Kindle Fire HD review

Is Amazon's revised tablet a worthy competitor to the Nexus 7? Digital Foundry takes a look.

Is the Kindle Fire HD a simple media consumption device or does it stack up as a worthy games machine?

Although Google would probably like you to believe that the Android tablet market didn't really begin until the arrival of the best-selling Nexus 7, the truth is that the original Amazon Kindle Fire was the first slate featuring Google's mobile OS to achieve genuine mainstream commercial success. Launched stateside in 2011, it quickly became a million-seller, taking a considerable bite out of the iPad's share of the nascent tablet market in the process.

With the Nexus 7 - and its big brother, the Nexus 10 - now firmly ensconced at the top of the pile, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD has a tougher fight on its hands, despite its improved specs and pin-sharp 7-inch display. In its favour it has a low price point, intuitive interface and - possibly most important of all - comprehensive access to Amazon's digital store, which encompasses countless books, movies, songs, magazines, apps and games.

However, you have to ask yourself if there's room for another challenger in what is fast becoming a two-horse tablet race. Does the market really need a third ecosystem, especially when it's built atop one of its major rivals: Android? The Kindle Fire HD may look unique, but underneath Amazon's user interface lies Android 4.0 - albeit in a heavily customised form.

Before we dig into the software which powers this device, it's worth inspecting its external features. Like its forerunner, the Kindle Fire HD is a largely unassuming slab of plastic, with the 7-inch screen dominating its frontage. The only other feature of note when looking at the tablet head-on is the 1.3 megapixel camera, which is used for video calls.

Around the back, a rubberised rear is broken into two sections by a thin strip of glossy plastic, inside which you'll find the dual-drive Dolby-standard speakers. The matte-texture on the back offers impressive grip - a prime concern for a device which is likely to be carried around a lot more than your typical tablet - but it also attracts marks with worrying ease. Elsewhere, there's the 3.5mm headphone socket, which is found on the edge of the slate along with the volume and power buttons - both of which are curiously difficult to locate without inspecting them closely, as they sit totally flush with the casing.

The 'HD' part of the tablet's title comes from the fact that it's packing a 1280x800 pixel resolution IPS screen. With a pixel density of 216ppi it's not quite up to Apple's Retina standard, but everything looks razor-sharp and the panel delivers a welcoming, warm image. Colours look natural and inviting, bringing both static and moving images to life.

Once you power-on the device and link it to your Amazon account, it becomes obvious that this is a very different kettle of fish to the legion of other Android-based slates on the market. In fact, if you didn't know otherwise, you'd swear blind that this was using a proprietary OS and not a re-skinned version of Google's software. Instead of offering the usual grid of applications, the Kindle Fire HD is focused squarely on your media - the first thing you see is a scrollable list of all the apps, game, books and other content contained in the Kindle Fire HD's memory.

"The revised front-end for the Kindle has an extreme focus on accessing Amazon content, and its lack of customisation may irk Android stalwarts."

This method of presenting your content means that you can quickly jump back into a book or movie if you become distracted or have to put your tablet away for a short time. It essentially keeps the activities you do regularly close at hand, but the downside is that accessing other apps is often a long-winded affair. Many processes are locked away in a different menu, rather than being front-and-centre. The ability to pin things to a favourites menu mitigates this somewhat, but it's still awkward to get used to if you're already accustomed to the standard Android interface. The absence of multitasking is another glaring omission which won't sit well with hardcore fans of Google's feature-rich OS.

Another rather strange feature of the Kindle Fire HD is the sluggish nature of its online stores; although navigation through the media contained on the device is swift, as soon as you jump onto the online side of things it sometimes feels like you're wading through treacle. This is of course true of the iTunes App Store and Android Google Play store, but here it seems especially pronounced. Images take too long to download, and just moving around the various categories doesn't feel smooth or quick enough.

In terms of content, things are little more positive. Amazon's repository of books is the stuff of legend, hence the popularity of its e-reader Kindles. However, in recent years the company has beefed up its online presence and now hosts magazines, comics, movies (via its Lovefilm Instant service - you get a 30 day trial free of charge with the Kindle Fire HD), games and applications. The latter two categories are where the device shares some blatant cross-over with the Google Play store, with almost all of the key downloads being available elsewhere.

"The Kindle Fire HD will live or die based on the quality of content - our concern is that there's too much crossover with Google Play, and not enough games."

Amazon won attention and support for its app store by securing timed exclusives and daily giveaways when the service launched some time ago, but pound-for-pound the portal is sorely lacking in content when compared to the iTunes App Store and Google Play market. This is most obvious when it comes to games; while big-hitters such as Angry Birds and Temple Run are present and correct, the Amazon App Store is hopelessly behind the curve when it comes to cutting-edge interactive entertainment.

It's a shame, because based on the evidence here, the Kindle Fire HD is reasonably adept when it comes to providing interactive entertainment. 2D titles move with predictable grace, and demanding 3D games - such as Gameloft's Six Guns - don't prove to be a massive problem for the tablet's Dual-core 1.2 GHz Cortex-A9 CPU and PowerVR SGX540 graphics processor. Benchmark results show the Kindle Fire HD isn't the fastest Android device on the block, but even so, it's a shame there aren't more games to task the Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 chipset.

The Kindle Fire HD we reviewed has 16GB of storage - a 32GB model is also available, at an additional cost. Storage can't be upgraded as the tablet lacks a MicroSD card slot - something which could become a crippling limitation for media-hungry individuals. The device's battery tells a more positive story, though - we don't know if it's down to modifications that Amazon has made to the underlying code, but the Kindle Fire HD is quite a frugal beast when it comes to drinking power. Obviously it's never going to achieve the same kind of stamina as its e-reader siblings, but you'll comfortably get through a few days of moderate use before you have to top it up.

"Benchmarks are poor, suggesting that Amazon's budget has been spent on more media-specific functionality, like the Dolby stereo speakers and the HDMI output - features lacking on the Google Nexus 7."

HTC One X Nexus 4 Galaxy Note 2 Kindle Fire HD
Quadrant Standard 4870 4906 5765 2177
AnTuTu Benchmark 11065 10580 13305 6276
Vellamo 1661 1314 2421 1221
GLBenchmark 2.5.1 Egypt HD On-Screen/Device Native Res 21.7FPS 39FPS 18FPS 9FPS
GLBenchmark 2.5.1 Egypt HD Off-Screen/1080p 14FPS 31FPS 17FPS 6FPS

Amazon Kindle Fire HD: the Digital Foundry verdict

Although it's cut from the same cloth as the Nexus 7 and has Android beating at its core, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD offers a very different experience. It's focused primarily on pointing you towards Amazon's channels of digital distribution and there's very little room for personalisation here, which is something that won't sit well with Android purists who flock to Google's banner because they desire extreme customisation.

However, it's clear that the Kindle Fire HD is aimed at an entirely different market to the Nexus 7 - and virtually every other Android-based slate, for that matter. Amazon is presenting this as a stand-alone entity; although it's still possible to side-load Android apps onto the device, its target audience is likely to be e-reader owners who are looking to step up to a fully-fledged tablet platform. In that regard, it's more of a success; not only does it tie into Amazon's massive selection of books, movies, songs and magazines, but it also offers a route into the world of apps and games - although not a route that is as content-rich as the standard Google Play market, it should be noted.

For the asking price of 159 for the entry-level 16GB model (it jumps to 199 for double the storage), the Kindle Fire HD is clearly excellent value for money, but it's entering a much different marketplace than its best-selling predecessor. The Nexus 7 is available for the same price and offers a more open platform, a wider selection of downloads and better internal tech, thanks to its quad-core Tegra 3 chipset.

If you're already a keen Amazon customer and have a plethora of books and other media tied to your account, the Kindle Fire HD arguably makes more sense than a standard Android tablet (although it should be noted that you can access your Amazon content via a dedicated app on any other Android device). However, newcomers who have already invested cash into the Android ecosystem will find themselves having to start all over again here, and they'll also find a less flexible system to work with. In the cold light of day, the Nexus 7 is the clear winner in this battle.

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