From the moment Apple shipped the first iPad back in 2010, pundits started wondering when someone else would ship a tablet that rivaled it for overall appeal. The initial wondering, logically enough, focused on hardware manufacturers: HP, RIM, Motorola, Samsung and others.
Over and over, though, these companies proved that anyone who thinks that the iPad is merely a piece of hardware doesn’t understand the iPad.
Sure, it’s a slab of glass and aluminum. But it wouldn’t be the iPad without Apple’s software, services, App Store, deals with content owners and — above all — obsessive focus on making everything work as one seamless whole. The most recent iPad alternatives have moved in the right direction, but hardware makers are still struggling to match what comes so naturally to Apple.
Which means that Amazon.com has at least as good a shot as anyone else at building a killer tablet.
The online merchant started tiptoeing its way into the hardware business in 2007, when it released its first Kindle e-reader. And it introduced its first color tablet, the Kindle Fire, a year ago. But what it’s really good at is content: It’s collected up massive quantities of books, movies, music and apps, and makes them a cinch to find, buy and consume. When it comes to this stuff, it may be Apple’s only true rival.
Last week, Amazon made its most aggressive move into hardware yet. CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled three new Kindles at an event in Santa Monica, California, giving the company a lineup with something for almost everybody.
One of the new models, the $119 Kindle Paperwhite, is a monochrome, book-centric e-reader with an outstanding illuminated screen. It ships on October 1. Another, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″, takes on the iPad almost directly: The screen is smaller, but so is the prices. (There’s a $299 version and a $499 one with built-in 4G LTE wireless broadband and a crazy-cheap data plan that goes for $50 a year.) That one isn’t due until November 20.
That leaves the Kindle Fire HD 7″, which arrives on Friday, September 14. Like last year’s Kindle Fire, it’s a $199 tablet with a 7-inch display and an emphasis on consuming items purchased from Amazon. But while the first Fire’s skimpy specs and chunky case made clear that it was designed to hit a particular price point, the Fire HD aims to transcend its bargain-basement pricetag.
Amazon loaned me a Fire HD 7″ unit for review, loaded with a not-quite-final version of its software. I’ve been playing with it for the past six days, and need to pause for a disclaimer: I found the software to be balky in multiple spots, and sometimes downright buggy.
Switching between screens sometimes took so long that I thought my tap hadn’t registered, and would jab hopelessly at the screen. Elements such as search fields occasionally failed to respond. At one point, I got trapped inside Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with no way to escape except turning the tablet off and then on again.
Bizarrely, when I tried to use the Fire HD with Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi on two different flights, it proved to be incompatible with the CAPTCHA security test Gogo uses to verify that you’re a human being. Amazon is working on a fix; I was able to log in by using an alternative security measure for visually-impaired people.
Some of the oddities I encountered could be fixed by the time the first paying customers get their new Kindles. Others might be eliminated in future software updates. (Last year’s original Kindle Fire was more than a tad rough when it shipped, but Amazon quickly improved it.) Bottom line: No matter how alluring you find this tablet, waiting a bit before you buy it won’t hurt, and might help. It might even let you consider, ahem, other options.
Okay, end of disclaimer.
In almost every way that matters, the svelte black Fire HD is an advance on its predecessor, which remains available in a slightly-improved version for $159. It has a beefy dual-core processor, a 1280-by-800 screen that lets it display movies in true high definition and a reasonably roomy 16GB of storage space for your content. There’s a front-facing camera — useful for video calls in Skype, which comes preinstalled — and Bluetooth. (The first Fire had neither.)
Amazon gave the Fire HD some features which would be noteworthy in a tablet regardless of the price. It laminated the touch sensor directly onto the screen and added a polarizing filter, helping to reduce glare and ensuring that the screen looks good at any angle. The Fire’s Wi-Fi uses an advanced technology called MIMO, which Amazon says can increase speed by up to 40 percent compared to the new iPad; I wasn’t able to test this claim, but I never saw streaming video hiccup or otherwise falter.
This is also the first tablet with Dolby Digital Plus audio. Among other benefits, the technology lets the dual-driver stereo speakers sound more like a surround-sound setup. Don’t expect miracles, though. The speakers are on the back of the case, so audio tends to sound like it’s projecting away from you unless you flip the tablet around.
One piece of cost-cutting Amerizon performed to hit the $199 price is obvious: The Fire HD comes with a USB cable for charging — the company estimates the tablet will run for 11 hours when its battery is fully charged — but no AC adapter for charging it from a wall outlet. That’s an extra $10.
I’m also mystified by Amazon’s decision to retain one feature from the first Kindle Fire: The power button is a tiny sliver on the bottom edge of the tablet. I’ve fumbled for it every time I’ve used the tablet, in part because it’s not instantly obvious which edge is the bottom.
Still, all of this adds up to a pretty sweet alternative to Google’s Nexus 7, the uncontested champ among $199 tablets for the past few months. Some people may opt for the Fire simply because its standard 16GB of storage doubles that of the Nexus. (A 32GB version of the Fire is $249.) Then again, the Nexus has a few features which Amazon skipped, including GPS, which is essential for turn-by-turn navigation.
But I repeat: Tablets aren’t defined by their hardware. It’s the software and services that define the differences between the Fire and the Nexus — and while both devices are based on Google’s Android operating system, they’re radically different.
That’s because Amazon used Android only as a raw ingredient. It built its own software-and-service experience for the Fire, one which is far less app-centric than other Android tablets and the iPad.
Instead of a home screen with a grid of applications, the Fire greets you with a scrolling view of jumbo-sized icons, each of which represents a piece of content you’ve recently visited: a book, a movie,, a magazine or a web page, for example. Or an app — the tablet comes with a bunch, such as a mail program, a calendar, the Silk browser and custom versions of Facebook and Twitter, and provides access to thousands of third-party Android programs through Amazon’s AppStore.
The AppStore’s offerings represent a subset of all available Android programs. Some wares that are competitive with Amazon’s offerings, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, are available. Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader, however, is not. Neither are Google programs such as Gmail and Google Maps. Overall, the quality and quantity don’t compete with Apple’s iOS store, but the Fire doesn’t emphasize third-party apps nearly as much as the iPad does.
From the home screen, you can tap your way into sections for your books, videos, music, apps, games, audiobooks and more. Each of these is connected to Amazon services which store your purchases in the cloud, and to Amazon storefronts which let you buy and download more content. The company says it offers more than 22 million items in all, and you’re never more than a few taps away from any of them.
If you buy as much stuff from Amazon as I do, that’s not a bad thing. And the company offers an array of apps for other devices, from phones to PCs to TV boxes to competitive tablets, letting you enjoy the content you buy on almost any gizmo you own.
Springing for Amazon’s Prime membership, which costs a reasonable $79 a year and started as a way to save on shipping costs, upgrades you to first-class status on the Fire HD. It gives you unlimited viewing of a Netflix-like library of 25,000 movies and TV shows, plus the ability to check out one Kindle book a month at no additional cost. (I’m finally reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.)
Now, the fact that Amazon priced this tablet aggressively in hopes that its owners will go on to consume mass quantities of content is no conspiracy. Bezos explained as much at the launch event.
VIDEO: How to Choose a Kindle
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.
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.