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Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2013) review: An e-reader alternative with tablet extras

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The Good The Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2013) is faster than its predecessors, has an affordable price, and runs the latest and greatest version of the Kindle Fire OS.

The Bad Its default storage size -- 8GB -- is too little space for most tablet needs. Also, there are no cameras and Amazon's video chat customer support is not available. Ad removal still costs an extra $15.

The Bottom Line The 2013 Kindle Fire HD works perfectly as an e-reader with a few extra tablet features, but users looking to take full advantage of Amazon's ecosystem should pay more for the Fire HDX.

6.9 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7

Editor's note (September 18, 2014): The product reviewed here is discontinued and has been replaced by the Kindle Fire HD 7.

The Kindle Fire HD (2013) is Amazon's new ultrabudget tablet that starts at $139. At just $20 more than the company's e-ink Kindle Paperwhite reader, it's at a great price and if all you plan to do is stream videos and music, read books, do some light gaming, and occasionally surf the Web, it will certainly meet your needs. The problems arise if you wish to do anything more.

With this entry-level model -- basically the 2012 Fire HD with updated hardware -- you're giving up cameras, and settling for a miniscule amount of storage. Indeed, the 8GB of storage in the $139 model actually works out to less than 5GB of usable space; that's not enough to fit most HD movies or more than a couple of episodes of an HD TV show. Throw in a couple of high-end games like Asphalt 8 and the space fills up swiftly.

That's why I recommend starting with the $169, 16GB version of the tablet. It will give you a little extra breathing room and will likely be a less frustrating experience for most. However, the fact that the Fire HD lacks a camera and is missing a few software features of the Fire OS -- like Mayday tech support -- means it won't be able to take full advantage of Amazon's ecosystem and all it offers.

That's where the $229 Fire HDX comes in. It's faster, has a camera, and comes equipped with all of Amazon's software bells and whistles. The $269, 32GB version might be an even better option still if you need the space.

But if you're really set on spending less than $200, the 2013 Fire HD makes for a serviceable tablet, so long as you temper your expectations. If you think of it more as an e-reader with some cool tablet features, the low price is hard to beat.

Design
2012's Kindle Fire tablets were bulky and substantial, and seemed to prioritize durability over comfort. This year's Fire HD is much more thoughtfully designed. Its corners aren't as rounded as I usually like, but it's well-balanced and really comfortable to hold in one hand. It's light without feeling too airy; however, it's slightly heavier than the 7-inch Fire HDX.

Both the power button and volume rocker have been moved to the back, and while they're easier to find and press than they were on the old Fire HD, I'm not sure it's the best solution. It's fine when held in landscape mode -- the rear edges can be used as a tactile guide -- but it's annoying when I want to quickly wake the tablet from sleep, but have to pick it up first to reach the back instead of just tapping a button on its side.

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2013) Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2012) Google Nexus 7 (2013) Apple iPad Mini (2012)
Weight in pounds 0.74 0.66 0.86 0.66 0.68
Width in inches (landscape) 7.5 7.3 7.7 7.8 7.9
Height in inches 5 5 5.4 4.5 5.3
Depth in inches 0.42 0.35 0.4 0.34 0.28
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.8 0.6 0.9 1 0.8

There's a Micro-USB port on the left edge and a headphone jack on the right. However, both the Micro-HDMI port and front-facing camera from last year's Fire have been excised.

Mojito
The new version of the Kindle Fire OS -- called Mojito -- is based on Android Jelly Bean and is more of a refinement of last year's operating system rather than something completely new.

The carousel is still here, allowing you to swipe through a lineup of your content, but now swiping up from the home screen reveals an array of your installed apps. Ads are ever-present on the lock screen and Amazon still charges an extra $15 to permanently get rid of them.

Josh Miller/CNET

Swiping down from the top still brings up the shortcuts menu and the settings button. The menu now includes a new entry, Quiet Time, which turns off all notifications -- this needed its own button? However, Amazon's new customer service feature, Mayday, is only available on its HDX tablets.

The Silk browser finally feels like a useful, welcoming tool for accessing the Web and not a clunky, low-rent app struggling to keep up with my Web-based proclivities. Pages loaded quickly and sped by when swiped.

Taps also are much more accurate now. Not only when tapping links, but it was especially impressive when typing. I'm usually one to make plenty of mistakes when typing on a touch screen, but either I'm finally and suddenly getting much better or Amazon's engineers have put in a lot of work in this area. My bet's on the latter.

Josh Miller/CNET

I'm probably a bit overly excited about just how trouble-free the Web experience was, but there's really nothing special about it. It simply works with few issues, which, compared with previous Fire tablets, I guess maybe is pretty special.

Amazon also cast a critical eye toward other native apps like e-mail and calendar as well as adding a new contacts app. E-mail has been redesigned to require fewer steps to set up and is now compatible with threaded conversations, so instead of seeing a single e-mail from each person in the conversation, you now see a message from the last person to contribute to the thread.

The Calendar includes a number of sensible improvements that for the most part make the interface a more efficient and gratifying experience.

Managing your storage is now a lot easier, as items can be located by type and each deleted on the fly.

While the vast majority of the changes work, there's also a missed opportunity here to add more customization. Samsung does this with great success in its latest version of the TouchWiz UI, last seen on the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. Samsung's shortcut array behaves in much the same way as Amazon's, but also scrolls to the left to include more options and can even be customized to add more choices.

What I've always liked about the Kindle Fire interface is how the content is organized. Instead of pages and pages of app icons as in other OSes, on the Fire each type of content is siloed into its respective section. When I tap Audiobooks, I know I'm seeing all the audiobooks I own and by tapping Store I can easily add more. There's just something comforting about having all your content automatically organized for you.

Performance
The Kindle Fire HD (2012) had a bright vibrant screen, but backlight bleeding or "clouding" was apparent when looking at a black or dark image. Clouding on the Fire HD 2013 is much less severe and can only be seen in the corners when the screen displays a dark image -- like during startup.

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2013) Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2012) Google Nexus 7 (2013) Apple iPad Mini (2012)
Maximum brightness 421 cd/m2 430 cd/m2 394 cd/m2 570 cd/m2 399 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.47 cd/m2 0.37 cd/m2 0.41 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 896:1 1,162:1 960:1 1,295:1 814:1

The screen resolution is 1,280x800 pixels and isn't nearly as sharp as the Fire HDX's screen, but is still pretty sharp and bright in its own right. It still has a slightly yellowish tint like the HDX's, though.

My biggest issue with the 2012 Kindle Fire HD 7's performance was that it seemed to chug under the weight of its own OS; there was a palpable delay to pretty much everything. The 2013 Fire HD is a different beast altogether. While not as fast as the HDX, navigation performance is much improved over last year, with menus loading almost instantly and that feeling of sluggishness having been mostly wiped away.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7 1.5GHz dual-core OMAP 4470 Unidentified 1GB Amazon Android Mojito 3.0
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 Adreno 330 2GB Amazon Android Mojito 3.0
Google Nexus 7 (2013) 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro Adreno 320 (single-core) 2GB Android 4.3
Apple iPad Mini (2012) 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 PowerVR SGX543MP2 (dual-core) 512MB iOS 7.0.1

3DMark (Unlimited)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2013)
2,982

Graphics Test 1 (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 2 (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Physics Test (CPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

3DMark is now available for Kindle Fire tablets and, judging from the scores, we can be fairly certain that the 2013 Fire HD has even faster gaming performance than the 2012 Fire HD 8.9. The 2012 Fire HD 7 could not complete the test. The new Fire uses the same CPU as 2012's, but we aren't sure which GPU is in use here. It's either an upgraded GPU or the Fire 3.0 OS simply has dramatically improved OpenGL performance.

As for actual games, with default graphical effects on, Riptide GP 2 ran smoothly on the 2013 Fire HD, but attempting to include more graphical effects sometimes resulted in the game crashing. Also, Riptide GP 2 struggles to even get through its initial load in a timely manner and takes its sweet time when switching from attract mode to the title screen. In fact, strangely, the 2012 Fire HD seemed to load faster.

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 (2013) 9.3

The 2013 HD 7's speakers are louder than the HDX 7's, but its sound is scratchy in comparison, especially when taken to the highest volume. Compared with most other tablets, however, the HD actually has really good speakers and they only reveal their deficiencies when being directly compared with the HDX's.

Conclusion
The appeal of the Kindle Fire HD will really depend on your needs and expectations. As a simple bare-bones tablet to read books on, stream movies, TV shows, and music on, or surf the Web with, it gets the job done. If you have a more demanding job for it, however, you'll want to set your sights higher.

First off, if you plan to store HD movies or TV shows, you'll want to look first at the 16GB version of the tablet. However, even then, you may still run into headaches. If you do a lot of traveling, but don't have constant access to Wi-Fi, and want to take your videos with you, the 32GB Fire HDX should be your first stop. It's $269, but if your needs match up, it's worth the extra money to avoid the headaches.

The 32GB Nexus 7 starts at $269 as well and is a fantastic 7-inch tablet. It also runs a much more open and customizable version of Android with more apps. There's also the Nook HD and HD+ tablets at $129 and $149, respectively, but though they too have access to the Google Play store, their performance is dated and their media ecosystem is inferior.

From there, things get more expensive, with other small-tablet alternatives like the iPad Mini (2012) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, each starting at $300.

While not a great tablet, the 2013 Fire HD offers worthwhile value thanks to its low price and Amazon's ecosystem. However, if your needs go beyond the rudimentary, there are plenty of other places to look.

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