Updated: September 28, 2012 9:51PM
Can I forgive the Kindle Fire HD for not being as agile and powerful as an iPad, or as flexible as a Nexus 7 mini tablet?
Of course I can. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos refers to the new Fire HD line as “the best tablets at any price,” and oh, my, no, it really, really isn’t. But it’s clear to me that the 2012 Fire, like its debutante edition last year, was never designed to be a true, iPad-like post-PC device. Instead, it’s the next step in a linear spiritual progression that began with the very first e-ink Kindle in 2007.
The Fire is a reader and a content device. Most every visible feature optimizes the device for the familiar experience of flipping open a cover and then reading.
Witness the physical form of the 7-inch Fire HD, which I’ve been using for about a week. It took me a little by surprise when I unboxed it. The new Fire is larger than the 2011 model, though the screen is the same size. Placed next to the Nexus 7, it even seems a little ungainly.
Then I took it to my sofa, downloaded the same book I had been reading on my iPad’s Kindle app, and picked up where I left off.
I could actually hold the Fire almost any way I wanted, without accidentally turning pages!
The Fire HD’s screen is surrounded by a frame that’s about as thick as the one that surrounds the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen. I can rest my thumbs on it easily. By comparison, the Nexus 7 is kind of persnickety about how it’s held; it’s far less comfortable.
Amazon has fine-tuned the Fire’s interface, but the basic concept and underlying philosophies remain the same. It presents you with a rotating carousel with all of the Kindle and Amazon content you’ve recently used, auto-populated in reverse-chronological order. The Fire keeps the focus squarely on the content...not on the apps you must launch before reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie.
(Alas, the carousel still doesn’t drill into third-party apps. The three digital comic books I read this morning are represented there solely by the Comixology app icon. Only content provided directly by Amazon appears in the carousel.)
Underneath, there’s a dock where you can pin your favorite items. You can access this dock from any app, just by tapping a persistent star button in the lower-right corner of the screen.
The Fire also does a fine job of keeping all of the stuff on the device — books, music, video, apps — organized without the complexity of a “real” file browser. It’s all corralled into clear tabs (again: content, content, content, not computer, computer, computer). And the Fire isn’t ambiguous about where all of this stuff is located. Different sub-tabs show you what’s on the device, what’s available in the cloud for streaming or downloading, and what’s waiting to be purchased in the Store. I wish more services took this approach. I’ve been using iOS and Android cloud music services for more than a year now, and I still often wake up my phone in the middle of a flight to discover that the album that I was certain I’d stored on the device isn’t available.
No other tablet today delivers this kind of simplicity because none of them is focusing its ambitions to just delivering content. Yes, the Fire includes a web browser and a new email client, and there’s a hefty library of third-party apps available for sale through the Amazon App Store (though no access to the much wider collection of Google Play apps). But that’s not the Fire’s strength; its tablet-like features are more like bonuses. The Fire HD does support Bluetooth, for example, but I couldn’t pair it with my wireless keyboard. Amazon (like any sensible entity) probably wonders why anyone would ever bother trying to write or edit anything on a Fire.
And the Kindle is backed up by a rich content library. The Kindle Store is still my top recommendation for books. All of the content is locked with proprietary DRM, which stinks, but that’s an unavoidable fact of the marketplace right now. Amazon’s aggressive in building Kindle reader apps for any electronic device that can display upper and lowercase text, which is an advantage that Apple’s iBookstore doesn’t have and which the Google Play store can only nod at. Ditto for Amazon Instant Video purchases, which can play on a range of devices, set-top boxes, and web browsers; Apple’s content is only playable by the iTunes app, the Apple TV, and Apple mobile devices. An affordable annual Amazon Prime membership grants you access to a big library of streaming movies and TV shows, and a lending library lets you check out thousands of current copyrighted books without additional charge. The Kindle experience lacks that kind of comprehensive reach outside of America and Europe.
Amazon doesn’t lock you in to a death-spiral of infinite purchases, either. Sideloading your own movies and music onto the Fire HD is as simple as hooking up a USB cable. (And also downloading the standard Android file transfer app, if you’re on a Mac.)
The Fire runs a forked (meaning: genetically-divergent) version of Android. That’s good; they added Jet Age streamlining and dropped the stuff that often makes Android a confusing tablet OS. Also good: it’s Android 4.0, instead of the Golden Girls edition that made the first Fire less than fully responsive. Coupled with the Fire HD’s faster CPU, the user interface is nice and fast. It isn’t liquid like the Nexus 7, or psychic like the iPad. But it’s a huge improvement over the original, whose user buttons and controls often seemed to suffer from some kind of Doppler effect.
Amazon has also upgraded all of the hardware. The screen is now magazine-quality. It’s a big improvement for book reading and it also makes the Fire HD into a much better device for graphics-rich content such as magazines and comic books. I’m sure most people would have said “HD video” but hey, I spend much more tablet time reading comics than watching movies.
Amazon is boasting about an advanced WiFi system that’s faster than the Nexus and even the iPad. That seems to check out; DSLreports.com’s tablet speed test consistently shows the Fire HD transacting about 20 percent faster on the same two WiFi networks as my 2012 iPad.
Moving on to the Lightning Round: the battery easily lasted all day in my testing; the built-in speaker is actually pleasant and useful for ambient listening; there’s a new front-facing camera for conferencing; there’s 16 gigabytes of storage in the basic $199 model, up from a marginal 8 in last year’s Fire, with 32 gigs available for $249; and a micro HDMI port lets you watch your content on any HDTV.
And thank God: they moved the Fire’s profanity-inducing power button to the top of the device and mounted it flush with the frame, so you won’t always be sleeping the Kindle in mid-read. For me, this was the one Whiskey Tango Foxtrot part of the first Fire’s design.
There’s really only one annoying element of the Fire HD. Delivering and presenting content in the easiest and most comfortable environment possible is clearly its prime directive, but selling you new content is a close second. The Fire’s lock screen is an ad for additional Kindle content, and the bottom of the screen will occasionally be infested with “special offers.” And so it shall be, unless (what am I saying: “until”) you give Amazon $15 to turn the ads off forever.
I’m not against that concept in general. I like the fact that Amazon can drive down the price of their already affordable electronic ink Kindles even further with ad subsidies. The special offers make these devices available to a broader spectrum of people. But on a $199 color device, charging $15 to turn off ads seems like pointless nickel-and-diming. If the Fire HD catches me at the end of a long, bad day, when all I want to do is cauterize the day’s events from my short-term memory via a great book, I resent opening the smart cover of the Kindle Fire and seeing an ad for the Blu Ray release of a blockbuster movie that I regret having paid $11 to see during the summer.
The 7-inch Fire HD is aces as a content device. In all ways, it’s a compelling alternative to the iPad and the Nexus 7 and if you’re truly not interested in participating in the Post-PC Revolution, its clarity and simplicity are strong arguments for a best-of-breed designation. The Fire HD is much less impressive when you approach it as a full-on tablet. The content-focused interface is a little too simple for the broad range tasks thrown at a “real” computer, and overall, its performance is noticeably less agile than an iPad or a conventional Android tablet.
Those limitations are much on my mind as I consider the fortunes of the 8.9-inch editions of the Fire HD (untested by me). The pricing is wonderful: just $299 for the 16 gig WiFi version, with 4G editions weighing in at $499. That’s not really out of line; the LTE 16 gig iPad is $629. We’ll have to see whether or not consumers will instinctively be disappointed by an iPad-sized device that isn’t as powerful as an iPad as well.
So writes the tech columnist, on his iPad 3...his sole work computer during a busy week of travel. For the sort of things I need to do when I’m traveling, a notebook computer seems superfluous. My iPad (plus a good Bluetooth keyboard) can easily handle all of my work.
An impressive endorsement of the iPad. Does this mean that the Kindle HD is toast once Apple decides to ship an iPad Mini at somewhere near the $200-$249 price range? Not at all. I’m becoming convinced that consumers have a whole different relationship with 7-inch devices than they do with 10-inch tablets.
“As powerful as a notebook” and “as uncomplicated as a hardcover” will compete in the marketplace. It’s a battle in which one philosophy will sell more units than the other, but neither can be declared a loser.