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Amazon bills its new Kindle Fire HD as the best tablet at any price. That’s a bit of a stretch.  But the Kindle Fire HD is a much better deal that Apple’s expensive iPad and is superior, overall, to Google’s recently released Nexus 7. It’s not perfect, but it’s my favorite media tablet choice at the moment.

Of course, what I was really hoping for was a slam dunk. And given Amazon’s history, and the competition, it seemed like a sure thing. All Amazon had to do was improve on the original Kindle Fire, replicate the form factor of the Nexus 7, which is small, light, and highly portable, and undercut iPad pricing in a meaningful way.

The first Kindle Fire was of course a compromise, a low-cost device that gave you exactly what you paid for. It wasn’t terrible, as today’s revisionist tech reviewers are claiming, and my wife and I both used one for the past year regularly. But the new Fire HD improves on the original in important ways, with better performance, better battery life, better screen, better sound, and better specs.

One area where the Kindle Fire HD stumbles a bit, surprisingly, is when compared to its most direct competitor, the Google Nexus 7. And while I still think the Fire HD is a much better choice than the Nexus 7 because of the superiority of the Amazon services ecosystem—only some of which is available to Nexus 7 owners—the Google’s device’s form factor is the better one, and its smaller, easier to hold, and more portable. I’ll expand on this in a bit, but the Fire HD is a curiously wide and awkward device.

The latter goal was easily achieved, given Apple’s luxury tax pricing structure, and while 7-inch and 10-inch tablets are obviously not directly comparable, the Kindle Fire HD’s $199 starting price will almost certainly undercut the cheapest iPad mini (expected any moment now) by $100 to $200. One might make the case that the iPad is indeed the best tablet at any price, but it’s so expensive that such a claim is almost meaningless. The Kindle Fire HD is the tablet for the rest of us, the tablet for mere mortals.

OK, let’s dive in.

Hardware

If you’re familiar with the Google Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD contains few surprises. They both feature what appears to be the exact same screen, a 7-inch IPS display running at an HD class resolution of 1280 x 800 that offers 10 touch points. Amazon talks up its anti-glare technology, but this thing is as glossy and glare-ific as the Nexus 7 and iPad.

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Performance is likewise similar. Google offers a quad-core TEGRA 3 processor while the Kindle Fire HD utilizes a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor of indeterminate origin. Given the differences in the UI skins and the fact that Android isn’t particularly efficient on multi-core processors, I don’t see much a difference between the two devices. But the Kindle Fire HD significantly out-performs its predecessor, which I’ll politely describe as leisurely.

In its $199 base Kindle Fire HD, Amazon offers 16 GB of storage compared to 8 GB in the base Nexus 7, which also costs $199. For $50 more, you can get 32 GB of storage, twice the amount Google offers at that price. Neither offers expandable storage via microSD.

The Kindle Fire HD offers all the expected networking technologies, including dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi (MIMO) with 802.11n and Bluetooth. No 3G/4G connectivity is offered, even as an option, just like the Nexus 7. Google’s tablet does offer NFC functionality, though I’m unaware of a real world usage case at the moment.

From a ports and buttons perspective, the Fire HD improves on its predecessor in a big way by offering much needed hardware volume buttons and a “better” power button (in that it’s harder to hit accidentally than its predecessor’s, though it’s also harder to find at first since it, and the whole device, are oriented differently). There’s also a micro HDMI port, for video out, right next to the expected micro USB port, which is used for charging and PC connectivity. The Nexus 7 lacks video out.

The Fire HD also includes stereo speakers, unlike the Nexus 7 or Apple’s expensive iPad, both of which feature a single mono speaker. Sound from the Fire HD is significantly better, and louder, than that from the competing devices. Music sounds particularly good, and with stereo sound, watching a movie without headphones isn’t annoying. (With an iPad, I keep thinking my hearing is going in one ear.)

From a sensors standpoint, the Fire HD provides an accelerometer and gyroscope, for games and other motion sensitive apps. But the Google Nexus 7 also includes GPS and a magnetometer. (That latter bit will enable more precise motion gaming, theoretically. But I have no idea why anyone would need a GPS in a device without cellular networking.)

With the same basic guts, you’d think these two devices would be almost identical looking. But they’re not. The Nexus 7 is a bit taller (198.5mm vs. 193mm) but the Kindle Fire HD is significantly, and awkwardly, wider (137mm vs. 120). Since the screens are identically sized, all that extra width is bezel, and the Fire HD’s bezel is indeed significantly wider than that of the Nexus 7, not to mention the original Kindle Fire. It makes for an awkward design that’s harder to hold with one hand than a Nexus 7.

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The Kindle Fire HD (bottom) is much wider than the Nexus 7 (middle) or original Fire (top)

Battery life is excellent, and while I’ve not had the device long enough to offer anything scientific, I’m seeing a bit over 8 hours on a charge, below Amazon’s claims but in line with what the Nexus 7 delivers. (Unlike other reviewers, I don’t use artificial tests that supposedly torture the device by playing video with Wi-Fi on or whatever. I just use the device, really. I know, crazy.)

I should also mention that Amazon provides only a USB cable, but not a wall charger, in a bid to lessen expenses. You can buy a wall charger from Amazon for an additional $19.99, but that’s a cheap thing to do to customers. Google includes a wall charger with its Nexus 7 (as does Apple).

Software

When Amazon introduced its first Kindle Fire last year, there was some controversy around the software running behind the device, which consisted of a bizarre “carrousel” front-end on top of an out-of-date-version of Android. I never found this to be a problem, but since my wife and I share the Amazon account for purchases, she has remarked that it’s a bit weird that our purchases show up on each other’s Kindle devices.

This time around, the changes amount to a toss-up. The Fire HD’s carousel UI is much more attractive than that on the original Kindle Fire, losing the faux shelf look for a more modern, all-black environment. The carousel is otherwise unchanged, but in the bottom part of the screen, Amazon has replaced the Favorites section—essentially a place to “pin” favorite apps—with a questionable “recommendations” area that dynamically offers choices in the Amazon online store based on the item that is currently selected in the carousel. Many, myself included, will find this crass bit of marketing—which you cannot turn off—to be annoying. (Favorites are still available via a star icon in the lower right of the screen.) In fact, it find it almost reprehensible: I get that the Kindle Fire HD is inexpensive, but this makes it feel cheap.

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Less annoying, however, is the widely complained-about Special Offers-based lock screen wallpapers. While you can turn off this feature by paying $15, I recommend not doing so, not at first. So far, I’ve taken advantage of three offers from this screen, which include free credits towards Amazon MP3 purchases, Amazon video purchases or rentals, and a savings on a Kindle Fire HD case I would have bought anyway. And that last purchase resulted in another $3 credit towards purchases from Amazon MP3 and came with free one-day shipping. Classic.

The Kindle Fire HD has a significantly better out of box experience than the iPad, or any other iOS device. That’s because those devices force you to walk through a painfully long process where you sign into your account and perform other tasks. (When I updated to iOS 6 on my iPhone, it required an incredible 11 steps before I could use the device again=.) The Kindle Fire HD, meanwhile, comes preconfigured to your door with your Amazon account preloaded, so there’s nothing to do: Just turn it on and access all the stuff you already bought. If and when Apple copies this feature, the press will give them a standing ovation.

As with the previous Kindle Fire, the HD includes a simple menu at the top so you can move between the different Amazon experiences: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Video, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, Docs, and Offers. Most of this is pretty straightforward, and there are only a new oddities, though overall I actually do prefer the "pure" Android experience on the Nexus 7 to this Amazon skin. For example, the Videos experience can’t play “personal” videos (i.e. those you’ve copied to the device from your PC). Instead, you must go into apps and find another app called—wait for it—Personal Videos.

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And as with the Nexus 7, there are some house apps you just can’t uninstall, sorry.  Likewise, you can’t modify the menu of Amazon experiences, either.

I guess the thing to remember here is that while the Kindle Fire HD is technically an Android tablet, it’s configured as something else entirely, as a front-end to Amazon’s services. This is a bit different from how Apple configures the iPad, of course, since there’s some front-end skinning here you can’t remove (without being fairly technical). But as with Apple’s device, you can of course install your own apps (in this case from Amazon’s AppStore for Android) and perform some simple customizations. Nothing special, but probably nothing too limiting to the average consumer. This just isn’t a great device for technical people.

Services

If you’re shopping for a tablet, there are a few important considerations—size, for example—but none are as important, I think, as the ecosystem you’re buying into. As noted in many other articles, Apple’s iOS ecosystem—which consists of the App Store and content via the iTunes Store—is considered the gold standard. But people either forget or simply don’t know that Amazon’s ecosystem—which I’ll simply call Kindle for simplicity’s sake, though it includes a variety of components—is almost its equal. Only the app count—which I have long argued is not the differentiator some claim—tilts things in Apple’s favor. And Amazon has some benefits and differentiators of its own.

Compared to the Nexus 7’s Google Play ecosystem, Amazon comes out well ahead, though again, the one sticking point is the apps. (And its worth noting that among the subset of Amazon services you can get on the Nexus 7 is Amazon’s AppStore for Android, giving you a unique situation in which you can get apps from both companies. On the Fire HD, you can only get apps from Amazon. I don’t consider this a huge problem. But there it is.)

So. What Amazon services are offered on the Kindle Fire HD? And which are unique to Amazon’s devices, which is to say unavailable on the Nexus 7 and other competing devices?

Amazon.com. Via a new Shop app, you can access Amazon’s entire online store on the go. Hooray? On the good news front, it’s an attractive front-end to the online store I do use most frequently, though if you’re looking for physical items, you’re bumped into a version of the company’s web site.

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Games and apps. Amazon offers a curated subset of the full selection of apps and games that are offered on the Android platform. Some find this limiting, as the available apps list is smaller than that offered by Google Play, but I think Amazon goes a much better job than Google in keeping out the riff-raff.

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eBooks. Amazon’s Kindle is the number one eBook platform bar none and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that its Kindle reading experience is excellent on the Kindle Fire HD, which benefits from “retina”-type resolution and the familiar Kindle app experience. (Thanks to a new Whispersync feature, you can also buy eBook/audio book combos via Audible, noted below, and switch back and forth between the eBook and audio book versions of the same title. Neat.) (This experience is available via the Amazon Kindle app on the Nexus 7 as well.)

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Music. Amazon’s MP3 store is excellent, but more important perhaps is its Cloud Player service, which lets you store your own collection in the cloud and stream it to the device. You can also optionally download any of it to the Kindle Fire HD for offline use. (This experience is available via the Amazon MP3 app on the Nexus 7 as well.)

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Videos. This experience, unique to the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD, lets you access Amazon’s various video services from the device. These include a streaming service, similar to Netflix, that’s free to Amazon Prime members, as well as the expected movie rentals and purchases and TV show purchases, each of which is typically available in either HD or SD formats. Did I mention how excellent the speakers on this thing are? They are.

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Periodicals. While Google’s Play Magazines service is looking pretty bare, Amazon’s periodicals service, part of Kindle, has been around a lot longer and offers a better selection of both newspapers and magazines. This experience is also unique to Kindle, Kindle Fire, and Kindle Fire HD devices, as you cannot access Kindle periodicals from the Kindle app on other mobile platforms.

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Audiobooks. Amazon owns Audible, and while the Audible app (and even Whispersync between Audible audio books and Kindle eBooks) is available on other mobile platforms (including Android, on the Nexus 7), the Amazon experience is consistent with the Kindle interfaces and nicely done.

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Web. Amazon’s second generation Silk browser comes with the Kindle Fire HD and while I’d prefer, say, Google Chrome, it’s not too shabby. It’s also not decidedly better than other mobile browsers, as Amazon claims.

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Photos. The Kindle Fire HD now comes with a basic photos experience which lets you access your favorite photos from Amazon Cloud Drive or from local storage. (You can sync them through Explorer on your PC.) You can also import, but not just view, photos from Facebook. Eh.

Documents. The Fire HD also offers access to your Amazon Cloud Drive-based documents, assuming you use this service. I don’t, but to test it, I emailed a couple of documents, including a complex PDF and a Word document, to the special email address that Amazon provides, another nice way to get the documents on the device. And … you can see them, using either the built-in Kindle HTML viewer or something called OfficeSuite. The PDF looked great. The Word doc? You could read it.

Final thoughts

If there’s an Achilles Heel to this Kindle Fire HD, it’s that Amazon’s penny pinching ways go a bit too far. I get that the firm packages the tablet in a cheap cardboard container, and the supposedly problematic Special Offers lock screen wallpapers are in fact desirable, not bad. But sometimes Amazon goes too far. There’s no excuse for not including a wall charger with such a device, since the point of a media tablet is that you don’t need a PC. And the unavoidable recommendations on the home screen are borderline disgusting. Amazon makes no bones about making money when people use their devices, rather than when they buy them, yes. But this is a bit too much.

Complaints aside, Amazon has clearly delivered a much-needed and fairly dramatic improvement over the previous Kindle Fire. This new HD version is the better device by a wide margin, and I strongly recommend that potential customers choose this over the “new” (really, just slightly improved) Kindle Fire that Amazon is now selling for $40 less. These devices are night and day. And you want the HD.

Picking between a Kindle Fire HD and a Nexus 7 is also straightforward. The Nexus 7 has the superior form factor, and is truly useable with one hand. And the Nexus 7 has the bigger apps library, if that matters to you for some reason. (It really shouldn’t.) But the Fire HD beats the Nexus 7 everywhere else, and in those areas I think are most important: Pricing and ecosystem. Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem is just leagues above what Google offers, and those that choose the Nexus 7 can only benefit from some of that. The Fire HD is the better choice overall.

Apple likes to pretend that the Kindle Fire lineup doesn’t complete with its precious iPad, but that’s ridiculous, and with the arrival of an 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD in November and an expected iPad mini next month, let’s not quibble about the details: These devices will be competing head-to-head. Today, however, it’s hard to compare the 7-inch Fire HD to the 10-inch iPad. Apple’s devices are exorbitantly expensive, especially since most customers also pile on tons of expensive accessories, like cases, covers, docks, keyboards, and styli. That said, they also do more, and if you’re fairly comparing ecosystems, Apple does come out ahead, if just barely.

I prefer Amazon’s products to Apple’s, however. And if the 7-inch form factor is to your liking, I recommend the Kindle Fire HD over the iPad. If not, wait for the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and see how that compares. You’ll save a ton of money and won’t lack for apps, games, or other content. Besides, every time someone buys an iPad, a unicorn dies. You don’t really want that on your conscience, do you?

The Kindle Fire HD isn’t perfect, and it most certainly is not the best tablet at any price. But it is the best 7-inch tablet in the world right now. Recommended.