I wasn’t a big fan of the original Kindle Fire, the bargain-priced seven-inch color tablet Amazon.com (AMZN:US) introduced late last year. It was sluggish and cumbersome, redeemed mostly by its easy access to the world of Amazon content.
The new Kindle Fire HD, which arrives Friday, is better across the board. It’s thinner, lighter and faster, adds Bluetooth and a front-facing camera (though still no GPS) and has a much better screen. Plus, it introduces some neat new software tricks.
Above all, the device maintains its predecessor’s rock- bottom price tag: $199 for the base model, which comes with 16 gigabytes of storage and requires a Wi-Fi connection. An updated version of the previous Fire is now $159, while Amazon is promising another version of the HD, with a bigger screen aimed at taking on Apple’s iPad, for late November.
I’ve been using the seven-inch model for several days, and, despite finding a few shortcomings, I generally like it a lot, at least as long as I’m consuming videos, books and music acquired from Amazon.
The Fire HD is somewhat stubbier and, at 13.9 ounces, about two ounces heavier than its main competition among small tablets, Google (GOOG:US)’s Nexus 7. On the other hand, the Google tablet comes with only eight gigabytes of storage, and its Google Play store can’t match Amazon’s selection of books and videos.
Like the Nexus 7, the Fire HD runs a version of Google’s Android operating system -- in this case, the year-old “Ice Cream Sandwich” release -- but you wouldn’t know it.
In place of the Android look and feel, Amazon has installed its own interface, featuring a scrolling carousel for displaying content resident on the device or available for download-on- demand from the Amazon Cloud. You can also pin favorite apps to the carousel.
The software has also been tweaked to take specific advantage of Amazon content. The X-Ray feature, for example, lets you summon cast, crew and other information from the Amazon-owned IMDb while you’re watching a movie.
And if you buy certain e-books, for a few dollars more you can also buy an audio version from its Audible.com operation that will know where you are in your reading and sync up automatically. That way, you can flip back and forth, depending on whether you want to read or listen.
I tested the feature with one of the titles Amazon suggested -- Chester Himes’s “A Rage in Harlem” -- and was able to move seamlessly between the two versions, as well as have Samuel L. Jackson read along with me. Amazon is offering the feature with about 15,000 titles at launch, but says the number will grow. It’s a terrific idea, and one that’s made possible because you’re being kept entirely inside the Amazon ecosystem.
But being locked in has downsides, too. Have an extensive collection of music from Apple’s iTunes store? Getting it onto the Fire is an involved process, and some songs won’t even make it. Want a big selection of third-party apps? The Fire doesn’t have access to the Google Play store for Android apps.
There are Kindle-specific versions of some major apps -- Facebook (FB:US), Skype, Netflix (NFLX:US), Angry Birds -- but this is a much more closed environment than even the iPad. Embracing the Fire HD means lashing yourself to Amazon for pretty much everything you do.
As with any device, battery life depends on how you use it. Still, I found the battery much improved over last year’s Kindle Fire. I was able to get more than a full day’s use, which included leaving the wireless on at all times, watching videos, and downloading books and music from Amazon.
In general, the Fire HD feels considerably more responsive than last year’s model, but some things remain balky.
There’s still a noticeable lag when you touch some icons. It’s also slower than either the Nexus 7 or the iPad to reorient the screen when you turn it. And the Audible app sometimes thought it didn’t have an Internet connection when it did.
I couldn’t see the benefits of Amazon’s claimed enhancements to the Fire’s Wi-Fi capabilities and Silk web browser. In head-to-head tests on different networks, the iPad was consistently faster at displaying Web pages.
Then there are the ads. Amazon pioneered the idea of what it euphemistically calls “special offers” on its monochrome Kindle e-readers, giving buyers a choice between a more- expensive ad-free version and a less-expensive one with ads.
The Fire HD comes in just one version, with ads that appear on the lock screen whenever you wake up the tablet. I found them tolerable, but some people will be offended at the notion of paying $200 to be advertised to. Amazon says it will offer a way for buyers to opt out of the ads for an extra $15.
The Fire still has a long way to go to match the iPad’s smoothness and vast collection of apps, and the competition is about to get tougher if the reports are right that Apple is on the verge of announcing its own seven-inch tablet.
Still, for $199, those willing to commit all-in to the Amazon universe are likely to find themselves well-rewarded.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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