Amazon released its first tablet device back in 2011. Known as the Amazon Kindle Fire it was the first atypical budget tablet, in that it retailed at a low price point but wasn’t an absolutely abysmal product.
Consumers took note and the device sold well in the US, accounting for almost 50 per cent of Android-based traffic at one point. Google also noticed and set about raising the bar, which it did convincingly with its Nexus 7 – the world’s second atypical budget tablet.
Between these two products, a new niche in the market was opened up - one about services, hardware, performance and low-prices. It’s niche because only the biggest corporations like Google, Amazon, and Apple can afford to venture here.
The Apple, Amazon, and Google’s of the world can afford to sell at cost, or even a loss, because they own the services, the apps stores, and the content. Nokia, HTC, LG, and Samsung do not. And this is why we don’t see atypical budget offerings from them.
With the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon has come out with all guns blazing. The new tablet device is thinner, better looking, more powerful, and has a better display, as the name suggests. It’s also running Android Ice Cream Sandwich, albeit in an unrecognisable form, and is available for the first time in the UK.
But is it any good? Or should you go with Google’s similarly priced and arguably better-equipped Nexus 7 instead? Lets find out.
Amazon Kindle Fire review - Design
The original Kindle Fire didn’t look great. It felt a little rough round the edges and the performance just wasn’t there. These factors contributed to the impression that Amazon was using it more as a test device for its take on Android and how its services would be implemented than a genuine bid for the space.
Looking at the Fire HD, the successor model, this seems to be proving true. It’s well crafted, thin, and very easy on the eye. It also feels light in the hand and has a robust premium feel that was previously lacking in a big way.
The front of the device is glass for the most part and then tapers away to a grippy soft-touch backing, which not only looks very smart but also aids handling substantially.
From the front, the only visible imperfection is the camera, which sits dead center above the display. The volume rocker, power/unlock button, and 3.5mm jack run down the right hand side and two ports – one micro-HDMI, one microUSB – can be found on the bottom of the slate.
The volume rocker and power/unlock keys sit flush to the device and, as you’d expect, are quite difficult to locate without looking first. Over time you do get used to their positioning but it is rather infuriating during the first few days with the device.
Exact proportions are 193x137x10.3mm and it weighs in at 395g. That makes it shorter and thinner (although not by much, a mere 0.5mm in fact) than the Nexus 7. The Fire HD is also wider than the Nexus 7 on account of its bezel and is heavier by around 55g.
A metallic strip that runs the entire length of the back, where the Fire HD’s Dolby audio dual-driver stereo speakers are housed, adds a nice finish to an already great-looking device.
Overall, I’d argue that the Kindle Fire HD surpasses the Nexus 7 for looks, despite it’s slightly heavier build and wider design. It definitely feels more robust in the hand. What’s more, thanks to the combination of build materials and styling it looks significantly more premium too.
Amazon Kindle Fire review - Screen
Another big positive of this device is its display. It’s an utterly gorgeous 7-inch IPS LCD setup with a 1280x800 pixel resolution. Video, text, eBooks, and the Fire HD’s navigation menus all look extremely crisp and detailed.
It’s not quite up the standard of Google’s Nexus 7, however, despite having the same display resolution. Colours seem a little washed out and there’s a weird yellow hue that pervades everything, which isn’t present on either the Nexus 7 or the Nook HD.
Viewing angles are excellent, however, and Amazon says that it is tinkering with the device’s display technology – the touch sensor and the LCD have been laminated together, which drastically improves visibility in direct sunlight.
It’s a welcome addition but the effects could hardly be described as dramatic. That said, no-one – not Samsung, Nokia, or LG – has managed to solve this pesky issue as yet, but it is good to see that efforts are now being made improve devices for outdoor usage. Amazon gets 9/10 for effort, in this regard.
Amazon Kindle Fire review - Operating System and UI
Just as it did with the original Kindle Fire, Amazon has implemented its own bespoke take on Google’s world-beating OS. It’s definitely unique, offering a completely new experience, one packed with truly awesome services, but it’s not without its issues.
For starters we’ll look at the UI. Being bespoke means there is zero trace of Android here. It’s Amazon all the way. There’s no Chrome browser, no Google Play, and no Google services. Instead you’re pushed towards Amazon’s way of doing things – sometimes quite forcefully, too.
As UIs go, Amazon’s offering isn’t all that intuitive. You have all your content options across the top – Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstands, Web, Photos, Docs, and Offers – and a swipable row of icons below that show all the apps you’ve used recently. Below that you have another row of recommendations.
Hit the Apps menu and you’re taken to a more familiar setting, one laid out with app icons which automatically makes you feel more at home. The only issue here is that the apps aren’t static and switch around based on how much you use them. We get the logic but it’s pretty annoying in practice.
Amazon’s App store is also grossly under-stocked compared to Google’s Play store despite growing significantly during 2012. At last count, there were around 50,000 apps and games available via Amazon’s app portal. That’s not bad but it’s still a long, long way behind Google’s Play store.
Not that this should bother you. Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD is most definitely not about apps and games. It’s about services – Amazon’s services, to be precise, which are as expansive as they are diverse. TV, film, music and docs are all supported and all run both on and off the cloud.
But there is a catch: you have to give yourself over to Amazon completely. The best way to do this, as you’ll find out when you power the device up, is by signing up for an Amazon Prime account. You get a 30-day free trail and after that it’s £49 a year.
Amazon Kindle Fire review - Multimedia and storage
If you use Amazon a lot then a Prime account makes a lot of sense. For your £49 you get unlimited One-Day delivery on certain purchases and the ability to ‘borrow’ titles from the Kindle store, although you’re limited to one book per month.
LoveFilm is also deeply integrated into the Kindle Fire, bringing films, TV shows, and documentaries direct to your tablet wherever you are. You will have to signup for a subscription though and, no, Netflix is not available for the tablet, so it’s LoveFilm or no film, sadly.
In terms of storage the Fire HD comes in two varieties: 16GB or 32GB – and there’s no support for SD cards. Storage isn’t all that important, however, as Amazon’s expansive Cloud service means that you don’t need to store everything on-device, just pull it down when you want it.
Amazon’s WhisperSync is supported throughout the device, meaning you can start reading a Kindle title on the Fire HD and continue reading from the same spot on your smartphone, computer, or traditional Kindle ereader.
And thanks to the Micro-HDMI, porting content over to an HDTV is also possible. Again to really get the most from this you’ll need to sign-up for a LoveFilm account but be aware that selection, compared to some competing services, namely iTunes, is still rather thin on the ground especially for newer titles.
Video support is limited with only three video codecs – MP4, VP8, and H.263 being supported. With music you can upload your own tracks from your PC, but we do get the distinct impression that Amazon would rather you buy all your music from its own store (surprise, surprise).
Amazon Kindle Fire review - Connections and web browsing
Amazon has yet to release a 3G or LTE-enabled version of its Kindle Fire HD. You don’t even get GPRS or EDGE. Instead you have dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, which is great for accessing faster broadband networks but means you’ll struggle using the device while out and about.
Bluetooth is also supported and Amazon’s Silk browser is your default option for exploring the web. Chrome isn’t supported nor is Firefox, which means you’re stuck with Silk – and this is definitely not a good thing.
The browser is laggy, unintuitive, and features none of the services many users now expect from their mobile device’s browser. Yes, you can use bookmarks and save searches but if you’re already invested in either Chrome or Firefox on your PC then Silk will be a massive disappointment.
Amazon says Silk is fast. It’s not. According to our SunSpider benchmark (where lower scores are better) it scored a paltry 1806.6ms, which is significantly slower than the Nexus 7, Nook HD, and way behind iOS Safari and Windows Phone 8’s IE 10 browser.
Amazon Kindle Fire review - Performance and battery
Packing a TI OMAP 4460 dual core chipset clocked at 1.2GHz and 1GB of RAM should translate into decent performance across the board, and in most cases it delivers the goods, handling games like Dead Trigger with ease.
There are hiccups though along the way with touches not registering and more than occasional lag and stuttering when traversing the Amazon UI. Two years ago this would have been fine but in todays market, what with the advent of Android Jelly Bean, Windows RT, and iOS6, it’s simply not acceptable.
Battery life is pretty stellar though and we managed to get through a full day with extensive usage from a single charge. Certain things will run the battery down faster – gaming and video calling, for instance – but generally speaking we don’t have any real complaints in this regard.
Amazon Kindle Fire review - Conclusion
Overall, the Kindle Fire HD is a mixed bag of tricks. It looks great, is very cost-effective, and generally performs adequately at most tasks. For us though the UI was just too busy – it tries to do too much and doesn’t deliver a very coherent experience.
It’s also far too focused on getting you to buy Amazon services and goods. At times it feels downright aggressive, in fact. However if you’re the type of user that wants pick an ecosystem and opt inside it fully then this approach could definitely work for you.
Amazon Prime, for instance, is utterly brilliant as are the company’s cloud services and the way its Kindle services are integrated. But if you like to pick and choose what services you use and also alter the look and feel of your tablet, like you can aboard the Nexus 7 and the iPad to a lesser extent, then the Fire HD will feel very restrictive.
This device, in its most stripped down form, is simply a beacon for Amazon services and products. It’s not a tablet like the Nexus 7 or iPad, it’s a device that’s designed to suck you fully into Amazon’s retail universe – and make you stay there.
This is fine, providing that’s what you’re looking for. But if you’re not, and you want more choice and freedom – the two cornerstones of Android since day one – then the Amazon Kindle Fire HD may be a tough pill to swallow.
For me personally, it’s no patch on the Nexus 7 despite Amazon’s best efforts and excellent built-in services.