Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2013) review

Pros

  • Excellent design and build quality
  • Good screen
  • Decent performance
  • Improved Fire OS software

Cons

  • Limited storage space and no expansion
  • Tied into Amazon's ecosystem

The battle for a share of the tablet market has never been so fierce. At the high-end, we have the iPad Air duking it out with the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, not to mention models from Samsung, Asus, and potentially a new Nexus 10. Between them, the Nexus 7 and the iPad mini are carving out a new mid-range segment, where we also find the new Kindle Fire HDX models and Lenovo’s new Yoga line.

Yet things are also hotting up at the budget end. The Asus MeMO Pad HD7 proved that you could put out a great tablet for under £130, and we’ve seen competitors from Archos, Acer and Lenovo, while the Tesco Hudl has been something of a surprise success. It’s a market Amazon used to dominate with the original Kindle Fire, and at £120 the new Fire HD takes the battle back to Tesco, Asus and the rest.

Effectively, this is an improved version of the old Fire HD with better software at the price of the old Kindle Fire, although the low price means living with 8GB of storage and Amazon adverts every time you boot up.

Design

Along with the Nexus 7, the original Kindle Fire HD was one of the first slates to prove that an inexpensive tablet didn’t need to feel cheap. The new Fire HD carries on the good work. At 345 grams it’s a little heavier than the more expensive Fire HDX and the 2013 Nexus 7, but 50 grams lighter than its predecessor, and easily light enough to wield single-handed. It’s slimmer too, at just 10.6mm, and carries the same more angular styling as the new HDX models. With toughened glass at the front and soft-touch plastics at the rear, it feels extremely rugged and durable, and more than a match for the MeMO Pad or Hudl.

The frame is relatively slim as well, but what you really ought to notice is what the Fire HD hasn’t got. There’s no front-facing or rear-facing camera, for starters, though most tablet cameras are pretty much a waste of space, so this will only seriously affect you if you want a tablet for video chatting. More seriously, there’s no way to expand the on-board memory, and the only connection is a microUSB slot. As the basic model only comes with 8GB of storage, this might be a problem if you’re a heavy media user. What’s more, the Hudl ships with 16GB as standard.

One thing we’re really keen on is the new position of the power and volume controls. The power button now sits on the tapering left-hand edge behind the screen, with the volume rocker in the same place on the right. The buttons don’t stick out but they’re easy to find by touch alone, which makes it really quick and easy to switch the tablet off or adjust the volume level.

Screen and sound

The Fire HD has the same 1280 x 800 resolution and 216 ppi pixel density as the old model, the 2012 Nexus 7 and the MeMO Pad HD7. That might not seem much when the new Nexus 7 hits 323 ppi and even the Hudl can muster 242 ppi, but then resolution isn’t the whole story. Subjectively, the Fire HD’s screen looks brighter than the Hudl’s and it has richer colours. HD video and photos still look great, and text in digital newspapers, eBooks, web pages and magazines doesn’t look noticeably blocky. Unless you’re used to a Retina display-equipped iPad or a similar Android tablet the Fire HD still looks HD. Personally, I’d take this screen over the Hudl’s every time.

Few tablets deliver decent sound, and that’s doubly true of 7in models, yet the Fire HD does better than most, dishing out movie soundtracks with more power and a wider stereo spread than you might expect. It’s only when you try music that the limitations become apparent; a thin treble, a congested mid-range and a tight but limited bass. Even then, we can’t think of many other tablets on which you can watch a TV programme without headphones and still get sucked in.

Software

The 2013 Fire HD comes running Fire OS 3.0, or “Mojito” as Amazon likes to call it. To my mind, it’s a big improvement on the old Fire OS, blending the content-centric approach of the old system with the more traditional app-centred approach you’d get on a regular Android tablet. Text links at the top take you through the different content categories, while below there’s a carousel of thumbnails for the most recently used or played apps, eBooks, media, web pages and documents.

Below that there’s a grid of apps, including all the core email, calendar, browser and contacts apps, which you can flick into centre-frame with a single swipe upwards. The old Kindle Fire HD felt like a content consumption device that could also show your email or browse the web. The new Kindle Fire HD feels like a tablet that’s especially aimed at consuming content – I hope you can see the distinction.

All the different categories are split into three areas, covering stuff that’s stored in your Amazon cloud, stuff that’s stored on your device and stuff you might like to go and purchase from the store. This makes it easy to download apps, books or music that you’ve purchased on Amazon to your tablet, while you can get around some of the limited storage issues by removing apps or media stored locally when you don’t really want them anymore; it’s just so easy to get them back. It also makes it a little too easy to buy new content from Amazon – it feels like it’s an extension of the stuff you already own.

The core email and web browser apps seem slicker and more functional than they did at launch, with a range of minor but useful enhancements. While Amazon’s Silk browser is far from my favourite mobile browser, it now feels a lot faster and I like the full-screen view, while the email app copes well with lots of mail and different accounts. Amazon also pre-installs OfficeSuite for viewing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on the go.

Overall, Mojito looks good, feels good and runs at a decent speed on the Fire HD. It works well, and there are some interesting features for families coming down the line – good news if you’re thinking of a budget tablet for the kids. As usual with a Kindle Fire, though, we have two caveats to mention. One is that whereas those in the US get video from the Amazon Prime service, we’re stuck with LoveFilm. This no longer has the best selection of films or TV shows to stream, and it’s hugely frustrating that you can’t download films to watch offline. Luckily, you’re free to use Netflix if you prefer, though it’s not integrated into the Video section.

The other caveat is that you’re still limited to the subset of Android apps available through Amazon’s own App store. This has a good range – and one that puts Windows 8 to shame – but you can still find yourself unable to get specific apps, or waiting for an app that’s already available on Android to arrive, if it ever does.

Performance

Where the 7in Fire HDX has a 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor to power it, the low-end model has to make do with a 1.5Ghz dual-core processor, which is presumably the same OMAP 4470 found on the Fire HD 8.9. With a SunSpider 0.91 score of 975ms it’s actually faster than the Fire HD 8.9 and Nexus 7 (on paper at least) and in use it feels extremely slick. Subjectively, it’s a faster, more fluid experience than Android 4.2 on the Tesco Hudl.

There are limitations, however. There’s not a whole lot of GPU grunt in comparison to tablets higher up the price scale, and while the Fire HD will happily play HD video streams, new 3D games will struggle. It can only hit 5.3 frames per second (fps) in the GFXBench T-Rex HD onscreen test and 17 fps in Egypt HD, and while Asphalt 8 is playable, it’s only just. Of course the same is true of the sub £120 competition, so the message is that if you want to play games during your off-time, buy further up the scale.

Battery life

Amazon claims that the Fire HD will last for ten hours of mixed use, but as with the Fire HDX we’ve come away a little disappointed. In our experience you might get seven to eight hours of web browsing, email, eBook reading, and other entertainment, but certain activities, like games and HD video streaming, hit the battery harder. In one hour of watching Netflix we went through 20 per cent of the battery. That’s worse than the Hudl, though the Kindle Fire HD doesn’t share the Hudl’s nasty habit of draining charge away while it’s asleep.

Verdict

The new Fire HD poses a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand it has the nicest design and best build quality of any tablet in this price bracket, and arguably the best screen. On the other hand it’s limited in terms of storage unless you pay £139 for the 16GB version, and the storage isn’t expandable.

The battery life is disappointing and it’s also tied into Amazon’s app and media stores. If you’re happy living in an Amazon-centric world then it’s still a great bargain tablet, and you’ll easily be able to live with the compromises. If not, then the Asus MeMO Pad HD7 is still the best budget model, followed by the Tesco Hudl.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Processor

1.5GHz OMAP 4470

RAM

1GB

Memory

8GB

Memory Expansion

None

Display

7in 1280 x 800 IPS

Connectors

MicroUSB, headphone

Main Camera

None

Front-facing camera

None

Wi-Fi

802.11b/g/n

Battery

Lithium Polymer

Size and weight

128 x 191 x 10.6mm, 345g