Crisp and bright display; Impressively loud speakers; Large selection of movies and music; High-quality Skype calls; Kid-friendly FreeTime mode; Double the storage of Nexus 7
Ads on lock screen cost 15 dollars to remove; Considerably wider than Nexus 7; Smaller app selection than Google Play; Browser off limits in FreeTime mode; Charger costs extra
Amazon's affordable tablet boasts the best screen in its class, booming sound and a great selection of content.
A year has passed since Amazon released the Kindle Fire, a $199 tablet that delivered all of the megaretailer's content in a stylish and sturdy design. The 7-inch Kindle Fire HD boasts a higher-resolution 1280 x 800-pixel display for enjoying HD movies, a faster processor and twice the storage for the same price. Amazon tweaked the software, too, offering a cleaner interface, better parental controls and new ways to interact with the content you've downloaded. However, with the Google Nexus 7 now in the picture, the Fire no longer has the low-cost tablet market cornered. Has Amazon returned to the top of the Android tablet heap?
By comparison, the Nexus 7 is narrower (7.8 x 4.7 x 0.41 inches) and at 12 ounces, a little lighter, too. This is an important distinction because the Nexus 7 looks and feels more one-hand friendly than the new Fire.
Despite the Fire HD's heritage as an enhanced e-reader, Amazon intends this device to be used primarily in landscape, rather than portrait, mode. The front of the Fire HD is dominated by its 7-inch touch screen. A 720p camera sits along the middle of the top bezel when the Fire HD is held in landscape mode, and the rest of the hardware -- such as speakers and buttons -- are placed with this orientation in mind.
The volume buttons, located on top of the device when held in portrait mode and on the right when held vertically, are miniscule. Of course, the original Fire lacked physical volume buttons, so anything would be an improvement. Fortunately, there are small raised bumps that let you change the volume by feel. To the right is an equally small power button, and above is a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The bottom edge of the Fire HD has a microUSB and a microHDMI port. Frustratingly, while Amazon includes a USB cable for charging, the wall plug costs $9.99 extra.
The IPS display also made viewing angles superb; we could view the Fire HD from almost any angle. When watching the trailer of "Taken 2" side by side with the Nexus 7, both Amazon's and Google's tablet looked about the same; if anything, images were a hair crisper on the Nexus 7, as that device has a native YouTube app.
Text on websites looks leagues better on the Fire HD than the original. Not only is text less pixelated, but colors are richer, and you can see more of individual websites, too. Both took the same amount of time to flip from one page to the next in a book, though.
At 436 lux, the Fire HD is slightly dimmer than the original Fire (460 lux), but outshone both the Nexus 7 (314 lux) as well as the category average (355 lux). This brightness advantage came in handy when reading content outdoors; the Fire HD's screen was easier to see and exhibited less glare.
Much of the credit goes to the Dolby Digital Plus technology. There's an option to turn it off in the control panel, but deactivating this feature makes everything sound atrocious.
When we played the same "Taken 2" on both the Fire HD and Nexus 7, it was no contest. The booming sound coming from Amazon's tablet made Google's slate sound faint. By the same token, music was so loud that buying an external speaker for this device might be overkill (though you can, thanks to integrated Bluetooth).
Once on the home screen, the Kindle Fire HD's interface is more minimalist than the original Fire. Gone is the image of the wooden bookshelf; only the carousel of titles remains. It makes it feel less folksy and more universal, though it still feels odd that, in landscape mode, the largest icon is offset to the left -- just not as far as before.
There are also a few more items listed in the navigation bar toward the top of the screen, including Games. Tellingly, you have to scroll to the right to access the Silk Web browser; Amazon emphasizes its content storefront first and foremost.
To mark something as a Favorite, delete the item from the carousel or remove it off of the Fire HD entirely, simply press and hold the icon to bring up those options.
Along the top of the display are icons for the Wi-Fi connection, battery life and the current time. We wish the battery icon showed either the percentage or time remaining, instead of just a small battery. In order to see that information, you have to go into the Device section of the Settings menu.
As before, swiping down from the upper bezel shows notifications, such as recently installed apps, as well as controls for the volume, brightness, wireless and sync. A More tab on the right opens the complete Settings menu.
Although Amazon has done a nice job streamlining its user interface, it requires more of a learning curve than the purer Nexus 7 with Android Jelly Bean, especially for those who have used an Android phone.
At its unveiling, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reiterated that Amazon's philosophy behind its e-readers was that they were a means to provide the company's services to customers, namely content delivery. To that end, it's succeeding when it comes to multimedia. Amazon currently offers more than 120,000 movies and TV episodes and about 20 million songs. Those both trump Google Play by an order of magnitude, but where Google bests Amazon is in Apps (600,000 to 50,000) and books (4 million to 850,000).
Amazon also lists about 400 magazines in its database, including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, National Geographic and ESPN. Google Play has a good selection as well, but lacks such high-profile titles as Sports Illustrated and US Weekly.
On the home screen, the main section of the page shows your most recently used app or website and includes suggestions for related content that may appeal to you below. For instance, when "Game of Thrones" was the frontmost icon, suggestions appeared below for other shows such as "Boardwalk Empire," "Camelot," and "Rome." However, this feature only appears when the tablet is in portrait mode.
While reading a book, you can tap on a name, place or passage to get more detailed information about that item from Wikipedia and Shelfari, Amazon's own user-supported encyclopedia. It's like having Cliffs Notes built into everything you read.
When you're watching a movie that has X-Ray content (as indicated by a small icon), a little window appears at the upper left corner that shows the names of the actors currently on screen. Click on a name, and that person's IMDB profile fills the whole of the display. No more wondering "who's that guy?" when Charles Napier shows up on-screen.
Currently, Amazon says "thousands" of books and movies are X-Ray-enabled; though it couldn't give us a more accurate number, the company says it started with the most popular titles, and is working its way down. However, we noted that X-Ray content was not yet available for Steve Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson.
Kindle Fire HD owners will automatically receive a free month of Amazon Prime. This service, which costs $79 per year, lets you borrow any title from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library for a month (which has more than 180,000 titles), and stream more than 25,000 movies and TV shows. Amazon Prime members also receive free two-day shipping on any item.
However, there are some limitations. All content must be preinstalled and preapproved by the parent beforehand; there's no child-friendly app store. Also, the Web browser is disabled in this mode, so the Fire HD won't be of use for kids who want to use the tablet to, say, research a school project. The Kurio 7 tablet for kids, for example, has Web filtering technology that lets you decide the types of content your children can access.
As of this writing, FreeTime was not yet available; Amazon says that this feature will be available in the coming weeks. However, the parental controls that were on the original Fire were available; the controls allow parents to block children from browsing the Web and accessing email in addition to requiring a password for purchases and blocking specific kinds of content.
The Facebook app was not yet available at the time of this review. However, we did play "Angry Birds Space HD." While the pigs and birds were slightly sharper, there wasn't a huge difference between it and the non-HD version.
Some non-HD apps have been updated, too. Album art in Pandora, for one, now takes up a larger portion of the screen, even if it's constantly overlaid by pop-up ads.
However, there are a few apps that we'd like to see, including Dropbox and YouTube. There's no New York Times app (but of course, you can always get the New York Times as a periodical).
Still, among the top 50 free apps on Google Play, Amazon stocks a fair number of them, including (as mentioned above) Facebook, Flipboard, Netflix, Pinterest, Pulse, Twitter and Words with Friends. Absent are the Google apps, such as Google Play Books, Gmail, Google+, Google Play Music and Google Play Movies & TV--understandable, given that Amazon wants you to buy content from it.
Supported accounts include AOL, Exchange, Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo. After entering our Gmail account info, the app automatically imported our email as well as our contacts. Attachments show up as small icons at the top of an email; we easily opened attachments such as JPEGs, PDFs and TXT files, but the Fire HD had trouble opening a docx file.
To test the Fire HD versus the Nexus 7, we loaded nine different websites on both tablets using loadtimer.org and averaged the results. The Fire HD came out on top, averaging 4.4 seconds, versus 6.9 seconds for Google's tablet.
While the default search engine is Bing, users can switch it to Google or Yahoo in the settings menu. We wish there was an incognito or private browsing function, though.
The Fire HD features dual band, dual antenna 802.11n Wi-Fi, which means this tablet can use both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. Over our home Internet connection's 2.4-GHz band, it took 26 minutes to download the HD version of "The Hunger Games," a 2.8GB file. That translates to a rate of about 110 Mbps. Using the 5-GHz band, the download of "The Dark Knight" (a 3.1GB file) took 25 minutes, a slightly faster rate of 122 Mbps. However, when we downloaded "Heat" (a 1.93GB file) to the Nexus 7 from Google Play over the same network, it took just 12 minutes, a rate of 164.7 Mbps.
Although Amazon claims that the OMAP processor in the Fire HD offers better performance than Nvidia's Tegra 3 chip -- which is used in the Nexus 7 -- we didn't see all that much of a difference in our benchmark tests. On the graphics-focused An3DBench, the Fire HD scored 7,783, which was dead even with the Nexus 7, but about 800 points higher than the original Fire, and about 400 points higher than the average.
On the CPU portion of the Benchmark test, the Fire HD's score of 3,418 was about 200 points lower than the Nexus 7, but about 600 points higher than the average.
In everyday use, the Fire HD was zippier than its predecessor. We were able to stream music through Pandora, while at the same time browse the Web and check email, all without a problem. We did notice that it took a few seconds to load the Silk browser after we'd been navigating through Nokia Maps.
Overall, the Fire HD was slower than the Nexus 7 when performing common tasks. Whether it was rotating from landscape to portrait mode, launching the app menu, or returning to the home screen from an app, the Fire HD was always a step behind. There's just a bit more lag on the Fire HD.
Our review unit of the Fire HD came with 16GB of onboard storage, of which only 12.63GB is available. Consumers will also be able to pick up a version with 32GB for $249, but regardless of the model, there's no microSD card expansion slot. We quickly came up to the Fire HD's limit -- after downloading two HD movies and a few TV episodes, we were hit with a warning that we were running out of storage.
The good news is that you can store content you don't need at your fingertips in Amazon's cloud and stream it from there. Also keep in mind that the Nexus 7 starts at just 8GB of storage, though you can get 16GB for $249.
The Kindle Fire HD lasted 7 hours and 30 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi); that's practically identical to the original Fire (7:34) as well as the Nexus 7 (7:26). All bested the category average (6:54) by nearly 40 minutes.
Is the Fire HD better than the Nexus 7? Not quite, in our book, but it also depends on what you're looking for. Android fans will undoubtedly gravitate toward Google's device as it offers a greater selection of apps, a more familiar interface and innovative features, such as Google Now and offline voice typing. The Nexus 7 also exhibits less lag in everyday use and has a smaller physical footprint. However, the Fire HD has a brighter screen, better sound and double the amount of standard storage, strengths that complement Amazon's superiority when it comes to discovering and purchasing content. That's where the Fire HD excels.
|CPU||1.2-GHz dual core TI OMAP 4460|
|Storage Drive Size||16GB|
|Storage Drive Type||Flash Memory|
|Display Resolution||1280 x 800|
|Graphics Chip||Imagination PowerVR 3D graphics|
|Front-Facing Camera Resolution||1280 x720|
|Card Reader Size|
|Warranty / Support||1-year limited warranty|
|Size||7.6 x 5.4 x 0.4 inches|