Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2015) First Impressions

Posted on December 6, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 0 Comments

 

Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2015) First ImpressionsAfter poor experiences with the lackluster Fire HDX series of devices, I had pretty much given up on Amazon’s tablet offerings. But this year, Amazon has finally started playing to its strengths. And the result is a new lineup of delightful and affordable Kindle HD tablets.

I go way back with Kindle, having owned virtually every Kindle e-book reader and Kindle tablet that Amazon has released over the years. But a couple of years ago, I began souring on both product lines as Amazon lost sight of what made its devices special. The biggest offender was the Kindle HDX tablets that debuted in 2013. Amazon screwed them up with goofy and commerce-centric user interfaces, and started edging into iPad territory. (And on the e-book reader side of the fence, it’s Voyager product was just too expensive.)

This year, Amazon is making amends. It brought the Voyager’s 300 ppi screen down to the lower-cost Paperwhite, delighting fans (myself included) of the standalone e-readers. And more to the point, it halted development the Kindle HDX line of tablets and went back to its roots with a new lineup of low-cost, high value Kindle HD tablets.

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I just picked up a Kindle Fire HD 8—the 8-inch version of this new lineup—but based on the technical and aesthetic similarities this device has with its siblings, the Fire HD 6 and Fire HD 10, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Amazon probably has a tablet offering to meet virtually any need. Well, unless you’re committing to over-spending on technology, in which I’ll direct you to the local Apple store.

The new Kindle HD tablets are all incredibly affordable, starting at $99.99 for a 6-inch Fire HD 6 and ranging up to just $275 for a “top of the line” Fire HD 10. In my case, I purchased the 8-inch Fire HD 8 (with 16 GB of storage, a $20 upgrade) for $179. With a 64 GB microSD card—added as part of the purchase process—the whole thing set me back less than $200.

Bundled microSD card was light on packaging.

Bundled microSD card was light on packaging.

Why am I buying such a device? I’ve been using a 16 GB iPad mini 2 for the past couple of years, mostly for reading, but also for Duolingo (language learning) and a handful of apps. But this device has two issues, one recent: Its 16 GB of storage isn’t enough to bring along more than a single movie on trips. And as Apple has updated iOS it’s gotten creakingly slow.

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The cheapest iPad replacement with an acceptable amount of storage is the iPad mini 4 with 64 GB of storage. But that costs $500, a ridiculous price. Looking atApple’s refurbished store, I found iPad mini 3 options from $300 and up, but that lowest price was for a 16 GB version, and I’m not making that mistake again.

What if the Kindle Fire HD was an acceptable replacement? At hundreds of dollars less than any iPad, it’s a great savings. I did have concerns about performance, and the screen. But most of my reading occurs through Kindle and a handful of apps (like The New York Times app) that are obviously available on Kindle (so is Duolingo). Would the Kindle HD make sense?

I believe so.

With these new Kindle HDs, Amazon has started providing microSD expansion, meaning that I wouldn’t be stuck with the base 8 or 16 GB of storage. And with the latest Fire OS version, called Bellini, the user interface is more like stock Android and nothing like the terrible carousel-based UI that ruined previous Kindle HDX tablets.

So $200 later, my Kindle HD 8 arrived. And I gotta say, this is a nifty little tablet, even for someone who’s getting a bit jaded by new devices these days. It represents a wonderful value for kids and adults alike, and the performance is absolutely better than my aging iPad mini 2. I’ve only had it a few days, but I’ve already ordered one of Amazon’s (admittedly overpriced) covers. In black, as I’m not flashy, but there are some nifty choices for the more expressive.

The Fire HD 8 is thin and light, and while I’d prefer more of a matte finish, the glossy black body—it’s available in pink, blue or orange too—is certainly attractive. It’s also plastic and prone to fingerprints, but whatever: This thing is $300 less than a comparable iPad. Metal comes at a cost.

The Kindle Fire HD includes both a charging cable and a power plug.

The Kindle Fire HD includes both a charging cable and a power plug.

The screen has been a pleasant surprise. At a widescreen 1280 x 800, it’s a far cry from the iPad mini 2’s 4:3 Retina display, but text is crisp and sharp enough, and that is all I care about. The screen itself is bright, and with a new Blue Shade feature, you can change the color tone for night reading, a feature I already love. (I always felt the iPad was too bright at night, even at the lowest setting.) So … shocker, but the reading experience is actually better on the Kindle HD overall, despite the ppi deficit.

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There are stereo speakers, which work correctly when you hold the device in landscape mode for video playback, though they’re nothing special.

The system is still of course Amazon-centric, with non-removal apps for Amazon services familiar and strange. But the UI is more like standard Android, with a grid of icons, and you can position your favorite apps up top at least. This more familiar UI is a big improvement over the awful carousel from years past.

The app store is, well, not up to Google Play standards, and is missing some apps I’d use, like Sonos. But some content apps actually work with Chromecast, and of course Amazon’s apps can cast to Fire TV Stick (but not Chromecast). If you don’t mind buying into Amazon’s low-cost ecosystem, you’ll be well served.

I’ll need more time to determine whether the reading and media experiences are good enough for me to stick with this device, but at the very least it’s a cheap way to get videos on a device for trips. But battery life is still unclear: Amazon claims 8 hours of “mixed use” battery life, but I’ve already seen some quicker-than-expected rundowns, so I’ll keep an eye on that.

But my needs are … my needs. Most people—young or old—will simply use the 2015 Kindle HD tablets around the house. And while you could do better, it would come at great cost. The Kindle HD is a great value, something low-cost and useful, not cheap. Nicely done, Amazon.

 

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