First off, this is my blog at TMO, a place where I write about anything I think would be interesting to our readers. What follows is not a review of the Kindle Fire HD. I won't be showing comparison charts. Instead, my observations are based on my technical background and experience with iPads, but naturally have some opinion attached. The upshot is, basically, for what this device is intended to do, it does it very well indeed. Of course, there's much more to it, with plusses and minuses for each platform, so let's get started.
I've had the pleasure of being in possession of the this 7-inch Kindle Fire HD (KFHD) since mid December, thanks to the friendly folks at Amazon's partner, The Outcast Agency. My first article on the KFHD, back in December, was focused on its capabilities as an eBook reader: "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 6: Amazon Kindle Fire HD." In the process of writing that article, I noticed some interesting things about the KFHD, but there wasn't space to discuss them. I've been wanting to do that for awhile.
I never handled the original Kindle Fire from 2011. From personal reports and written reviews, I heard about a certain cheapness of build and design. However, the 2012 KFHD is a whole new animal. It's well made, solid, has a good heft, exhibits a good fit and finish, and is a worthwhile investment in hardware. The more I handle it, the more I appreciate its physical look and quality. I wouldn't be unhappy to have spent $199 of my own money for one.
The 7-inch KFHD is roughly the same size as an iPad mini but weighs a few ounces more. It has a wider bezel on the front than one would like, and as a result, the actual display area is smaller than the iPad mini. The viewable area is 94 mm wide x 151 mm high (3.7 x 5.9-inches). The iPad mini's viewable area is 120 mm wide x 161 mm high (4.7 x 6.3-inches). It makes a visible difference.
That, along with the KFHD's 1280 x 800 resolution can make for small type in the web browser ("Silk"), and web pages in portrait mode are fairly hard to read. And I have 20/15 vision at 12 inches.
Small display and high resolution make for tiny text.
Of course, for those interested in the KFHD as an eBook reader, the font size is adjustable, display formatting problems go away, and reading a regular book on it is delightful, as I wrote in the eReader article cited above.
One of the most annoying things about the KFHD is the power button on the top. It is completely flush and hard to find by feel or by sight in any light. It's a major design blunder by Amazon. And it doesn't get better with time and practice. Amazon hosed this up really good. That design also makes for difficult screen shots. (Power + volume down.) The same can be said for the volume up and down buttons: they're hard to find, hard to use.
Unlike the iPad series, there is no physical home button, but a soft home icon is almost always displayed in the control bar at the bottom of the display. I never lost control of the KFHD, and so I never felt that I lost anything by not having a physical home button. If I did, however, it would mean a reboot.
The speakers are just outstanding. I watched and listened to the opening music of Netflix's House of Cards as well as some action scenes from the movie The Final Countdown on the KFHD and also the iPad mini, and the KFHD sounded noticeably better because of the speakers on both sides. The iPad mini's stereo speakers are clustered, side by side, on the bottom. I have frequently been critical of Apple's design decisions for speakers on all iPad models. However, both tablets sounded the same using Apple's new EarPods.
Netflix: In The Final Countdown, Navy F-14s shoot down WWII Japanese Zeros. Really. (credit: Blue Underground)
The back of the KFHD has a soft texture and easily attracts fingerprints, but they're easily rubbed out with a soft cloth. The texture does make for a warmer, grippier feeling device -- but then I didn't invest in a case like I did for the iPad mini, so that offsets.
It does have a gyroscope and accelerometer, helpful for games.
The first thing you notice on the KFHD is the Carousel. That's a showcase of icons something like what Apple used to have with Cover Flow. The most recent apps, books, web pages, and so on are displayed and easy to swipe through. This feature of Android helps the user easily return to whatever they were doing most recently, and iOS has nothing like it.
It's a difference in philosophy. Apple believes the first page on an iPad should be a page of apps to get you going. Amazon wants to remind you what you did last.
The home page has a "carousel" of recent items. And, of course, recommendations.
Screen shots are date stamped and in PNG format, as they are on a Mac. But in iOS, they're numbered photo1, photo2 etc. That makes for a bit of a headache when emailing multiple sets of emails from an iPad to a Mac, leading mostly to having to rename them right away to avoid conflicts. Amazon did the smarter thing here.
Sending an email has several delightful aspects. First, when you touch the shift key, the keyboard display also changes to reflect upper case. It's a natural, pleasing thing to do. Second, email attachments are trivial to execute and work intuitively. Third, editing text in an email uses nifty, blue 3D calipers that are easy to grasp and move. I found them easier to manipulate than iOS's blue dots. (See below.)
Editing calipers are very easy to handle.
Fourth, there are word predictions beneath the composition window, above the keyboard. (See above.) When you see the full word you want, just tap it. Finally, Android keyboards have the Swype function that a lot of people like. I had mixed results with it, but then I'm a newbie.
Spelling autocorrection was a real pain, as it's on by default, and a setting to turn it off isn't found in the Settings. I finally found out that one must hold down the spacebar to access "Keyboard Settings." That's weird. Original, but weird.
I had, like many others, trouble setting up Gmail. Amazon, it seems, has no interest in supporting Google this way - from what I've read. I have a personal POP mail account that I use for testing in situations like this at a public ISP, and it worked fine. Also, the default search engine is Bing, but you can change that to Yahoo! or Google. Amazon is not shy about keeping you cozy in its own ecosystem and away from Google if you let them.
Of course, there's a lot of advertising and recommendations on this device. That's how Amazon makes its money. But my reaction was that it's fairly tasteful and low key. After all, if you subscribe to what this kind of consumer tablet does, you can expect it. If you want the peace and quiet of a pure tablet, then, of course, there are other choices.
Login screen has ads, but they're generally tasteful.
There were some annoyances as well. The battery level can't be displayed as a percent. You must drag down from the top of the display to reveal the settings page (like iOS Notifications), and there, you can see the battery level along with a lot of other settings and device details. (That notched drag down is something Apple liked about Android and now uses.) Or, you can download an app that shows the percentage remaining with good accuracy.
There is no audible confirmation of emails being sent. Sometimes, I got a prompt that the emailed image was still being processed for sharing, apparently hung, even after it was sent. Rebooting fixed that. Screen shots are tricky thanks to the design of the power and volume buttons.
Pull down from top reveals settings.
That theme (above) of burnt orange/yellow (fire) and occasionally green on black looks very handsome and is easy to read.
The KFHD appears to use Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0.3. In general, I found that the OS wasn't as smooth and glitch-free as iOS 6.x. There were occasional, cosmetic glitches, visual snafus, signs that it isn't as mature and debugged as iOS. Also, because Amazon has rolled its own customized version, it's problemnatic whether you can stay up to date with the latest Android OS (Now at 4.2, Jelly Bean) like you could with, say, a Google Nexus - a pure tablet and a showcase for Android.
The default app store for the KFHD is Amazon's and has a total of 45,000 curated apps, I was told by Amazon's PR firm. But that includes every app that will run. Those that are native to the KFHD will be fewer, but Amazon declined to break out that number. Whatever that native number is, it's a small fraction of the number of native apps for iPads, about 300,000. Fortunately, with some technique, you can side load most any Android app, but that also has risks.
The most popular apps are available.
However many native apps there are, the real question is, are the apps most widely used and of interest available for the KFHD customer? I think the answer is yes. In addition to the built-in email client, a web browser, calendar and contacts, you can easily download Twitter, Facebook, Skype, IMDB, Netflix, Pandora, at least three dozen chess apps, PDF readers, USA Today, The Weather Channel, calculators galore, and so on. Many good ones, as with iOS, are free.
I think there is, for many customers, a fundamental set of essential apps, like those above, and they're all available. If you need exotic, special purpose apps, then this isn't the kind of device for that. For example, navigation/sextant apps that utilize a rear facing camera and visual overlay are not an option because the KFHD has only a front facing camera. That's all part of being a consumer focused tablet, not a general purpose, pure tablet that can be pressed into all kinds of service in business and science.
The Kindle Fire HD is a special purpose device. It creates a fairly restricted environment in terms of the sheer number of apps and your flexibility to easily install any app of your choosing. There are ads and recommendations. If you pay extra, the ads go away, but the recommendations do not.
Handsome, sturdy, well made -- with some heft.
That said, this is a remarkable product. It's well made, presents well, feels good in the hand, has considerable resolution on both models (7 and 8.9-inch), great speakers, and the Amazon customized Android OS is much further along, technically, than the original Kindle Fire. The UI is very good looking with crisp colors on black, it's easy to navigate and fun to use -- but occasionally rough around the edges.
For those customers who want and need a device like this, it's a great choice. Because it is such a nifty tablet, I wouldn't feel bad at all spending $199 of my own money on one. Or even $299 for the 8.9-inch model -- all the while recognizing its limitations. The KFHD is not in the same class as an iPad, but it doesn't have to be for its target audience. And that's the point. It does only what it's intended to do, and does it well.