The Kindle Fire HD is a refinement on the original Kindle Fire concept, with key enhancements and features that serve to make it well worth its price.
Editors' note (September 25, 2013): The product reviewed here has been discontinued; however, there are plenty of new Kindle Fire options, including a redesigned Fire HD.
The original Kindle Fire felt like a rushed, but mostly successful attempt to deliver a gateway to Amazon video, music, and book content. The Kindle Fire HD improves on the original in nearly every way and, thanks to some key refinements, proves to be a much better delivery system for that media.
Amazon Prime members looking to sate their ceaseless hunger for movies, TV shows, music, and books need look no further. With the huge media catalog available, you'll surely get your fix here.
However, if the idea of the full Android OS, GPS, NFC, and complete access to the Google Play store whet your appetite at all, the Nexus 7 is watching you from afar, all sexy and seductive like.
It's not a question of which is better. It's more a question of which is better for you. Keep reading to find out.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD ($199 for 16GB and $249 for 32GB) has one of the widest bodies of any recently released 7-inch tablet, including the Nexus 7. The top and bottom bezel (when held in landscape mode) feel needlessly long, and as a result, the Fire HD just isn't as comfortable to hold in one hand as Google's tablet. It's also slightly heavier than the Nexus 7.
|Amazon Kindle Fire HD||Amazon Kindle Fire||Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0||Google Nexus 7|
|Weight in pounds||0.86||0.9||0.74||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|
Beveled bottoms are the new hotness -- for tablets, anyway. From the Nexus 7 to the iPad, and Microsoft's Surface tablet, beveled bottoms are to 2012 what legitimately thin form factors were to 2011. Beveled bottoms have the power to make a tablet look thinner than it actually is, but while the Kindle Fire HD 7-inch is thinner than the Kindle Fire and the Nexus 7, its bevels aren't quite as successful at making it look as thin as the others.
The tablet is dark gray and looks fairly plain, with a tabletwide black strip on the back as the only real distinguishing aesthetic trait. In the middle of the top portion of the bezel sits a 720p Web chat camera with a nearly invisible ambient light sensor sitting to its left. The bezel itself is surrounded by an outer plastic shell for added protection.
Along the bottom edge, directly in the middle are both a Micro-USB and a Micro-HDMI port. On the right edge, from top to bottom, are a headphone jack, volume rocker, and the power/sleep button. Both the volume rocker and power/sleep button sit flush with the tablet's body, making them difficult to find without looking. Sitting alone on the top edge is a microphone pinhole.
The back is smooth and not nearly as grippy as the Nexus 7's pleathery back or even the Kindle Fire's more rubbery one. Dual inch-long speaker grilles adorn the Fire HD's back at the far left and right sides, continuing into the tablet's right and left edges.
For some strange, ill-conceived reason, Amazon chose not to include an actual power adapter with the Kindle Fire HD 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 Kindle Fire HD.
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. Images and text are sharper thanks to the higher resolution and higher contrast of the screen. The carousel interface is still here, but scrolls faster and looks smoother, with app icons rendered in higher-resolution, less pixel-y 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 feature 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 HD or currently in the cloud.
There are problems, though. The interface can be sluggish at times and the screen isn't as responsive or as precise as it could be; it sometimes fails to react to taps. Also, 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 apart the Fire HD 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.
X-ray for movies is frankly a lot less useful, as it's essentially an integrated IMDB feature that provides access actor bios while you watch the movie. Just tap the screen while watching "The Avengers," 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 actual 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.
Now each of these 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 HD. 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.
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.