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Getting to review the second generation Kindle Fire 7-inch is a great reminder of how fast a company has grown in what was supposed to be an unknown territory. Amazon, who’s arguably responsible for brick and mortar’s closing around the globe has made its own compelling case to why consumers should pick its ecosystem of services over the rest. By entering the hardware business, and successfully launching its Kindle Fire line of devices, the e-commerce giant has made an impact in the mobile tablet space.
It was clear that the online retailer was here to stay when it came to competing against the likes of Apple and Google. But, unlike other companies, Amazon has chosen a different approach to better equip itself against its competitors. Rather than rely on making money off the front end with hardware, the company set a trend that focused more on price, ecosystem, and product design. This three prong attack would lead consumers to where the company really wants them: retail. The Kindle Fire HD represents that strategy in a better and much improved package.
When you first look at the Kindle Fire HD you get a feeling that all plastic matte black body is well put together. It’s certainly no cheap piece of hardware. The device has a much wider bezel on it when compared to its predecessor; this expanded bezel is suppose to make reading a bit more enjoyable. In fact, going back and forth between the Kindle Fire HD and my Nexus 7, made me realize the Fire’s wider bezel gave a better reading experience (held in portrait view). Reading with the Nexus 7 in portrait mode sometimes causes my thumbs to accidentally flip pages due to its small bezel -- it’s a little annoying.
Back to the hardware. At 395g, weight on the tablet is good, as it doesn’t feel too light or heavy. The sides of the Kindle Fire HD are moved around from front to back, separated only by a headphone jack, volume rocker, and power / sleep button placed at the top (or right side in landscape) of the device. Along the bottom you'll find a Micro USB and Micro HDMI jack, which can be used for hooking up your TV to play movies or music. The back of the Fire has a soft-touch black backing, with a thin plastic strip going across the length of the body that houses a set of stereo speakers. The speakers aren’t the best, but sound quality is much better compared to the Nexus 7.
In order for things to get better while staying the same price ($199) came some concessions that weren’t so great for the user experience. And that’s where advertisement comes in (more on this in the software section).
Amazon designed this device really well. Going with a rounded body instead of a rectangular shape makes the tablet more comfortable in the hands, regardless of what viewing angle is used. I also appreciate how Amazon kept things moderate or aesthetically conservative, as the company decided not to over brand its tablet by making the size of its logo or the Kindle Fire name overly dramatic on the back.
The only qualm that I have with the design of the Kindle Fire HD is how Amazon decided to place the buttons. They are hard to recognize and sometimes hard to press, depending on which direction you've got the device propped up.
The tablet comes with a pretty decent set of specifications. The Kindle Fire HD packs a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, a PowerVR GPU, this on both the 16GB or 32GB version (I tested the 16GB version). Moreover, you’ll find Bluetooth, and the very cool MIMO Wi-Fi, along with an accelerometer, light sensor, and gyroscope. The camera is placed under the screen on the front of the Fire, and apparently it holds a HD lens that it takes photos at a 720p resolution (I’ll have more on the camera later).
There is no GPS or NFC chip inside of the Fire HD, which shouldn’t be that big of a deal to the people Amazon is targeting. Jeff Bezos went in great detail about how awesome MIMO WiFi is on the second generation Kindle Fire, and it was for good reason. Wireless technology built inside the Kindle Fire HD is quite refreshing. The dual band connectivity feature worked really well. It was super convenient to be able to detect and lock onto both my 2.5 GHz and 5 GHz bands on my N router, something most devices aren’t capable of doing.
This is where the Kindle Fire HD falls flat for me. Firstly, for someone who’s a fan of stock Android, forking it to the level Amazon has is egregious. Now with that out of the way, lets dive deep into the Kindle Fire OS. Underneath this Android face lift, runs Google's Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich. The tablet experience is truly a mixed bag, as the Fire HD is sold with software that is uninspiring, but offers services that is almost comparable to that of Apple’s iTunes.
Besides the OS being annoyingly slow and unresponsive at times, it still outperforms the original Kindle Fire. Not sure if that’s a glowing endorsement or not. It does get points for its simplicity though, as it puts all content on front street for quick access. This is something stock Android struggled with in the past, because its options and settings were sometimes hard to find for the average consumer (it was dubbed too techie).
Lets talk about ads, shall we? In an unpopular move, Amazon decided to put ads on the lock screen to help compensate for cost of the improved parts. This forced the online retailer to offer an choice for users to opt out. Removing ads was painless. All you had to do is hit the manage device section on the website and unsubscribe from “offers” and pay $15 for the opt out. The lock screen returns back to the look of the original Kindle Fire. However, users are still unable to change the wallpaper on the lock screen, which makes no sense.
Once you get passed the lock screen, more changes await. Amazon found it necessary to move its home button to the far left, and put a back button in the center. This is somewhat puzzling, especially since it was an alteration that wasn’t needed. There is multitasking, but it’s half-assed. Instead of getting a cards like presentation that lets you swipe away apps like in stock Android 4.0+; or a double tap button option that shows opened programs in an app drawer at the bottom like Apple; you get a cheesy “favorites” drawer which can be pulled up with a touch on a star icon in the corner of the bottom menu bar. Sometimes you have to tap the star repeatedly to open the drawer thanks to the lag and unresponsiveness that can occur (doesn’t happen all the time).
The home screen is composed of five main sections, three of which are what Amazon calls “carousel’s.” The primary carousel resides in the middle, where you’d find recently opened stuff (apps, music, movies, books, etc). The second carousel shows all the things the Kindle Fire is suppose to do. It sits right on top of the primary carousel, and contains a static list of all the various things your Kindle Fire HD can do. Here's the list: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, Docs, and Offers.
Of course, none of the things I’ve talked about can be altered. To be fair, most people who are looking to buy the Kindle Fire HD won’t care about customizing the experience on the tablet anyway.
Now to the apps. Amazon apps aren’t up to par when compared to Android and Apple’s iOS. But, lets keep it real. Amazon should get a pass on the strength that Google still doesn’t have it together with apps that are optimized for its own Nexus 7 tablet. It’s not many applications tailored for the Nexus 7 experience -- I recently listed 10 must have apps that were.
Another interesting feature on the Kindle Fire HD is X-Ray for movies and books. X-Ray is powered by IMDb, and it lets users get more specifics on what their watching or reading. For example, in movies that means folks get the actor and crew lists, and for books it's characters and bios.
Besides that, email, calendar, and contacts are finally apart of the Fire OS. The email is usable, but it’s not as productive. No Gmail labeling and no threaded messages the end. The calendar and contacts are okay, but they aren’t comparable to what Google offers.
Like I said, the software and user experience is a mixed bag.
Not much has changed with what’s powering the web on the Kindle Fire HD, as you’ll find the same Silk browser that was on the original Fire. However, this time around, the browser brings some improvements lacking in last year’s Kindle Fire like faster download speeds thanks to a bunch of back end, server-side processing.
I didn’t see the biggest change in performance, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s a bit of a boost in how pages load up. Although improved, the browser still falls behind that on the Nexus 7. The fact that the company chose Microsoft’s Bing as its default search engine is quite puzzling -- but thankfully -- Amazon gives you the ability to change it.
This is suppose to be Amazon’s bread and butter, the thing that differentiates it from the rest of the pack (not including Apple). With Amazon, users who are or willing to be inside of its ecosystem of services, gets to indulge in some interesting features. The e-commerce giant offers an Apple like experience when it comes veriest entertainment portals.
Amazon brings movies, music, books, apps and etc. All of its media options are saved through the cloud with the help of its top notch Wispersync service. So for example, when you pull up music albums in the player, it can be listened to in the cloud or downloaded to your device at any moment (same goes for all its other media outlets).
As an Amazon Prime user, I can say it’s awesome to be able to access the company’s streaming movie service. You can find Amazon Instant Videos on the Xbox or Roku; start watching a movie on those boxes and finish the movie on your Kindle Fire HD.
The Kindle Fire HD has a 1.3MP front-facing camera that you can use for video chatting on Skype HD. Unfortunately, there isn’t a native camera app, but I was able to find a third party application called Picshop that lets you take snapshots. Sorry, I’m not going to show you poor quality snap shots of my face, but trust me, it works. There's no rear camera, which doesn’t bother me. I believe having a shooter on the back of a tablet is not only a waste of money, but flat out ridiculous. I cringe every time I see folks taking pictures with a big slab.
Amazon claims you can get almost half a day of use out of a single charge; this from web browsing, video viewing, music streaming, reading or whatever. I found this to be mostly true when I used it for a few days. That being said, like all devices the battery does suffer a bit from intensive use of things like Skype video calling. Other than that, the battery life on the Kindle Fire HD is cool.
All in all, the Kindle Fire HD is a service driven product, not a device tailored for flaunting how great its software is. Users should buy this having the clear understanding of what to expect with this tablet. Amazon has gutted everything Android out of it, to the point you can’t say it’s a legit Android tablet. Indeed, that was the point. It’s an extension of Amazon.com, its services, and it’s the perfect media consumption tool for non techie types looking to spend $199. I have a love hate relationship with companies trying to suck you in to their ecosystem because it locks users in to a system that is inoperable: apps, books, movies, etc, aren’t compatible with other operating systems. However, Amazon’s decision to be a trendsetter in how it sells its products has to be commended. The company made the right choice when it decided to focus on making money off its services rather than its hardware.
The Kindle Fire HD may be limited in some aspects, but it’s hard to ignore as true heavyweight in the tablet space. The Fire may not steer me away from my Nexus 7, or make me stop buying my movies, music, and books from other platforms. Nevertheless, it keeps me mindful of another company besides Apple that really knows what it is doing with slates. It’ll be interesting to see how far Kindle Fire progresses in the next couple of years.