Kindle Fire HD: The importance of software

The UK will finally be getting the Kindle Fire next month, and indeed the Fire HD, albeit only the 7in model and not the 8.9in iPad rival. Still, that’s cause for celebration, as Amazon’s fresh slates are pitched very cheaply, and are certainly a step up in the hardware department from the original U.S-only Fire.

However, what really differentiates these devices in the tablet ecosystem is the software. Amazon has forked Android – with the Fire HD running a modified version of Ice Cream Sandwich, a significant upgrade from the original Fire’s Gingerbread fork – and the company continues to add features you can’t get anywhere else. This is a refinement of the software that launched on last year’s Kindle Fire in the States, but it includes some new technologies that could give Amazon an edge.

The hallmark of the Kindle Fire’s user interface is the carousel, and it’s still present in the new tablets. This is a chronological list of all the apps, music, books, and other content that you have viewed. It’s very straightforward and easy to grasp for novice users. You cannot deny that stock Android 4.1 on a device like the Nexus 7 is more powerful, but that’s not the goal here.

Just like Android itself is more clean and functional than it was back in the autumn of last year, Amazon’s Android fork is looking nicer. The heavily skeuomorphic wooden bookshelves seen throughout the UI have been eliminated in favour of darker borders with a subtle gradient effect in places. Amazon has also improved the hardware toggles and notifications by adopting the standard Android notification shade. These are all great improvements, but we won’t know if the lag from the previous Kindle Fire has been fixed until we see a final shipping unit.

In addition to what we’ve already seen from Amazon’s Android build, there are some features that leverage the retail giant’s content ecosystem. First up is an expansion of Amazon’s X-Ray service. This is essentially an information discovery service that quickly answers all those little questions that crop up while you read a book or watch a movie.

You may not be aware of this, but way back in Android 2.2 Froyo, Google added the ability for developers to make cloud backups of your app data. This is a great feature because it means you can sync saved games and settings to multiple devices. To my great and eternal dismay, app developers have failed to take advantage. Amazon is expanding its Whispersync technology to cover game data, and that’s very cool.

Since Amazon runs its own Appstore for Android, it gets to dictate terms to devs. If Amazon chooses to make the cloud syncing mandatory, it will actually happen. If you get a new device, or switch to a different Kindle device, you’ll be able to pick up where you left off thanks to Whinspersync.

Whispersync is also being used in the new Kindle’s Immersion Reading. As it happens, Immersion Reading is a new feature that could be incredibly cool by itself. This is the fusion of audiobooks and Kindle e-books. You will be able to follow along in the Kindle book as a professional narrator reads to you. That’s so much better than that robotic Kindle voice. All progress will be synced to the cloud so you can pick up with either voice or text later.

Amazon has also revamped some of its apps for the new Kindle Fires. I had no end of issues with the last Fire’s email client, but Amazon claims the new version has improved syncing and support for Exchange. Additionally, custom Skype and Facebook clients will be deployed to the new tablets. Amazon’s multi-account settings and parental controls make this a kid-friendly device to have around the house, too.

Amazon’s software lacks the full range of customisations you get with stock Android, but it looks more focused. If you want to consume content without having to worry about the details, the new Kindle Fire tablets look good. The sleeker UI and more expansive syncing are sure to make buyers happy, and running on an ICS fork of Android as opposed to Gingerbread should make these new Fires feel much slicker than Amazon’s initial tablet effort. I’m not sure they’re a better deal overall when compared to the Nexus 7 or the upcoming (rumoured) iPad Mini, but Amazon is certainly in the running.