Gadling Gear Review: Kindle Fire HD

There 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.

Performance 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.