The Amazon Kindle Fire HD (£159 for the 16GB version, £199 for 32GB) is finally coming out in the UK, in a refreshed standard version, as well as this HD model. The new 7in Kindle Fire HD (KFHD) offers a well-designed interface that provides an easy way to consume Amazon's library of content and services, and to buy, buy, buy. That makes the KFHD highly entertaining, and potentially the best purchase for tablet shoppers who value ease of use over all else.
Design and battery life
The Kindle Fire HD feels more solid, well-built, and premium than the original U.S-only Kindle Fire, which some people thought was made from leftover BlackBerry PlayBook parts.
Measuring 137 x 10 x 193mm (WxDxH) and weighing 395 grams, it's slightly bigger, but slimmer and lighter than the slate which emerged last year in the States.
The corners are more rounded, and the back is softly tapered with a grippy feel. It's constructed mostly of a matte plastic material, with a shiny black strip along the back housing two powerful, dual-driver, room-filling stereo speakers. The Power button is now recessed into the right side panel, as opposed to the original Fire's unfortunate bottom-mounted button, and there's a hardware volume rocker next to it.
Fire up the display, and, well, one word sums it up: Wow! The 7in IPS LCD is only 1,280 x 800 – a fairly standard resolution for a small-screen tablet – but it's non-reflective, with great colour balance, and a terrific viewing angle. It's better than the Nexus 7's same-spec display. You'll be able to watch this for hours.
Above the screen, there's a 1-megapixel video camera that can only be used by certain apps, such as Skype and Evernote. You get micro HDMI and micro USB ports on the bottom panel (pictured below), but no memory card slots, and the battery isn't removable.
Fortunately, the KFHD has pretty long battery life, providing a solid 7 hours of video playback with the screen pumped up to maximum brightness. The Nexus 7, though, scored more than 10.5 hours on the same test.
Interface, apps, and ads
The Kindle Fire HD runs Amazon's custom operating system over a base layer of Android 4.0. Call it "Amdroid." While Amdroid is compatible with most third-party Android apps, the user interface is totally unrecognisable from stock Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). The focus is on letting you easily play with the stuff you download from Amazon.
The first thing you'll see when you turn on a Kindle Fire HD is an advert. Amazon feeds these "offers" to your tablet instead of showing a standard lock screen. Various full-screen ads are shown in rotation, and a two-line text ad also floats at the bottom of every home screen while you're using the tablet.
If you hate the ads, over in the U.S. Amazon has announced that you can rid your slate of them for a $15 (£9.25) one-off fee, but there’s no confirmation yet as to whether this option will be offered in the UK. Fingers crossed it will.
Like the original U.S-only Kindle Fire, the KFHD's home screen starts with a horizontal list of text options: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, Docs, and Offers (the aforementioned ads). Below that there's a large, rotating carousel of the most recent icons you've used. There's no easy or obvious way to flip through multiple apps you're running at the same time, although the music player hangs out in the notification bar so you can pause it as needed.
If you're in portrait mode, the sell gets even harder: Many of the recently used icons on the home screen start to display a list of suggested purchases below them, while links to web pages show other trending pages.
Click on any category and you get a virtual bookshelf of your content, divided into Cloud and Device sections. When you have a Wi-Fi signal, you can download stuff to move it from the Cloud (where you have unlimited storage space for your Amazon-purchased content) to the Fire itself, or vanquish it back into the Cloud to free up your available 12.6GB of on-device space. (There's no memory card slot, but you can double your storage with the 32GB Fire HD, which will cost you an extra £40). When you're outside the reach of Wi-Fi, only the Device shelves are available. All the sections also have a link through to Amazon's store so you can buy more content when you're connected, of course.
The web comes courtesy of Amazon's Silk browser, which has largely failed to live up to its promises of being super-fast and seamless through cloud acceleration. While it's a perfectly fine browser, Chrome on a Tegra 3-based Android device is faster with smoother scrolling. Amazon says Silk will speed up over the next several months as its servers optimise various web pages.
The Photos section displays pictures from your Amazon account or your Facebook account (but not your friends' photos). Docs displays documents you've side-loaded or e-mailed to the Kindle's unique address; it displays PDFs, Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations handsomely.
Among the pre-loaded custom apps, the Email app integrated well with Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft Exchange in my tests. It was very fast and responsive, but used a slightly larger font than the standard Android email client, showing less text on the screen at once. The contacts app brought in Google and Skype, but not Facebook contacts. The calendar app handled my multiple Google and Exchange calendars very attractively.
Amazon called out a few apps to show off the KFHD's potential. Skype, the only app I could find that uses the front-facing video camera, is clearly a work in progress. I got functional but very jaggy video over two different Wi-Fi connections. Skylanders, a game that's supposed to show off the KFHD's graphics, is fun but falls far short of the stuff you see in Nvidia's Tegra Zone for Tegra-based tablets.
Loading your own apps and content is easy: Plug the KFHD into your PC and it appears just like any other Android tablet. I installed and ran a range of APK app files extracted from another Android phone without a problem, using the Easy Installer found in Amazon's Appstore.
Installing the Google Play app store didn't work, though. While most Android devices (including the Nexus 7) let you choose between Play and the Amazon Appstore, the Kindle Fire is an Amazon Appstore device only. Amazon says it has over 10,000 "Kindle Fire compatible" apps, so there's a broad selection, and I found most of the major brands I looked for when I searched – for example Netflix, games from Disney, Rovio, EA, and indeed several high-quality office suites. Nokia Maps stands in for Google Maps.
Some apps don't show up in Amazon's store, though: Notably all of the high-end games exclusive to Nvidia's Tegra Zone, such as Heroes Call, Zen Pinball, and Sonic 4 Episode II.
Google, vexingly, has never publicly said how many Android tablet apps are in Google Play, focusing instead on the 400,000-plus apps designed for smaller phone screens. But having Google's app store definitely gives you more options, and with an Amazon tablet, you're not getting them.
As far as media handling goes, the Fire HD played AAC, M4A and MP3 audio files, and AVI, MPEG4 and H.264 video files without any problems in my tests. There's no DivX, Xvid, or WMV support.
Note that over in the US, the Kindle Fire HD benefits from the Amazon Prime movie streaming service, allowing unlimited streaming. Sadly, this hasn’t been made available for UK Amazon Prime subscribers yet… but it might do in the future.
Amazon unfortunately overpromised and under-delivered on performance with this tablet. In his presentation, Jeff Bezos strongly implied that the 1.2GHz TI OMAP4460 processor here is faster than the Nexus 7's Nvidia Tegra 3 by cherry-picking stats. But our benchmarks and performance tests tell a more complicated story.
We test using a range of benchmarks and apps including AnTuTu, Geekbench, Basemark OS, Browsermark, and others. The Nexus 7 beat the KFHD on all the overall scores and on the most intense graphics tests; the KFHD beat the Nexus on some memory access tests and the Basemark system tests. Burrowing into the Basemark OS and AnTuTu results, it looks like the KFHD is slightly faster per core, but the Nexus 7 has more cores, so performance varies based on how many cores a program puts into action.
But one difference jumped out at me: Basemark OS revealed that the KFHD is much slower to launch apps, which creates a very real perception of lag. I ran into too many delays in the KFHD's user interface. Thumbnails on Amazon's video and apps pages take a couple of seconds to load; that's a bug that will be fixed soon, Amazon says. Scrolling around web pages in the browser shows a white screen that gets filled in by content after a noticeable delay; that's actually a feature to accelerate the browser, Amazon says, although the browser didn't score any better overall on our benchmarks than Chrome on the Nexus 7. Heavy multitasking caused some jerkiness in the UI, as did plugging in an HDMI cable. "Amdroid" 4.0 just isn't as smooth in operation as the Nexus 7's Android 4.1.
Amazon made sure that none of this affects the experience of using its branded content. I streamed smart looking Lovefilm videos to an HDTV over an HDMI cable without stuttering. But when you're switching apps, loading apps, or browsing menus, stuttering and delays can crop up a bit too often.
Wi-Fi and networking performance
Amazon heavily promoted its dual-band, MIMO Wi-Fi during the KFHD's launch. Once again, they oversold it. I tested the KFHD against the Nexus 7 on three 2.4GHz networks and three 5GHz networks. (The Nexus 7 doesn't use the 5GHz band).
If you have the option of 5GHz rather than 2.4GHz, then yes, the Kindle Fire delivers much faster Wi-Fi speeds. On the same router, we got an average of 5.8Mbps down on the Kindle Fire at 5GHz, as opposed to 3.7Mbps down on the Nexus 7. And the multiple antennas help in an area with extreme reflections. Tested on a 2.4GHz network with stone walls in the way, I got an average of 2.4Mbps down on the Kindle Fire as opposed to 1.8Mbps down on the Nexus 7.
But with a clear connection at a relatively short distance, the limit on my Internet speed was usually more about backhaul than the tablet's antennas. Both tablets had similar awful performance in a coffee shop, a hotel room, and on an airplane, because the overall Internet connections in those locations were slow. Similarly, it was easy to max out my 10Mbps cable connection with both tablets when I was within line of sight to my router. I ran into a bug where the KFHD wouldn't connect to 5GHz networks, twice in two days. Rebooting the tablet solved the problem.
The KFHD also integrates Bluetooth, which works fine with music, video, and game audio. It doesn't have NFC, or a cellular radio. It also, notably, lacks GPS, although it tries to make do by finding your location using a database of nearby Wi-Fi networks. While the tablet doesn't come with a mapping program, you can download the entirely adequate Nokia Maps from Amazon's Appstore. It offers walking, driving, and transit (but not live, spoken or turn-by-turn) directions.
When the original Kindle Fire came out in America a year ago, it caused a big splash because it was the first easy-to-use $199 Android tablet. Since then, the Android tablet competition has hotted up considerably with the likes of the Nexus 7, not to mention a smaller Apple iPad looming on the horizon.
We don't know for sure that the new, smaller iPad is coming, but let's assume the entire Internet is right for the moment. That tablet may not measure up to any of its competitors on specs like screen resolution, but it'll blow them away on apps, especially games. If the new iPad is compatible with earlier iPad apps, it'll have tens of thousands available at launch compared to the Android crew's single-digit thousands of tablet-focused apps. It may just be worth waiting to see what Cupertino might unveil next month.
Finally, while we haven't yet reviewed the new £129 Kindle Fire, the other model bound for the UK, we’re pretty confident the KFHD is worth the £30 extra for the higher quality screen. You're going to be looking at your tablet's display a lot, and the sharper text and lower reflectivity really help here. The faster processor is also a pleasant boost.
In the end, we can still recommend the Kindle Fire HD, as the slate has a lot going for it. If you want an easy-to-use media consumption tablet, the Fire HD will certainly keep you entertained. The excellent 7in display and potentially boosted Wi-Fi performance are also selling points.
But the real advantage here is in the slate’s ease of use. There are no widgets. You can't mess with the home screens. When you buy something, it's very clear where it'll appear. Geeks may underrate this facet of the device, but there are millions of people out there who just want to watch and play with stuff, not set things up. This is who the KFHD is for.
However, when it comes to selecting a small tablet for the majority of consumers, we'd still pick the Nexus 7 for its overall speed and flexibility.
For a closer look at UK specifications, check out our comparisons: