Review: Kindle Fire HD Is a Very Amazon Tablet

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But Bezos didn’t talk about one aspect of this strategy: The Fire HD’s software features embedded marketing messages of various sorts. Each time you turn the screen on, you get a full-screen color billboard which may be either an Amazon “special offer” or a plain old ad — I got one for the new movie The Words. There’s also a plug for one piece of content at the bottom of the home screen.

Amazon already uses a similar approach with its monochrome e-readers: The company lets customers choose between cheap ad-supported versions and slightly pricier ad-free ones. It says that almost everybody opts to watch the ads and save a few bucks. With the new Kindles, however, there’s no ad-free variant. That led to a brief kerfuffle which Amazon quashed by announcing that it would let customers remove the ads for a one-time $15 fee. Fair enough.

(MORE: Yes, You’ll Absolutely, Positively Be Able to Remove the Special Offers from Amazon’s New Kindle Tablets)

I’d probably pay the $15 myself, not so much because I’m ad-adverse as because the promotions I saw were often distractingly irrelevant. Amazon has access to 15 years’ worth of data on my taste in entertainment in the form of my past purchases, yet it kept telling me about items I’d never buy, such as a John Mayer album.

But the marketing messages which baffled me most are the “Customers Also Bought” suggestions which appear when you browse through your collection of books, videos, apps and games with the tablet in portrait orientation. The ones for books made sense, but many others seemed to be random — a game called Where’s My Perry popped up alongside almost every program I tried, including the TIME app — and they aren’t labeled, so it can be tough to tell what they represent.

It’s important to note that the Amazonian qualities of the Kindle Fire HD aren’t all about marketing opportunities. The company has devoted considerable effort to building apps which go beyond the basics of media consumption, and which take advantage of unique Amazon content and technologies.

For instance, the company owns audiobook kingpin Audible, which allows it to offer “Immersive Reading,” an option that lets you pay a few more dollars more for an audio soundtrack. It’s available for around 15,000 titles, which play synchronized narration as you read a Kindle e-book. (These are professionally-recorded tracks by authors and noted performers, not the robotic text-to-speech voice which is also available unless the publisher has disabled the option.)

X-Ray, an existing Kindle e-book feature that lets you pull up information about characters, concepts and other vital details as you read, is now available for thousands of movies, a development made possible by Amazon’s ownership of IMdB. With a tap, you can see which actors are in a scene you’re watching, then browse around to learn more about their work. It’s very slick, and there’s no equivalent on other tablets.

Also unique — although not available until the Kindle gets a software update next month — is a kid-friendly mode called Kindle FreeTime. Parents can set varying time limits for specific types of content, so, for example, a child gets unlimited access to books but only an hour a day of gaming time. Multiple-offspring households can have different profiles for different kids.

Whispersync, Amazon’s blanket moniker for technologies that preserve settings between sessions and across multiple devices, shows up in more places than ever. The company now gives game developers the ability to store your progress in the cloud, so you don’t get kicked back to the first level if you delete a game and then reinstall it later. It also syncs your place between the Kindle and Audible editions of a title, letting you read over breakfast and then pick up where you left off as you listen to the same book in audio form on the subway.

So that’s the 7″ Kindle Fire HD. It offers a lot for the money; it’s full of ambitious features; it provides super-convenient access to a never-ending trove of content. Amazon declares that it’s the most advanced 7″ tablet on the market. From a technical standpoint, that’s a reasonable claim.

But is it the best one?

I won’t even contemplate that question until we know if the shipping software is less quirky than the pre-release version I tried. And even if the company irons out all the bugs, this tablet amounts to a Rorschach test. If the concept of a 7-inch window into Amazon’s vast shopping mall sounds aggravating, you’ll be more pleased with the Nexus 7, which remains a fine tablet in its own right.  It’s more of a general-purpose computing device.

For happy Amazon customers, though, a Kindle Fire HD could be just the ticket — assuming that Amazon thoroughly polishes the software, that is. Here’s hoping it’s in rock-solid shape by the time the 8.9″ model debuts right before Thanksgiving.

MORE: 30 Days with Google’s Nexus 7 Tablet

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