Computing

Kindle Fire HD: Better, Faster, Cheaper, Bigger! [Updated]

The new Kindle Fire HD is a little sleeker, a little rounder, and it has a low starting price of $US159. There’s also a bigger version with an 8.9-inch screen to go with the 7-inch version. Updated with hands-on impressions.

It has two Wi-Fi antennas, which automatically selects the one with a stronger signal. The Kindle HD will also have MIMO, which uses computational brute force to take all the signal echo and make it into something usable. That adds up to Wi-Fi that should be way faster than the competition: 41 per cent faster than the iPad and 54 per cent faster than the Nexus 7, according to Amazon.

The Kindle Fire HD has bumped up local storage to a minimum of 16GB, which doubles what came with the original Kindle Fire. Amazon claims that its OMAP4470 processor drastically outperforms the Tegra 3. It also has two speakers, one at the top and bottom of the device in portrait mode. This means you won’t have the problem with most tablets where sound comes from only one side.

Here’s one killer feature: Whispersync for audio. Going forward, audiobooks will sync up with your words-books, meaning you can read and listen along at the same time. That expanded Whispersync functionality combines with another feature called Immersion Reading, which lets you listen to the narration of your book while you’re reading.

Amazon also revealed Whispersync for games, which will allow you to pick up where you left off on a game, regardless of your device. There are also new features that let you buy in-game characters or items and also get a physical toy from Amazon. It’s a feature that highlights the unique unified ecosystem that Amazon offers and and shows us exactly how Amazon is going to sell you more stuff.

Amazon is really proud of that, actually. It says it’s trying to “get you off the upgrade treadmill”. Because of the low price points, it only really makes money when you use the device. That means it has to be good enough for you to want to use it and buy things on it. This also means that the devices are likely to be offered outside of Australia, since much of the content will be region-blocked.

Amazon’s X-Ray for Movies can tell what flick you’re watching on your Kindle Fire HD and gives you every piece of information you could ever want about it every time you pause. Pretty incredible stuff.

The information is gleaned from IMDB (which Amazon conveniently owns) and pulls granular detail down to which specific actors are in the scene your watching. From there, you can navigate back through their whole career, read their bios, and do all the other creeping you’d normally do on the world’s foremost movie database.

It also knows what you’re reading about in your fancy Kindle textbook; the X-Ray feature can deploy there as well, showing you everywhere a specific term is mentioned and linking to relevant YouTube videos and Wikipedia entries. Yep, Wikipedia and YouTube, where the real learning happens.

The screen reduces glare by 25 per cent thanks to no air gap between the laminated touch sensor and the screen. There will also be custom apps for Facebook and Skype, and an all new email application that apparently works pretty well with Exchange.

There’s also a new parental control feature called “Kindle Free Time”, which lets you limit the time your kids spend on the device. There are time limits for each kind of content — books, movies, games and so on — and it has multiple profiles for multiple kids. Newjack version of “GO READ A BOOK”, I guess.

It’s also got a camera, which first Kindle Fire lacks.

Jeff Bezos referred to the Kindle Fire as a service. It’s not the product for Amazon — it’s the thing that makes all of the other products better and easier to use. “Hardware device as a service — that’s what people want.”

The Kindle Fire HD is $US200 and ships September 14. The large one is $US300 and ships November 20. Oh, and the coup d’etat? The Kindle Fire HD 4G, with LTE and 32GB storage for $US500, which also ships November 20. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look like we’ll see these in Australia at this point in time.

Update: hands-on impressions below.

The Kindle Fire HD is staggering on paper. In person, it’s… pleasant. This would be an equation for disappointment if you forgot for a second just how cheap this thing is.

We only got to touch the 7-inch version, but the 8.9-inch is slim and beautiful too. The 7-inch is light and much nicer to hold than the original Kindle Fire. The screen is gorgeous too, with a very wide viewing angle. It’s bright and crisp and looks exactly as it should.

But it’s just not nearly as smooth as the Nexus 7 on Jelly Bean. The original Kindle Fire’s OS was built on Gingerbread 2.3, and on the Fire HD we get a heavily modified version of 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. After using Jelly Bean on the Nexus 7, it’s just impossible to go back to ICS without it feeling slow and laggy.

How bad is it? It’s bad enough that when you tap an icon, you wonder if you did it wrong, if maybe you didn’t tap firmly enough. The bimodal reading, for instance, hung for nearly 10 seconds as it loaded. X-Ray took about five. None had a visual indicator that something was wrong. We’re told that we were using production models, so it’s pretty disappointing. It’s going to ship like this.

The X-Ray for Movies feature is actually really, really cool in person. But there’s a sense that it will end up being a lot like the X-Ray, which no one ever actually used.

On the plus side, along with the wonderful screen, the speakers really do sound pretty good. Well, they sound at least. We were listening to them in a crowded airport hangar with a bunch of tech bloggers, so we were just sort of impressed they were audible at all. We’ll know more once we hear them somewhere quieter.

That’s not much to balance out the sluggishness though. Honestly, it would be fine if Amazon could just bludgeon everyone else with price like it did with the original Kindle Fire. It can’t anymore. Google’s Nexus 7 is close enough — even at $US250 for 16GB to the Kindle Fire’s $US200 — that the value proposition of a tablet with considerable lag isn’t worth the couple extra bucks. Compared to a $US500 iPad? Sure. But the game’s done changed for the little guys.

But this is just the 7-incher. There’s still the 8.9-incher to consider. Will the slight upgrade in processor (TI4470 vs TI4460) help with the OS lag? Probably not. But the screen is just as gorgeous as the one on the 7-inch model. It’s slim and trim and looks like the perfect tablet if only it were running Jelly Bean. It’s not, but there’s also no equal-priced alternative that is at its size. 8.9 inches is a wonderful size for a tablet. With a great screen, a great ecosystem from Amazon and great build quality, maybe that’s enough to tip the scales back in Amazon’s favour.