It was 10 months ago that we had a doppelgänger in our midst. Amazon unleashed the Kindle Fire to the world and we spent much of the beginning of our review comparing and contrasting it to the (even then a bit long-in-the-tooth) BlackBerry PlayBook. Now, it's the Kindle Fire HD and it quite handily addresses nearly every concern that we had with the original Fire. It's thinner, lighter, faster and, yes, better looking. It's a huge step forward from that which came before and yet it still follows very much in the footsteps of its predecessor, existing as a physical portal to a digital marketplace with an alluring selection of premium content. Is it enough of an improvement to topple our current king of budget tablets, the Nexus 7? You'll just have to read on to find out.
To borrow a bit of cigarette marketing, the Kindle Fire HD has come a long way, baby. Where the Fire is square, dark and decidedly slab-like, the Fire HD is... well, it still isn't a knockout in the styling department, but it is at least considerably more visually appealing. The angular edges from before have been banished, replaced by a profile that curves up to meet a few millimeters worth of flat surface that then curves back again to meet the glass up top. That surface is indeed made of Corning's Gorilla Glass, so you can probably do without a protector, and it covers a 7-inch panel, the same size as before. (The 8.9-inch model won't arrive until later this year.)
The Kindle Fire HD measures in at 7.6 x 5.4 x 0.4 inches (193 x 137 x 10.3mm). That's slightly (3mm) wider, noticeably (17mm) taller and fractionally (1.1mm) thinner than the Fire. In other words, it occupies roughly the same dimensions, but the taper on the back surface does a compelling job of making this feel thinner. It's slightly lighter, too, weighing in at 395g (13.9oz) compared to the OG machine's 413g.
The overall design remains understated; visually, a sea of soft-touch matte black will be your overwhelming impression here. But, with that comes an air of sophistication. The Amazon logo is still subtly printed on the back, a dark shade of gray stamped atop the darker exterior. You may be visually assaulted by Amazon branding at every turn once you switch the device on, but the exterior at least is reasonably clean.
Across the back runs a slightly polished metal band, the lone bit of stylistic indulgence here. It spans the width of the tablet, running from one speaker to the other and, along the way, has the word "kindle" embossed. Yes, there are two speakers here, one for each of your ears in the natural way. Both are covered in a lined grille that makes us think of the radiator inlets on a Ferrari Testarossa, though that might be entirely due to the prevalence of said car on the walls of this author's childhood bedroom.
Take a tour around the edges of the device and you'll find a far more comprehensive selection of buttons and ports than in the original Fire, a big step forward that shows Amazon listens to criticism. This is a tablet clearly designed to be held in a landscape orientation when enjoying media, and held thusly, you'll find micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports on the bottom. The USB port is used for charging or file transfers, though you can also email files to your device (via the custom address each Kindle is assigned) or upload them through the Cloud Player service. The HDMI output is a very welcome addition and enables pushing all those high-def movie downloads straight to your HDTV, should you be so inclined.
The left side of the device has nothing to offer, while the top has a small microphone. On the right is found the 3.5mm headphone jack, positioned atop a volume rocker and power button. This physical volume control is also new compared to the Fire, which asked you to hop into the UI whenever you wanted to turn up the jams -- or the Audibles, as it were. This is far more convenient, but we found all the physical controls to be very hard to find by touch. The power button in particular is virtually intangible: tapered and flush. You'll need to flip the tablet around to find it for at least your first week of ownership. The volume rocker, at least, has two slight protrusions to set it apart.
There are two storage options for the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD: 16GB for $199 or 32GB for $249. Opt for the smaller and you'll have about 12.6GB of space at your disposal, while the larger offers 26.9GB. Otherwise the two are identical, both using a 1.2GHz dual-core TI OMAP4460 processor. Amazon doesn't quote the amount of RAM, but a system check shows 752MB.
There's no 3G / 4G option on the 7-inch Fire HD; you'll need to step up to the forthcoming 8.9-inch model for that -- and pay an extra $200, too. So, we're stuck with WiFi, but not just any WiFi. Jeff Bezos spent about five minutes of the Kindle Fire HD's coming out party to espouse the virtues of MIMO connectivity. That's multiple-input multiple-output if you're not hep with the lingo, basically meaning the tablet can both send and receive data simultaneously over its pair of antennas.
In theory, if you're sending and receiving a lot of data this means you'll receive better overall throughput. The dual antennas will also mean higher overall signal strength, and compared to a few other Android devices we had kicking about (a Nexus 7 and a Motorola Droid RAZR M), the Kindle Fire HD was easily the best of the bunch. We loaded up the Wifi Analyzer app on all three and the Kindle consistently had a 10 to 15dBm stronger signal, and was able to keep that signal farther away from the router than either of the other two.
Display and speakers
If you hadn't guessed by the name, the Kindle Fire HD takes the tablet series into the world of high-definition. It's a 1,280 x 800 IPS LCD that, like its sadly lower-res predecessor, offers solid brightness and contrast mixed with wide viewing angles. It looks very good indeed and, with greater-than-720p resolution, can finally do all that HD content in the Amazon store justice. That said, with that HDMI output you also can push that content digitally to whatever other display you want.
The HD also steps up to stereo speakers and Amazon is making a big deal about this being one of the few (if not the only) tablets offering Dolby Digital Plus. In theory that means better and broader support for digital compression algorithms, as well as other fun and largely useless stuff like virtual surround sound. We'll let you, the reader, decide how important virtual surround is to your listening enjoyment, but overall we didn't find the speakers themselves to be particularly impressive in terms of their acoustic delivery.
In fact their sound is distinctly on the tinny side, as one might expect given the size, but they are respectably loud and, frankly, it's a refreshing change to have two of the things. Here they're well-positioned so that you get maximum stereo separation when watching a movie or playing a game and we found that they work well even when covered by your hands. That, too, isn't something that can be said for the sound ports on other slabs.
Performance and battery life
The Kindle Fire HD may only get a 200MHz boost in performance over the Kindle Fire that came before it, but it feels considerably quicker than that. The media-focused UI customization that the previous tablet couldn't really handle is far more responsive now. That main carousel of content and apps and websites that is the trademark of the Fire series no longer has fits and stops and stutters -- but there are still some sluggish moments, particularly when reading comic books. We spent a fair bit of time admiring Frank Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" and couldn't help noticing the uneven rate with which the pages turn. But that didn't stop us from being glad we have access to such a wide swath of the DC back catalog.
Web pages load quickly, the latest version of the remote-rendering Silk browser beginning to live up to its name, but it still doesn't beat a standard browser in either initial rendering time or fluidity of pinch-zooming. The Chrome browser on the Nexus 7 rendered every page we threw at it faster than the Fire HD, all without relying on any fancy off-site rendering techniques. Of course, the purported beauty of Silk is that it'll just get faster the more people that use it, but we never quite saw that come to pass with the last version, and we don't have particularly high hopes about this one picking up in speed.
When it comes to battery life Amazon says you can expect 11 hours of normal usage, and in our typical battery rundown test (with a looping video, WiFi on and the display set to a fixed brightness) we scored about an hour short of that. Nine hours and 57 minutes, to be exact -- eight minutes more than the Nexus 7 managed on the same test. Yet again, a near-identical score and well within the top-tier of tablets.
The Kindle Fire HD is still built around the main carousel of content that was introduced with the Fire. It's largely unchanged but, thankfully, so much smoother than before. That carousel offers one-stop access to all your books, music, movies, apps and even websites, all presented in LIFO (last in, first out) order so your most recent selections are right there at the top.
Beneath the main cycle of icons is another sequence of smaller ones that changes dynamically based on what is highlighted above. Hover over an app and it will offer a selection of apps that "Customers Also Bought." Stop at a certain book and it will show you some other novels that people have also bought. The same can be said for movies, music albums, even magazines. Finally, at the very bottom of the screen can be found a few rows of small text. Look closely and you'll that this too is an advertisement.
If you're looking to buy something but don't know what, the Kindle Fire HD would love to help.
The basic reading interface is largely unchanged from what we've seen before, which is just fine by us -- ain't broke, don't fix it and whatnot. A swipe or a tap takes you from page to page and there are plenty of options for changing font (still just six), color (black on white, brown on sepia or white on black) and margins. Taking notes is as easy as dragging a finger across text and sharing anything to Twitter or Facebook is similarly simple. Just figured out who the murderer is? Feel free to issue a tweet right from that climactic page and spoil the book for all your friends.
The big addition here is Amazon's Immersion Reading service. Now, when you purchase a textual book that's also offered in Audible format you'll be given the option of adding the voice narration for a few bucks more. When these two mediums combine you can play the narration while you read the text and the word being spoken will be highlighted on the tablet as it's said.
This is an experience that's said to increase reading comprehension, but more importantly, it means you can pick up right where you left off -- whether you left off listening in the car or reading in bed. That's thanks to Whispersync for Voice, which is currently rolling out to Audible's various mobile apps. With that you can listen on any supported device and have your current position follow you wherever you are. We tried this with the recently updated Android app and it worked perfectly, dropping us into the book right where the Audible recording left off.
Amazon includes OfficeSuite for opening your average Office-type productivity applications, which again you can email right to your Kindle if you like. There are also new email, calendar and contacts apps that deliver a fair bit more usability than with the previous Fire. We plugged in a Gmail account and the tablet quickly sucked down our recent email, with labels, and within a minute or so we were fighting the good fight of the inbox bulge anew.
The calendar and contacts apps are similarly workable, but serious productivity-hounds will find them somewhat lightweight. For example, you can't tap on an address in a calendar invite to get directions there, can't view calendars shared with you in Gmail and, should you forget to enter an event without a name, it just says "Cannot create an empty event" and discards all of your changes. You do, at least, get reminder notifications pushed into the status bar to alert you of your upcoming conference call.
We also received Amazon's leather case for the Kindle, which costs $44.99 and handily consumes your tablet on all sides. It's is available in a variety of mostly tame colors, the exception being the still somewhat subdued yellow we received. It provides easy access to all ports and buttons, cut-outs for the speakers and, best of all, has a magnetic flap that locks the screen when you close it.
Amazon also offers a $19.99 ($9.99 if you buy it with a Kindle) charging adapter for the thing, as you'll get only the micro-USB cable in the box. Yes, you can charge it up through any standard USB charger, but you'll need a higher-spec charger like this one (or any of the dozens of iPad chargers) to do so at maximum speed -- about four hours from empty to full by Amazon's reckoning.
And then there's the best accessory of all: $15 to turn off Offers. Amazon hasn't enabled this feature yet so we weren't able to try it ourselves, but given the prevalence of advertising beating you over the head everywhere you look in this thing, it might just be worth it.
For that $40 here you get twice the storage and a lot more pixels to gaze at, which we think is well worth the increase in cost. But, honestly, if you're swaying well to the casual side and will be doing some simple gaming, surfing and reading -- maybe looking at a tablet for a child -- the Kindle Fire SD is a really good value.