Amazon Kindle Fire HD full review
REVIEW UPDATED: 4th October 2013
Amazon's Kindle Fire HD is roughly a year old now. It originally cost £159 (with adverts on the lock screen) but has just had a price cut to £119.Opinions differ as to the reason for the slashing: some say it's to compete with the Tesco Hudl, reviewed, others that it's to make room for the new Kindle Fire HDX which is rumoured to launch in the UK soon.
The question is whether the Kindle Fire HD is a good buy at this new lower price. (See also: Kindle Fire HD vs Tesco Hudl tablet comparison review.)
The Fire HD is easy to confuse with the very similar (and now £99) Kindle Fire - both tablets have the same interface and 7in screen - but the HD, as you'd guess, has a higher resolution screen at 1280x800. That's lower than the Tesco Hudl's 1440x900, though.
However, specifications rarely tell you whether a tablet is any good. More important is what it's like to use, and the Kindle Fire HD runs a highly customised version of Android 4.0. In fact, you wouldn’t even know it was running Android if it weren't for the occasional in-app advert for Android apps on the Google Play store.
Amazon would prefer you to think of the Fire HD as a touchscreen eReader with more capabilities, such as videos, music, games and apps. The fact is, though, that it's different from other tablets only in its interface. Admittedly, Amazon has done a great job of making a slick system which is both easy to use and intuitive.
For many people, the biggest difference between the Kindle Fire HD and the Tesco Hudl will be the app stores. Amazon locks you into using its own Appstore, but the Hudl offers unfettered access to Google Play. That means that there's the same range of apps, movies, TV shows, music and magazines on the Hudl as on Google's own Nexus 7 (and any other tablet that includes the Google Play app).
We're not saying that being locked into Amazon's store is a bad thing: there's still plenty of choice (especially eBooks), but it's certainly more limited when it comes to apps.
Another thing to bear in mind is that you can't add extra storage to a Kindle Fire HD via a memory card, something that's easy with the Tesco Hudl. Amazon still offers the Fire HD in two capacities: 16GB for £119 and 32GB for £139. You'll need to add £10 to each price if you don't want adverts popping up on the lock screen.
Kindle Fire HD: interface
We like the Fire HD's lock screen, which displays a different wallpaper each time you turn it on. However, unless you pay an extra £10 when ordering it, you'll have to put up with 'special offers' - read adverts - on the lock screen. That makes the 'real' cost of the Fire HD £129.
The home screen (which works in portrait and landscape mode) has a menu for jumping to the various different types of media, with a carousel of recently used apps, books, websites and everything else.
Below this (in portrait mode) you get a 'related items' carousel which essentially shows contextual adverts for the item showing in the main carousel. For example, if that's a game, you'll see a list of games "Customers Also Bought" (more adverts). However, if it's a website, you get a "Trending Now" list, or shortcuts to creating a new email if the calendar, email or contacts app is highlighted above.
One niggle is that, when in landscape mode, the Android-style 'back' button is displayed to the right of the keyboard, exactly where you'd expect the Backspace key to be. We inadvertently tapped this each time we mistyped (instead of pressing the key marked Delete) and ended up returning to the previous screen. That's very frustrating if you're filling out an online form as you have to start again.
Tapping each menu item at the top of the screen displays the content stored on your device for that section. A toggle button at the top lets you switch to what's available in the cloud - i.e. everything you've purchased from Amazon, or content you've uploaded yourself.
Confusingly there are two separate cloud services: Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. The former provides 5GB of storage for your documents, such as PDFs, spreadsheets and Word files, as well as photos and videos. The latter is just for music and lets you access all the tracks you've bought through the Amazon MP3 store, as well as storing 250 of your own tracks. This is increased to 250,000 if you pay £22 per year for Cloud Player Premium. Similarly, you can upgrade your 5GB for file storage to 20GB for £6 per year, up to 500GB for £160 per year.
It's possible to drag and drop files to the Fire HD just as you would with USB flash drive, but we saw mixed results. Some photos, for example, appeared with the wrong aspect ratio. Some MP3s were picked up, while others weren't. MP4 and MKV videos are supported, but you have to access them via the Personal Videos app - you can't simply tap Videos from the main menu.
Kindle Fire HD: books
One of the main reasons to buy a Kindle is to read books, and the interface on the Fire HD is almost identical to a traditional E-Ink Kindle. Of course, the experience is completely different as the Fire HD has an LCD screen.
It's not nearly as easy to read in bright light, and it's reflective just as with any other tablet. You get the option for a sepia look if black text on a white background is too dazzling, and there's a white on black mode as well.
Thanks to the fact that it's an IPS LCD screen, viewing angles are very good and the resolution is high enough to make characters sharp and words easy to read.
Naturally, there's the same excellent selection of eBooks to choose from, and if you pay for Amazon Prime (which entitles you to next-day delivery on all Amazon-fulfilled products) you can also borrow one eBook per month for free, from a limited selection.
Whispersync means you can carry on reading any title from where you left off, even if you pick up on a different device.
Kindle Fire HD: films
Amazon owns Lovefilm, which means you can access Lovefilm's library of on-demand movies from the Fire HD (it's the Lovefilm Instant service). See our comparison of Lovefilm vs Netflix.
The range of films on Lovefilm is better than TV shows, but it's still a much more limited selection than Lovefilm's DVD and Blu-ray collection.
More disappointing - and a deal-breaker for some - is that there's no offline viewing, so you can only watch videos when you're connected to Wi-Fi. (You can watch any personal videos offline, of course, and Netflix is also limited to streaming.)
At least movie soundtracks sound better than on most tablets thanks to a pair of rear speakers with dual drivers and Dolby virtual surround technology. The Hudl's stereo speakers are pretty decent, though.
Kindle Fire HD: apps and browser
As we've said, Amazon's Appstore has a lot of popular apps, but it's not packed as Google's Play store. You'll find top titles such as Angry Birds, Bad Piggies, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, iPlayer and more, but other apps (which are often advertised within free games) such as Google's Chrome browser are still absent.
If you know what you're doing, it's possible to download Android apps and 'sideload' them, but you won't have this hassle if you choose a tablet with the Google Play store.
In fact, you won't find any official Google apps at all - no Maps, Gmail, Calendar or Contacts. There are alternatives built-in apps for the last three, but nothing for mapping. There's no GPS receiver, but you can use Google Maps via the web browser as normal.
The browser is based on Amazon's Silk technology and looks much like the standard Android browser.The default search engine is Microsoft's Bing, but if you delve into the Fire HD's settings you can change this to Google.
However, the browser doesn't support Flash so Flash-based websites (of which there are still many, particularly kids' sites) can't be displayed. It also means you can't watch some catch-up TV such as ITV Player and Demand Five - and you won't find apps for these services in the Appstore either. You can watch YouTube videos via the YouTube website now it's been updated and doesn't exclusively use Flash any more. You can install a different browser with Flash support, but it's a hassle.
Again, if you're after an easy life, choose a Tesco Hudl or a Nexus 7.
Kindle Fire HD: hardware and performance
At just under 400g, the Fire HD is pretty heavy, and that's without one of Amazon's cases on it. It's very well put together though and feels like a solid slate with no creaking or bending. A micro HDMI output on the bottom means you can hook it up to a big-screen TV. On the right-hand side is a volume rocker, the power button and headphone socket.
A front-facing HD camera is primarily intended for Skype - there's no rear-facing camera as you get with the Tesco Hudl (the original Nexus 7 didn't have a rear camera either).
In terms of performance, the Fire HD wasn't as fast as we'd have liked. It doesn't feel as snappy as the Hudl or Nexus 7, especially when browsing the web or launching apps. Scrolling around web pages shows a white screen until the content is loaded. Amazon says this is a feature to speed up the browser, but it appears to do the opposite.
Kindle Fire HD: battery life
In our video playback test, which uses the default video player (the Personal Videos app) to continuously play video at full brightness with Wi-Fi enabled, the Kindle Fire HD lasted for 7 hours and 42 minutes. It's a pretty respectable result, although short of the 11 hours that Amazon claims.
Kindle Fire HD: bottom line
Even when it launched, the Fire HD faced stiff competition from the original Nexus 7. Now, the hardware is beginning to feel dated and - even with the price cut - it still can't really compete with the new Tesco Hudl.
It's also worth remembering that in addition to the 'special offers' on the lock screen, the Fire HD - like traditional Kindles - doesn't come with a mains USB charger in the box. You might already have one, but if not, it again adds to the price.
Amazon Kindle Fire HD: Specs
- TI OMAP 4460 1.2GHz dual-core CPU
- Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich
- 7in IPS touchscreen LCD (capacative: 10-touch point), 1280x800 pixels
- 752GB RAM
- 16GB storage
- 802.11 b/g/n dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz
- 1.3Mp front camera
- mini HDMI out
- micro USB 2.0 port
- 4400mAh 16.4Wh Li-ion battery