REVIEW: Amazon’s New Big-Screen Kindle Fire HD

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The Kindle Fire HD’s larger, sharper display is great for watching movies.

[credit provider=”Steve Kovach, Business Insider”]

The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 isn’t much different than the 7-inch model that launched a few months ago. It runs the same operating system, a heavily modified version of Google’s Android that locks you into Amazon’s ecosystem of apps, movies, music, and books. So I’m not going to spend too much time picking through all the nuances and quirks of the software. You can get all that in my review of the smaller Kindle Fire HD. Instead, I think it’s more important to look at what sets the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 apart from the rest of the Kindle family and how it compares to other full-sized tablets. Most importantly, there’s the price. This tablet starts at just $299, a steal compared to the $499 full-sized iPad and the $399 Nexus 10 from Google.

But in many respects, you get what you pay for. When I see a full-sized tablet nowadays, I expect the full package of productivity features like email, calendar, web browsing, and multitasking. But the Kindle Fire HD either doesn’t do those things very well or doesn’t have them at all. At its core, the Kindle Fire HD is still just a screen for gobbling up movies, books, and magazines. And that’s not going to cut it for people expecting “the best tablet at any price,” as Jeff Bezos claims the Kindle Fire is.

Amazon’s largest Kindle Fire is also its best one to hold. It looks nearly identical to the 7-inch version, but it’s been stretched out so the bezel around the screen doesn’t seem as thick. There’s also that same rubbery backing that makes the tablet easier to hold. My only gripe with the design are the power/volume buttons on the edge. They’re nearly flush with the device, making them difficult to locate without flipping the device over. 

The Kindle Fire HD also includes an optional 4G LTE connection from AT&T if you’re willing to shell out an extra $200 for the device. I didn’t get to test that model, but $499 brings the Kindle Fire to iPad-level pricing, and it’s simply not as good as Apple’s tablet. (Yes, you get a nice data plan option, $50 for 200 MB per month for a year, but most people will want to use more data than that.)

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The Kindle Fire HD has the best speakers of any tablet.

[credit provider=”Steve Kovach, Business Insider”]

I also enjoyed the stereo speakers, which are louder than any other tablet I’ve used. The only caveat is I’d sometimes get a buzzing noise if I cranked the volume all the way up. But even at half volume, the Kindle Fire HD is plenty loud, a nice change from the quiet mono speaker on the full-sized iPad.

The screen is great too. As the “HD” name implies, Amazon added a sharper screen to the Kindle Fire, and the one on the 8.9-inch model is almost as good as the one on the iPad. I didn’t even notice a difference, so it’s not a bad deal to get such an incredible display for $200 less.

Despite a few bug fixes and additional features since the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD launched, there are still a lot of annoying quirks with the operating system. There’s a noticeable lag any time you try open a new app, movie, book, or navigate to a new section of the menu. The lag isn’t as egregious as it was when I tested the 7-inch model, but it’s still there. 

And when it comes to other basic tablet functions like email, calendar, and multitasking, the Kindle Fire is still way behind other Android tablets and the iPad. The email and calendar apps are pretty bare and don’t take full advantage of the larger display. Multitasking doesn’t even exist; you can only “star” items and keep them in a shortcuts menu for quick access. 

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Amazon doesn’t have the best app selection for the Kindle Fire HD.

[credit provider=”Steve Kovach, Business Insider”]

Finally, Amazon’s app selection isn’t as good as what you’ll find on the iPad or other Android tablets. Amazon stripped out all things Google, so you can’t access the official Google Play store for Android apps. Instead, you’re stuck with Amazon’s store, which often takes a bit longer to get the newest apps.

Should You Buy It?
Yes, but with a few caveats. 

In short, the Kindle Fire HD doesn’t feel like a device that’s good for anything but watching movies, reading books, or playing games. (But it is really good at those things.) If that’s all you want to do, then you’re getting a great value out of big-screen model.

I’d also skip the $499 4G LTE version and go with the WiFi-only $299 model instead. Once you start getting into the ~$500 range, you’re better off with an iPad.