In September, I purchased a 7″ Kindle Fire HD. This is my review of the device. You can jump down to the TL;DR conclusion here.
Why I bought it
It was originally supposed to be a sort of “phone appliance” for me, with ebooks and streaming movies from Netflix being the other primary uses. Being deaf, most of my telephone calls happen over VOIP, using a video relay service. A video relay call is sort of like a FaceTime or Skype video chat between me and a video interpreter, who speaks for me and signs for the hearing party who I’m calling.
The 2 video relay services I use, Purple and Convo, both have Android and iOS apps for the purpose. With the video-heavy uses in mind, I had also purchased a Targus leather cover that could be folded up into a stand.
The Kindle Fire HD feels like a solid, rugged slab of hardware. Fit and finish are very good, and it didn’t feel like a cheap plastic toy like I was afraid it would. It has a definite heft to it, and is heavy enough that it’s a little tiring to use as an ebook reader unless you rest it on a flat surface or support the arm holding it. I was glad I sprung for the cover, because being able to set it up as a stand allowed me to give my arms a rest while making Skype video calls or watching Netflix movies.
The screen had very pleasing color, sharpness, and brightness. At something like 216 pixels per inch, text is very sharp and clear even at small font sizes. The aspect ratio is ideal for movies and HD video, with minimal to no letterboxing. In portrait orientation, the aspect ratio works nicely for ebooks–the effect is sort of like reading a trade paperback (8.5″ tall by 5.5″ wide). No complaints there.
I’m told the sound from the stereo speakers was rather nice, not tinny or weak.
The HDMI output works well. I bought a Mediabridge HDMI cable and plugged it into our living room TV, and it does pretty much what it says on the tin.
I’m a bit ambivalent about the operating system. Amazon chose to use a modified version of Android, and added some Amazon-centric features to it. Rather than locking down the tablet completely and forbidding installation of third-party apps, Amazon allows you to enable third-party app installs through a configuration menu. However, this isn’t as awesome as it sounds, for reasons I’ll cover in a minute.
Some of the most apparent changes, from the perspective of someone used to a normal Android experience, are the lock screen advertisements, the carousel, and the lack of a conventional app icon grid. The lock screen ads are not very intrusive, and I didn’t mind them at all. The carousel is basically a row of giant icons showing your most recently accessed apps, ebooks, and whatnot. It’s kind of cute at first, but can get on your nerves a little at times.
In portrait orientation, there’s a row of purchase recommendations below the carousel. It’s sort of like a “related products” feature on a shopping cart, and the gamut ranges from surprisingly helpful to downright annoying. You can allegedly disable these recommendations in one of the configuration screens.
Above the carousel, there’s a row of text links for books, movies, apps, and stuff like that. Clicking on those will take you to a different screen. It’s fairly intuitive and logical, and makes the Kindle Fire HD easy to get to grips with for new users. There’s a heavy emphasis on the Amazon ecosystem all through the user interface. It’s almost like it wants to be a pipeline between your wallet and Amazon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–it can be pretty awesome if you’ve got a lot of Amazon movies, music, and books, in which case you’ve got a wonderful device for taking it all with you wherever you go.
The onscreen keyboard is something that I both love and hate at the same time. I like that it’s big enough to type on, but I don’t like the lack of arrow keys for moving the cursor. I don’t like that the back arrow that takes you out of an app is right next to the keyboard and right about where you’d expect the backspace key to be–several times, I’ve accidentally backed out of an app when trying to backspace in an email or a note. I didn’t like the nonstandard key layout, and found myself wishing they’d put a row of numbers above the keys. You do get used to it after a little while, though.
Apps and Games
My experience with the Amazon app store was somewhat underwhelming. Remember the third party app support I mentioned earlier? There’s no support for Google’s app store, so you’re limited to places like GetJar where you can get free apps that may or may not work on the Kindle Fire HD. Usually, you can tell when an app won’t work with the Kindle Fire HD–GetJar simply doesn’t download it and hangs at that screen. If you’re feeling brave, you can access other third party app stores, but disappointment was the usual outcome for me.
If you resign yourself to sticking with the Amazon app store, the pickings are a bit slim. There’s a huge number of useless, half-baked apps. Out of what’s left, the good stuff is frequently only available on Google’s app store, leaving the Amazon app store looking somewhat like a desolate wasteland of afterthoughts and sloppy seconds. I had no luck getting the Purple or Convo video relay apps to work on the Kindle Fire HD. I also downloaded a shocking number of useful-sounding apps that turned out to be a total waste of time.
Notably absent are the big Google apps. No Gmail, no Chrome, none of that. This isn’t necessarily something to hold against the Kindle Fire HD, but it’s a little disconcerting and inconvenient if, like me, you’re a heavy user of Google’s stuff.
There were a handful of gems, however. The Netflix app worked great. The Dolphin browser was an acceptable upgrade over the native Silk browser, but required a trip to GetJar to install. Splashtop Remote was a fun way to remotely access my computer, but the novelty considerably outstripped the practical benefits. I found a mobile banking app that worked. The Skype and Twitter apps both worked fine. The included email app is…adequate, I guess, but more than once I found myself going straight to the computer to compose lengthy emails.
Games were a positive experience overall–once I started loading it up with stuff like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Plants vs Zombies, Asphalt 7, and a bunch of the little time management games that Mrs E loves, it put the device into a whole new light. It’s actually not a bad little casual gaming tablet at all. Mrs E started using it for playing games frequently, which came as something of a relief to me because I was starting to worry that I’d basically paid $200 plus tax for a 7″ Netflix appliance.
Battery life is okay. Amazon claims 11 hours. In practice, it’s closer to six or seven hours unless you turn off wi-fi and avoid anything processor-intensive. Standby time with wi-fi turned off is pretty good. It comes with an USB cable for recharging, but you really should get the separate $20 AC adapter if you want to fully charge it before you die of old age. I like the AC adapter, it’s a slickly designed item that’s got an almost Apple-like feel to it. It can also charge previous generations of Kindle as well as some other devices–I was able to use it to recharge an iPod Touch and a mobile hotspot as well as my old e-ink Kindle reader.
Since Amazon didn’t add support for subtitles/captions to the native video player and the vast majority of their video library is not captioned or subtitled, the only Amazon digital content that has any measurable value to me as a deaf person are ebooks and apps.
Currently, the only way to view subtitled/captioned content on the Kindle Fire HD is through the Netflix app.
The HDMI output does not pass along subtitle/caption data either.
After roughly a month and a half, I decided it just wasn’t the right tablet for me. I like it a lot, but it’s simply not a particularly deaf-friendly tablet. The fact that my wife took so readily to it made me feel better about kicking it to the metaphorical curb, and I bought a fifth-generation iPod Touch to replace it. I’ll be reviewing that later on in the month.
My verdict: The ideal customer for the Kindle Fire HD is someone who already has a lot of money invested in Amazon music, videos, audiobooks, and ebooks, and who wants one device for managing and consuming that content. If that’s not you or that idea doesn’t appeal to you, you’re probably better off getting a regular Android tablet like the Nexus 7, or an iOS device like the iPad, iPad Mini, or iPod Touch.