We rarely devote a section to a tablet's speakers, but the Kindle Fire HD has remarkably good stereo speakers with Dolby audio. Not only are they a vast improvement over the meek original Fire speakers, they're full and rich sounding. While the first Fire wasn't loud enough to overcome the whirring of my exercise bike in an otherwise quiet room, the Fire HD manages just fine. That's important for a device that's designed to present both music and video. In fact, music is actually enjoyable through the speakers rather than sounding like the muted, hissy mess that we hear from most 7" tablets including the Nexus 7. For even better sound, plug in a decent set of stereo headphones or speakers. You can even use Bluetooth stereo speakers with the Fire HD.
Performance and Horsepower
The dual core TI OMAP 4460 CPU runs at 1.2GHz. That's the same CPU used in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and it was the launch platform for Ice Cream Sandwich at the end of 2011. The Fire HD has PowerVR SGX 540 graphics for decent though not cutting edge 3D performance. It handily outperforms the Nvidia Tegra 2's GPU, but can't touch the 12 core GeForce GPU in the Tegra 3. The Fire HD has a much more workable 1 gig of DDR2 RAM vs. the 512 megs on the first Fire. The tablet is available with either 16 or 32 gigs of flash storage (a high quality Samsung eMMC according to the iFixit teardown).
Despite Jeff Bezos' hype, the Kindle Fire HD isn't going to set new speed records for Android tablets. Far from it. But it is more than fast enough to get the job done, from HD video playback to gaming. Web browsing speeds are as good as on devices with much faster CPUs, and games on the Amazon App Store played perfectly. This isn't a tablet for cutting edge geeks who crave the fastest silicon in production. It's here to get a job done, and it does that job just fine.
Really, little has changed from the last gen Kindle Fire, but we'll note the new features here. The Fire HD now has access to X-Ray for movies, so you can get info about the movie and actors when watching an X-Ray compatible Amazon video. You can read a book while listening to it read aloud via text to speech and now with Audible companion books too. There's Whispersync to keep your place in books, movies and audiobooks. In fact, Whispersync can save your place in compatible games too via the new GameCircle that also handles social gaming.
We're thrilled that the Fire HD has calendar and contacts applications that can sync to Google, and the email client (pretty much the standard Android email client) can pick up POP3/IMAP/Exchange/Yahoo/Gmail/AOL and other popular email sources.
And for something controversial: the Fire HD models are ad sponsored. That means you'll see an ad when you wake up the device. If you swipe the double-ended unlock bar left to right, you'll get more info about that ad (a special offer, a trailer for an upcoming movie or TV show, even a free $5 to spend on the Amazon MP3 store). If you swipe right to left (grab the lock symbol and swipe), you'll go back to whatever screen you left off on. Amazon will make your Fire HD ad-free if you pay them $15.
Yes, you can side-load apps that you've downloaded to your smartphone or tablet and transfer them to the Kindle Fire HD, but it takes some know-how (and rooting) of your other device to extract apps from it to transfer to the Kindle. You can also search the web for the apps you're interested in, and you may find them available for download from places other than the Google Play Store. Peruse the Amazon App Store from your computer's web browser: if you find key apps missing, the Fire might not be for you.
The Kindle Fire HD is rootable, though the bootloader is securely locked. Root access opens up possibilities for installing the Google Play Store and enabling login in other side-loaded Google apps.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD vs. the Google Nexus 7
This decision might be easier than you think. These two tablets are designed with very different users in mind. It used to be that geeks on a tight budget who wanted a good quality general purpose 7" tablet had to buy and root a Nook Tablet or Kindle Fire. Thanks to the Nexus 7, that's no longer necessary. Being a Google pure experience device, the Nexus 7 not only has full access to the wide range of Google apps and services like Gmail, Maps and the Google Play Store, but it's easy to root and load custom ROMs. If that makes you grin madly, then the Nexus 7 is for you. If you could care less about Google's app store and don't know root from ROMs, but you do want to read eBooks, stream video in high quality and listen to music, then the Kindle Fire HD is for you.
Both are roughly the same size and weight (the Nexus 7 is 1.9 ounces lighter), but each tablet has hardware strongpoints. For the Kindle Fire HD these include excellent stereo speakers with Dolby audio, an HDMI port and strong dual band WiFi. For the Nexus 7 it's the GPS (the Kindle Fire HD, like the non-3G/4G iPad can only use WiFi triangulation for location services, though there is a GPS chip that's not currently enabled in software) and a much faster CPU.
For $199 you get 8 gigs of storage on the Nexus 7 ($249 for 16 gigs), while the Kindle Fire HD has 16 gigs for $199 and 32 gigs for $249.
Both have access to MS Office compatible suites, should you wish to get work done. Both have PIM apps and an email client. The Fire HD doesn't have a dedicated Gmail cliient though, you have to use the email client to pick up Gmail.
Amazon's customer support is stellar; it's the best in the business (OK, Apple's is also top notch). Google's support is very weak and Asus' is passable.
Most importantly: if you want a fast, general purpose tablet with access to the Play Store and Google's other services and markets, get the Google Nexus 7 by Asus. If you want a turnkey device to consume books, magazines, movies from Amazon, Netflix and Hulu and music, get the Kindle Fire HD.
The Kindle Fire HD has a 4400 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's sealed inside. As mentioned, it doesn't come with a charger so you'll either use your smartphone charger or buy Amazon's $20 charger. The company claims 11 hours of use with mixed tasks that include web browsing, reading books, watching video and listening to music. In our tests, that's proved accurate and the Fire HD outlasts the admittedly robust Nexus 7 (to be fair, the Nexus 7 has a much faster CPU with twice the cores so it needs more power).
It's hard to not like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD. It excels at its purpose as an affordable one-stop device for reading Amazon books and magazines, streaming video, playing music and providing you with a safe (albeit somewhat limited) app store. It's brain-dead easy to use, Amazon provides excellent support and their various stores have more than enough content to keep you entertained for the next 20 years. The IPS display is very sharp and has excellent viewing angles, the speakers are awesome for a 7" tablet and battery life is very good. It's everything that a purpose-built entertainment tablet should be. Just remember, it's not designed to be a general purpose Android tablet.
Price: $199 for 16 gig model and $249 for 32 gig model