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Editor's note (September 18, 2014): The product reviewed here is discontinued and has been replaced by the Kindle Fire HD 7.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

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.

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.

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