REVIEW: Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Amazon’s goal is to put a Kindle in everybody’s hands, and as part of its work towards that aim it has augmented its e-reader only devices with a couple of tablets. Both all colour and both running Android (after a fashion), the aim is to extend Amazon’s offering beyond just books, capitalising on those who want this staple feature as well as what a tablet can offer. But does it do enough to meet the brief?

Minimalist design

The first glance you take at the Kindle Fire HD shows it up as nothing special. It’s a 7-inch tablet that is designed as a black monolith. There’s no Amazon branding on the front, and the pale grey marque on the back is almost invisible against the black background. A strip of black on the back that contains a pair of speaker grilles at each end adds the only real mark of distinction to the build.

Still, the build is solid, and the rubberised back panel assists with grip. That’s important on an e-reader which you are likely to use while standing on public transport when commuting.

There are micro HDMI and microUSB connectors next to each other on the bottom long edge, and a headset jack with two almost invisible buttons for power and volume control on the right edge. These buttons are flush to the chassis and near impossible to find by touch alone. You won’t find them by sight without tilting the device, either, as they are towards the back of the chassis and not visible from the front. We were constantly frustrated by the difficulty we had finding the on/off switch in particular.

Tablet comparison

Internally there are some good specifications. The processor is a dual core 1.2GHz OMAP 4430, more powerful than you find on the standard Amazon devices because it has to drive the colour screen and deliver apps and movies―among other things.

With models offering 16GB and 32GB of storage we are a long way from classic e-reader territory here, as befits a tablet that offers you access to a lot more than e-books, but Amazon has chosen not to allow you to expand on the internal storage as many―though not all―tablets do, so it will be important to choose your model wisely.

The 7-inch screen offers a 1280×800-pixel resolution that is sharp and bright. E-book reading, though, isn’t entirely a pleasure. The benefits of a traditional E-ink display are lost here. Like all colour screens it isn’t at its best outdoors, the screen is overly bright for extended reading, and it is quite reflective. It is fine for short bursts of reading, but for reading long texts we prefer the matte finish of a traditional e-reader.

Tablet lite?

The Kindle Fire HD is based around Google’s Android operating system, but Amazon has pushed it beyond all recognition both in terms of the general appearance of the device and the services and apps that are on offer. The home screen offers you a carousel like display of what you were doing when you last switched on, making it really easy to get back to the Web page, e-book, video or whatever that you were recently viewing.

You can pull down a bar from the top of the screen that gives you access to volume, brightness, wireless and other controls, and applications offer a bar on the right side of the screen if you are working in wide format, the bottom if you are in tall format, with icon-based access to controls.

It’s the content that matters to Amazon of course, and it goes without saying that anything you’ve previously bought for another Kindle is available here, and that includes books and music. Note though, that this is very much an Amazon device, and ePub is not supported.

There’s also streaming access to video via the Amazon-owned LoveFilm and you get a free 30-day trial of the service. Thereafter, you are locked into a regular £5.99 monthly subscription if you want to retain access to any movie content you have purchased.

As an Android device you’d expect access to the app store and here the Kindle Fire HD really disappoints. Amazon has selected apps and while there’s lots on offer the full Android applications store is not available.

There are other areas where the Kindle Fire HD doesn’t offer the full Android experience either. There’s no GPS so no mapping function, and you don’t have the full range of Android apps on board, though there is a calendar and contacts book and a special edition of Skype too (there’s a front facing camera above the screen but no camera on the back). We’re really not happy about having an advertisement on the lock screen, either.

Neither chalk nor cheese

We found the Kindle Fire HD pleasant to use, but we were frustrated at the lack of full fat Android support. And we found the e-reading experience to be less satisfactory than that on a traditional e-reader thanks to the colour screen. The Amazon-designed user interface is clearly intended to push you towards its products too, which will be fine for Amazon fans, less so for those looking for a fuller Android experience.

In the end the Kindle Fire HD leaves us a little nonplussed. A traditional E-ink e-reader is a better bet for reading e-books in all lighting conditions, and one of the newer backlit options such as Amazon’s own Kindle Paperwhite means it is even usable in the dark. A standard Android tablet such as the price equivalent Neuxus 7 has full-blown Android on board plus the option of downloading Amazon’s Kindle app. Although it would be a more expensive route to take, we’d probably opt for separate tablet and e-readers and leave the Kindle Fire HD to one side.

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