Last year, Amazon's Jeff Bezos dipped his toe into the budget 7in tablet market to see if anyone would nibble. This year, Google and Apple are getting ready to bite his whole darn foot off. Jeff will be hoping a slimmer, sharper, speedier Fire HD can hold its own against the might of Silicon Valley. We're just hoping for a tablet that is as much about music, films, games, apps and web surfing as it is Amazon's signature ebooks and shopping. So have our modest dreams come true? Yes and no…
design and build
As long as you're not expecting iPad levels of polish, the design of the Kindle Fire HD doesn't disappoint. It's slimmer and lighter than its US predecessor, of course, but retains its warm, grippy rubberised housing. There are now physical volume buttons and a recessed power button that's impossible to bump accidentally (it can actually be a little tricky to find at first). There's no flex in the case, and rounded edges add a touch of lawsuit-provoking class.
If you're feeling charitable, you could describe the massive bezel surrounding the 7in screen as somewhere convenient to park your thumbs. A snarkier critic might say it's somewhere to park a bus. Either way, positioning the front-facing webcam on a long edge forces you to use Skype in landscape mode or risk obscuring the lens.
The biggest obvious upgrade from the original Amazon Kindle Fire tablet is the Kindle Fire HD's new 1280x800 display – and it's a corker. Pixel density (216ppi) is just a shade off the latest iPad and frankly will look just as sharp to anyone without canine ancestry. Colours are rich and strong, touch sensitivity is excellent and motion is smooth. The display's viewing angle goes as wide as you'd like and there's a noticeable lack of glare.
You still have to pump up the brightness to banish reflections, which are as bad as any LCD screen, and ebooks still look better on Amazon's E-Ink devices. Having said that, the Fire HD might be budget-priced but this display is the match of any LCD on the market.
custom Android interface
Forget everything you know about Android. The Fire HD's home screen is a stripped-down carousel that mashes together apps, web pages, games, movies and other media. There are no live icons, no widgets and, with the exception of a small Favourites pop-up tray, nothing to customise.
A universal search box lets you trawl emails, apps, content and photos, which are easily imported from Facebook with one click. Tabs direct you straight to Amazon's storefront or to digital categories, taking a couple of seconds to open. In each area, say Music, you can see what you own on the cloud and what's stored on the device, with just a single click to download files or buy new stuff, with no additional passwords or log-ins.
Virtually the only hangovers from Google's original Android are the home, back and menu buttons on the task bar, and a useful slide-down notifications area that can be used for tweaking settings like rotation, Wi-Fi and synching.
Jeff Bezos made a big fuss of the tablet's MIMO wireless tech and the Fire HD definitely sniffed out more Wi-Fi networks than most tablets Stuff has tested. It also blasted through multiple simultaneous downloads of HD video, apps, photos and music without stuttering. A shame, then, that Amazon's cloud-based Silk browser still has a few hiccups when scrolling and zooming, even as pages load blisteringly fast.
The front-facing webcam is fine for Skype calls but not great as a camera, serving up tiny half-megapixel (600x800) snaps. There's no GPS on board but Bluetooth works fine for connecting keyboards and speakers, and an HDMI Out socket (cable not supplied) means you can watch content or play games on your telly.
The Kindle Fire HD's video app is first class. If you're a member of LoveFilm in the UK (everyone gets one month free), you get instant access to 5,000 films and TV shows. These start in seconds and stream extremely smoothly on Wi-Fi. 720p HD video is crisp and colourful, while the stereo speakers sound fantastic.
There's a handy 10-second rewind icon, a responsive scrub bar and (soon) a geeky X-Ray feature that pops up to show which actors are currently thesping away on screen, even down to some of the extras. Our only grumble is that the range is far less comprehensive than the US Fire HD, which bundles over 25,000 videos with Prime and also lets you buy, download and watch films and TV shows offline. Maybe next year?
ebooks and music
Being a Kindle, the Fire HD naturally supports ebooks, including X-Ray for summarising and tracking characters and themes. Books look fine and magazines look great on the sharp LCD screen, although neither will drag you away from an E Ink device or paper respectively. The magazine app, in particular, doesn't zoom in quite far enough.
For music, the Fire HD pushes you to upgrade to Amazon's new music-matching Cloud Player service (£6 a year for 20GB). Everyone gets 250 songs stored online for free, plus any you buy from Amazon, of course – one of the first offers on the lock screen was for a handful of free MP3s. If you don't like free stuff, you can pay to disable the ads. The music player is functional, fast and pretty logical. Annoyingly, it doesn't always automatically mute when you load an app or game with audio.
Apps and games
If your game cravings start and finish with Cut The Rope and Angry Birds, the Kindle Fire HD will suit you fine. Punchy colours, a responsive touchscreen and nippy graphics make for great casual gaming. But for anyone more ambitious, the pickings on Amazon's new Appstore are slimmer than Stickman. No doubt some impressive 3D games will appear eventually – and the mobile version of Minecraft is a nice find - but for now Apple still very much rules the gaming roost.
Otherwise, the Appstore includes some of the big online services, like Twitter, TripAdvisor and Pinterest, along with some shocking omissions including (as of last weekend) Facebook, Yelp, Instagram and even YouTube. Hopefully, this will change before or shortly after UK launch in October.
Battery life in our short test wasn't a problem, with the Kindle Fire HD stretching a single charge well over 10 hours. Even watching streaming video didn't drain it as fast as we expected. There's no power adapter included in the box so if you don't want to spend 13.5 hours (!) juicing it up from a USB port on your PC, consider the £9 charging accessory. Having said that, we found it charged just fine using a leftover mobile phone USB charger, so try before you buy.
Amazon Kindle Fire HD vs Google Nexus 7
Say you've £200 to spend on a tablet and don't want to wait until Apple flip-flops on Steve Jobs' famous 'dead on arrival' promise by announcing an iPad Mini, possibly sometime next month. The choice between the Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus 7 today is easier than their near-identical specs might suggest.
If you're going to use your tablet mostly for music, movies and shopping, the Kindle Fire HD is pretty compelling. You get more storage for your money (the 16GB version of the Nexus 7 will set you back £200), a well-managed, rapidly growing library of content and a trusted retail brand behind it. If you want more of an all-rounder, with a proper home screen, GPS and way more apps, the Nexus 7 is a shoo-in.
And if you want to play games? Wait for Apple. But you'd better start saving your pennies, because Cupertino certainly won't be giving away a 7in tablet for less than its new 4in iPod Touch – and that starts at a cool £250. Which only goes to show what an amazing bargain the Kindle Fire HD represents.
Apple expects its iPad to do nothing less than destroy the PC and revolutionise the world. Amazon has less lofty ambitions. If its tablet can simply shift your film, music and book buying from the web to the Kindle Fire HD, Jeff Bezos will be a very happy (and very rich) man.
The fact that doesn't seem utterly bonkers shows just how much the Fire HD has got right: a single log-in to unlock a world of media; a simple carousel to browse your content; and a superb video player. There are some rough edges, including so-so web browsing, a weak app store and too-much shouty Amazon marketing. For the price, though, this tablet is impossible to ignore.