Review: Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7''

Amazon Kindle Fire HD takes on Google Nexus 7 (October 4th, 2012)

After dominating the e-book reader market and making a successful foray into the Android tablet arena, Amazon recently expanded its mobile device lineup. Price was arguably the most significant factor driving Kindle Fire sales, however the budget tablet has since been overshadowed by competing devices with superior specs for the same price. Is the new seven-inch Kindle Fire HD "the best tablet at any price," as Amazon claims? We'll attempt to find out in our full review.

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Product Manufacturer: Amazon

Price: $199

The Good

  • Better display
  • Robust sound
  • Light and compact
  • Long batter life
  • Improved performance

The Bad

  • Recommendations on home screen
  • Software lags at times
  • Limited app selection
  • Not as versatile as Nexus 7

After dominating the e-book reader market and making a successful foray into the Android tablet arena, Amazon recently expanded its mobile device lineup. Price was arguably the most significant factor driving Kindle Fire sales, however the budget tablet has since been overshadowed by competing devices with superior specs for the same price. Is the new seven-inch Kindle Fire HD "the best tablet at any price," as Amazon claims? We'll attempt to find out in our full review.

Design

The seven-inch Fire HD maintains the same overall form as its predecessor, though we were surprised to discover that the new model is larger. The added volume does not bring an equivalent increase in weight, and we found the 13.9-ounce tablet to be comfortable to handle for extended sessions.



The new design is clearly more refined, bringing a modernized appearance that is less generic than the original Fire. The company finally added physical buttons for volume control, which we consider an essential basic feature for any entertainment device. We were less impressed with the new power button, which blends into the edge without much tactile differentiation from the housing itself.

The new display is the new Fire's highlighted feature, keeping to the HD namesake with 1280x800 resolution for native 720p playback. At this point, 1280x720 or higher is the industry standard for high-end seven-inch tablets, and Amazon's entertainment focus makes the move to HD a necessity.

Aside from the resolution upgrade, the display features optical bonding to bring the pixels closer to the surface of the touchscreen for improved contrast and colors. We found the display quality to be perceivably higher than the original Fire, though not a clear winner against Google's Nexus 7.

Users can also connect the Fire HD directly to a TV via HDMI output, which requires a Mini-HDMI adapter.





Software

Like the original Fire, the HD is powered by a heavily customized Android build, referred to as "Kindle Fire OS," however the second-generation tablet makes the jump from Android 2.3 to Android 4.0. Although it may not look like Ice Cream Sandwich, the OS brings many of the same under-the-hood optimizations.

The Fire OS overlay has been updated for the HD tablet, featuring a revamped carousel, recommendations on the home screen, social networking integration and tweaks to the general appearance. Among the myriad of Amazon-centric interface elements, we found the recommendations to be a waste of homescreen space, though most of the changes are for the better.



Users looking for a pure Android experience obviously need to look elsewhere. The Amazon Appstore lists less than 40,000 titles, in contrast to several hundred thousand on the official Google Play store. Many of the additional apps will not be missed, however, and the custom OS is well suited for Amazon's popular ecosystem.

Reading e-books is a pleasure on the Fire HD, which takes full advantage of the 1280x800 display resolution. Text appears much more crisp on the new display, even better than the presentation from the Kindle app on the Nexus 7.



Google did a great job developing the stock UI for Android 4.1, which will remain a preferred presentation for many tablet users. We would like to declare a winner, but in reality, stock Android and the Kindle Fire HD experience are both well suited to separate groups of users. Jelly Bean provides a greater breadth of capabilities and features, while the Fire HD interface is geared specifically for reading and entertainment.





Performance

The original Fire integrates a 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP processor, which has been replaced by a newer 1.2GHz dual-core OMAP chip. An Imagination PowerVR GPU helps the Fire HD handle graphics-intensive tasks.

Through a combination of hardware improvements and software optimizations, the Fire HD is much more powerful than its predecessor. Interface transitions are snappy, game graphics are smooth, and app launching is usually prompt. Web browsing is also very quick, hastily loading pages and properly rendering most details.

In real-world tests, the Fire HD appeared to keep up with the Nexus 7 for most tasks. Whether from software optimizations or raw performance from the quad-core Tegra 3 chipset, the Nexus 7 does have a slight edge when playing certain 3D games.

Amazon claims the new tablet achieves Wi-Fi speeds up to 40 percent faster, thanks to its dual-band, dual-antenna configuration. Users are promised to reach download speeds of up to 31 megabytes per second, though we did not experience any clear advantage when connected to our home network. The 5GHz band may prove beneficial when the tablet is used in urban areas congested by Wi-Fi signals.

The Fire HD keeps the same 4400mAh battery capacity as the first-generation model. Amazon suggests users can reach a maximum of 11 hours when reading, surfing via Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music. With low brightness and radios disabled, we barely passed nine hours playing 720p videos.



Dolby Digital Plus

We usually give little attention to the integrated speakers on tablets, as most provide mediocre performance at best. Amazon worked with audio specialist Dolby to develop a unique software/hardware combination that promises to blow away the competition.

The Fire HD features dual-driver stereo speakers, for a total of four drivers located at the edge of the display. Speaker grills are located on the backside, curving around the edge contour to avoid becoming blocked when the tablet is placed on a flat surface.

Better known as a feature of home AV equipment, Dolby Digital Plus is an audio codec that is dynamically processed by the Fire HD. The decoded audio is tuned specifically for the Fire HD's dual-driver speakers, helping to alleviate many of the common issues with tablets' tiny speakers.

Importantly, the tuning is switched when the audio output is switched from the built-in speakers to the headphone jack. The tuning profile is also adjusted depending on the specific type of content, such as music or voice communication.

We have been delighted with Dolby's home theater technology for years, but unimpressed by other companies' attempts to bring simple "virtual surround" processing to mobile devices. The tinny drivers in most tablets are equally disappointing. The Fire HD and Dolby Digital Plus quickly proved our worries to be unfounded, however.

The Fire HD's speakers are surprisingly loud, and more importantly, the sound is more balanced than any tablet we've heard. As all tablets transition to HD video, the audio quality has taken a back seat, and we thank Amazon for finally catering to our ears and our eyes. Music has much more detail and low-frequency response, while speech is robust enough to clearly hear in loud environments.

In other tablets, the volume cannot be raised to truly acceptable levels without resulting in distortion. The Fire HD speakers and Dolby processing are capable of boosting the necessary frequencies without overpowering the speakers or degrading the audio quality.



Final thoughts

We enjoyed our time with the seven-inch Kindle Fire HD, though "the best tablet at any price" is a stretch. The reading experience is great, and audio performance is second to none, but the Nexus 7 nonetheless serves as a formidable foe in the $199 category. More importantly, if rumors surrounding a mini iPad prove to be true, Apple may take a significant share of the budget-tablet market.

The Kindle Fire HD is available directly from Amazon for $199 with 16GB of storage, or $249 with 32GB of storage. Both options include lock-screen ads unless users pay $15 to opt out.

by Justin King


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