If there's one thing the excellent Nexus 7 tablet has reaffirmed, it's that the 7-inch (screen) tablet is anything but dead on arrival. This baby bear of tablet form factors (not too big to hold with one hand, not too small to make it redundant alongside smartphones) can be ideal for comfortably reading books, browsing the web, and watching video for long periods of time without straining your arm or wrist. But I don't believe this tablet form factor has been perfected with Google's Nexus 7. Its weight is great, but thin side bezel and fixation to the portrait orientation force you to hold it in a certain way (and therefore use it in a certain way). And of course, software has to complement form factor and physical design to define the user experience (eg. the original galaxy tab was comfortable to hold but its Android 2.2-based software was poorly suited for the form factor).
A different take on form factor and software is exactly what Amazon's new Kindle Fire HD brings to the table; this second-generation Fire looks and feels very different from the Nexus 7, even though both have 7" 1280x800 displays and start at that margin-cutting $200 price. I've been testing the new Kindle Fire HD since it arrived last Friday, using it in place of the Nexus 7 as my couch and bed tablet and in place of my e-ink Kindle with Keyboard as my e-book reader. Testing is ongoing, so I won't have a final opinion on whether the Fire is better or worse than the Nexus 7 until spending much more time with it--this is not a review. But here are the differences that have stood out most in the past few days that you can't glean from just reading a spec sheet.
Size, Weight, and Design
Both the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 weigh considerably less than a pound, with the Kindle Fire weighing 55 grams more than the Nexus 7 at 395 grams (math: the Nexus 7 weighs 340 grams). I found that weight difference to be almost imperceptible, not because it's not really there, but because of the way weight is distributed between the tablets. While both tablets are roughly around the same height and thickness (Nexus 7 very slightly taller and thicker), the Kindle Fire HD is noticeably wider by 1.7cm. That extra width, I discovered, is actually beneficial to the Fire HD for two reasons.
First, the width of the Fire HD allows its extra weight to be spread out across a larger volume, which means the tablet doesn't feel as dense. Because its weight is concentrated in a smaller area, the Nexus 7 actually feels heftier to hold in one hand than the Fire HD, even though it weighs less. The upshot is that neither tablet feels heavy, and the actual weight difference is negligible.
The second side effect of the wider tablet design is more subjective. Over the course of using the Nexus 7 every morning for the past few months, I have found that the bezel on the left/right of the screen (in portrait orientation) isn't spacious enough to comfortably grip the tablet with one hand. Even with my average-sized thumbs, I would very often activate the left side of the touchscreen while gripping the tablet, which is annoying when reading an e-book. You can see the effects of this in the photos below. The extra bezel spacing on the Kindle Fire HD actually gives me just the right amount of space for my thumb to rest so that I can grip the tablet by its side. On the Nexus 7, I have to either brace the entire back of the tablet with my palm or use my pinky finger to hold the tablet in an "easel" position. Neither are particularly comfortable.
One complaint I have with the Fire HD's physical design, which other people have mentioned, is the small profile of the power and volume buttons located next to the headphone jack. The buttons are flush with the body of the Fire HD, and too small to make them conveniently accessible when just picking up the tablet. To be fair, I don't like the placement and size of the Nexus 7's power/sleep button either.
Another thing to note--which may also be subjective--is that the extra bezel around the Fire HD makes the 7" screen look smaller at first glance than it actually is (relative to the Nexus 7). It's totally a perception issue, which I got over after a day of use. But let's talk about that screen, because it's pretty great.
Both the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 have 7" IPS LCD screens displaying 1280x800 pixels. But these are not the same displays. Even though the Nexus 7's screen is more than serviceable, it's clear that the Kindle Fire HD's screen is better in almost every way. The Fire HD's display is brighter at maximum brightness, its color reproduction doesn't suffer from any banding (which I have noticed on the Nexus 7), its black levels are darker, and it looks better in off-axis viewing. Plus, Amazon's claim that its tablet is easier to read under direct sunlight proves to be true--even though neither of the glossy screens are 100% resistant to glare, the Fire HD's display did look better outdoors in San Francisco's typically overcast weather.
Pixel density was never an issue when it came to the Nexus 7 (blah blah 216 ppi vs. the iPad 3's 264 ppi) but neither the Nexus 7 nor Kindle Fire HD have displays that approach that "on-glass" look of the HTC One X that impressed us so much. Text and images still look like they're under a thin layer of glass, as opposed to right on its surface. This is something that Apple has been touting with the new iPhone, and is a display innovation that I look forward to seeing in tablets (for one, it'll make them even thinner and lighter).
Curiously, even though both screens are the same size and have the same resolution, applications did not render the same way on the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. Subtle differences in interface and font size popped up over many common apps like Flipboard and Facebook, which may be credited to the Nexus 7 running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean while the Kindle Fire HD is running a forked version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
User Interface and Performance
Kindle Fire HD runs on an updated version of the forked Android operating system that was also used in the first Fire, now based on 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The benefits starting with Android 4.0 instead of 2.35 Gingerbread, coupled with the use of a 1.2GHz TI OMAP processor, are most apparent in the frontend "carousel" interface. Praise Bezos, for the Kindle Fire sheds away the UI sluggishness that marred its predecessor. In fact, I found the Kindle Fire HD every bit as responsive as the Nexus 7, and the same apps on both ran comparably. Both devices do suffer in performance when bogged down by background services, for example browsing the web with both Spotify and Skype running.
Of course, the use of a proprietary OS changes the UI significantly on the Kindle Fire HD compared to a stock Android experience. Amazon has designed the UI to do two things really well: get you consuming content (whether it's books, movies, or music) and directing you to its store to purchase or rent that content. That's fine if you're primarily using the tablet to read e-books, rent movies, or stream music--access to those services are put front and center with big icons on the carousel.
But there are quite a few things I miss from the Nexus 7, such as personalized wallpapers, an application dock on the home screen (the pop-up favorites listing doesn't suffice), and widgets. I really miss the ability to pin widgets to the home screen and get information at a glance, such as new email. This is a big deal that really detracted from my use of the Kindle Fire HD. I only found myself picking up the tablet when I knew I was ready to dive into a reading session or watch a TV episode, as opposed to the Nexus 7, where I would pick it up throughout the day to quickly check on email, tweets, and calendar appointments.
The thing I missed the most, though, was the tight Google integration that's one of Android's biggest selling points. And that brings us to the problem with Kindle Fire's ecosystem.
App Selection and Ecosystem
The Android app offering has come a long way in chasing Apple's iOS ecosystem, which remains the most bountiful app marketplace. Most of what I would consider "essential" apps are in Google's Play store, with iOS still exclusively carrying some high-profile games and tablet-specific apps. But the Play Store is not available on the Kindle Fire HD, which can only download apps from Amazon's own Android app store. And even within that store, the Kindle Fire HD isn't compatible with a large number of apps that other Android users can download.
So get this: Kindle Fire HD apps are a small subset of the Amazon Android store, which is a subset of the overall Android app marketplace, which is still trailing iOS. This means that apps available to the Nexus 7 like Instagram, Dropbox, and even banking apps are no shows for the Kindle Fire HD. Doh.
(Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and Spotify are available essentials that suit the device nicely, and each runs just as well on the Fire HD as they do on the Nexus 7.)
Most conspicuously, Google apps are unavailable to Kindle Fire HD users. No Google Maps, GTalk, Google+, or even YouTube. This again makes the Kindle Fire HD feel less like a computing device than a dedicated media consumption device.
I've often said that web browsing is the most essential task for a connected smartphone or tablet, but when using the Kindle Fire HD, it was more of an afterthought. Amazon has improved its Silk browser on the Fire HD, which is good because it's the only browser option available. You can't download Dolphin, Opera, or Chrome on the Fire HD to replace Silk. Most of the functionality you'd expect from a mobile browser is here, including tabs, privacy management, in-page video playback, and instapaper-like stripped formatting. Actual browsing felt comparable to Chrome in Jelly Bean--responsive and smooth when scrolling and pinching. But the awesomeness of tab syncing and fast gesture control found in Chrome is missed for sure.
Browsing with Silk in Kindle Fire HD isn't nearly as frustrating as it was in the first Kindle Fire, but the way the browser is implemented in the OS--clearly secondary to book and video consumption--makes it undesirable for dedicated web browsing. I never picked up the Kindle Fire HD with the intent of surfing the web; loading the web browser is something I only did when I unexpectedly wanted to look something up online while watching a movie or reading a book.
Movies, Music, and Other Media
So if the Kindle Fire HD isn't primarily for browsing the web or checking email, what is it good at? Reading books, watching movies, and streaming music, of course--not coincidentally media that Amazon is more than happy to sell or rent to you.
The good thing is that the Kindle Fire HD is pretty good at getting you that type of content even outside Amazon's marketplace. Video streaming with Netflix and HBO Go worked wonderfully, and both Spotify and Pandora work well enough (with background playback) that I could bypass Amazon's music locker service entirely. Video and Music both also benefit from the stereo speakers on the Fire HD, which are louder and clearer than the speakers found on any tablet I've used.
Of course, Amazon Prime subscribers get the benefit of the Kindle borrowing library and Prime Instant Video. Amazon's recent deal with Epix for streaming content gives the Prime library a sizable boost, so you'll find all the Marvel movies and TV shows like the West Wing and Parks and Rec. Dig a little deeper though and it's clear that the selection of free streaming movies is actually quite shallow compared to what Amazon is willing to rent you. It's worth noting that while Amazon has released a Prime Instant Streaming app for iOS, there isn't one yet for Android. Android devices with Flash can watch Prime streaming within a browser, but for now, the Kindle Fire HD is the best way to play those movies.
Also, Amazon's IMDB-integrated X-Ray feature is a really awesome use of metadata, though not available for all movies. Seeing the names of actors pop up as they appear on screen may be a novelty for some people, but film-obsessives will love it.
And what about books? Kindle integration, unsurprisingly, is excellent. It's everything you'd come to expect from Kindle app on other tablets...but without the need for an app.
The Camera: Both Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 have "hd" front-facing cameras but no bundled camera applications. The cameras are presumably used for video conferencing with Skype of GTalk (again, not available on the Fire HD). In my Skype testing, camera quality was much better on the Fire HD than on the Nexus 7.
NFC: The Nexus 7 has built-in NFC and the Kindle Fire HD doesn't. I've never had the need to use NFC on either a smartphone or tablet.
HDMI: The Kindle Fire HD has a micro-D HDMI port for video output, which I haven't had a chance to test. The cable isn't included (only a USB 2.0 cable is), but I'm glad that HDMI out doesn't use the MHL standard so you can theoretically charge with USB and still pipe video out at the same time. Video output may be restricted in some apps like HBO Go, but I won't know until testing. Regardless, I still think that Airplay on iOS is still more convenient than a physical video cable.
Kindle Offers: All Kindle Fire models now come with Amazon offers, which appear in the lock screen. Like on the e-ink Kindle, I didn't find the offers intrusive or annoying, and Amazon is currently running a $5 voucher offer for their music store. Offers don't seem to disappear after you "redeem" them. I actually found the Amazon store recommendations that pop up under the carousel in portrait mode more annoying than the full-screen offers. For example, when the carousel is stopped at an e-Book, the interface will display other books Amazon customer have bought, much like the Amazon website. I'm unsure if paying the $15 to eliminate Kindle Offers gets rid of these recommendations as well.
Battery Life: I haven't used the Kindle Fire HD long enough to perform a comprehensive battery runddown, but like the Nexus 7, my current usage puts it at a day and a half of use before the battery is drained. With the screen at full brightness and playing movies, battery drain is noticeably accelerated compared to just reading.
Storage Capacity: Kindle Fire HD starts at 16GB of storage, double that of the $200 Nexus 7. With app selection limited and most of my media consumption coming through streaming service, I never felt the benefit of that extra 8GB. That storage would undoubtedly be useful for caching HD movies for long trips, though.
Price: While both Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 start at $200, Google charges both tax and shipping for the Nexus 7, which in California put my checkout price at $229.91. Amazon, which has just begun charging tax in California, also adds a $6 Regulatory fee to the Kindle Fire HD, putting its checkout price at $221.92 in California.
Upgradeability: Nexus 7 owners presumably don't have to worry about software updates since it's a stock Android device. Amazon previously delivered a few software patches to the first Kindle Fire, though it never graduated beyond Android 2.3 Gingerbread. It's safe to assume the same of the Kindle Fire HD and Jelly Bean (though rooting the Kindle Fire has also been possible).