Amazon Kindle Fire HD £159
3rd Mar 2014 | 15:48
Now comes in two size choices for the discerning tablet worrier
Introduction and design
After their first release two years ago, Amazon's Fire tablets have grown into some of the most popular slates on the market.
The Kindle Fire HD is no longer Amazon's main budget-centric device (that's the Kindle Fire HDX), but it's still available and for an even lower price.
Starting from just £95.20 for a 7-inch HD display and a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU with 8GB of onboard storage, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7 appears to offer great value for money. There's also a 16GB version offered, which for the extra £16 definitely seems worth it.
If you fancy a little more screen real estate you can plump for the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire which starts at £127.20 for the 16GB version, while the 32GB option is still an affordable £151.20.
Expect to pay £8 more if you want one without Amazon's 'special offers', targeted marketing that appears on the lockscreen and at the bottom of the home screen, but isn't too obtrusive.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7 certainly no longer matches the new Nexus 7 in terms of raw power and screen quality, though it chops a lot off the asking price. It comfortably trumps the iPad mini on price, while offering a similar screen resolution to the original.
If you still think of Amazon Kindles as those little monochrome holiday companions, then you should know that the Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablets are completely different beasts.
Rather than focusing on the very specific job of downloading and reading electronic books, these are all-purpose tablets that act as windows onto Amazon's wider multimedia world - films, music, apps and games are all included in the Kindle Fire HD's remit.
With that in mind, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD range is a much simpler, purer design than the original Kindle.
The emphasis here is on the screen first and foremost, with the only hardware controls coming in the shape of volume and power buttons on top of the devices, right alongside the 3.5mm headphone jack.
The lack of a fixed home key adds to that minimalist vibe (I'll discuss the effect that has on usability later). There isn't even a front-facing camera, so no Skype chatting on this device.
Amazon has updated the design of the 7-inch variant to bring it in line with the HDX range and its rivals in terms of build quality. The 8.9-inch option hasn't been given the same treatment though.
Despite the impossibly low price point, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD doesn't feel like a cheap device. It's solid in the hand, with none of the creak you find in many budget Android tablets.
There's a nice contrast between the Amazon Kindle Fire HD's smooth, glass front and its grippy matte, soft-touch back. It's quietly pleasing from a tactile perspective, even though it lacks the sheer machined precision and premium feel of Apple's tablets.
While Apple has opted for a super-slim bezel for its iPad mini - partly to facilitate that wider 7.9-inch display - Amazon has been more generous with its own offerings.
Indeed, the fairly thick border around even the smaller 7-inch screen brings it closer to the full-sized iPad in design than its miniature brother.
I like this approach from a purely practical perspective (although it makes it look a little chubby, if I'm honest). It's still comfier to hold the seven-inch model between your thumb and fingers than it is to rest it in the span of your hand, even when held in portrait view.
Of course, that's partly because it's slightly chunky for its size - at 345g the 7-inch model is just 14g heavier than the iPad mini.
The display on the Kindle Fire HD packs a decent resolution of 1280 x 800 with a ppi of 216. It's the same display as the original Kindle Fire HD model from last year, so expect the same slightly yellow tint, especially when you're looking at a white background.
Indeed, once your eyes have grown accustomed to its warmer hue, you'll no doubt begin to appreciate the Amazon Kindle Fire HD display's more naturalistic colour contrast - particularly when viewing video content.
It's certainly not in the same league as the Nexus 7, or the Retina-toting iPad Mini, but it's more than a match for the original compact slate from Apple.
The display is pleasantly sharp. This isn't particularly apparent within the main Kindle Fire interface, but it certainly bears fruit when reading a book or browsing the internet, where small text remains clear and eminently readable.
This display is powered by a capable 1.5GHz dual-core processor. While this is far from the most powerful processor on the market, it is very well balanced, and it certainly doesn't come up short when faced with demanding tasks like high-definition video and 3D games.
One final piece of hardware-related info I really must cover is the Amazon Kindle Fire HD's impressive sound. Positioned on either side of the device (if you're holding it in landscape), the speakers are surprisingly punchy, given their size.
They really do crank out some respectable stereo sound - both in terms of volume and clarity, and it reminds us a lot of the power of BoomSound on the HTC One.
Naturally, I'd recommend using earphones whenever possible, but for those times where you're just following a quick email link to a YouTube video, they're more than adequate.
Interface and performance
Amazon is taking a completely different approach to interface design with its Kindle Fire HD range. While iPads and Nexuses present the equivalent of a computer desktop filled with app icons and widgets, the Kindle Fire HD OS is all about the content.
Both tablets push the consumption of media content first and foremost, so when you boot each device up you'll be confronted by a large, horizontal scrolling list of your most-recently accessed apps, books and music.
For the first-time user, it's arguably the most accessible tablet OS yet - just swipe left and right to get to the book you were reading or the album you started listening to on the previous evening. Simple.
The device feels a little like 'my first tablet' in a way, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. If you're a slightly more advanced user who wants to use your Amazon Kindle Fire HD for more general tasks, this is a distinctly sub-standard experience.
Tasks that would be considered core on any other tablet - not just the iPad mini and Nexus 7 - such as email, contacts and calendar, are all relegated to the tiny apps menu located on top of the main content interface.Your apps can also be accessed from a quick swipe up from the carousel.
It's only an extra tap or swipe away, but the way these fundamental utilities have been bundled together, almost as an afterthought, seems like a bit of a miscalculation on Amazon's part.
Of course, if you've used any of these major apps recently they'll appear in the main content list, but its constantly shifting nature means that you'll rarely be able to lay your finger on, say, email instinctively.
Below the main content bar you get a smaller carousel of context-sensitive icons running parallel to it. As you scroll through the main items, this will shift accordingly.
So, for example, when you highlight a film you'll be presented with films that other Amazon customers who viewed it also bought or watched through the video hub.
Apps work the same way, providing related recommendations.
If you've been using the web, meanwhile, the lower carousel will give you a list of trending websites - usually news sources like the BBC and The Mail Online.
If you highlight the email app, you'll be presented with shortcuts to creating a new message, examining your schedule or bringing up your favourite contacts.
As with the rest of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD interface, this works great for those who want to skim the surface, dipping in and out of content and taking the odd natural diversion.
It's a very focused approach, but it doesn't really facilitate deeper discovery. At least this simplified UI is relatively slick and responsive.
It stands in stark contrast to the various store screens through which you purchase your apps, your books and your music, as well as the Lovefilm-associated video streaming.
While these have been significantly sped up since the last version of this device, it still takes a good few seconds for a store-front to load, leaving you gazing at a black screen for far longer than you'd be expecting too.
All of these are painfully slow, loading in updated content icons like they're coming over a 56k modem.
I'm exaggerating, but the contrast between the offline and online elements is a bit jarring given Amazon's attempts at a seamless experience.
Of course, going into iTunes on your iPad mini can be similarly sluggish, but that's just a single app standing separately from an extremely responsive UI.
Going into these separate sections of the Kindle Fire HD interface away from the main hub reveals a persistent navigation bar along the bottom of the screen in portrait, or along the right-hand side in landscape.
This features a rather counter-intuitively-placed virtual home key to the left/bottom, with the back button placed centrally and a favourites button to the right/top respectively.
The favourites command remains present even on the home screen, and grants fast access to selected apps, which can be added individually by pressing and holding on their icon from the main carousel or within the apps menu.
This helps with the above navigation issues somewhat, and represents an all-too-rare means of personalisation on the Kindle Fire HD interface.
More commands flesh out the navigation bar according to the section you're in.
It's common to find a search command for pinpoint navigation of music, apps and so on, while these also offer a central menu command that provides access to settings, help and the like.
One fairly major aspect of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD interface that's missing is multitasking.
You might argue that this is a minor aspect of any modern tablet, but the minute you find yourself wanting to copy the name of an item from the custom Amazon store app (which works in much the same way as copying and pasting on an iPad) and paste into a web field, you'll realise what an irritating omission it is.
Internet and email
Amazon has made quite a song and a dance about the Amazon Kindle Fire HD's Silk web browser.
The big deal here, apparently, is that it uses Amazon's servers to perform much of the grunt work, speeding up the web browsing experience considerably.
That's the theory. In practice, I can't say I really noticed. That's not to say it's slow - it's just not noticeably snappier in general browsing conditions than its competition.
Still, as a stand-alone web browsing experience, the Kindle Fire HD is pretty pleasurable to use.
It adopts the by-now-standard ability to add and flip between multiple tabs along the top of the screen, and there's a familiar universal search/address bar below that.
I especially like the implementation of the 'glasses' button for each tab, which acts like Apple's Reading List feature in Safari in the way it quickly renders web pages in a simplified, easy-to-read and full-screen format.
If anything, I prefer Amazon's more cohesive implementation.
There's a bookmark facility here, as you'd expect, but as with many of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD's UI elements it feels a little buried and unclear compared to its established rivals.
Rather than a clear menu button for bookmarked web pages, or a clear lists of bookmarks as soon as you open a new tab, here you have to open a new tab and then select the Bookmarks option to see your favourite websites.
The default Starter category here shows a scrolling list of your most visited web pages, as well as trending and featured web pages, but none really gets you to your favoured web content as well as a good bookmarks page - and that's always a further touch away.
Still, overall I have to say that web browsing on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is up there with it rivals in terms of speed and tidiness.
Email on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is similarly intuitive and more or less on a par with the compact tablet rivals.
The set-up process offers you the usual choice of Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo and Exchange accounts, as well as AOL and an option for other providers.
Setting up a Gmail account, I was pleased to see my contacts' profile pictures appearing alongside their name when adding them to the 'To' field.
The email interface itself should be familiar to anyone who's used an iPad or an Android tablet before. Though, it lacks the polish that I'm used to, it just feels a bit chunky and continues that 'child-like' feel that runs throughout this tablet.
Along the left you have a list of emails, while the larger right-hand side of the screen (in landscape) offers an instant preview of the highlighted email.
In portrait view only one of these split functions is shown at a time, but it's better for reading lengthy emails.
Typing out new emails, meanwhile, is made easy by a decent keyboard that feels very similar to the iPad range. As that's still the most intuitive and reliable virtual keyboard on the market, it's a good example to follow.
Sure enough, typing here is fluid and relatively error-free. There's also an unobtrusive word prediction feature that offers a constantly updating list of three word suggestions - something Nexus 7 users will be well familiar with, but that iPad mini users have to go without.
Another familiar Nexus 7 feature is the 'Swype' style keyboard, where you move your finger across the keys, creating words. It does take a little time to really get used to, but when it's mastered you'll be shaving a lot of time off your typing.
Movies, music and books
Having read this far, you're probably expecting the Amazon Kindle Fire HD to be pretty hot (pun intended) when it comes to accessing and experiencing media. And you'd be right.
Movies, music and books are the Amazon Kindle Fire HD's raison d'être - or rather, Amazon movies, music and books are. I'll go into precisely that means in a moment.
Everything here is geared around purchasing media content from Amazon's vast library, and you won't hear any complaints of restrictiveness from us.
No one can match the big 'A' for sheer range - not even the other big 'A,' Apple.
From the main menu, books, music and videos get their own categories along the top, and tapping on one takes you through to the relevant part of the Amazon store.
If you're a Lovefilm customer, you get access to a bunch of films and TV shows which can be streamed to your tablet at no extra cost.
If you're not a Lovefilm customer, you get a month's free trial to see if you like the offering.
It's a good way to find out if you're willing to pay for the service because, while there's a good spread of films and they all stream nicely (especially those with an HD option), it's far from comprehensive.
Those of us in the UK don't have access to Amazon Instant Video yet, which allows you to pay for more current movie rentals or even full ownership, and download them as you would a music track or book.
That's a bit of a weakness with the wider Amazon UK service, rather than the Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablets themselves.
I like the integration with IMDb for the Lovefilm streams, though, which provides an overlay called X-Ray detailing the actors while the film plays.
The music tab acts slightly differently to the video one, in that it doesn't take you straight to the Amazon store.
Rather, it takes you first to your own music library, incorporating both your music stored in the Amazon Cloud and the music that's stored locally on your Amazon Kindle Fire HD.
The Store can be accessed from this library page, and this most certainly is comprehensive - or at least as comprehensive as any one MP3 market can be.
Purchasing tracks is extremely easy, with Amazon's One-Click service encouraged early on. Sound quality, too, is decent, provided you have a decent pair of headphones to hand.
Books, as you'd expect, are extremely well supported on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD. You essentially have the whole Kindle ecosystem at your fingertips.
Books are presented in the same way as music, in that you access the store through your own collection page.
While the reading experience itself isn't as good as on a pure Kindle device - those bright screens make for some sore eyes after a while - it is very accomplished in short spells thanks to that crisp HD screen.
It's also much nicer browsing in full colour, where you can see each book's cover art in all its glory.
I also like the facility to 'borrow' one book each month when signed up to Amazon Prime.
The Kindle Fire HD's all-colour HD screen also has obvious benefits when it comes to accessing Amazon's growing comic book library.
At the time of writing, there are almost 1,000 comic books with the customised Kindle Panel View - a nifty facility that displays comic books full-screen and with the ability to zoom in on individual panels with a double-tap.
The small profile of the seven-inch slate makes it perfect for one handed reading, even if you're planning on getting stuck in to the latest bestselling thriller.
But how about when it comes to installing your own content from outside the Amazon ecosystem?
While I've offered some criticism on the relative lack of customisation with the Amazon Kindle Fire HD range, it surprisingly doesn't get in your way when it comes to installing your own video and music content.
The tablet's Fire OS, which in this iteration is named 'Mojito', is built on Android 4.2. It's been heavily modified, yes, but its slightly more open, nerdy nature shines through when you plug an Amazon Kindle Fire HD device into your computer.
Once you do so (and download the Android File Transfer program if you're a Mac user), adding media is a simple case of dragging and dropping onto the Amazon Kindle Fire HD file - it's effectively treated as an external hard drive.
It's a little odd when stacked up against the heavily curated experience elsewhere, but it gives you a quick and easy way to get your non-Amazon media onto your Kindle Fire HD.
Watch out for those file sizes, though, if you opted for a 16GB model. It'll fill up in no time once you're away from the capacious qualities of the cloud.
Apps and games
There's one glaring weakness in Amazon's vast media ecosystem. One area in which this digital giant bows down to both Apple and Google.
When it comes to apps, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is sorely lacking. Amazon tried to head this issue off a few years ago when it introduced the Amazon Appstore, but even with all of its work it still finds itself well short.
While many of the major players are present, such as Facebook, Flipboard and Evernote, there are also some major omissions.
I thought Dropbox was available pretty much everywhere - it's one of the main reasons the cloud-storage tool is so popular - but you have to download it directly from Dropbox if you want it on your Amazon Kindle Fire HD.
In fairness, though, the very fact that you can side-load non-official apps on to the Amazon Kindle Fire HD in this way is another sign of the device's hidden Android legacy, and adds another welcome dash of flexibility to the otherwise-rigid Amazon interface.
However, the whole act of side-loading means your apps will never be updated, unless you do it manually, and I find that a bit of a pain.
The games offering is improving, but it still falls below our expectations.
Amazon has worked hard to get certain timed exclusives over the much larger Google Play store, and, as with the apps, there are a number of big hitters here.
Angry Birds Star Wars, Temple Run 2, Plants vs Zombies, Jetpack Joyride, Real Racing 3 - all present and accounted for.
For every game that's here, though, there are several that aren't. Obviously Apple reigns supreme when it comes to mobile gaming, but even compared to the Google Play store, this is a little barren on the gaming front.
Where's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas? Where's Plants vs. Zombies 2? Nowhere to be seen. It's a real shame that these games, which are both available on Android, are not on a tablet that does essentially this OS.
In terms of how those games that are present perform, the Amazon Kindle Fire's 1.5GHz dual-core CPU is more than adequate for casual time wasters like Cut The Rope and Angry Birds.
It also handles 3D gaming, though I did come across a fair bit of stuttering when I was really getting into some racing on Asphalt 8.
Both Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablets are more than capable gaming devices, then - it's just a shame there aren't more games to enjoy on them.
In all of this I have to wonder why Amazon didn't just allow access to the Google Play store. Especially when you realise what a sluggish, difficult-to-navigate mess the Amazon Appstore is.
It's bizarre when you consider that the custom stores for music, videos and books are quite pleasant to use, if still a little slow. When it comes to pre-installed apps, it's equally slim pickings.
Aside from the mentioned email, calendar and contacts apps, Amazon has included IMDb (which, as I've said, integrates nicely with video).
Aside from these, you'll find Kindle FreeTime, a great little app from stops the kids from spending the entire day glued to the seven-inch screen. All you have to do is set-up a password, create the youngster a profile and choose which apps they access, along with how long they can use them for. It's easy to set up and actually really useful.
Arguably, the biggest omission here is a complete lack of mapping. Again, why Amazon didn't compromise a little and adopt Google's ready-made Maps app I'm not sure.
Battery and connectivity
Amazon claims that the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is good for 10 hours of use in between charges (this is actually down from 11 on last year's edition), and everything I've experienced in our hands-on time suggests that they're about right.
With the screen cranked up to full brightness and in heavy usage (video watching, gaming and web browsing) it came up a little short of double figures on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, but it's still very respectable and in line with its big rival, the iPad mini.
After playing our standard self-installed test movie, which is 720p and one hour and thirty minutes long, with the screen brightness cranked up to full and Wi-Fi and notifications on, I was left with more than 80 per cent battery life in the tank. Not bad at all.
Arguably of more interest when it comes to battery life is Amazon's decision to omit a mains charger from both packages. You get a USB lead, which will charge the tablet through your computer or a generic USB mains adapter, but it's an odd omission nonetheless.
If you wish, you can buy Amazon's PowerFast charger, though this will set you a back a pretty wallet-busting £17.99. That's a bit steep, but it does promise to fully charge your Amazon Kindle Fire HD in less than five hours - although this is no quicker than the iPad mini, despite both having a capacity of 4400mAh.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD is Wi-Fi-only, so you won't be able to carry them around and take advantage of 3G connectivity. Still, with tablets that's far less of an issue for most users. If you're planning on taking the tablet out on the road and connecting to the web, you'll have to plump up the extra cash and pick-up the Kindle Fire HDX model.
Amazon has ditched the MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) technology that boosted Wi-Fi speeds on the last model, sticking to plain old Dual Band Wi-Fi this time around.
There is a bit of a noticeable difference between the two models, but I can confirm that my connection didn't drop in the slightest, regardless of where I was in my, albeit small, flat.
I tried downloading a number of large email files on both Amazon Kindle Fire HDs and then did the same on my iPad mini with Retina display, but couldn't see much difference.
Outside of this, The Amazon Kindle Fire HD comes with just a microUSB connection. Sadly, Amazon has done away with the microHDMI port that last year's model had - so no outputting to the big screen.
The tablet also comes with Bluetooth for use with speakers, keyboards and other wireless peripherals. There's no microSD card slot.
Hands on gallery
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD is excellent value for the solid, capable hardware you're getting. But you need to think carefully about what you want from a tablet and what the alternatives are before deciding upon a purchase.
If you're heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem, with hundreds of books and MP3 tracks stored in your digital Amazon locker and a Lovefilm account waiting to stream movies to you - and if your day isn't complete without a bout of virtual window shopping on the vast Amazon website and you want an instant mainline to all those bargains - one of these could be for you.
If your main wish is for a device that pulls all these elements together in a highly-funneled interface, and other common tablet tasks such as email, web browsing gaming and mapping are distant secondary concerns, then the Kindle Fire HD provides everything you want and most of the things you need.
Unfortunately, those are some pretty big ifs. The Nexus 7 is a far more balanced tablet, offering the same kind of seven-inch hardware for an increase in price - but with the infinitely more flexible stock Android 4.4 Kitkat OS and a far superior app store, as well as apps to give you all the Amazon goodness you could want.
Meanwhile, Apple's iPad mini and iPad mini with Retina display are cruising into a commanding position on the back of Apple's typical design and app ecosystem mastery.
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The Amazon Kindle Fire HD's user interface is very beginner-friendly and offers something genuinely new over its rivals. Plus, the new Mojito update brings a grid layout, which is far more usable than the painful carousel.
In terms of hardware, the display is fairly sharp and ideally suited to movie watching, the stereo speakers are suitably punchy, and that dual-core CPU drives apps, games and HD video along very well. All for a bargain price.
Access to the formidable Amazon ecosystem is the Amazon Kindle Fire HD duo's main strength, however, and there's no arguing with the sheer range of, or easy access to, movie, music and book content.
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The interface, while intuitive, is restrictive, making standard tablet activities like email needlessly tough to access. Other major tablet tools like multitasking and mapping are just plain missing.
This interface also feels sluggish when accessing any of the online Amazon store sections, making us question the wisdom of pushing quite so much to the cloud at this point.
While Amazon is great for most media content, it's comes in a distant third place for apps and games.
Unusually, given its populist design philosophy, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD can be considered a niche product, aimed at those who feel intimidated by typical tablet interfaces or who just want to be left alone to their media consumption.
They represent great value for money, offering highly capable and solidly built tablets for under £120. It's just that the Google Nexus 7 and Asus' Memo Pad 7 both give you more for your money, including a superior level of hardware, a far more sophisticated operating system and a superior app store.
Meanwhile, there's the Apple iPad mini with its unmatched app ecosystem and super-sleek design.
Between them, Apple and Google have arguably squeezed out the capable-but-limited Amazon Kindle Fire HD in all but price.