In some ways, the idea of the first Kindle Fire was more impressive than the product itself. It was a $200 tablet that actually worked. That alone was mind-blowing. But after Google's Nexus 7 bombshell—and the iPad Mini looming—Amazon has to do more than cut costs this time. The Fire HD has to shine.
What Is It
A $200, 7-inch tablet from Amazon.
Who Is It For
Anyone who wants a 7-inch tablet for reading books or watching movies, but not a hardcore, multitasking workhorse.
It's beautiful. The physical body of the Kindle Fire HD is thoughtful, understated, and comfortable. It could almost pass for a tiny iPad 2 from the front, just with a camera on one side, if it weren't for the soft-touch paint on the back, and the dual rear speakers.
Compared to the original Fire, the Fire HD is a little wider thanks to a larger horizontal bezel. It's also got rounded corners and a rounded back panel. Basically, the first Fire was a nearly perfect cubic rectangle, while the Fire HD is what you'd get if you flattened it out a bit with a rolling pin.
The Fire HD feels like a boutique Frankenstein at times. The sum of its parts is sublime—it's got top notch build quality, ergonomics, sound, a stellar ecosystem, and a screen to die for. But it's hard to shake the sense that the nervous system connecting one premium component to the next is still an imperfect home-brew that's not fully cooked.
The retina-caliber display makes reading books and articles easier on the eyes; comic books and magazines are actually readable without zooming in. That's a welcome change from the Fire HD's predecessor, and might be the first time reading a book on a backlit screen doesn't feel totally idiotic.
Double tapping a magazine article brings it up on a clean, white, book-like format. Tap a (blessedly visible) X to get back to the full layout. It's a really great way to make magazines more readable without reducing them to an Instapaper queue.
All of your Amazon content—video, music, books, etc.—is available in the "Cloud" section of the appropriate tabs. Video especially is nice to have in there, since it's the most storage intensive. The Fire HD's improved Wi-Fi helps some with pulling down the big files, but mostly it's the same as downloading from any other big store: Click download, and a few seconds later, you'll probably have enough of the movie downloaded to begin watching.
Basically, the Fire HD is wonderful to hold and touch and look at and listen to. It's exactly what you'd want any tablet to be. But that doesn't mean it's perfect.
Like the original Fire, the Fire HD runs on a custom software platform built on Android. This one's built on 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich instead of the old 2.3 Gingerbread build—sadly, Jelly Bean and Project Butter, the reason Android got so silky smooth in 4.1, won't be making an appearance. All of which is to say it's not as fast as it could have been, but this version is much smoother than the touchy-then-laggy-then-touchy-again original.
In practice—as it always has been—Kindle OS is pretty much the opposite of a desktop metaphor. It's more like a backpack. That's actually kind of great for browsing through your content. Oh hey, I was reading that! I totally forgot I even bought this. Sort of like how Apple's Cover Flow was supposed to work all along. It's terrific, until you actually need to accomplish a task other than watching a full season of Fringe. Who wants to root through their backpack just to mark down a calendar or send a message?
And honestly, that's just how Amazon likes it. Many of the Kindle OS's deficiencies seem almost philosophical. Simple multitasking, for instance, is absent. How does such a core feature get left out of an OS in 2012? It's hard to explain, unless you really do buy into the notion that Amazon built the Fire HD specifically for consuming media. The Fire is a service, remember. So it's fair to wonder things like: Amazon only profits when you use it to buy stuff, and you're not buying stuff when you're tinkering with a calendar event, are you?
But even beyond abstract philosophy, there's a basic inconsistency to the design that's frustrating, even using the Fire HD on simple levels. Here's a small but telling example: The shortcuts bar with the Home and Back and Favorites buttons pops from the bottom to the right side of the screen when you rotate to landscape mode. That's a space-saving technique, which is fair, but at the same time, the Home button changes from the bottom left corner to the bottom right corner.
Except the natural progression of your eye starts on the left for a bottom bar, and at the top for a vertical one. That's a minute detail, but it shows what a labyrinth the Kindle OS can be.
The addition of the Favorites app tray is a big plus for keeping track of apps like Calendar or Email or Twitter, but its contents are always, at a minimum, two taps away. You've got to tap the star in the bottom right corner to bring it up instead of just dragging it open, like for notifications and the quick settings bar at the top. The result is that, seemingly by design, using apps like Twitter or Facebook on the Kindle Fire HD feels kind of tacked-on. Sure, you can pop open the Twitter app, which functions more or less identically to the stock Android version. But it's more like you're peeking over the top of a newspaper to catch a news update or sports highlight than actually reaching a destination.
These are nitpicks. But they're also central to the experience of using a tablet—and stuff that everyone else, even Android, is finally getting right.
Reading and watching and listening on the Fire HD is sublime. Once you're in, you're in. The improved screen and body really do make a difference.
The screen in particular is wonderful, and holding the 7-inch tablet in portrait is actually comfortable (unlike the first Fire or the Nexus 7, whose narrow bezels and ill-conceived vertical weight distribution add up to nothing good). The soft-touch painted back panel, along with the wider bezel and lightweight design, make the Fire HD pleasant to hold. That's a huge plus for readers, who are obviously a large percentage of Amazon's audience.
Many of the new features are great, particularly Immersive Reading—where an audiobook plays while highlighting the text of a book on the screen. Your brain shuts down a little while taking in the words; instead of being overloaded by two sources of information, it feels like you're only half-paying-attention to either, while getting the full effect of both. It's a curious sensation but a welcome one, and the execution here is flawless.
The onboard sound is really good. Audio is typically an afterthought for most gadgets, but it makes quite a big difference in using a tablet to watch a movie. There's no comparison to any other popular tablet, and it's even louder than most laptops we've tested it next to.
And naturally, there's the price. This thing starts at $200 for a 16GB model. As a value proposition, it's hard to argue with top notch hardware at a total cut-rate price. You could spend the same on a Nexus 7, but you'll have to trade the Fire HD's screen, speakers, and extra storage for a more robust UI and the full Android app ecosystem.
The software still has a long way to go before it's on the same level as iOS or Android. The OS-level lag everyone saw in the hands-on demos after the announcement is not nearly as bad in a normal use environment. But there's still more lag launching large files like HD movies, magazines, or comics than there is on an iPad or Nexus 7. It gets especially bad once you start loading up multiple apps rapidly.
In addition to the high-level software stutters, there are a handful of granular oversights as well. For example, the screen is excellent for movies, of course, but HD movies that come downloaded in 21x9 format have a peculiar and fairly awful flaw. They're "double letterboxed", meaning that the black strips at the top and bottom of a movie you see when it doesn't fit your screen are there, just twice. One is black, and another is slightly more black. It's distracting, and a big weird misstep in a tablet so focused on media.
- The Special Offers ads on the lock screen that everyone's so terrified of—and that cost $15 to remove permanently—aren't really all that intrusive. If anything, now and then they're a nice reminder of stuff that's coming out if you haven't been watching too many commercials.
- The video and app stores resolve piece by piece. The improved Wi-Fi helps with this, but on a slow connection—like, say, one in a hotel room—it comes in one image at a time. A "Watch Now" button here, a thumbnail there. It does not feel like a stable experience.
- The Skype app is as good as any Skype client you'll use, and the front-facing comes across crisp on the other end. It also handles the crappy lighting video chats typically have pretty well.
- Comics need a lot of work. They don't rotate for two-page spreads, and zooming is reduced to double tapping individual panels, which stinks. This is one area where it would be a real shame if Apple really does dissuade everyone else from using pinch-to-zoom.
- The Wi-Fi really is better than competitors; MIMO is no joke. The Fire HD was on average more than twice as fast as the Nexus 7 and the original Fire.
- X-Ray for Movies is deeply cool the first time you see it in action, but it quickly becomes obvious that you're not going to get much practical use out of it. Certainly not enough to make up for the chaos it inflicts on the visual makeup of the pause screen.
- Momentum scrolling is still choppy at times, and touch areas for smaller stuff, like "See All", can be frustratingly small and hard to activate.
- Amazon's Silk Browser, which is built on Chromium this year, instead of the base web client, generally outperformed the Nexus 7 in HTML5 benchmarks, and was vastly more consistent than either. Its real world performance isn't nearly as full-featured as mobile Chrome or even Safari, though.
Should You Buy This
For as wonderful as the Fire HD can seem, it's a very targeted kind of wonderful. You won't use this as the device to power you through a day full of events and email and documents. And of course, it's most likely either a day, or a few weeks, away from being punched in the face by the iPad Mini, or whatever the hell it ends up being called.
That said, though, it's a very well-made tablet, with an outstanding ecosystem behind it and enough perks to make it very appealing for the price. If you're already hooked on the Amazon ecosystem, by all means upgrade. But if you're still shopping around, you should probably definitely wait at least a few weeks to see what the competition's got cooking.
Kindle Fire HD
Processor: 1.2 GHz Dual-core TI OMAP4
Display: 7-inch IPS LCD
Resolution: 1280 x 800 (216 ppi)
OS: Android 4.0 (Custom)
Camera: Front Cam
Video Recording: "HD"
Networking: WiFi (5GHz MIMO)
Weight: 13.9 ounces
Dimensions: 7.6" x 5.4" x 0.4"