Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 6: Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Last Christmas, Amazon set the world on fire with the Kindle Fire, a color, consumer tablet designed to be a storefront to Amazon's vast offerings. This November, Amazon improved the device's hardware and software considerably with the launch of the Kindle Fire HD. In this installment, I'll look at, mostly, the eBook reading experience on the KFHD.

The KDHD is a 7-inch display consumer tablet. The resolution is 1280 x 800, and it weighs 394 grams (13.9 ounces). It's designed to assist the customer with the exploration of the Amazon ecosystem of books, magazines, newspapers, music, movies and TV shows. Because it's a consumer tablet, it doesn't have a rich selection of apps, and many apps one might expect are just not available.

It has a big brother, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch that also has an LTE wireless option, and it costs considerably more. Right now, I'll focus primarily on the KFHD 7-inch as an eBook reader, with a secondary look at magazines. A review is planned for later.

The home screen

What distinguishes the Kindle Fire series from other eBook Readers is the ad supported nature of the base model plus a generally better eBook reading experience.

It's well known that Amazon subsidizes the price of its tablets with the expected content that the customer will buy. So if you're a fan of Amazon and buy a lot of content there, you'll be pleased with the US$199 price.

The downside, of course, is that, like the Barnes & Noble Nook, you're also buying into an ecosystem and can't expect to have other eBook reading apps from competing ecosystems. You're stuck with the Kindle experience.

Amazon, being the BMOC with respect to books, is a bit more forthcoming about its selections. Here's the claim from their web page. Image

While this isn't a formal review, I do want to point out that the KFHD felt good in my hands, is solid, well built and beautifully designed. It has Dolby capable speakers and a crisp, beautiful display. It's easy to hold in one hand, I surmise, even for smaller hands, and has a soft skid-proof back. It runs a modified version of Android 4.0, called "Ice Cream Sandwich," which, as I understand it, cannot be upgraded. I liked the physical design and feel a lot.

Sales numbers have shown that customers like the additional capabilities of a tablet, even if it's a consumer tablet, compared to the classic Kindle eReaders. The ability run apps, browse the Internet, do email, Twitter, FaceBook, use the front facing camera for Skype and so on makes the more full-featured tablet much more attractive, even if it's an extra US$100 or so.

Just remember what the limitations are here. This is a dedicated, storefront device that, by default, has ads at the $199 price. So while you can browse and email and tweet, the KFHD is not a general purpose, full-featured pure tablet like the Google Nexus or the iPad line.


The Kindle Fire HD Experience

As we might expect, the features and options available on the KFHD are slightly greater than the Kindle eBook reader app in iOS. In iOS, you can manage fonts, size and type, the spacing, and the background color, including sepia. Also there are the X-ray feature, bookmarks, notes, highlighting, sharing (via Twitter or Facebook) and a search function.

Kindle eBook reader on iPad. Sepia background.

On the KFHD, in addition to features above, there is also margin control, popular highlights and text-to-speech. (When the option is turned on in the book's Settings -> More Options, a play/pause button appears the the bottom.) The visual presentation, however, is almost identical.

KFHD reader. Sepia background.

The book here, if you're curious, is the SciFi novel The Paladin Prophecy, by Mark Frost.

On the KFHD, there was never any trouble bringing up the tool bar that the top, unlike my experience with the Google Nexus 10 where it was a bit problematic. The loading of books and the speed of page turning was smooth and pleasing. I should mention that there is no page turning animation -- it's a simple slide sideways.

You can sort your book library by Author, title or most recent, but, which is better than the iOS version which just lumps every book into one big pot (grid or list). There's still no way to categorize books and create collections like iBooks in iOS.

Your eBook collection. Sort options only.

The presentation of each book offered for sale is tasteful and all on one page. Recommendations, naturally, of what other customers bought are included -- and any Amazon customer is accustomed to that. Personally, I think it's more intimate and better designed than Apple's reduced-size window. But that's just my opinion.

Prsentation of a book for sale.

Like Google, recommendations are solely based on previous purchases. I didn't see any mechanism, as Barnes & Noble has, for the reader to explicitly enter personal preferences.

Reading options are similar to that found in the iOS app, except that the dictionary is already installed. Here's what it looks like when you highlight a word.

Reading options similar to iOS.

The bottom line here is that almost everyone has a Amazon account, and so if the KFHD is given as a present, all one needs to do is log onto the home Wi-Fi network, login to Amazon, and presto -- all the books in your Amazon cloud are almost instantly there. I found the presentation on a very crisp display and the supporting functions to be excellent, and one could buy this device for a friend or spouse (or yourself) with confidence.

Accessing the File System

I discovered that the Android File Transfer.app could see part of the KFHD's file system when I connected to my Mac with a USB/microUSB cable, but I'm still waiting to hear from Amazon how how functional that is. I'll update later.

The Android File Transfer app shows part of the file system.

The best way to move personal documents to your KFHD is to email them to the device-specific email address. (There are specific document types you can upload. See Part 2.) On Amazon's "Manage Your Kindle" pages, you'll see what that email address is. It's also shown at the top of your "Docs" page. These files are found in your Kindle's "Docs" folder. There are other ways to move documents from your Mac (or PC) to your Kindle as well.


In the previous installments of this series, I've written about how hard it is to view PDF-formatted magazines on a 7-inch screen. But there is a clever solution. Like the Google Nexus family, the KFHD offers the option to double-tab the content of some magazines and see the text, upsized considerably, with the photos inline. That makes reading a magazine a lot easier.

Here's the default view of the January 2013 Car and Driver on the KFHD as a PDF.

Conventional magazine view. Font is small, hard to read.

And here's how the article looks after you double-tap in the content/text area.

Text View mode is easy to read

It's easy to go back and forth. This is a great feature, and goes a long way towards making magazines more readable on a 7-inch screen. I asked Amazon if this is supported in all magazines, and the answer was "most of them". At the time you purchase the subscription, there will be an indicator showing if Text View is available.

Amazon is upfront about their selection of magazine titles, shown in the chart at the top of this article -- over 400. So if you're into magazines, Amazon probably has what you want. Amazon passed my geek test: Scientific American and Sky & Telescope are both available.

Some have complained about the various ads that pop up. They're on the login screen and often show up at the bottom of an app. (But not that I have seen when engaging actual content, such as a book.) Here's an example of an ad that popped up while I was inspecting the IMDB, one the actors in the new movie, Star Trek Into Darkness .

Ads will pop up from time to time.  You can pay extra to stop them.

You can pay to have these ads suppressed or pay more for the ad-free model at the time of purchase. In my case, I didn't find them nearly as obnoxious as I thought they might be. They're hardly any worse that some websites, and that pays the bills, after all. If you don't want to see them, just pay the $15 and remember what a good deal the initial price was for the KFHD.

Final Observations

My take on the experiences so far is that if you're going to engage a specific ecosystem with a consumer tablet, then the Kindle Fire HD is a slightly better technical choice than the Barnes & Noble Nook, even though B&N has the differentiation of brick and mortar stores and onsite support. Amazon has a lot to offer in all the categories, books, music, movies, etc, has a lot of supporting services, and the Fire HD seems just a little bit better designed than the Nook HD. (Except for the power and volume controls which are awful.)

You won't be doing much content creation on this tablet. Everything you buy is logged in the Amazon cloud, and if your KFHD is lost, you can just buy a new one and sync to the cloud. The dark tones and gentle orange highlighting of the UI are tasteful -- and the capabilities of Android are very good indeed. It also touts an 11 hour battery life. The Dolby Digital Plus audio is an attractive feature.

At US$214, ad-free, this Kindle Fire HD is a fine gift or personal item for people who just want to do some very specific things, read books, watch movies, shop, and do some occasional things on the Internet: browsing, email, tweet, etc. It's a stand alone device that doesn't depend on a Mac or PC and doesn't need to be backed up. However, because of the custom mods to Android 4.0, the OS isn't upgradable.

Amazon has stepped up its game with the hardware and design, and the KFHD looks just as good in person as it does in Amazon's glamor shots. The only recommendation that I have beyond that is that if you'd like a slightly larger screen, at the expense of ease holding in one hand, extra weight and the extra cost, go for the 8.9-inch version.


For reference only, here's a brief physical comparison. One should not select between these devices on specification alone. It's intended simply to give you a feel for the various devices.

L-R: Nook, iPad mini,  Kindle Fire HD

  Nook HD iPad mini Kindle Fire HD
7.7 x 5.0 x 0.43 7.87 x 5.3 x 0.28 7.6 x 5.4 x 0.4
11.1/315 10.9/308 13.9/394
Resolution 1440 x 900/IPS 1024 x 768/IPS 1280 x 800/IPS
243 163 216
Construction Plastic Alumimum Plastic
Speakers SRS TruMedia Stereo Dolby
Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes
Colors Smoke, Snow Black/Slate,
Dark gray
CPU Dual Core Dual Core Dual Core
Cameras None Front & Rear Front
Internal Storage 8/16 16/32/64 16/32

Articles in This Series


November 28: "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 1: Introduction"

November 29: "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 2: eBook Types"

December 4: "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 3: Apple's iPad"

December 12: "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 4: B&N Nook HD"

December 18: "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 5: Google Nexus 10"

December 21: "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 6: Amazon Kindle Fire HD"