Amazon officially took the wraps off of three new Kindle Fire HDs at a press event today in Santa Monica, Calif., (in addition to an updated version of the Kindle Fire, sans HD). There's the Fire HD with the 7-inch screen that will sell for $199, and an 8.8mm thick Fire HD with an 8.9-inch screen starting at $299 for 16GB and $369 for 32GB. There's also an extra-fancy Fire HD with AT&T's 4G LTE support priced at $499 for 32GB and $599 for 64GB.
Of course, there are differences among the three new tablets. All the Fire HD devices boast an IPS display, and the non-4G versions both harbor 16GB of onboard memory. Amazon hopes that 4G LTE, 32GB of storage, and a $50 yearly data plan with access to 250MB of data every month will be worth $499. To sweeten the "deal," Amazon is throwing in 20GB of cloud storage and $10 of app store credit.
Apart from the fact that 250MB is a pitiful monthly data allowance -- even for such a cheap monthly price of $4 plus change -- we're not convinced that it's a compelling enough package for a $500 Kindle Fire HD LTE.
Let's break it all down.
Feel and performance
According to Amazon, software optimizations for the 8.9-inch version aren't quite there yet, so we only got limited exposure. It's definitely larger than the 7-inch, but is also thinner, and aside from a different processor model and probably some other smaller component differences, the 8.9-inch and 7-inch tablets are spec for spec the same.
The 7-inch version feels a little big and to be honest, we weren't 100 percent sure it wasn't the 8.9-inch version we were looking at when it was first placed in our hands. After a quick on-the-spot measurement using our fingers and our estimation as to how long an inch is, we confirmed we were indeed looking at the 7-inch version and proceeded to dive in.
The tablet is made mostly of plastic with a iPad-like beveled backside. The back is also smooth and feels less grippy than the original Fire. Also on the back, Dolby Digital Plus speakers adorn the left and right sides and dip ever-so-slightly into the tablet's edge. And wow, are these speakers powerful. We didn't really get a chance to truly evaluate their quality, but they're definitely loud.
Original Kindle Fire owners will be happy to learn that the HD versions feature actual physical volume buttons on the right side, right in between the power button and headphone jack.
Movies launched within a few seconds (and sometimes took longer than we would have liked) and as long as the Wi-Fi signal was strong enough, displayed in HD. When the signal diminished, the picture degenerated to a very blurry-looking SD version of itself.
Navigating wasn't as smooth as we expected and even after the Amazon rep exchanged a very sluggish unit for a much smoother-performing one, launching games and navigating to different nodes took a couple seconds longer than we would have liked. This may have had something to do with the chaos of wireless signals making short work of many connections at the press event, coupled with the Kindle Fire's software checking whether we had the cloud version or local version of the file at the time.
App icons were not the pixely thumbnails that plagued the look of the original Kindle Fire interface, but looked appropriate for the HD's resolution and screen size.
We're happy to see a richer, sharper screen on the Kindle Fire HD. The smaller, 7-inch Kindle Fire HD has a 1,280x800-pixel resolution, and the two 8.9-inch versions have a 1,920x1,200-pixel HD resolution (254ppi).
The displays feature the Advanced True Wide polarizing filter and a fused (laminated) touch sensor that Amazon says will reduce glare by 25 percent while maintaining rich color and contrast from the gamut of viewing angles. We love testing out claims like this. Apple's iPad Retina Display will be hard to beat, but the Kindle Fire HD won't necessarily have to offer that same precision to be a success, though with the higher price point for the larger screens, it'll be trickier.
Amazon has also enhanced the original Kindle Fire's interface, adding faster navigation, smoother animations, and more customization options.
In addition to the screen size, the 8.9-inch models of the Kindle Fire HD family will run on a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor (the 7-inch features an OMAP 4460) that Amazon claims is much faster than Nvidia's Tegra 3 quad-core chipset. There will certainly be a moment of truth when we test that out in our labs.
There's a brand-new front-facing HD camera, and Dolby Digital Plus that will pump music on two speakers. As much as we love Dolby, we're skeptical that the name brand will make a discernible difference on such tiny speakers.
The smallest of the three Kindle Fire HDs has a rated 11 hours of battery life.
Wi-Fi and 4G LTE
The tablets will feature better Wi-Fi than before, thanks to dual antennas and dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz band support. Amazon claims that MIMO will purportedly give the Fire HD 40 percent faster Wi-Fi downloads and streaming than the iPad.
Whispersync for Voice will allow users to keep their place in audiobooks across devices, while Whispersync for Games will additionally store your accumulated points in the cloud. If you change devices, you won't lose previous accomplishments.
Accounts and controls
For parents out there, one of the Kindle Fire HD's most exciting additions is Kindle FreeTime, which has settings that let you to set time limits for games, TV, and movies. This will surely help take the fight out of policing kids when they use the device.
Multiple user profiles is also music to our ears; you can set one up for kids, spouses, friends, and other guests for personalization and privacy. You're also able to use the FreeTime tool on additional profiles. Just make sure your progeny and guests don't get too crafty and reset the time limit.
Amazon put some thought into extra features as well. The Kindle Fire HD starts off with a new e-mail app emphasizing corporate e-mail, and a custom Facebook app for stoking social connections.
X-Ray for movies is a new one that will fetch information on actors while you watch a movie. During Amazon's demo, X-Ray looked up actress Jennifer Lawrence while "The Hunger Games" played. We're intrigued by this feature, since we look up people all the time while watching TV and movies. Amazon has also implemented X-Ray for reading as well. The integration and ease of use of this feature will be key. It looked logical during the onscreen demo, but real-world smoothness is all that matters.
There's also "Immersion Reading," which will highlight words in a book as it's read to you. We see this as a terrific learning tool for new readers. In addition, a Skype app will be available when the Kindle Fire HD ships to go along with that front-facing camera.
Pricing and availability
All the new Kindle Fire HDs are on preorder today. The 7-inch Kindle Fire HD will ship September 14 for $199, and both the 8.9-inch and LTE models will ship November 20, for $299 and $499, respectively.
OK, we're excited. The Kindle Fire HD won't offer a pure Android experience like the Nexus 7, but for Kindle users, Amazon Prime members, and those simply looking for a low-price device for media consumption, the HD makes an extremely convincing argument in its favor.
The most compelling aspect of the original Fire was its price. Most of the tech felt antiquated and no-brainer features like a volume rocker and HD movies support were absent. It was easy to say "sure it's cheap, but the experience can't compete with what Apple offers." After today, that sentiment isn't so cut and dry.
Amazon has upgraded the technology across the board and kept prices low (for the Wi-Fi versions, at least). Software features like Immersion Reading, X-Ray for movies, and Whispersync for games and voice continue to enhance an already impressive package.
Amazon has an opportunity here. If it can smooth out any performance issues, make timely and significant updates to its custom Android 4.0-based OS, and continue to broker significant deals with its movies, books, and TV show partners, we may finally have a real tablet race here.
The 7-inch Fire HD hits September 14, so look for a full review with our final impressions around then.