Amazon says Silk will speed up over the next several months as its servers optimize various Web pages.
The Photos section displays pictures from your Amazon account or your Facebook account (but not your friends' photos). Docs displays documents you've sideloaded or e-mailed to the Kindle's unique address; it displays PDFs, Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations handsomely.
Among the pre-loaded custom apps, the Email app integrated well with Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft Exchange in my tests. It was very fast and responsive, but used a slightly larger font than the standard Android email client, showing less text on the screen at once. The contacts app brought in Google and Skype, but not Facebook contacts. The calendar app handled my multiple Google and Exchange calendars very attractively.
Amazon called out a few apps to show off the KFHD's potential. Skype, the only app I could find that uses the front-facing video camera, is clearly a work in progress. I got functional but very jaggy video over two different Wi-Fi connections. Skylanders, a game that's supposed to show off the KFHD's graphics, is fun but falls far short of the stuff you see in Nvidia's Tegra Zone for Tegra-based tablets.
Loading your own apps and content is easy: Plug the KFHD into your PC and it appears just like any other Android tablet. I installed and ran a range of APK app files extracted from another Android phone without a problem, using the Easy Installer found in Amazon's Appstore.
Installing the Google Play app store didn't work, though. While most Android devices (including the Nexus 7) let you choose between Play and the Amazon Appstore, the Kindle Fire is an Amazon Appstore device only. Amazon says it has 10,586 "Kindle Fire compatible" apps, so there's a broad selection, and I found most of the major brands I looked for when I searched.
For instance, Netflix, HBO GO, Crackle, Pandora and Slacker are there for entertainment, as well as the games I enjoy from Gamevil, Disney, and Kemco, and I found several high-quality office suites. Nokia Maps stands in for Google Maps.
Some apps don't show up in Amazon's store, though: the Leloca local-search app, for instance, and all of the high-end games exclusive to Nvidia's Tegra Zone, such as Heroes' Call, Zen Pinball, and Sonic 4 Episode II.
Google, vexingly, has never publicly said how many Android tablet apps are in Google Play, focusing instead on the 400,000-plus apps designed for smaller phone screens. But having Google's app store definitely gives you more options, and with an Amazon tablet, you're not getting them.
As far as media handling, the Fire HD played AAC, M4A, and MP3 audio files, and AVI, MPEG4, and H.264 video files without any problems in my tests. There's no DivX, Xvid, or WMV support.
Remember, Amazon is a service that just happens to sell hardware. So while the Kindle Fire is the easiest way to hit a lot of Amazon's content, it's not the only way. Other Android tablets offer more options because they're not tied to Amazon.
Take the Kindle Fire's flagship streaming service, Amazon Prime. If you pay $79 per year for a Prime membership, you can stream unlimited high-profile movies and TV shows, even playing them on an HDTV through the KFHD's video-out port. Prime streaming isn't available for the Nexus 7, but you can get it on an iPad
The Kindle book store and Amazon's MP3 store are available for nearly every mobile device on Earth (and non-Amazon tablets can use Nook, too.) Ditto for Audible audiobooks. But Kindle Fire is the only tablet with Amazon's Prime lending library, allowing you to read many books for free if you're a Prime subscriber. Once again: Tie yourself to Amazon and you get some content bonuses here.
The Kindle Fire's Prime streaming and lending libraries are advantages the Fire HD has over the Nexus 7, but the real advantage here is in ease of use. There are no widgets. You can't mess with the home screens. When you buy something, it's very clear where it'll appear. Geeks may underrate this, but there are millions of people out there who just want to watch and play with stuff, not set things up. This is who the KFHD is for.
Taking this idea a step further, a software update within the next few weeks will deliver "FreeTime," a particularly advanced control system that lets parents set specific time limits for different kids with various types of content—for instance, giving one kid an hour of games a day, but three hours of book reading, and another kid no games, but unlimited books. This makes the KFHD an excellent tablet for families.
Amazon unfortunately overpromised and underdelivered on performance with this tablet. In his presentation, Jeff Bezos strongly implied that the 1.2GHz TI OMAP4460 processor here is faster than the Nexus 7's Nvidia Tegra 3, by cherry-picking stats. But our benchmarks and performance tests tell a more complicated story.
We test using a range of benchmarks and apps including AnTuTu, Geekbench, Basemark OS, Browsermark, and others. The Nexus 7 beat the KFHD on all the overall scores and on the most intense graphics tests; the KFHD beat the Nexus on some memory access tests and the Basemark system tests. Burrowing into the Basemark OS and AnTuTu results, it looks like the KFHD is slightly faster per core, but the Nexus 7 has more cores, so performance varies based on how many cores a program puts into action.
But one difference jumped out at me: Basemark OS revealed that the KFHD is much slower to launch apps, which creates a very real perception of lag. I ran into too many delays in the KFHD's user interface. Thumbnails on Amazon's video and apps pages take a couple of seconds to load; that's a bug that will be fixed soon, Amazon says. Scrolling around Web pages in the browser shows a white screen that gets filled in by content after a noticeable delay; that's actually a feature to accelerate the browser, Amazon says, although the browser didn't score any better overall on our benchmarks than Chrome on the Nexus 7 did. Heavy multitasking caused some jerkiness in the UI, as did plugging in an HDMI cable. "Amdroid" 4.0 just isn't as smooth in operation as the Nexus 7's Android 4.1.
Amazon made sure that none of this affects the experience of using its branded content. I streamed great-looking, HD Amazon Prime and Netflix videos to an HDTV over an HDMI cable without stuttering. But when you're switching apps, loading apps, or browsing menus, stuttering and delays can crop up a bit too often.
Wi-Fi and Networking Performance
Amazon heavily promoted its dual-band, MIMO Wi-Fi during the KFHD's launch. Once again, they oversold it. I tested the KFHD against the Nexus 7 on three 2.4GHz networks and three 5GHz networks. (The Nexus 7 doesn't use the 5GHz band.)
If you have the option of 5GHz rather than 2.4GHz, yes, the Kindle Fire delivers much faster Wi-Fi speeds. On the same router, against 6Mbps WiMAX backhaul, we got an average of 5.8Mbps down on the Kindle Fire at 5GHz as opposed to 3.7Mbps down on the Nexus 7. And the multiple antennas help in an area with extreme reflections. Tested on a 2.4GHz network with stone walls in the way, I got an average of 2.4Mbps down on the Kindle Fire as opposed to 1.8Mbps down on the Nexus 7.
But with a clear connection at relatively short distance, the limit on my Internet speed was usually more about backhaul than about the tablet's antennas. Both tablets had similar awful performance in a coffee shop, a hotel room, and on an airplane, because the overall Internet connections in those locations were slow. Similarly, it was easy to max out both my 6Mbps WiMax connection and my 10Mbps cable connection with both tablets when I was within line of sight to my router. I ran into a bug where the KFHD wouldn't connect to 5GHz networks, twice in two days. Rebooting the tablet solved the problem.
The KFHD also integrates Bluetooth, which works fine with music, video, and game audio. It doesn't have NFC, or a cellular radio. It also, notably, lacks GPS, although it tries to make do by finding your location using a database of nearby Wi-Fi networks. While the tablet doesn't come with a mapping program, you can download the entirely adequate Nokia Maps from Amazon's Appstore. It offers walking, driving, and transit (but not live, spoken or turn-by-turn) directions.
When the original Kindle Fire hit the scene a year ago, it was the first easy-to-use $199 tablet. But since then, the Android tablet competition has shaped up, and a smaller Apple iPad is looming on the horizon.
On the Android front we have the faster and more flexible Nexus 7, where you give up half the storage and the HDMI port in exchange for GPS, better games, more apps and faster performance at the same price. It's hard to lose those available gigabytes, but the Nexus 7 is so much smoother and more versatile, I'm willing to make that call.
There's also the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0), which builds in an IR emitter to make it a useful home entertainment remote control. Neither of those tablets have Amazon's wealth of Prime video and books, but they have Kindle and Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, HBO GO and more. I'm going to dismiss the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, even though it's a very good color ebook reader, because these other choices are better general-purpose tablets.
We don't absolutely know the new, smaller iPad is coming, but let's assume the entire Internet is right for the moment. That tablet may not measure up to any of its competitors on specs like screen resolution, but it'll blow them away on apps, especially games. If the new iPad is compatible with earlier iPad apps, it'll have tens of thousands available at launch as compared to the Android crew's single-digit thousands of tablet-focused apps.
In the end, we still recommend the Kindle Fire HD, but to a more limited group of people than we did for the original Kindle Fire. If you want an easy-to-use media-consumption tablet, especially if you're an Amazon Prime customer, the Kindle Fire HD will keep you quite entertained. And its upcoming FreeTime feature makes it a truly compelling buy for families. But as a small tablet for most consumers, we'll still pick the Nexus 7 for its overall speed and flexibility.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.