Kindle Fire HD review: A big improvement from Amazon

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At a Glance
  • Amazon Kindle Fire HD

The 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HD goes far to correct many of the issues that plagued Amazon's first foray into tablets nearly a year ago. The Fire HD also introduces several tech enhancements over competing tablets, and while in the end the Kindle Fire HD falls short of Amazon's goal of being the best tablet at any price, it does excel on many metrics—and at $199 for the 16GB version and $249 for the 32GB version, it delivers a strong, value-priced experience that's optimized for consuming stuff from Amazon.

How the hardware and software comes together is the key, and that's a big part of why Amazon has chosen to differentiate itself on its retail and Web services strengths. In so doing, Amazon diverges from the open and straight path of stock Android 4.0, which serves as the core of Kindle Fire HD's software. Instead, it veers in the direction of Apple's walled garden, but with more meandering paths in and out than Apple's fortress-like garden provides. That's perhaps the best way to describe the distinction, given Amazon's support for only a subset of the greater Android app universe, limited file handling abilities, and the way Amazon saddles the Kindle Fire HD with in-your-face advertisements (you can eliminate these for an extra $15).

The result is a tablet experience that will appeal less to experienced tablet users, and more to the casual newcomer who values consuming movies, TV, books, and music above a full-featured tablet. What Amazon succeeds in, though, is delivering a capable device with a 28 percent smaller display than Apple's 9.7-inch iPad, and it does so at 60 percent of the price. And for these reasons, the Kindle Fire HD may just be enough tablet to satisfy many shoppers in the coming holiday season.

Design refinements

Whereas the original, boxy Kindle Fire showed no inspiration, the Kindle Fire HD's design is more svelte and polished. Its corners are rounded, and the edges have an elegant yet subtle curve, giving the tablet a distinctive look. The back has a smooth, rubberized finish, with a decorative plastic accent running horizontally across it. At either side of the accent are the tablet's dual-driver, rear-firing speakers.

Surprisingly, while the Fire HD feels solidly constructed, it fails in two respects. There's a minute gap between the glass and the plastic around the edge, and this fingernail's width spacing is annoying catch-all for attracting dirt and crumbs in the course of everyday use.

Amazon adds physical volume buttons to the right-hand side of the tablet, with a flat power button beneath those. The volume buttons are a welcomed addition (the original Kindle Fire lacked this basic feature) though they are hard to find by feel. Furthermore, the power button has been redesigned, improving upon the raised power button on the original Fire, but now its awkward to press.

The front of the tablet has a wider-than-usual glossy black bezel, making it a little wider than comparable 7-inch tablets. It measures 7.6 by 5.4 by 0.4 inches, which makes it 14 percent wider than the Google Nexus 7, but makes it about as thick as the Nexus 7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.

The Kindle Fire HD's weight is practically the same as before, and it's still on the heavy side for a 7-inch tablet. It's 16 percent greater than the Nexus 7, and while I find the Kindle Fire HD is fairly well-balanced and adequate for one-handed use, I prefer the lighter weight and narrower size of the of the Nexus 7.

Along the bottom edge of the display sits Mini-HDMI and Micro-USB ports. The Micro-USB is used for data transfers as well as charging. Amazon doesn't include its aftermarket power brick; that's a $20 extra-cost (and, sadly, requires more space than its small footprint belies, since the USB cable attaches on the side instead of the top of the power brick).

Cosmetics aside, the Kindle Fire HD's most visible improvement lies with its display. The Fire HD has a bright 1280 by 800 display with optical bonding. As on other tablets with bonded displays—including Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, Acer's Iconia Tab A700, Toshiba's Excite 7.7, and Google's Nexus 7—the process eliminates the pesky air gap that causes greater reflectivity and reduced contrast. That makes for clearer text and better colors.

In side-by-side tests, the display compares very favorably with the Nexus 7 and Excite 7.7. I prefer the color reproduction on the Nexus 7, though: Blacks are deeper, whites are whiter, and images look sharper. Mind you, some of that may be due to the Kindle Fire HD's software (more on that later). Text, reproduction, however, is universally better on the Kindle Fire HD, which may be attributable to Amazon's font optimizations in its operating system.

I'd say that these display enhancements alone make the $199 Kindle Fire HD a well worth the upgrade over the 1024 by 600, $159 Kindle Fire, especially for anyone who will to use a Kindle tablet for reading books, periodicals, and Web sites.

Performance: mostly fluid, but no speed demon

Amazon made some very bold claims about the performance of the Kindle Fire's dual-core 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 processor as compared with Nvidia's Tegra 3 platform, which is found in the Nexus 7. In order to quantitatively measure the Fire HD's performance, we had to sideload our benchmark tests, simply because they weren't offered in Amazon's Appstore. While the benchmarks worked on Kindle Fire HD, it's not clear whether our mixed results had anything to do with any potential incompatibility with Kindle Fire HD.

In the benchmarks, Kindle Fire HD was positively slothlike on the Geekbench test, scoring a 510 compared with original Kindle Fire's 932 and Nexus 7's 1550. On AndEBench's native test, the Fire HD perked up, scoring 4311; that topped the first-generation Fire's 3462, but was notably slower than the Nexus 7's 8716. The Fire HD's performance was similarly positioned on the AndEBench Java test.

It was on our Web speed tests that Kindle Fire HD showed more signs of life. The Fire HD was statistically tied with the Nexus 7 on Sunspider, and it logged the second fastest time we've seen on our custom-built Web page load test., ending in a statistical tie with Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1. (We tried BrowserMark, but it ran consistently and with oddities, so we're not counting it here.) Amazon says its updated Silk Web browser includes an new HTML 5 rendering engine, a refreshed start page, and both full-screen and vertical reading modes for text-heavy pages. Amazon says the browser is 30 to 40 percent faster, a range our custom Web page load test bore out, but not our Sunspider results.

On GLBenchmark, the Fire HD performed respectably, logging 33 frames per second on Egypt Offscreen, and 53 frames per second on Pro Offscreen. Those numbers were notable improvements over the first-generation Kindle Fire: 43 percent and 29 percent, respectively. And they are better than what we typically saw from tablets running Nvidia Tegra 2 , but not as good as what we've seen on Tegra 3 models. For comparison, Nexus 7 scored 64 frames per second on the Egypt Offscreen test, and 83 frames per second on the Pro Offscreen.

My real-world tests engendered only a few complaints. I sometimes experienced a bit of lag, especially when accessing cloud content, but that could just as well be on the server side as it is on the device's side. The Kindle Fire HD menus seem responsive, whether I was moving among apps, playing games, or opening up and fast forwarding through the high-definition movie The Hunger Games. Some Web pages did seem to take a while to load, and I could only load the mobile version; there's no option to view the desktop version of web pages in the browser. I saw some sharpness and rendering issues—and a weird screen blip—when viewing high-resolution images, but I believe these issues have more to do with the Amazon software than with the hardware.

In our battery life tests, the Kindle FIre HD didn't deliver on Amazon's estimates. The battery lasted 8 hours, 41 minutes, about 30 minutes less than Google's Nexus 7, but better than the previous Kindle Fire. The battery test plays a 720p video with Wi-Fi disabled, at 200 cd/m2 brightness.

Ultimately, I'd call my hands-on experience mixed, just like the benchmarks. Sometimes my experience was responsive, sometimes it stalled. Sometimes I'd open an app immediately, other times I'd see Amazon's spinning circle while I waited the extra few seconds for something to open. The Nexus 7 has the performance edge, but the Kindle Fire HD is ahead of a vast number of nameless $200 and less tablets, too.

For games, I didn't see many in Amazon's Appstore that were truly optimized with high-definition graphics at the time of my review. But I did load up Riptide GP and try it on Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7. In terms of game performance, the experiences are close. Fire HD is highly competitive, but it lacks some finer shading in the water and the fancy splash effect that Riptide GP displays for Tegra 3 tablets like Nexus 7.

At a Glance
  • The Kindle Fire HD is a tremendous improvement over its predecessor, and has a sharp, pleasing display. However, its heavy integration with Amazon's services is a strength, but also a limitation.

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