PHOENIX - Tablets, tablets, tablets! Expect to hear about these slabs of technology A LOT this holiday season. Prices are finally coming down and competition is heating up. Amazon wants to be your pick with the newest addition to the Kindle tablet arsenal, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD .
Less than a pound, constructed of glass and soft plastic and sporting a 1280 x 800 7" screen, the Kindle Fire HD feels solid. It has a few buttons, volume up/down and a power button. Inside it packs some serious power, a dual-core 1.2 Ghz processor with a PowerVR graphics core to give the interface some extra "oomf." The screen really looks nice. Colors pop and images and video are sharp.
There's a front-facing camera built-in for making calls via Skype. I tested this out and it worked well. The smaller form tablet makes for a great Skype experience and the caller on the other end said my video looked good.
The Fire HD can be used vertically or horizontally but some of the hardware features lend to horizontal use. The video camera is situated for horizontal use and so are the volume buttons. This makes perfect sense since both the camera and the volume buttons would be used for watching video or making video calls. The primary use for a vertical mode would be web browsing and reading, neither of which require volume or a video camera.
The Fire HD has 16 GB of storage. A 32 GB model is also available for an extra $50. I'm not convinced it's worth it since you'll find yourself streaming most HD content anyhow. After all, that is part of the reason Amazon paid close attention to the Wi-Fi hardware. They improved it for better speeds and longer range.
Software is a major part of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD mostly because of how much Amazon did to rewrite the Android interface. Technically it runs Google Android 4.0 but you would never know it. The entire interface from top to bottom is Amazon's own. Some may see this is a good thing, others may not.
Simplicity is key here. The entire OS is built around a carousel. You can select small options along the top including Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, Docs and Offers. Tap an option and the image carousel populates with icons or screenshots (for webpages). It's a very easy and elegant way to navigate through the tablet but it is nothing like Google Android on a smartphone.
You'll find most of the apps you expect including E-mail, calendar, contacts, Facebook, Skype and more. The OS also deeply integrates the Amazon store for buying books, movies, music and Apps. Some Apps aren't available because they chose not to be a part of the Amazon App Store. Most people won't even notice but it could be an issue for some. For example, you won't have access to Google's Gmail app or Google Maps app. From what I could find, most of the popular apps seem to be there.
The focus is clearly on content. Reading books is as great as you would expect it to be from a Kindle device. The LCD screen isn't as good as using an E-ink screen but books do look nice and letters are crisp. Movies look fabulous on the 7" HD screen and are super simple to buy or rent from Amazon. I streamed a few and was very impressed with the quality. Music sounds good through the stereo speakers on the back although I would recommend a set of headphones for any serious audio enjoyment.
In my testing, the entire OS felt fluid and complete. Love their interface or not, they have put together a nice package that makes consuming multimedia very, very simple.
The Amazon web browser works well. In my unscientific surfing, I didn't notice it being much faster than the browser on the iPad or other Android tablets. It worked as expected and does the job.
I was excited to hear about the included Kindle FreeTime app. It essentially allows parents to lock down the tablet before handing it over to their kids. It limits what apps, movies, videos and books each of your kids can access. On top of that, you can set time limits for certain categories. For example, you can limit games to 30 minutes a day while setting books to unlimited. Cool, isn't it? For anyone with kids, we all know that they LOVE tablets. Setting limits can be a struggle so I like that Amazon is helping out. Unfortunately, the FreeTime app isn't available until October so I couldn't test it out on the Fire HD. As a parent of two kids, I'm looking forward to seeing it first hand.
And then there were Ads. Yes, the Kindle Fire HD has advertisements baked into the operating system. Something about it just doesn't feel right. I totally get that! Hear me out. At the end of the day, if it keeps the price of the tablet down and adds consumer benefit, I can live with it. You'll find ads on the lock screen and in the corner of the home screen (although none were on my home screen when I tested it). They're not annoying, they're just there. Most of the ads offered a discount or coupons. That was nice. Amazon will also
let you get rid of the ads for an extra $15. That's a bit lame but again, if the ads are helping to slice $15 off the price of the tablet at retail, I can live with it. I think most people won't even notice or care about the ads after using the tablet for a few days.
I really like the Fire HD but have a few complaints. First, the power and volume buttons where a bit hard to find at times. They don't stick out enough and I found myself searching for them. The included ads are somewhat annoying and anyone looking for a true Android tablet will not be happy with Amazon's version. All minor issues.
Starting at only $199, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is a low priced tablet that doesn't skimp on high-end hardware. It's built well and is a multimedia monster. The Android purists won't like the Amazon version of Android and should opt for the Google Nexus 7. The rest of us will love how simple it is to find apps, videos, music and books. This tablet is designed for people who don't want to notice the operating system while on their way to enjoying a movie, reading a book or playing a game. This is EXACTLY the tablet a media company like Amazon should sell.