Kindle Fire HD Review: One of the Best Tablets, Not No. 1

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Sometimes companies make small, flowery claims about their products -- makes the perfect gift! Stunning visuals! But in the case of the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, made a very big and bold claim:

"We haven't built the best tablet at a certain price. We have built the best tablet at any price," Bezos said on stage last week when he introduced the 7- and 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDs.

Bezos' bravado was understandable. Even though the new 7-inch Fire HD starts at just $199 it has substantially better specs than last years' $199 Kindle Fire and is comparable to higher-end tablets with its HD display, dual-core processor, stereo speakers, and improved Wi-Fi.

WATCH: Kindle Fire HD Review

But while it sounds good on paper and on its own, the competition is much more fierce than it was a year ago and it's not just a specs game. Google's Nexus 7 costs the same and has similar hardware features. And then there is Apple's iPad, which starts at $399 and has reigned as king of the tablets since its introduction. So, is Amazon's claim, well, just a claim?

Improved Hardware, Screen

It takes no more than a second to notice how much nicer the new Kindle Fire HD is in comparison to the older model. The all-black, rubberized back, the thinner design, and rounded edges all make the tablet more comfortable to hold, and it's a better looking device as well. However, Amazon did widen the tablet with a thicker screen bezel, which makes it a bit harder to hold than the Nexus 7. Also, the 13.9-ounce tablet is a tad heavier than the 12-ounce Nexus 7, though you'd only notice if you were holding them both side by side.

But my major nitpick with the hardware has to do with something as simple as the power and volume buttons. The black buttons are flush with the edge of the tablet, blending in a bit too well. I often found myself looking for the buttons for longer than I should have had to, and then confusing them with each other.

Amazon added HD to the name, which gives you an idea of just how much it is focusing on the new, 1280 x 800-resolution screen. I didn't find the Fire HD's display that much better than the Nexus 7's in my side-by-side comparisons, but I did notice a difference outdoors. The Fire's screen now has a special coating that makes it easier to see outside and reduces glare. It's not as good as the regular E Ink Kindle under direct sunlight, but with the hot California sun beating down, it was much easier to see text and images on the Fire HD's display than on the Nexus or iPad. (The $299 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD will have a higher-resolution display.)

Amazon also added a camera to the top of the tablet for video calling over Skype. Video and voice calls with the app were clear, but the app itself was slow at times. Still, the audio that came through the stereo speakers on the back of the tablet was crisp.

Inside the tablet there have also been significant hardware additions, including a faster dual-core processor and more RAM. These upgrades make the tablet much faster; scrolling through the carousel of apps is swift and scrolling in the browser is smooth. But there were times when the operating system would exhibit lag. Some apps took longer than they should to open, and then within some apps, like Skype, there was noticeable delay after tapping on the screen.

Enhanced Software With an App Impediment

The software, which is based on Google's Android 4.0, is simple to use and Amazon has also refreshed core apps, like email and photos. My favorite new feature, however, is X-Ray for Movies. Don't know the name of the actress in a movie you are watching? If you tap the X-Ray button, a list of the actors in the scene will appear, including information about them from IMDB.com. Only select movies are X-Ray enabled now; Amazon denotes that on the rental screen. Amazon also added a kid mode that lets parents set usage time and a new reading feature called Immersion Reading that matches audio books to text.

But the biggest software issue facing Amazon is with apps. While there are some of the key ones you care about in the Amazon App Store -- Facebook, Pinterest, etc. -- other key Android apps, like Groupon and The New York Times, are not there. (Although, ABC News is!) The Google Play Store on the Nexus 7 and other Android tablets has more apps and you get Google's official apps like Gmail and YouTube. (You can access YouTube on the Fire via the web browser.) The iPad still has the best apps of any tablet. They were built especially for the bigger screen; they aren't just resized phone apps as you find on the Fire and the Nexus.

It's clear that what Amazon really wants you to do with the tablet is read books or magazines and watch movies or TV shows that you've bought from its store. And this tablet was well designed for all of that.

Great Content Pushed By Ads

The content selection is larger than what you'll find on the Nexus 7 (still no "Glee" or "Arrested Development" in Google's store) and because I am an Amazon Prime member (which costs $79 a year), it is much more affordable than buying content from Apple on the iPad.

But does Amazon go too far to make sure you buy that content? "We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our device," Bezos said. On the lock screen of every tablet Amazon's Special Offers appear, which are a series of ads for new movies like "The Lorax" or discounts in the Amazon store. On the home screen too, when you hover over a book or magazine in your collection, Amazon recommends other titles to buy. Amazon has decided to allow users to pay $15 to get rid of the ads, making the price of an ad-free Kindle Fire HD $214.

My review unit didn't have this option to disable the ads, but if it did I would handed over the $15 in a flash. I am a sucker for advertising and I simply don't need any additional temptation to spend even more money on magazines or TV episodes. I'd also prefer to have a photo of a peaceful beach scene on my screen than some ad.

Bottom Line

When it comes to its closest $199 competitor -- the Nexus 7 -- the Fire has greater content, more storage space for the price (16GB vs. 8GB), and unique features, like better speakers, X-Ray for movies and Amazon's audible integration. But the Nexus 7 has better app selection, better performance, hardware buttons that don't frustrate, no ads littering the homescreen, and Google's full range of Android 4.0 features, like Google Now.

And then there is, of course, the iPad, which offers a better app quality and selection, top-notch performance, two cameras, and other features. (Apple is rumored to be releasing a smaller iPad in October.)

So, is this the best tablet at any price? No, but Amazon wouldn't be wrong if it said it was one of the best tablets at any price.

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