Gadling Gear Review: Kindle Fire HD

Kindle Fire HD tablet from AmazonThere is no doubt that tablet computers have had a dramatic impact on travel over the past few years. These lightweight and versatile devices provide us with all kinds of entertainment options while keeping us in contact with friends and family back home. Of course, the iPad is the 900-pound gorilla in the tablet space, but over the past year or so some real competition has arrived on the scene giving consumers some new choices. Take for example the Kindle Fire HD from Amazon, which is a powerful and affordable alternative to Apple’s device.

The Kindle Fire HD is available with either 16 or 32 gigabytes of storage and in two models: one that is ad supported at a slightly reduced price and one that is completely ad free. It features a 7″ HD display with a resolution of 1200×800, dual-speaker Dolby audio and high-speed Wi-Fi. It is powered by a 1.2 Ghz dual-core processor and has a built-in, front-facing HD camera for capturing photos or making video calls. In short, it comes with just about everything you would expect in a tablet all in an attractive, compact and lightweight package.

Amazon chose to use the Android operating system on the Kindle Fire, although you would hardly recognize it at first glance. The online retail giant has modified the OS to fit their needs, giving it its own look and feel. Not unlike Apple’s iOS, stock Android provides a desktop-like interface with folders and app icons all over the screen. But Amazon has simplified that interface greatly providing users with the “Carousel” and a series of straight forward, easy to understand menus. The Carousel occupies the majority of the display, providing access to your favorite and most commonly used apps. But when you need to dig deeper into the Kindle experience, the menus let you find your books, videos, photos, music and more. It is a simple, yet effective design that takes only a few minutes to learn.Since the Kindle is running Android there is already a large library of apps ready for download. The Kindle app store isn’t quite as large as Apple’s, but there are still plenty of options to choose from and most major apps are available. For instance, Netflix, Hulu, Skype, Facebook and Twitter are all here, just waiting to be installed. The one area that seems to have fewer choices is games, although rest assured you’ll still be able to find all the versions of Angry Birds and most other major releases.

Kindle Fire HD from AmazonPerformance on the Kindle Fire is, for the most part, quite good. The OS is tuned nicely to the device and the interface is slicker and more intuitive than previous generation Kindles. Being an iPad owner, I occasionally found the experience to be not quite as smooth as what I am typically used to, and tapping on some selections were unresponsive at times, but if this is the only tablet you’ve ever owned, you’re not likely to notice these things quite so much. Reading books or watching videos on the Fire HD’s clear, bright screen is a joy and listening to music with a pair of headphones is a wonderful experience as well. Most games played without a hitch too, although I did notice some slow down and frame rate drops while playing Real Racing 3. To be fair, that is one of the best looking games available for any tablet at the moment, so I wasn’t surprised to find the Kindle struggled with the high-end graphics a bit. But for the most part, apps and movies ran very smoothly, which travelers are sure to appreciate on long flights.

One of the most impressive aspects of using an iPad is the entire ecosystem that Apple has built up around it. Between the app store and iTunes, iPad owners have access to tons of content including magazines, books, movies, television shows and music. Amazon has built a similar ecosystem for the Kindle, which provides all of those same entertainment options to their customers as well. Owners of the Fire HD won’t have any need to feel jealous of their friends who can watch the latest films on their iPad because chances are it’ll be available to the Kindle too. In fact, I’d say the strength of the Amazon ecosystem is one of the best selling points of the device with a wide selection of every form of entertainment available. Amazon Prime subscribers also gain access to a larger library of videos absolutely and gain the ability to borrow one book per month absolutely free.

Amazon lists the battery life on the Kindle Fire HD at 11 hours, although I was never able to quite eek out that much time. In typical day-to-day use, watching movies, surfing the web, checking email, reading a book and listening to Pandora, I found that my test unit needed a recharge about every 7-8 hours. That’s a solid amount of time out of any device this small and versatile, but it is quite a long way off from the advertised battery life. Most tablets have a hard time meeting their listed specs when put to use in the real world, although the iPad gets a lot closer than most. You can go longer between charges by adjusting screen brightness, turning down the volume and switching off Wi-Fi when not in use, of course, so it is all about compromise and striking a balance.

I wasn’t quite so impressed with some of the Kindle’s built-in apps. For instance, the email app wouldn’t recognize my Gmail account even though it comes pre-programmed with a Gmail options. I eventually got it working by manually entering all of information, but it took longer than it should to set it up. The email client also doesn’t seem to check for mail when it isn’t open, which is a bit disappointing as you can easily configure the iPad to check for mail on preset intervals. I searched for a setting to have the Kindle do the same thing, but was unable to discover such an option.

Similarly, I wasn’t very impressed with Amazon’s Silk browser, which the Kindle uses to surf the web. It passes most web traffic through the company’s own servers in an effort to reduce load times, although I couldn’t really tell if it made any difference. I didn’t find the interface particularly user friendly either, although others may find it to be a perfectly serviceable way to browse the web.

Coming from an iPad, I also found the Kindle Fire’s 7″ screen to be a bit too cramped at times. When reading web pages or scrolling through emails, I often wanted to see more than it could display. Don’t get me wrong, the screen looks great and is definitely bright and clear, but it was a bit on the small side for my taste. For day-to-day use, I preferred the iPad Mini’s 7.9″ screen, at least in terms of size, over the Kindle’s. But this is again a personal preference of course, as a larger screen comes at the expense of added size and weight.

If there is one area where the iPad has no chance of competing with the Kindle Fire it is on price. The ad-supported model is just $199 and the regular version is $214. I’d recommend coughing up the extra 15 bucks to get the version without the ads, but quite frankly the “special offers” that Amazon displays are not intrusive in any way. They appear on the lock screen when you first power up the device but they are not in any way obnoxious. The budget conscious will barely notice them for the most part. Amazon also offers the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″, which as the name implies comes with a larger 8.9″ display. That device has recently been reduced in price to just $269, which is well below any version of the iPad as well.

If you’re looking to buy a full-featured, well built tablet for travel, but don’t want to shell out a lot of cash, the Kindle Fire HD is a great alternative to the iPad. It does make some compromises along the way, but overall it is a high-quality product that will satisfy consumers on a budget. Travelers especially will love all of the options that the Kindle Fire brings to the table, delivering a compact yet powerful device that will make travel easier and more enjoyable.

Gadling Gear Review: Ventev Mobile Chargers And Cables

Ventev Wallport r2200 USB chargerSmartphones, tablet, iPods and other devices have certainly made our travel experiences much more enjoyable. Gone are the days of sitting around an airport for hours on end with few ways to pass the time. Keeping those gadgets fully charged for extended use can be a real challenge, however, as a dead battery means our tech toys are really just dead weight. Fortunately there are more charging options available than ever before including a host of fantastic chargers and cables from Ventev, a company focused on making high-quality accessories for our favorite gadgets.

Wallport r2200 ($30-$35)
Ventev offers a line of wall chargers with built-in USB ports that are perfect for travelers. Since most modern mobile devices are powered via USB, these wall chargers are, in a sense, universal, allowing us to leave our various gadget-specific chargers at home in favor of a single option.

My favorite of these wall chargers was the r2200, which features two rapid-charging USB ports that are capable of powering two iPads at the same time. Considering how notoriously power-hungry the iPad is, this is a nice option for keeping your tablet ready for use, whether you’re at home or on the road. Each port is capable of delivering up to 10 watts of juice, which means your iPad will charge at its normal rate but your smartphones, mp3 players and other devices will charge at a much quicker pace. My iPhone for instance was able to go from completely dead to a full-charge in less than two hours.

Durable and attractive, the r2200 is well built for the challenges of travel. It is also lightweight and compact, which means it will save space in your bag, particularly when you consider all of the other chargers that it replaces. Ventev offers it with two options, the charger itself for $30 or with an included Micro USB cable for $35. Apple device owners will need to bring their own 30-pin or Lightning cables.Ventev Dashport r2200 USB chargerDashport r1200 ($20) and r2200 ($30-$35)
Ventev’s Dashport line of chargers take the concept of their Wallport models but extend the formula to the car. These units give us USB adapters that plug into the DC accessory port (aka cigarette lighter) in our vehicles. Both the r1200 and r2200 are rapid charging 10W adapters with the former providing a single USB port while the latter offers two. Both are capable of charging an iPad at the same rate as its included adapter or a smartphone, iPod or other device at about double the normal rate.

Having one of these adapters in your car can be a real revelation for anyone who has a smartphone. While those devices are certainly wonders of modern technology, they don’t always have the longest battery life. This is especially true with the numerous models of Android phones on the market. But having either Dashport model in your vehicle means you can use your phone all day long without fear of it running out of juice.

I’ve known about the value of having an adapter like this in my car for sometime and I’ve routinely carried a similar product from one of Ventev’s competitors. But both the Dashport r1200 and r2200 are light years better in terms of quality and build construction. My previous model feels like a cheap toy compared to these two adapters, which also happened to perform better too. If you’re in need of a charger for your car, these are definitely the ones you want. I recommend getting the r2200 as its two-port option will keep your passenger happy too!

Ventev Powercell 3000 battery packPowercell 3000 Backup Battery ($60)
As good as the Wallport and Dashport adapters are, they both still require that you’re close to some kind of power source. But often when we travel we’re not in a location where we can plug in at any given time. That’s where Ventev’s Powercell 3000 comes in handy. It is a small, lightweight battery backup that can add extra juice to your smartphone or other small electronics when you’re away from a regular power outlet. It is capable of charging two devices at once and extending the talk time of an iPhone by about ten hours.

I was impressed with how lightweight and thin, yet still durable, the Powercell actually is. The battery pack weighs in at a shade over 3 ounces, which means it won’t take up much room in your bag or add any undue weight. It includes both a standard and Micro USB port, which adds a nice level of versatility to the device. Ventev also ships it with an integrated Micro USB cable and an Apple 30-pin cable, which works with all Apple devices prior to the iPhone 5, iPad 4 and iPad Mini. Owners of those gadgets will need to use their own Lightning cable – at least for now.

The Powercell is capable of providing 3000mAh of on-the-go power, which is generally plenty to get most of us through a typical day and then some. It can also be quickly and easily recharged via a Wallport or Dashport, which makes for a nice synergy between Ventev’s products. The Powercell faces a lot of competition in the portable battery space, some of which offer larger capacities. But in terms of compact design and efficient charging, it is tough to beat this product. It is efficient, versatile and simple to use. Everything we need in a travel gadget.

It should be noted that the Powercell 3000 is capable of charging an iPad, although it is extremely slow and the amount of extra energy gained is hardly worth it. Bottom line, it’ll do in a pinch, but only just barely. If you need a mobile battery pack for your tablet, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

Ventev ChargeSync cable in RedChargeSync Cables ($15-$25)
In addition to offering a variety of excellent chargers for travel, Ventev also has some of the best USB cables that I’ve ever seen. These high-quality cables are over 3 feet in length, have a flat design that keeps them from tangling and are available in eight different colors. Those colors come in quite handy when trying to quickly find which cable belongs to you in a sea of standard white cables that most people carry. The ChargeSync cables are available in Micro USB ($15), Apple 30-Pin ($20) and Apple Lightning ($25) flavors.

As someone who has more cables for more devices than he knows what to do with, I always have a set for use at home and a set to take with me on the road. Ventev’s cables have quickly replaced my travel set simply for the non-tangling feature alone. The fact that they are much more durable than the cables that generally come with a device is also an added benefit. Considering the overall quality of these products, the retail price is actually quite a deal. Charging cables aren’t especially sexy in any way, but Ventev has managed to create a very impressive product here.

Ventev’s entire line of chargers and cables are fantastic options for travelers. They are lightweight, affordable, versatile and provide power for all of our devices while on the go. These products are some of the best that I’ve ever seen and I think frequent travelers will love them. I also think they are just as useful at home, where we never seem to have enough outlets to keep all of our gadgets charged.

[Photo Credit: Ventev]

ZocDoc Helps You Find Doctors, Make Appointments While Traveling

ZocDoc helps you find medical assistance while travelingThere is nothing more frustrating than having to seek medical assistance while traveling. It is bad enough to have something unexpected come up while you’re at home, but at least your personal doctor is generally only a phone call away. But while you’re on the road it can be difficult to find a specialist and booking an appointment can be a real challenge.

That’s where ZocDoc can come in very handy. The service, which is available on both the web and as an Android and iOS app, allows users to quickly and easily find doctors, dentists and other specialists based on location. The website version of ZocDoc searches based on zip code while the mobile apps use the smartphone’s built in GPS chip to locate options that are near by. Searches can be narrowed by looking for specific specialties (allergist, cardiologist, orthodontist, etc.) and you can even add a search criteria based on the insurance provider you’ll be using.

When the search is complete, ZocDoc presents all the available options in a clean and easy to read format that includes addresses, reviews and a listing of the next available appointment. Tapping or clicking on an open date and time allows the user to then quickly and easily book that appointment.

Putting ZocDoc through its paces, I was impressed with just how simple the interface was both on the website and the iPhone app. It really is very easy to use the service to locate a doctor. Booking an appointment couldn’t have been any easier either and the whole process took just a minute or two to complete.

For now, ZocDoc only works in the U.S. but for travelers who frequently move about the country, this could be an incredibly useful app. If you find yourself frequently on the road and occasionally needing medical assistance of some type, this service will come in very hand. While not expressly built for travelers, it certainly is a resource that we’ll all be happy to have if we ever need it.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Airforce via Wikimedia]

Google Maps Adds Data For 38 Ski Resorts

38 ski resort maps are now integrated into Google MapsFor my money, Google Maps is one of the greatest technological advances of all times. Whether I’m at home or traveling to some new destination, it helps me to find restaurants, museums, shops and other points of interest, then routes me to those locations by car, foot or mass transit. Over the past few years, Maps has continued to evolve and add new features, making the system even more useful as time goes by. Earlier this week, Google announced yet another upgrade to Maps, this time adding data for 38 ski resorts across the U.S. and Canada.

This new addition to the Maps database is already live both on the web and in the Android and iPhone apps. When viewing popular ski resorts such as Big Sky, Mammoth or Park City, skiers and snowboarders will be able to quickly and easily see all of the runs and lifts that are available, with their skill levels clearly marked. Blue, green and black runs are displayed on the map as solid lines while chair lifts are designated by dotted red lines. Parking is also clearly marked and when zoomed in close enough, restaurants, lodges and bars are also visible. There are even Street View options for a few of the resorts, letting you scout out the terrain before you ever visit.

The complete list of mountains that are currently available in Google Maps can be found in the blog post announcing their addition to the system. Google promises more locations will be coming soon, so check back often to see if your favorite ski destination has been added. The maps may just help you discover some new runs and make your day on the slopes a bit more enjoyable.

[Photo Credit: Google]

Hostel-Finding Travel App Shows Who Else Is Staying There Too

travel appBrowse, Book and Start Making Friends are the three steps needed to use WeHostels, a new iPhone travel app that is about as easy as it gets to book a no-frills place to sleep for the night. Like a HotelTonight for hostels, WeHostels has some unique features worth a look.

Testing the app for my hometown of Orlando produced four good results based on my current location. At one property, close to Orlando International Airport (MCO), a basic tent with shared bathroom came in at $15 per night. Typical of other listings, additional choices included a standard four-bed male dorm, standard four-bed female dorm or a deluxe six-bed female dorm suite for $25 per night.

Looking down the road, WeHostels users can enter their next destination to line up a hostel for the next place they may be going in advance too. Once found, booking is easy via the app for regular hostel guests who don’t need to know more and just want to tie down a place to sleep for the night. Contact information for the property is also included for those who want to know more.

So what’s different about WeHostels over finding a hostel from another hostel source, say Hostels.com or HostelWorld.com?

In addition to the handy travel app, WeHostels boasts a social element where we can check out who might also be staying at a chosen location before we get there.Like the crowd-sourcing element of other apps, the quality of that information will depend on who has and uses the WeHostels app. Still, on the hostel choices I had for Orlando, someone had checked in to three out of the four property choices. In advance of arrival I would have the name, a photo, the hometown and some other information about others I would spend the night with.

Available right now for iPhone, WeHostel plans for the launch of a general mobile site soon to enable Android users. Save more at WeHostel now; enter the code “GADLING” for $10 off.

Want to know more about WeHostels? Last June, the WeHostels product team moved together into a house in the mountains of Colombia. The team isolated from society with the goal of hacking full-time and developing the WeHostels first mobile app.