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Kindle Fire HD review: A better Kindle, but not a better tablet

Preston Gralla | Sept. 17, 2012
Amazon's newest Kindle, the 7-in. Kindle Fire HD, is a great buy if you're an Amazon customer, but it falls short as a general-purpose tablet.

The middling-level hardware isn't as surprising as you might expect, because the Kindle Fire HD hasn't really been designed to be an all-purpose tablet -- despite Amazon's claims to the contrary. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos summed up the purpose of the Kindle Fire HD succinctly during the product announcement when he said, "The Kindle Fire is a service."

That service is the Amazon entertainment ecosystem. The Kindle Fire HD is a mechanism for buying and consuming Amazon entertainment content -- and it does a great job of it. The interface makes it simple to find, buy and consume the content, and new built-in features such as X-Ray for Movies (more on that in a bit) enhance the viewing or reading experience.

That's also why it doesn't have GPS or a back-facing camera -- but there is an HDMI mini-jack so you can extend the Amazon ecosystem onto your television. That's also why the Kindle Fire HD doesn't have the equivalent of Apple's Siri or the Google Now speech recognition/artificial intelligence technology.

Revising the interface

As with the original Kindle Fire, Amazon has buried the Android operating system deep under its own interface. However, if you liked the original Kindle Fire, you'll be pleased to know that the interface has been tweaked to good effect. The carousel-like main screen now functions much more smoothly than in the original Kindle Fire. The familiar "bookshelf" feature is now gone, replaced by a "favorites" drawer. All in all, the interface for accessing Amazon content is smooth, well done and simple to navigate.

However, the built-in apps remain an afterthought at best. For example, although the Kindle Fire has a camera, there's no app for taking photos (perhaps because the front-facing camera is mainly meant for face-to-face communication). The email client and contacts app both work fine, but don't expect any extras, such as the ability to turn email header displays on and off.

As for the built-in browser, you can't even open your Favorites list when you're on a Web page. Instead, you have to navigate your way back to the browser's Starter page. And don't look for basic apps such as an alarm, task list maker or note-taker, because they're nowhere to be found.

Once again, to add apps to the Fire HD you have to use the Amazon Store rather than the Google Play Store, which means access to only around 30,000 apps. (Back in late June, Google announced that Google Play had 600,000 apps, and it has certainly grown since then.) Many useful apps are missing from the Amazon Store, such as Google Voice or Dropbox.

(There is a work-around for Kindle Fire HD users if you want to install some apps by downloading them directly as APK files instead of going through Google Play: Go to Settings --> Device and turn on "Allow Installation of Applications from unknown sources." However, most apps aren't available that way.)


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