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Amazon Kindle Fire (2012) review: Amazon Kindle Fire (2012)

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MSRP: $159.00

The Good The Kindle Fire (2012) improves on its predecessor in three key ways: faster performance, a better interface with cool new features, and a significant price reduction.

The Bad Designwise it's the same Fire from 2011 with no HD video support, no camera, no HDMI, no storage expansion, and no volume buttons.

The Bottom Line The Kindle Fire (2012) takes it up a notch in value, but is tethered to the same design oversights of the original.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.2 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6

Review Sections

Editors' note (September 25, 2013): The product reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced with a redesigned Kindle Fire HD.

There's never been a better time to be in the market for a sub-$200 tablet. Right now your choices include the $199 Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, the $179 Nook Tablet, and the $159 Kindle Fire 2012 edition. In November we'll see the debut of the Nook HD and I have a feeling it won't be the last budget-priced tablet that's worth your time.

So what exactly is the 2012 Kindle Fire? Essentially, it's the 2012 version of the 2011 Kindle Fire with some hardware and software upgrades. It's not the best or most cutting edge tablet on the block, but for only $159 it's worth a look for media consumption-oholics and Amazon Prime members.

Design
The Amazon Kindle Fire ($159 for 8GB) is, from a design perspective, virtually the same Kindle Fire that was released in 2011. It's still boxy; it still sports a rubbery back; and it's still a bit too heavy and a bit too thick, especially when put up against newer tablets like the Nexus 7. I also noticed that its outer protective shell is a bit more angular and less rounded than the original Fire's.

Amazon Kindle Fire HD Amazon Kindle Fire (2012) Amazon Kindle Fire (2011) Google Nexus 7
Weight in pounds 0.86 0.88 0.90 0.74
Width in inches (landscape) 7.7 7.4 7.6 7.8
Height in inches 5.4 4.7 4.8 4.7
Depth in inches 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.4
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.9 0.78 (power button side), 0.6 opposite side 0.76 0.8

In the middle of the bottom edge, from left to right sit a headphone jack, a Micro-USB port, and power/sleep button. At either side of the top edge is a single speaker. Volume buttons are still nowhere to be found.

Though 2011's Kindle Fire included a Micro-USB-compatible power adapter, for some strange, ill-conceived reason, Amazon chose not to include one with the Kindle Fire and instead supplied only a Micro-USB-to-USB cable. While the tablet will charge when connected to a plugged-in computer, it will do so very slowly and only when asleep. Thankfully, if you own the original Fire (or pretty much any Micro-USB-to-power adapter) its charger should be compatible with the new Kindle Fire.

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That's the 2012 Kindle Fire sitting right above the Kindle Fire HD. The Fire feels more apt for book reading, while the Fire HD is definitely a movie playing powerhouse. Eric Franklin/CNET

Software features: The refining
Amazon has completely redesigned the Kindle Fire's interface. It's sleeker, more streamlined, and feels more mature, eschewing the toylike quality the original had. Fonts are sharper and light and dark images feel more contrasted thanks to the new interface's darker tone. The carousel interface is still here, but scrolls faster and smoother, with app icons rendered in less pixely forms. Apps can be removed from the carousel at will and/or added to favorites, which appear at the bottom of the screen, negating the need to scroll through your entire catalog to find the app you want.

Newsstand, Books, Music, Videos, Docs, Apps, and Web return as top-of-the-screen content tab options, and have now been joined by Shop, Games, Audiobooks, Photos, and Offers. Search returns as well and now allows you to search in Amazon's stores as well as your libraries and the Web.

Settings can be accessed with a quick swipe down from the top bezel and now features more options for social-network integration, more customization, and tighter security. Within each content tab, there are still the very useful cloud and device denotations at the top that help signify which pieces of content are on the Fire or currently in the cloud.

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Your old 2011 Kindle Fire won't be upgraded to the new Fire OS. You'll have to purchase the 2012 Fire or the Fire HD to experience all the new good-looking goodness. Eric Franklin/CNET

There are problems, though. The interface is periodically sluggish and as streamlined as the interface is, at times it serves only to illustrate how much better it could be. After entering a content tab, you can't travel directly to another and must instead tap back and choose a new selection. I would have loved to see a more elegant solution that allows carousel options to always be available onscreen.

Software features: The newening
The streamlined interface isn't Amazon's only accomplishment here; it has added several new features to further set its Fire line apart from other tablets.

With X-ray for books you can get more information about characters, terms, and historical figures mentioned in a Kindle book, and it also highlights exactly where (via page number and a graph) in the book those details are mentioned and can jump right to the appropriate page. Definitely useful, but the ability to search for specific terms should be at the top of Amazon's to-do list when the time comes to revise this feature.

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The 2012 Fire is forever stuck in SD movie mode, but does get X-ray for movies. Eric Franklin/CNET

X-ray for movies is frankly a lot less useful, as it's essentially an integrated IMDb feature that provides access to actor bios while you watch the movie. Just tap the screen while watching "The Hunger Games," for example, and a drop-down menu of the actors appearing in the current scene appears. Select whichever actor you're interested in, and as long as that person is actually listed in IMDb, you'll have access to his or her bio. Impressively, this works in real time, adding and removing people from the list as they enter and exit scenes. It's not compatible with all movies yet, and I've yet to see it featured in any of the TV shows I've watched on the device.

Immersion reading uses the audio and Kindle versions of a single book and combines them to create an experience currently not reproducible on any other tablet. As the text is read by the original audiobook reader, each word is highlighted on the Kindle book version, allowing you to follow along, bouncing-ball-style (well, sans an actual bouncing ball), with the story. It takes a bit of getting used to, but can be appealing for audiobook fans like myself who love to listen, but want to retain the experience of actually reading as well.

In addition, Whispersync for voice allows you to stop reading at any spot in the Kindle version of a book and then continue later at that exact spot in your audiobook and vice versa.

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Not the movie-playing powerhouse like its younger brother, the Fire is still a great device for book reading. Eric Franklin/CNET

Now each of two aforementioned scenarios, however, requires that you'd be willing to purchase both the audiobook and Kindle versions of a book. So, who in their right minds would actually own both versions of the book? Well, probably people who want to take advantage of these two features. As an incentive, Amazon claims it will offer discounts on audiobook versions of books if you already own the Kindle version; however, this won't extend to every book-audiobook combo.

You can now import your photos from Facebook to your Amazon Cloud Drive and view them (or any photos already in your Cloud Drive) on your Fire. Unfortunately, if importing directly from Facebook, you're not able to specify which photos you want to import and are forced to import them all.

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.

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Don't want to see this screen? Be prepared to pay an extra $15 to opt out. Eric Franklin/CNET

We've got ads!
Much has been made of Amazon's decision to ship the new Kindle Fire and 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 nine so far) appears each time you press the power button to wake the tablet. On both sides 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-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, I would personally not opt out. Although I can understand why some would be bothered by being constantly advertised to on a 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 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 is greatly diminished. It would be almost like owning an iPad without an iTunes account.

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Amazon Prime members get free streaming access to thousands of movies and TV shows. Seen here: a little-known art-house film. Eric Franklin/CNET

No quad-core for you!
Amazon has seen fit to upgrade the original Fire's 1GHz OMAP 4430 processor to a 1.2GHz OMAP 4430 CPU. It also doubled the RAM to 1GB. It still has 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support and a gyroscope, but there's no Bluetooth feature like the Fire HD has.

Web speeds were on par with the Kindle Fire HD's, more or less, but the 2012 Fire can't begin to compete with the Fire HD's amazing streaming prowess. When testing the Fire HD, I was able to walk a half a block away from CNET's San Francisco office before I was disconnected from our local private network. With the 2012 Fire, I didn't even get to leave the building before the signal cut out.

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The new Fire OS brings a better Web browsing experience with it. Eric Franklin/CNET

Same screen, but so what?
The Kindle Fire features an in-plane switching (IPS) screen, running at a 1,024x600-pixel resolution; the same display used in the original model. While the screen can't compare with the Fire HD's or Nexus 7's, it's still a decent display for what the Fire offers: a $159, standard-definition-only tablet.

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HD Amazon Kindle Fire (2011) Amazon Kindle Fire (2012) Google Nexus 7
Maximum brightness 394 cd/m2 424 cd/m2 404 cd/m2 288 cd/m2
Default brightness 394 cd/m2 147 cd/m2 141 cd/m2 190 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.41 cd/m2 0.45 cd/m2 0.38 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 1,175::1 1,055:1
Maximum contrast ratio 960:1 963:1 1,063:1 1,028:1

Amazon made lots of tweaks to the original Fire to get its screen responsiveness and precision to an acceptable level and that same high level of feedback is retained here. Pinch-to-zoom speed and smoothness were improved over the 2011 Fire, though.

Games performance
I used Riptide GP to test relative games performance compared with that of the Fire HD, the 2011 Fire, and the Nexus 7. Riptide on the 2012 Fire matched the speed of the Fire HD (although not its sharp picture) and was noticeably smoother than the 2011 Fire. The Nexus 7 was the smoothest of them all and as a bonus includes Tegra 3-optimized effects not available on the other tablet.

Unfortunately, games like Modern Combat 3 and NOVA 3 have Kindle Fire editions and can easily be found on the 2011 Kindle Fire's store, but searches come up short when going through the new interface's store. As a result, there are very few compelling games available for the Fire if you're not willing to go through the trouble of sideloading APKs. Amazon says it has a software release coming soon, so hopefully that will address this problem.

Battery life
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 (2012) 5.4

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

Conclusion
If you're looking for a tablet in general, you'll want to first check out the iPad, the Transformer Infinity, or Nexus 7. These are full-fledged tablets with complete, uncurated app stores and allow for much more customization, especially in the case of the two Android tablets. The iPad and Infinity start at $499, but Google's 7-inch device sits at just $199.

The Kindle Fire HD is your next stop if you're a heavy media consumer or an Amazon Prime member, or looking for a small, cheap device. Also, keep an eye out for the soon-to-be-released Nook HD. Each of those start at $200 and provide very curated and focused experiences.

The new 2012 Kindle Fire does not do HD video, does not have an HDMI port, or expandable memory, a camera, or even volume buttons. What it does have is one of the best value ratios out there. At $159, it's the cheapest mainstream 7-inch tablet. If your eyes can stomach SD video, you don't mind some its form-factor limitations, and you are an Amazon Prime member, the Kindle Fire is a great tablet value. It's definitely not the best tablet out there, but is certainly worth a look.

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