Hands On: Kindle Fire HD (Review)

New Kindle Fire Product Shot - P 2012

New Kindle Fire Product Shot - P 2012

Six reasons why Amazon's updated budget tablet might give Apple's expected iPad mini real competition.

Amazon released an updated version of its Kindle Fire 7-inch tablet computer in September, with an HD screen, improved speakers and a new thinner, tapered case.

A test unit provided by Amazon impressed with the quality of its screen and sound and breadth of content offerings. For the money ($199), it is a great device.

With Apple expected to announce a similar-sized iPad Mini on Oct. 23, we look at six reasons why Amazon’s tablet could give Apple’s junior offering a real fight for customers. 

1. Screen
The Fire sports a beautiful 1280x800 glossy HD screen with a screen density of 169 pixels per inch (for comparison, the iPad 2 clocks in at 132 ppi and the retina screen iPad at 264 ppi; the higher the number the sharper the screen). Video looks fantastic.  The 7-inch screen is perfect for use by one person. The picture is bright, darks are clear not muddy, and the viewing angle is good. Even an action-heavy film like The Avengers is pretty satisfying. No one would argue that a bigger screen wouldn't be better, but the viewing experience is closer to the iPad than too-small-to-be-useful iPhone. 

2. Sound
Anyone who has ever strained to listen to a video with the iPad's mediocre-sounding underpowered speaker will marvel at the sound on the Fire HD. Amazon's tablet is packed with Dolby Digital Plus stereo speakers, and the difference shows.

The original iPad really needs an external speaker to get passable volume, even for one person.  The Fire HD, on the other hand, cranks out a decent level of sound all on its own. 

The high-quality sound is one reason the smaller viewing experience is tolerable. It is the 360-degree combination of visual and aural that makes the video watching experience so pleasant.

3. The "app gap" with Apple is fading
The iPad ecosystem rules the application roost for tablets. We suspect most Fire users won't be bothered by the "'app gap." 

First, weed out the numerous homebrew and small-time apps -- surveys show that the majority of iPad apps only get downloaded a few times -- and focus on the brand-name apps. Amazon has most of the bases covered. Netflix and Hulu have Kindle apps. Ditto with Facebook.

Second, look beyond most productivity apps. The smaller 7-inch form factor is more geared to pure entertainment than the full-sized iPad, which has proved popular as a portable work device.

The 7-inch screen is a bit of an in-between size. It is too large to easily thumb type on (as you would with an iPod Touch or iPhone) and too small to rest on a table to peck-type on (as you might with an iPad).  

Users looking to do some writing, anything beyond light e-mailing, or other work will probably want to go for a bigger device (a full-sized 9-inch or larger tablet) or smaller (a smartphone).

But the Fire HD is great for reading, watching videos and playing games.

Even on games -- Apple's biggest advantage -- the gap feels like it is narrowing. For the biggest games, like Angry Birds, the experience is as polished as on an iPad. (In fact, the Kindle's larger size makes it a better game-playing device than the iPod Touch or iPhone). As Kindle HD sales grow, more developers will produce games for it; all but the hardcore gamers will run out of good options before then.

4. Amazon's all-you-can-eat Prime streaming video service
The Kindle HD plus Prime streaming, which offers bundled streaming for a yearly membership fee, is a killer combination.

Amazon has a decent amount of content for the $79 yearly charge (Kindle HD purchasers get a trial month to start), especially when factoring in the free two-day shipping on physical purchases from Amazon that comes with membership. 

The user interface is smooth and intuitive. Searching for content is easy. Prime's video offerings seem to lean more toward TV than movies, though Thor, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger all were available through Prime.

The big drawback with Prime is the need for a Wi-Fi connection. People who watch a lot of video at home or in places where there is lots of Wi-Fi will not be bothered. And it is still possible to pay to download video on your device (just like with iTunes and priced about the same).

5. Books
The Kindle is a great reading device, and Amazon has the best ebookstore on the Internet. Approached as a step up from a base Kindle and not a step down from an iPad, the Fire HD makes a lot of sense.

As an ereader, it is a great device. The screen is sharp and pleasant. The biggest drawback is battery life. The basic e-ink Kindle will last weeks on a single charge -- the Fire HD, just hours. In exchange for the shorter battery life, users get tablet functionality, like e-mail and the web. 

For heavy readers, who want a device that's a little more versatile than a Kindle but don’t want the size (and expense) of an iPad, the Fire hits the sweet spot.

6. The $199 price is a steal
The base Kindle Fire HD with 16GB of storage starts at $199 (or $219 without Amazon's "special offers," i.e. screensaver ads) and offers a lot of tablet for a low price.

With the iPad Mini pricing predicted to be $299 to $329 for the low-end model, the Kindle likely will be a $100 cheaper alternative. 

Casual users, new customers, those who want a reading device with a few tablet extras and parents looking for something for the kids all will be tempted by the Kindle Fire HD's impressive price-to-performance ratio.

The Kindle Fire HD is available now from Amazon. Pricing is $199 for 16GB, $249 for 32GB (add $20 to each to opt out of the “special offers” advertising screens). Amazon is launching a larger version with an 8.9-inch screen Nov. 20. The larger model will be priced at $299/$369 for the 16GB/32GB models.