Newsstand has been given a face-lift and now includes a slick new page-turning animation and the option to tap on an article and read it in simple text. The Kindle Fire's e-mail interface, thankfully, has also been redesigned, now looking less like a '90s message board and more like a modern, legitimate e-mail client. Also, contacts can now be automatically imported by e-mail account instead of by each individual contact, as it was on the original Kindle Fire. A full calendar app with built-in reminders has been added as well.
We've got ads!
Much has been made of Amazon's decision to ship the Kindle Fire HD with ads appearing on the lock screen. You can opt out of these ads by paying an extra $15; they will no longer appear afterward. The ads range from Amazon coupons to movie trailers to books; a new one (of about only seven so far) appears each time you press the power button to wake the tablet. On either side of the screen is an unlock slider button. The right-side slider unlocks the screen normally and the left one unlocks the ad, taking you to the trailer, coupon, and so on. All the ads appear as high-res, high-quality images taking the place of the lock screen background. It's actually the least intrusive ad method I've ever seen, and I for one appreciate the coupon offers. If I owned a Kindle Fire HD, I would personally not opt out. Although I can understand why some would be bothered by being constantly advertised to on device they purchased, it's not an issue that should affect your buying decision.
The Prime advantage
In addition to free two-day shipping on select products, Amazon Prime members receive two other benefits that Kindle Fire HD owners can directly take advantage of. Prime owners receive access to Amazon's growing list of streaming movies and TV shows and can borrow a single Kindle book every month with no due date. Prime membership is $79 per year, and each Kindle Fire HD comes with a free month of Prime so you can try out the service. Honestly, if you don't have a Prime membership, the appeal of the Fire HD is greatly diminished. It would be like owning an iPad without an iTunes account.
No quad-core for you!
While it's difficult to find a tablet release without also finding a quad-core processor inside of it, Amazon bucks the trend by embedding Texas Instruments' dual-core 1.2GHz OMAP4460 CPU inside the Fire HD, with the somewhat dated GPU stylings of the Power VR SGX540 GPU in tow. The Fire HD also includes 1GB of RAM, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth, and a gyroscope.
Two antennas, 1- to 2-second difference
Amazon touts the Fire HD's inclusion of dual antennas, MIMO support, and both 2.4GHz and 5GHz band support, but Web page load speeds were consistently 1 or 2 seconds behind the Nexus 7's when running Chrome. Also, I found quickly scrolling down Web pages produces lots of clipping not currently reproducible on the original Fire and not seen on the Nexus 7. However, this only occurs when visiting a page for the first time.
Streaming-video performance was where the Fire HD's new networking hardware earned its keep. I started streaming an HD episode of "Breaking Bad" on both the Nexus 7 and Fire HD and while neither had any trouble reproducing a crystal-clear 720p image when within close proximity of my test router, things changed as I left the lab and walked several feet away. At about 20 feet away (and between two or three walls), the Nexus 7 lost the streaming signal and never picked it up again, delivering only a spinning circle for several minutes. The Fire HD, on the other hand, never stopped streaming and kept the episode's HD resolution even as I left the test router's range and the tablet seamlessly switched to CNET's building-wide network.
A new high
The 7-inch version of the Kindle Fire HD features an in-plane switching (IPS) screen, running at a 1,280x800-pixel resolution. Colors pop from the display and have a really vibrant, high-contrast look. Everything just looks a bit sharper and cleaner here compared with the Nexus 7's still-great screen, and when viewed from extremely wide angles, the Fire HD's screen better retains its brightness, color integrity, and contrast ratio. Pinch-to-zoom requests were delivered quickly, and the Fire HD responded just as fast to them as the Nexus 7 did.
|Tested spec||Amazon Kindle Fire HD||Amazon Kindle Fire||Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0||Google Nexus 7|
|Maximum brightness||394 cd/m2||424 cd/m2||379 cd/m2||288 cd/m2|
|Default brightness||394 cd/m2||147 cd/m2||150 cd/m2||190 cd/m2|
|Maximum black level||0.41 cd/m2||0.45 cd/m2||0.31 cd/m2||0.28 cd/m2|
|Default black level||0.41 cd/m2||0.15 cd/m2||0.12 cd/m2||0.18 cd/m2|
|Default contrast ratio||960:1||980:1||1,250:1||1,055:1|
|Maximum contrast ratio||960:1||963:1||1,222:1||1,028:1|
Amazon says it combined the touch sensor and LCD into a single layer of glass for the Fire HD, which purportedly should decrease reflections, but I honestly didn't see a difference between it and other tablets in that regard.
I used Riptide GP to test relative games performance compared with the Nexus 7. Riptide on the Nexus 7 sported slightly, but consistently, higher frame rates than on the Fire HD. Riptide does have optimizations specific to the Nexus 7's Tegra 3 processor, but my understanding is that those are for graphical effects, and do not directly address frame rate.
While games like Asphalt 7 run just as smoothly on the Fire HD as on the Nexus 7, the textures on the Fire HD version are of an obviously lower quality.
The original Kindle Fire has many "Kindle Fire Edition" games available for it, but those games are unfortunately not currently compatible with the Kindle Fire HD. As a result, there are very few compelling games available for the Fire HD yet if you're not willing to go through the trouble of sideloading APKs.
Games that are playable aren't taking any particular advantage of the Power VRSGX 540 GPU, either. Sure, Angry Birds plays fine, but as yet there's no N.O.V.A 3 Kindle Fire HD edition. Here's hoping the availability of compelling games quickly ramps up.
While watching movies, playing games, or listening to music, I found the Fire HD's speakers deliver clear, loud (if you need it to be) sound that's noticeably better than what I've heard from other tablets. While the speakers are on the back, thanks to the tablet's beveled bottom, they don't sit flush with the desktop and actually send out sound at an angle that reverberates off the desk, enhancing the quality.
There is a lack of bass, however, and ideally I'd rather listen through earbuds or larger speakers. For tablet speakers, though, there are none currently better.
I've had the Kindle Fire HD's brightness set to 100 percent during the three or four days I've had to play with the device, constantly streaming video, downloading apps, playing games, and navigating the interface. During that time, the battery required charging about once every several hours.
Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.
|Video battery life (in hours)|
|Amazon Kindle Fire HD||5.3|
|Amazon Prime video streaming battery life (in hours)|
|Amazon Kindle Fire||6.8|
|Amazon Kindle Fire (2012)||5.9|
|Amazon Kindle Fire HD||6.6|
So what about the Fire HD vs. the iPad?
When discussing a tablet purchase, the elephant in the room is always the iPad. With a much larger screen (9.7 inches versus 7 inches), and a bevy of additional features -- a back camera, unmatched app support, enterprise options, and an excellent graphics processor -- it's not much of a contest. Make no mistake: the iPad is still the best tablet you can buy.
Further helping the iPad is the fact that the Fire HD's excellent media options -- Kindle ebooks, Amazon CloudPlayer music, and Amazon video -- are all available on the iPad as well, thanks to excellent Amazon apps. (Apple's app rules just make the purchasing of that Amazon content less transparent.
But with a $500 entry-level price ($400 for the older iPad 2), the iPad is two and a half times the price of the 7-inch Fire HD. So comparing the Kindle Fire HD to the iPad is not unlike comparing a Honda Civic to a BMW. Each serves the same basic function, but they are targeted at two different market subsets. The tablet world is big enough to support both, but if you're not looking to go the "price is no object" route -- or if you're a Prime member and want to almost exclusively consume media -- the Kindle Fire HD may your device. (Of course, the still-rumored iPad Mini may yet materialize soon, while the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD is due in November. Both of them will further muddy the waters when it comes to choosing a mid-size, mid-priced tablet.)
The Kindle Fire HD is the Kindle Fire as it should have been. Though it has access to apps from the Android Market, this is really an Amazon tablet as opposed to an Android one.
The question of whether it's better than the Nexus 7 is, well, the wrong question to ask. A better question is, which is better for you?
The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD serve different purposes and the advantages of one do not diminish the value of the other. They can coexist and still prosper.
The Nexus 7's complete Google Play access, fully implemented Jelly Bean version of the Android OS, NFC support, and comfortable feel make it the ultimate 7-inch Android tablet. Those looking for the complete Android experience will want to check there first.
For Amazon Prime members, or simply those looking for the best and cheapest way to consume movies, TV shows, music, books, and magazines, the Kindle Fire HD is tops. It has the best 7-inch tablet screen. It refines what the original Fire started and improves on it in nearly every aspect while keeping that same great $199 price, while bumping the storage to 16GB (the 32GB model costs $249). Simply put, it's a media-consuming powerhouse of the highest order.