Initial Impressions: Kindle Fire HD

After receiving several holiday gift cards from co-workers, I decided to treat myself to an Amazon Kindle. We already have an iPad 2, which my wife has been using more frequently of late, thus preventing me from hogging it. Two or three years ago, I never would have thought I'd use, let alone enjoy, a tablet computer, but since getting the iPad I have found myself relying on it more than our MacBook for things like surfing the web, social media, and even started using it as an e-reader for books and comics. For Maureen, it's become a nice little gaming center that she can use to play The Sims on, in addition to the usual miscellany. With both of us now relying heavily on this single tablet, we (or maybe mostly just me...) were experiencing some growing pains. Enter the Kindle 7" HD.

After receiving it last Monday, I went through the usual first-day business: charging it, setting up the home wi-fi connection, and loading some apps. What struck me first was the vivid clarity of the display. I plugged the tablet in, powered it on, and was greeted by a very sharp, bright lock screen that had an almost 3D quality to it. Set-up was a breeze. The process was only a few steps involving entering my e-mail address and password for wireless. Very painless, very fast. Then I loaded on the Facebook and Twitter apps, as well as Comixology. I was disappointed at the lack of an app for Dark Horse Comics, but I may have to try to side-load their Android app onto the Kindle later. I'm hopeful that Amazon will approve their app soon (apparently, it's been in review for nearly two years now), as I am eager to read the forthcoming Serenity comic-book, as well as their new seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel & Faith.

Much of my first night was spent trying to get used to the interface. Unlike the iPad, there is not a dedicated physical Home button on the tablet. Instead, it's an icon on the screen and is part of the navigation interface. The Kindle has a clean look to it, with a scroll bar at the top for books, newsstand, apps, games, documents, music, and video. Directly beneath the scrollable menu is a carousel for recently opened items or new Kindle e-book purchases, and beneath that are the installed applications, like the web browser, help guide, e-mail.

Getting acquainted with the Kindle was easy, and mostly a matter of overcoming the muscle memory of where and how things are done on the iPad versus my new toy. Upon start-up, there is a brief interactive animation to guide you through the swipe access for menus and notifications, and then you're ready to go!

I spent the first part of the night downloading all of my many unread books. Then, I downloaded a bevy of HD comics from Comixology. Unfortunately, the high-definition comic books ate up most of my storage space rather quickly. Although I had bought the 16 GB Kindle, only 11 GB were available for use after the pre-loaded applications and operating system. After only a handful of titles and a healthy number of issues, I used another 9 GB of storage. There is a definite trade-off here between HD clarity and hard drive space conservation, but if you don't mind only have a few issues on-hand, the benefit of seeing these books in HD is worth it.

The beauty of high-definition comics is remarkable, far more than I had expected. Having read through the latest issues of East of West, Velvet, and Saga, there is a noticeable increase in quality versus the standard presentation on the iPad 2. The colors are rich and well-defined, and incredibly vivid. Shadows are dark and inky. There's a terrific depth to the imagery, particularly in those panels where the artist took special care to separate the background and foreground, as Fiona Staples does in Saga, and the layouts pop wonderfully. I was once again struck by the nearly 3D quality of the art; it's absolutely mesmerizing. It also makes Amazon's feet-dragging on their app approval process for Dark Horse all the more painful. I love Comixology to death, but I have a nice collection of titles through Dark Horse Digital and would like to have to their approved app at the ready without having to go through the side-loading workaround. If Amazon continues to hold out on making the DH app Fire capable, I won't have much of a choice, though.

The HD clarity also makes reading novels a joy. The text is clear and crisp. My first official Kindle tablet title of choice was Haunted House by J.A. Konrath, aka Jack Kilborn. I tore through this book in three days. I read Konrath's earlier horror works a few months ago, and it was neat to see past characters return in this new horror novel. It was definitely a fun read to christen the Kindle with and help break it in. I also liked the various options the Kindle gives you in tracking your reading progress. You can view the page you're on, what percentage of the book you've read, and the device measures your reading speed to let you know how many minutes are left in the chapter as well as in the book. The information is kept unobtruviely to the bottom of the screen, and you can cycle through by tapping the progress indicators. I really like knowing how much time is left in a chapter, and find it to be a suitable replacement for thumbing through the pages of a physical book to see how many pages are left.

As an Amazon Prime member, I can browse and watch items from the retailer's instant video service, but I haven't explored it in in depth on the device. I'm familiar with the Amazon Video service thanks to regular use via the Playstation 3 app, but am looking forward to seeing how well the audio and video hold up on the small screen. I watched only a few minutes of a season two episode of The X-Files, but, oddly, found it to be far less impressive on the tablet than it is on my big-screen HDTV when watched through the PS3 app. On the much smaller Kindle device, "Bad Blood" definitely looked like standard definition circa early-90s television, with the text appearing fuzzy and the picture quality lacking sharpness. On the other hand, The Avengers looked beautiful in HD, as expected of a more recent blockbuster, and the sound quality was good through the dual stereo speakers. The dialogue was clear and distinct, even against the background noises of the operations center aboard the SHIELD helicarrier or the crowds panicking over Loki's arrival in Stuttgart.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I spent time running down the battery. There was roughly 70 percent of a charge on unboxing, but I spent several hours after charging it on Monday wearing it down. On Tuesday, I wanted to run it into shutdown and get a fresh charge off empty to help exercise the battery. Although I wasn't paying particularly close attention, I'd estimate it took four or five hours to fully charge. Amazon's specs state the Kindle HD has a battery life of 10 hours mixed use, which I would say is fairly accurate. In an attempt to stretch out the battery life, I halved the brightness from the default setting, and did not notice any drop in display quality. Even at a lower setting, the image quality is still excellent and makes reading a more naturalistic experience to the printed page, and helps make it a bit more comfortable on the eyes. Over the last few days I've been using the tablet for reading, web browsing, and playing The Sims Freeplay. Gaming certainly eats up the battery life quickly, but despite having this app in heavy rotation in between reading, I haven't run into any undue performance issues with the battery life. Given how quickly I've absorbed the Kindle into my daily routine while on holiday break this past week, I've been able to get a solid 10 hours of use each day, and have been recharging it overnight while I sleep.

There have been a few performance snags, but nothing that's been terribly inconvenient. On occasion, the Kindle has been slow to respond, despite it's dual-core 1.5 GHz processor, and has gotten stuck a few times when I resume reading from the carousel. For whatever reason, it has had trouble loading the current page and seems to freeze, but if I swipe back to the previous page and then swipe forward to my current page, the text generally appears without any further issues. I've noticed this problem in the Kindle app for the iPad, as well. The Kindle has also been slow to respond while web browsing and attempting to navigate backward and forward to previously visited pages. As I said, it's not a huge inconvenience or a disaster in performance, but an odd kink that Amazon has yet to fully resolve.

Late in my first week of use, I had some trouble loading .mobi files onto the device via e-mail or direct download. In January, Ramez Naam was kind enough to provide a free Kindle copy of his non-fiction title More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement to those who purchased his first fiction title, Nexus (which, as of December 30, appears to only be $2.99. I highly recommend it!). So, since January, I've had the e-mail attachment of this work in my in-box. I had previously downloaded it to my Kindle app for the iPad, but was encountering difficulty downloading it directly on the Kindle device. I ran into the same error downloading an e-copy of Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds (another book I highly recommend), which is free to download until Dec. 31, when the third title in this series, Cormorant, releases. I ended up having to download the .mobi files for both of these novels to my MacBook's hard-drive, and install an Android File Transfer program. Then, I was able to use the Kindle tablet as a USB drive and transfer both titles to the Kindle's "book" directory. Strangely enough, although Naam's book is listed in my collection of books, Blackbirds does not appear in that same listing, yet the novel is present on the Kindle under Docs and that amazing Joey Hi-Fi cover-art shows up in my carousel.

Another perk of the Prime membership is access to the Kindle Lending Library. Once a month, I can borrow a book from Amazon's collection of titles, which includes The Hunger Games trilogy, Kindle Singles, and lots more. This morning, I borrowed David Blum's Anthony Bourdain: The Kindle Singles Interview. I'm a huge Bourdain fan and have read Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, and watch his series, No Reservations (also available on Amazon Instant Video with a number of free seasons for Prime members) and Parts Unknown, fairly regularly. The Kindle Singles Interview was a fun, brief read but nothing terribly earth-shattering or revelatory for Bourdain fans. Still, having free and immediate access to the Single was a nice bonus, and I have several other titles in mind for the future, including The Secret Agent: In Search of America's Greatest World War II Spy. I think I will be accessing the lending library frequently, but wish it weren't restricted so tightly to only a single title per month.

All in all, after a full week of steady use, I am incredibly happy with my purchase. And my wife is quite happy to be able to regularly use her iPad once again! Had I known how much I would like the Kindle HD, and if money hadn't been an issue, I would have happily sprung for the larger-sized, higher-end HDX tablet with bigger storage. Still, this 7" HD model is certainly a fine introduction to Amazon's line of e-readers and tablet devices, and already has me eager to upgrade to future generations in a few years time. While I'm curious how much of a difference there is between the HD and HDX, which has more than an additional 100 pixels per inch and a quad-core processor, there has been a clear upgrade in visual quality from the iPad to the Kindle. The HD presentation is noticeable, and glorious. Despite being a fair bit smaller than the iPad, I am definitely a true Kindle convert.

Michael Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.


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