You know you are experiencing a different kind of tablet when, on turning it on, you are presented with a full-page advertisement for the latest DVD release. Swipe to the left on the Shop Now button to be taken straight to a purchase page, or swipe to the right to unlock the touchscreen and have a normal tablet experience – the choice is yours.
This is the tablet pc 3g business model being pushed by Amazon on the new Kindle Fire HD – its tablets are subsidised by advertising and by driving sales on Amazon. Consumers get a device at a bargain price, but are channelled into an experience based on consumption of Amazon content.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially as Amazon is enriching the content with a number of innovations. For example, although I found this did not apply to all books and movies, the X-Ray tool allows you to see in-depth information about what you are reading or viewing – without leaving the movie, information on actors can be brought up on screen from the IMDb website.
The Fire’s original bookshelf interface for displaying content has disappeared and there is now just a carousel that can be flicked through, containing all content and apps that are open.
A line of labels along the top allows you to pick out Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, Docs and Offers. Much of this content is stored by Amazon’s cloud services, so a constant WiFi connection is needed to access it, although once connected, items such as books and magazines can be downloaded locally.
The design is an improvement on the old Fire. It is slimmer and lighter, but there are still some rough edges. Compared with the
Nexus 7, Google’s recent tablet, the Fire HD is significantly wider and this is emphasised by a wide bezel that surrounds the screen, making it appear smaller. The on-off button is also hard to pick out on the side, there is no plug adapter for charging – only a USB cable – and Amazon does not offer a memory card slot for extra storage.
Apart from these gripes, the hardware is much improved, with a faster processor, better WiFi, a front-facing camera with its own Skype app and 16Gb of memory, compared with only 8Gb on the Nexus 7 for the same price.
But the stars of the show are the screen and the sound. Despite its eReader roots, the Fire’s natural position is in landscape rather than portrait mode. The camera and dual speakers are positioned for this wider viewing angle and the Fire HD shines when video is played – it has a detailed 1280x800 pixel screen with In-Plane Switching technology that enables wide viewing angles, deep contrasts and rich colours.
To complement this, the Fire HD is the first device to feature Dolby Digital Plus, software that not only boosts music but also makes dialogue much clearer. With the speakers on the rear, this added up to the best audio I have experienced on a 7in tablet.
Amazon plans to take on the iPad more directly with an 8.9in version of the Fire HD in November, by which time we may have a 7in “iPad Mini” from Apple to shake things up. In the meantime, the 7in Fire HD, out today in the US priced at $199 and in the UK on October 25 at £159, represents a great value, high quality experience for users eager to consume Amazon’s vast library of content.