Until recently, the Google Nexus 7 was the standout among bargain tablets. The introduction of the new Kindle Fire HD, however, has quickly narrowed, if not eliminated, Google's lead. Amazon has now made it clear that it is prepared to take on all comers, including Apple and Microsoft.
Earlier this month, when Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos took the stage at the Kindle Press Conference in Santa Monica, he stated flatly that while last year's Kindle Fire was widely-regarded as the best tablet for the price, the new Kindle Fire HD models were the best tablets at any price.
And so, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD went on-sale last Friday with a starting price of $199. A bigger Kindle Fire HD with an 8.9" screen will begin shipping on November 20th with prices starting at $299. The larger model will even include a version with 4G cellular with prices starting at $499. The data plan for 4G models will have a first-year cost of only $50, which Amazon says makes the unit $400 cheaper than a comparable iPad.
The 4G data plan provides 250MB per month for 12 months, 20GB of Amazon Cloud storage, and a $10 credit in the Amazon Appstore for a first-year cost of $49.99. You can also upgrade to a 3 GB or a 5 GB data plan from AT&T directly from the device.
The Kindle Fire HD 7 features a vivid 1280x800 Gorilla Glass-protected display designed to reduce glare in direct sunlight and improve color saturation at any viewing angle.
Today, most touch-screens are constructed of two layers, the LCD panel and the touch sensor, separated by an air gap. The gap causes light passing through the touch sensor to reflect off the LCD. Amazon eliminates this by laminating the touch sensor directly to the LCD, creating a display that is easy to view, even in direct sunlight.
Like the original Kindle Fire, which has undergone a hardware refresh and now sells for $159, the Kindle Fire HD 7 is only available with Wi-Fi networking. Amazon, however, made sure it was super-performing Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi enabled tablets in the $200 - $300 price range typically use only the 2.4 GHz frequency band. The Kindle Fire HD 7, however, automatically switches between 2.4 GHz and the less-crowded 5 GHz band, resulting in better range and less interference.
In addition, the system employs a MIMO (Multiple In/Multiple Out) dual-antenna array to ensure maximum bandwidth, greater range, and minimal power consumption. The latter helps the unit live up to its claimed battery life of up to 11 hours.
Amazon believes that headphones shouldn't be required to watch a movie on a tablet, so the Kindle Fire HD has dual stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus audio. The unit also supports Bluetooth and has an HDMI jack to connect to a big-screen TV. A new front-facing HD camera is also included for use with Skype.
The Kindle Fire HD 7 sports a more powerful processor and a highly-customized version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich. The trademark carousel-style user interface is more stable and responsive than the original Kimdle's but lacks the fluidity of Android Jelly Bean, as delivered by the Google Nexus 7. The Kindle Fire HD user experience, however, is still a vast improvement.
The Silk web browser works well enough, and the standard email app provides a combined in-box and supports popular email protocols, webmail services, and multiple Microsoft Exchange accounts.
X-Ray for Movies, which integrates the IMDb movie database into the movie player, is new and exclusive to the Kindle Fire HD. Without leaving the movie, you can now identify actors, view filmographies, and more.
Other cool apps include Immersion Reading, which fuses printed text and professionally-narrated audiobooks. Amazon says its research shows that readers benefit from listening while reading, so the app professionally narrates highlighted passages.
Whispersync synchronizes Kindle books with audiobooks. You can start reading a book and seamlessly switch to listening to the companion audiobook, picking up exactly where they left off.
With Kindle Free Time, parents don't have to worry about which content their kids will access, because kids can't exit FreeTime without a password. The app can also be configured by content, curtailing video-watching and game-playing but leaving reading time unlimited.
All this is impressive, but you have to keep in mind that both the Kindle Fire HD and its arch rival, the Google Nexus 7, are not simply low-cost tablets. They are engines for their respective marketplace ecosystems, Amazon.com and or Google Play. Even the reigning king of tablets, the iPad, is tied to Apple's App Store and iTunes.
The Kindle Fire HD is very aggressive when it come to pushing content. The lock screen is full-color ad, and the user environment is full of "what others are buying" and "you might also be interested in this" messages. If you pony up 15 bucks, most of it goes away, but some might not even find it offensive.
Either way, if you are a heavy user of Amazon, you will love the Kindle Fire HD, particularly if you're also a member of Amazon Prime, where a fee of $79 per year gets you special discounts, free two-day shipping, one free Kindle book per month, and over 5,000 free movies to stream.
If you buy more stuff from Google Play or the Apple iTunes store, other choices might make more sense. For more information about the entire Kindle Fire HD family, visit Amazon.com.