Tech Update: Kindle Fire HD 8.9

Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Kindle Fire HD 8.9

As our first tablet, we picked up a first-gen Kindle Fire in the Fall of 2011, a 7″ color Android-based device that was tightly integrated into Amazon’s app ecosystem and Amazon’s world of content, including movies, music and books.  Generally speaking, we were pretty happy with the device, as it had a nice screen, had a more portable size than an iPad, and worked well with games, Netflix, and other stuff.  Oh, and it was incredibly cheap (the first “real” tablet for $200).

One thing the 7″ Kindle Fire didn’t do well, though, was web-browsing.  Granted, browsing websites on a 4″ phone screen isn’t very pleasant either, but a 7″ screen is even more awkward, as apps and web pages aren’t set up well for the 7″ form-factor.  There are “mobile” web pages that are designed for small screens (e.g. ~4″ phone screens), and then there’s the full-size pages that look good on regular computer screens.  But on a 7″ screen, it just looks silly.  The sizes of links and text are heavily distorted.

Well, Amazon heard my cries and updated their tablet by creating two new versions: the Kindle Fire HD (still 7″, but with a higher resolution screen) and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (a slightly faster tablet, but more importantly, with an 8.9″ screen).  The new device has a bigger hard drive, faster processor, a front-facing camera, better speakers, and the aforementioned larger screen.  And, believe you me, it’s gorgeous (1920×1200 resolution).  Web browsing still isn’t as good as using a mouse and keyboard, but it’s much improved now that regular web pages look properly (with a higher resolution than my PC’s 1080p monitor).

The other features of the tablet are pretty nice too, including the camera, the impressive speakers (for a device this size…), and an improved interface that Meg can navigate to find Dora and Blue’s Clues videos.  It still only has WiFi, though Amazon offers a 4G LTE version that offers 200 MB of data per month for $50 a year (which is a steal).

I mentioned earlier that the Kindle Fire HD uses Amazon’s proprietary appstore, which is generally useful and gives you free stuff, but doesn’t give you access to regular Google-specific Android apps like Gmail, Google Calendar and Google+.  You can use their alternative apps that link to the various Google services, but it isn’t the same and they aren’t as good.  I can live without them, but it’s a consideration when comparing this device and other Android tablets.

One other complaint is the use of Skype for video chat.  We tried this with my parents a few times, but for some reason, I can’t get the speakers to generate enough volume.  The speakers can get really loud if you’re listening to music, but for some strange reason, Skype doesn’t seem to amplify the volume like any other program on the device.  It’s usable, but not as good as on other devices.

Finally, it took me a bit to figure out charging with the thing.  The old Kindle Fire came with a charger and AC adapter, but the new HD versions only come with a USB cable and you have to buy the “faster charger” for $20 extra.  I tried charging it with USB and, left overnight, I think it only gained about 20%.  Even using our phone chargers plugged into the wall, it still wouldn’t work properly.  It turns out the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 requires a 1.8 A charger, rather than the typical 1 A chargers that come with cell phones.  Once I found one (from Amazon…), it charged quite quickly.  Considering they don’t really include an instruction manual in the box, it would have been nice to have them be a bit more explicit on this front, but oh well.

For the money, it was a good deal and I’ve been happy with the purchase.  I like reading on it (some people don’t like reading on larger tablets and prefer the 7″ size and, to some extent, I agree…but it’s alright for my purposes…), it plays some games and it is great to have around for when Meg wants to watch something that I don’t want to watch.  We take it upstairs every night so Meg can watch the last 5 min of one of her shows as she lays in bed.

That alone makes it worth it. 🙂