- 1 Hardware
- 2 Software
Considering we're a little late to the game on our review of Amazon's newest Kindle Fire, you've probably skimmed through the thoughts of various blogs and news outlets, finding quips like "not a great general computing tablet," or "no match for the Nexus 7's / iPad's performance." And they're right.
The Fire HD is not a good "tablet" in the sense its competitors are (yet), and it's not really a match for the hardware horsepower of its Google-born arch-nemesis, the Nexus 7. But, like I said in my hands-on, comparing the Fire HD to the Nexus is just kind of a mismatch (though you'll read many comparisons in this review, because a lot people are interested in them). The Fire HD is an odd duck.
It's also the future of buying stuff. Not just apps, not just games, or movies, or music. Everything.
And that's why the Fire HD isn't actually bad. I mean, there are some parts of it that are bad. The UX needs a lot of work, and the seamless Amazon purchasing experience shows a few cracks here and there. But when you're using it for what it's meant to do, the Fire HD generally shines. Just don't go looking for a "tablet" in the traditional sense of the word when you pick it up, because you'll be sorely disappointed if you do.
Kindle Fire HD
Price: $200 (16GB) / $250 (32GB) (buy here)
Processor: TI OMAP 4460 dual-core at 1.5GHz
GPU: PowerVR SGX540
Operating System: Fire OS (based on Android 4.0)
Display: 7" IPS LCD 1280x800 (216DPI)
Memory: 1GB RAM / 16GB (12.6GB usable) or 32GB (probably 28.6GB usable)
Cameras: 1.3MP front
Battery: size unknown
Ports / Expandable Storage: mUSB, mHDMI / none
The Fire HD is very well put together. It's not rugged per se, but it definitely feels much more premium than you would expect. Significantly more sturdy than the Nexus 7.
Fire OS has gotten hugely better in this latest iteration. Everything is smoother, the layout makes a lot more sense, and using it is, generally, pleasant. It's also ridiculously simple, my grandmother could figure this thing out.
The rear speakers are very loud. You can actually watch a movie without headphones. The quality isn't fantastic, but it's a tablet - there's only so much speaker you can cram in there.
The display is quite good, significantly better than the Nexus 7. Colors are more vivid (but not oversaturated), it gets brighter, and as a result, movies and games really do look better.
The whole Amazon "experience" is great - watching movies, reading Kindle books, or just shopping around on Amazon, the Fire is absolutely focused on you consuming stuff that Amazon provides.
The Not So Good
The UI lag can be pretty bad at times, but most of it occurs switching between tasks and opening up apps. I'm not sure what the deal is here, the older processor, or Amazon's poor use of the UI thread. When you're just kind of moving around Fire OS, it's pretty smooth, but some areas can be surprisingly slow.
Fire OS isn't really Android in the typical sense of the word. You can't customize much of anything. No launchers, no keyboards, no wallpaper, no 3rd party browsers. It's pretty locked down.
The Amazon Appstore app needs serious work. I've just avoided using it altogether because of UI lag and the poor discoverability. It's hard to find good apps unless you know what you're looking for (eg, using the search bar).
The app selection can be pretty bad, too. Apps that are ported from the Play Store are often a version behind, and many don't seem to be optimized for the Fire HD's new display, instead displaying content as though they were running on the original Fire. I'm sure this will get addressed over time.
Build quality and design
The Kindle Fire is put together like a power drill. The casing is all plastic, but you get the feeling that it's tough plastic. It doesn't creak, though I have noticed that the chassis "pops" if I press against one of the corners, like there's a loose mounting point or something. Still, it just feels so solid - so premium. The Nexus 7 feels OK, but this is in a whole other league. You can just tell it's built to last.
There are some issues in this area, though. First, all the various exposed seams lead to the age-old gadget problem of grime. Gunk, grit, and various other stuff is going to get stuck in there, and it's going to drive you effing nuts. Well, at least if you're quasi-OCD like me. The back is also ridiculously smudge prone for something that's rubberized, and soaks up finger oil like a sponge. It looks gross after a while.
Other than these two issues, which are admittedly entirely cosmetic, the Fire HD is solid as a rock. Amazon took the time to design something that you wouldn't feel the need to baby, and it shows.
The design itself has its ups and downs. From the front, the Fire HD is a totally non-suspect, if large-bezeled, tablet-like object. It doesn't look fancy, and it's not readily identifiable. But go to the back, and the story changes. The distinct glossy band across the lower third of the rear cover is tasteful and understated, and nicely incorporates the Fire HD's left and right stereo speakers. The brand and certification markings are subtle, as is the inlayed "kindle" logo. The "K" is lower-case, because Amazon's all about keeping it casual. It's not like the Fire HD is super pretty or anything, but it's definitely not ugly.
The function part of this form is where the bag gets decidedly more mixed. Both the microHDMI-out and the microUSB ports are on the bottom of the device (bottom meaning in landscape mode), so you'll probably have to turn it upside-down to watch a movie comfortably while it's charging, which I guess isn't a big deal. The issue is that when you do, the speakers go from being along the bottom to the top, and your hands no longer form natural sound "backstops" (I'll discuss this more in the audio section) while you're holding it. Again, a minor concern.
The power and volume buttons are both awesome and infuriating. Awesome, because they look really cool, and have the best press action of any such buttons I've ever used on a tablet. Infuriating, because they sit perfectly flush with the chassis. That makes them hard for your fingers to find, and that's a bit of a no-no for touch computing devices. They're also too close together - I constantly hit the volume rocker instead of the power button when I'm trying to turn the display on. Bad ergonomics are bad.
The large bezel has been a point of internet commenter contention since the original Fire. Mostly from people who haven't used one, I find. Going back and forth between the Fire HD and my Nexus 7, the bezel never really seems to factor into the "using it" equation, because you're almost always going to be holding it with two hands.
What does factor into the usability is the weight. At 395g, it's not flirting with iPad territory or anything, but it's a full 55g heavier than the Nexus 7, and you will notice it. It also feels like that weight is fairly evenly distributed, whereas the Nexus 7 is definitely bottom-heavy. This makes using the Fire HD with one hand something of a chore. Then again, Amazon is encouraging you to use it in landscape mode in the first place (as per the front facing camera and port placement), so I'm not going to rag on them too much for this.
Oh, and here are some pictures of it in the nifty (and $45) leather folio smart-cover style case Amazon sent with my review unit. It's a nice case, but $45 does seem a bit steep.
As you're probably aware, the Kindle Fire HD, in this 7-inch form, is using a 1280x800 IPS LCD panel in tandem with some fancy glare-reducing glass layering techniques. First, let's talk about the glare reduction. When you're staring at the tablet straight on, it doesn't really make a difference (that I can see). But, when you're looking at it from a slight angle, say outside while you're reading a Kindle book, you'll appreciate it. The Fire HD's display is easier to see at more angles when lighting conditions aren't ideal.
Sunlight performance in general, something the Kindle crowd is always interested in, is definitely superior to the Nexus 7. The Fire HD's display gets substantially brighter than the Nexus's, and while it's not on par with the insanely luminous Super IPS+ panels found in ASUS's Transformer line, it's impressive for a $200 tablet. All in all, though, it's still like using most phones and tablets in the sun: not very good. If you want an eReader you can use outside, you're better off buying a less fiery Kindle.
In terms of colors, again the Fire HD triumphs over the Nexus (sorry, but it really is the only worthwhile point of comparison here). There is decidedly more contrast and saturation (not unnaturally so), and black levels are noticeably better. The Fire HD also has a gamma shift that definitely leans toward the yellow side of the spectrum, which gives a more "warm" tone to everything.
Taken as a whole, the Fire HD's display is clearly designed to provide the best visual experience for gaming and video watching that is reasonably attainable at this price point, and I think it succeeds.
Amazon claims a rather lofty 11 hours of regular use on the Kindle Fire. Presumably, this is with the display on auto-brightness, which is a tad conservative in its adjustments for my taste. And when you go to manually adjust it, it seems like about 25% of the real brightness range is in the last 10% of the slider. Which, I guess, if you're trying to manipulate people into conserving power, is sort of clever.
Anyway, the estimate is definitely on the liberal side. Don't get me wrong - the battery life is pretty outstanding for a 7-inch tablet. I constantly find myself annoyed at how often my Nexus 7 needs charging, for example. I'd say the more practical real-world, screen-on use estimate for the Fire HD is 7-8 hours, depending on what you're doing. My Nexus 7 gets 5-6 hours at best, though the idle drain seems roughly equivalent.
I'm sure the Fire HD will stream video or music for near 11 hours straight if you don't touch it the entire time, but that's not exactly "normal."
The Kindle Fire HD has a 1.3MP front-facing camera. You can use it to video chat on Skype HD. It works. There's no camera app, because it's not meant for taking pictures, so I'm not going to show you any. There's no rear camera, and if you believe that's a problem, I'd like to direct you to this excellent explanation as to why it isn't.
The Kindle Fire HD comes in both 16GB and 32GB flavors, but only the 16GB is available at the time of this writing. Of those 16GB, 12.6GB are actually usable. And that figure, as you likely know, cannot be expanded. It beats the entry-level Nexus 7's 8GB, for sure, which has only 6GB of usable space.
Amazon intelligently allocates how much of your music, video, and Kindle content to store locally, from what I've seen so far. Apps and games are really the only aspect of storage you directly manage. You can also force some of your Amazon content to download locally, including TV shows, music, books, and movies that you own. Rentals and free Prime videos, however, cannot be stored for local playback.
Wireless / Bluetooth
Bluetooth works as you would expect it to, though Amazon has buried it in a sub-menu in the Wireless settings for no apparent reason.
Wireless obviously gets a little more interesting. The Fire HD has two Wi-Fi antennas, something no other tablet, Android or iOS, can claim. And it definitely seems to help - the Kindle Fire HD gets amazing Wi-Fi reception (on my N network), consistently better than my Nexus 7 or my phone when compared in the same location. The speeds are usually faster, as well.
On public Wi-Fi, though, it seems comparable, since most coffee shop hotspots aren't going dual-band N quite yet.
Audio and external speaker
Amazon has hyped up the speakers on the Kindle Fire HD to no end, with talk of Dolby enhancements and "dual stereo" (this makes no sense in audio terms) galore.
The Fire HD has two speakers with dual drivers in a left and right 2.0 stereo configuration. Most tablets have one speaker with two drivers, one for each channel. These are much better than any other tablet speaker out there - particularly in terms of volume. You can actually watch a movie on the Fire HD without headphones, and it won't make you suicidal. The quality is obviously not what you would call "high fidelity," but it does go to show just how bad every other tablet maker out there is skimping on this stuff. The Fire HD gets incredibly loud for something so small.
Audio from the headphone jack seems to be pretty good. It's a lot better than the Nexus 7, which has some of the worst sound I've ever heard from an Android device. This is definitely something that will allow you to properly appreciate a nice set of headphones. I found the volume to be very good as well, as I never really came particularly close to maxing it out.
While Fire OS is based on Android 4.0, the visual changes and feature-stripping are so extensive that, aside from the notification bar, you won't recognize it. Calling Fire OS "Android" is sort of like calling an Audi A4 a Volkswagen Passat (not to say Fire OS is "premium," mind you). They share a common platform, have some interchangeable parts, and in some ways even look similar. But to say they're one and the same is a gross oversimplification. Someone who doesn't know much about Android (eg, most people) wouldn't look at Fire OS and stock Jelly Bean side-by-side and think "these must be related." So, is it any good? That really depends.
Fire OS is irritatingly slow and unresponsive at times, though that's still a vast improvement over the first Fire. But it's also sort of beautiful and simple in a way that Android will never be (and I'm OK with that). It's straightforward. It puts the content in your face and refuses to let you ignore it. It doesn't let you get caught up with tweaking, tinkering, or finding new and interesting ways to use it. The Fire HD wants you to sit down, shut up, and watch, listen, play, and browse the day away.
It's refreshing - because if there's one thing I tire of, it's people trying to turn tablets into tools, as opposed to toys (which is what they are). Call me unimaginative, call me narrow-minded, or just plain stupid. I'm not saying it isn't possible, but I haven't seen anyone make the case that tablet productivity is something I should be interested in at this point (well, maybe Microsoft has me a little curious). Enter the Fire.
The Fire HD takes your notions of productivity, "tablet computing," and creativity, and it tosses them out of a twentieth-story window, scrapes their deformed remains off of the pavement, throws them in the back of a truck, and then burns them in an empty field. And finally, as if to truly prove its mettle to you, it turns and laughs - and offers you a free $5 credit for Amazon Instant Video.
You're going to tap "Redeem offer."
From the moment you turn on the Fire, you'll find yourself intrigued. Not because it's earth-shatteringly beautiful, technically ambitious, or revolutionary in concept. No, you'll be intrigued because it's different. You'll want to explore. "Oh look, True Grit is free on Prime Instant Video, maybe I'll watch a few minutes." Or, "Neat, Hunger Games is free on the Kindle Lending Library. I could read a few pages and see what all the fuss is about." Open up the shopping app and, well, we all know how browsing Amazon can go when you've got time to kill.
This is the Fire HD's drug: the content. It gives you a reason to come back. Amazon even includes a free month of full Prime to get you on the drip. You won't care that the UI lags, or that you can't edit your Google Docs or use Chrome. I mean, you'll miss those things if you try to make the Fire HD a "real" Android tablet - but you shouldn't be doing that in the first place.
Enough of that, though, how does it work in practice?
UI / general OS
Fire OS is ridiculously simple. And that's just how Amazon wants it. There is no app drawer per se (just a grid of apps on your device that's part of the Appstore), no widgets, and really, no homescreens.
Here's what you will recognize from Android:
- The lockscreen
- The notification bar
- The settings menu and various submenus therein
Those are the only major remaining elements that Amazon has chosen to keep intact. To call this an Android "skin," therefore, would be the understatement of the year. If TouchWiz is a skin, Fire OS is a brain and heart transplant. It doesn't feel like Android anymore.
The homescreen (which is nothing like a regular homescreen) is composed of basically five elements, not counting the notification bar. Three of these are "carousels." You have your primary carousel in the center, which is populated by recently opened apps, games, movies, music, etc. There is no way to modify the behavior of this carousel, though you're free to remove tiles from it. Just know that when you open up that particular piece of content again, back to the carousel it goes.
See, the Kindle Fire doesn't really care about giving you control over this sort of stuff. It is what it is, and by not allowing you to mess with it, the risk of something breaking, acting weird, or otherwise not working as intended is inherently lower. It also just makes it easier to learn, for the non-techy savvy folk out there.
The second carousel is what I'll refer to as the Amazon carousel. It's right above the primary carousel, and contains a static list of all the various things your Kindle Fire HD can do. Here's the list:
And, as static implies, you can't add or remove anything. These are the things your Kindle Fire is meant to do. And, once again, for a normal, not-so-tech-savvy consumer, this puts the right information directly in front of your face. No one will misunderstand where any of these things go. Well, maybe Newsstand. It's the magazine and newspaper section of the Kindle store.
I do find it a little redundant and confusing, though, since many of these shortcuts are actually apps that show up in your app library in the Appstore, while others don't. It seems Amazon just wants to reduce the chance anyone could possibly misunderstand how to buy and use all the various kinds of stuff you can find on the Fire.
Want the internet? Go to web. Want to play a game? Go to games. Want to listen to music? You get the drill.
The third carousel is what I shall dub the upsell carousel. Every time you hover over an item in the primary carousel, a list of products "Customers also bought" appears. Just like Amazon's website. It's almost like Fire OS wants you to buy things. And no, there is no way to remove this - it's there for good (except in landscape mode).
The next piece is the search bar, which, you guessed it, does searches. Amazon's local search is actually pretty cool - it'll search through your entire library of Amazon digital content and find the stuff you own, or have recently watched / read (including free Prime stuff). You can do a general Amazon search via the "Stores" option and, of course, a web search option is present as well. Your search engine can be selected in Settings - Bing is the default. There's no voice search (or voice input), which is a bummer.
The final element is the favorites button. This is the one part of the homescreen you can call your own. It's that little tiny star at the bottom right in the first picture. Tap it, and a list of your hand-selected favorite stuff appears in a pull-up menu. You can add to and remove from this list at will (apps, games, music, movies, books, etc.). I sort of think of it like a proto-app drawer.
So, all but one small part of the Fire OS homescreen can't really be changed. Whether that's a good or bad thing is pretty subjective. And if I'm being honest, I kind of like it. The Fire OS's homescreen is buttery smooth, and hasn't caused me any real trouble yet. So simple a caveman could do it, right?
Onto the notification bar.
Amazon's actually done a pretty good job here. You get relevant control toggles for screen orientation lock, volume, display brightness, wireless settings, and force sync (it will sync up all your Amazon stuff). And you also get stuff like music controls for Amazon MP3, and of course standard Android-style notifications. The "More" button actually brings up the Settings menu, which I guess makes sense.
The settings menu contains all your standard fare, and you can peruse some of the options in the screenshots above. One unique feature here is a more iOS-like approach to app settings, at least for Amazon's apps. You can go to the Applications menu, and settings for each Amazon product can be reached directly from there. It's convenient to have them all in one place. I actually wish stock Android had something similar for system apps.
These are your primary means of navigation. Home, back, menu, search, and favorites. They will appear in most apps as you see them here, and they do exactly what you'd expect. Search, menu, and back are all context-sensitive. Favorites will always bring up your favorites list, and home obviously goes home.
The lockscreen is actually the Gingerbread pull-tab style, which I don't like at all. It's not horrible to use, but I'd definitely prefer some kind of more modern alternative.
Everything I've talked about up to this point has [mostly] impressed me. I have to give it to Amazon, even with the occasional UI lag, they know exactly how they want Fire OS to look and function, and the level of polish on most of these features is great. Sure, it's a severely limited Android experience, but that's exactly what Amazon is going for here.
If you're thinking "Wow, David's giving Amazon a pass on a lot of this stuff, what a pushover" just wait. I'm starting with the positives, because it's about to get ugly up in here.
Horrible, awful lag
What happens when you take a bunch of visually and computationally-intensive apps and animations and task a TI OMAP 4460 with completing them? I'll tell you what happens: LAG.
The time it takes to open the Silk browser from the Apps list? Four seconds. That's before anything happens. It's embarrassingly bad. The same goes for stuff like videos, the email app, and most third-party apps. It's ridiculous. I'm not sure if Amazon just kind of sucks at properly utilizing the UI thread, or if the TI OMAP 4460 is a so taxed by Fire OS that this is the only possible result. It absolutely blows me away that something running Android 4.0 with a dual-core processor can be this slow at times.
The worst is Amazon's Appstore, and that's a really big deal, in my mind. If I go to the Appstore and select the full list of Top Free Games, by the time it loads the one-hundred or so tiles for me to scroll through, the Fire HD is lagging along at maybe 3-5FPS. It's so slow as to not be usable. I basically can't look at any of these lists because they slow down the device so badly. This is the sort of Android behavior I thought was banished back in 2010. But then you go to the Top Paid Apps list, and it scrolls much more smoothly. What gives? Oh, and good luck doing anything while you're actually installing an app. The UI basically locks.
You'll find going from app to app exhibits similar lag. For the most part, it's limited to switching tasks, but scrolling inside the Appstore can get absolutely brutal if you have a lot of content on-screen. It's not enough to ruin the experience, but it is enough to just use the Amazon website on a computer to search for apps sometimes. The Appstore app needs some serious work.
Then there's the notification bar when you're in landscape orientation. In portrait mode, grabbing it results in instant gratification - it comes down smoothly and quickly. In landscape mode, for whatever reason, the notification shade is delayed until the persistent navigation buttons pop up on the right-hand side. This delay ranges in the tenths of seconds, but on something you reach for so often, it makes using the Fire in landscape mode a nuisance. That brings me to my next point.
Which way do I hold this thing?
When I attended Amazon's unveiling of the new Kindles in Santa Monica, they showed all the Fire HDs being used in landscape mode. The USB and HDMI ports suggests landscape mode. The power and volume buttons do, too. The front-facing camera, as well.
But it's not really that good in landscape mode. Seriously, a 7-inch tablet in landscape mode is just kind of silly as a concept. Amazon does tweak the UI on the homescreen to make it seem landscape-friendly, but they kind of just wing it on everything else.
I mean, look at this screenshot and tell me it doesn't feel as though you're missing the bottom two thirds of the UI:
I don't know why Amazon decided it was more natural to hold the Fire HD in landscape mode. If I'm not watching a movie or playing a game designed for this orientation, I'm holding it in portrait mode. Landscape requires a lot more scrolling, and both of my hands are occupied by necessity. I can't use one finger as a floating navigator. Even though my thumbs can pretty much reach everything, it just feels weird. I had the same gripe about 10.1" Android tablets, and I think Amazon bet on the wrong horse here.
Luckily, everything pretty much looks fine in portrait mode. I'm guessing Amazon assumed a lot of people wouldn't go for the landscape thing, so they hedged their bets. Whether that's good or bad, I'm not really sure. I think their primary thought was that the Fire HD 8.9 will be more usable in landscape mode, so they may as well be consistent.
And have no doubt, Amazon does want you to use the Fire HD in a pretty specifically limited number of ways.
The Amazon Experience
So, what do you do with a Kindle Fire HD? Amazon has made sure to keep that list of activities pretty small. You can't change the wallpaper, the lockscreen style, the launcher, the keyboard, or really anything in the OS that's remotely meaningful.
The first thing anyone who has ever used an Android tablet is going to notice about Fire OS is just how not Android it is. And it isn't supposed to be.
No Google Talk, no Maps, no Gmail, no Chrome, no Voice Search, no Google+. And, most importantly: no Play Store. To the average Android fan, this is like some sort of twisted nightmare-world where pizza tastes awful and beer is always flat. I'll say it right now, if you want Android on a tablet, don't buy this. This isn't Android. Because it's Google that really makes Android the thing we love. Without Google, Android is just a husk.
But it's not like Amazon hasn't filled the void. Though, instead of just mapping onto Google's very noticeable absence, they've put their own twist on the tablet that is decidedly consumption-oriented. And they've managed to do it quite well, actually.
Buying music, movies, and books is a wonderful experience. Really. Amazon knows so much more about how to present you a product than Google it's not even funny. Let me just give you an example. Consider the following, Google's Movies & TV splash screen, and Amazon's Video splash:
How many pieces of watchable content do you see on Amazon's splash? There are seven tiles in this example, basically (all of the ribbons are scrollable, too). On Play Movies & TV, there are four, and they're all static. On Amazon's splash, there are things that you not only might actually want to watch, but if you're a prime member, five of them are free. That's what we call "incentivizing." Google? Yeah, no. Money, please.
Now, let's look at a page for an individual movie on Amazon Instant Video and Play Movies & TV.
I'm going to get nuts and bolts here. First, Amazon. You'll notice four purchase options, two each for buy and rent (SD and HD). That's cool, because this is a great (and just-released) movie, so I might actually want to buy a digital copy. Probably not, but hey, the option is there. Maybe I haven't decided, though - I can add it to my watchlist and figure that out later. Oh look, there's a button to watch the trailer, that's cool, because I haven't seen it since I watched in the theater. The star rating is also featured prominently, along with film rating (if you care).
It goes further. I see how long I have to start watching once I rent it, and how long I have to finish after I do. I see closed-caption support, the length of the film, and the director (whose name is linkified to other films in the store directed by him). And if I scroll down, I get a big, pretty cast list with pictures that go straight to an IMDB-sourced actor card where I can get a bio, films they're known for (linkified to the Amazon Video store, of course), and a carousel of various other movies they've been in. And, of course, a quick link to their complete IMDB listing.
On Google, I get some of this. The trailer is there (and the element for it is horribly ugly - look at all that black space), and I can rent in HD and SD - no buying. I see the film rating, release date, running time, and user review ratings. The synopsis is present, as is a text-only cast and credits summary (no links to anything). But it pretty much stops there. Fact aside that to even get to this movie listing, you have to open up the Play Store app, then go to the Movies & TV area. On Fire OS, you just hit Video or do a search from the homescreen.
Oh, and if you're saying "just do a search from the main Play Store," guess what? It takes you three taps to get there on the Nexus 7, because The Cabin In The Woods doesn't show up as one of the "top two" results for Movies & TV if you search "cabin in the woods." Great job, Google.
On Amazon, it's the first result, and the search bar predictively appends "instant video" to your search for any movie as you type. It's almost like Amazon has been in the business of selling people things for a while now. The experience continues while actually watching the movie, too, with some films now supporting "X-Ray," which lets you see a list of the cast members who are on screen at any given moment, and pull up their IMDB card summaries:
This is the Monaco restaurant scene from Iron Man 2, not that you can really tell.
From here, the rabbit hole only gets deeper. Want to shop Amazon on the Nexus 7? The app isn't compatible with tablets, and for some reason I doubt it ever will be. Try the browser. The Fire HD's Amazon app works like a charm (even if it is laggy at times), and is significantly better than the phone version available on the Play Store in terms of performance and functionality. Product pages are very well-done, and offer 1-Click purchasing. You can actually buy Kindle books without opening a browser, too (and the Kindle app has its own version of X-Ray).
And it all goes smoothly. You don't have to download any extra apps, you rarely if ever have to wonder if something you want will actually be available (which is still a decidedly big problem with the Play Store), and there's no need to worry about payment methods or sign-in - if you use Amazon, it's there. It's just a better experience.
But it's not like the Kindle Fire HD isn't missing stuff.
Life without Google and the Play Store can be lonely
App selection on the Fire HD right now is kind of bad. You don't feel a massive urge to use a lot of third-party apps on the Fire in the first place, but when you do, it's easy to get a little depressed. Even when you find familiar apps on the Amazon Appstore, they're often months behind their Android counterparts, or simply poorly optimized. Twitter, for example, runs less smoothly on the Fire HD, and is a solid version behind the Android edition. A lot of Fire-specific apps haven't even been properly scaled for the Fire HD's higher resolution yet.
A lot of recent, high-end games are missing, too. I get the feeling Appstore is definitely catching up, but it still has a ways to go.
Then there are the Amazon built-ins. The Email app is horrible. It can't even properly thread Gmail conversations, and the interface itself is terrible and ugly. The Calendar app is equally underwhelming. They both work, they just aren't very good. There's no maps app.
Silk (the browser), from what I understand, is much better in its current incarnation than it was on the previous Fire. It's now based on Google's open source Chromium platform, and it shows. Pages render well, and performance is certainly passable for a mobile browser. Still, I don't love the interface, and it can be unresponsive at times. Silk gets the job done, but definitely needs some performance and UI improvements.
Want maps? That's nice. Better pull out your phone, because the Fire HD will have no part of it. Voice input? Nope. YouTube? Why not watch a nice Prime Instant Video instead (even the YouTube HTML5 player doesn't seem to work in Silk)? Like I said, life sans Google isn't great in some regards.
To look at the Kindle Fire HD and judge it by its deficiencies versus a "real" Android tablet isn't exactly fair. The Fire HD is kind of about avoiding everything a "real" Android tablet stands for. Amazon wants to discourage your dreams of using a tablet for something other than shopping, reading, watching, and playing. And for doing those things, the Kindle Fire HD is better than any other Android tablet.
The moment you try to make it into something it's not, though (a tool), it will let you down. And I don't suspect that's going to change in a big way in the future. I'm sure Amazon's browser, email, and other "productivity" apps will evolve and expand over time, though I doubt we're going to see Amazon really try to take on Google in that arena. Those apps are there out of necessity, not as headline features.
So, should you buy one? I think if you're serious about getting on the Kindle Fire train, you might want to wait for the Fire HD 8.9, because that'll be better in two big ways: a larger, higher-resolution display, and a much more modern processor. But if you want to see what Fire OS is all about, and want to do so on the cheap, the 7-inch Fire HD is a great little tablet - and it's easily worth the $40 premium over the rehashed first-gen Fire. It's also the perfect size for reading, which is a big draw for Kindle users.
And for the less tech-savvy, especially, $200 is an extremely attractive price. Amazon will undoubtedly sell lots of these, and on average, I think customers will be significantly happier with the Fire HD than they were with the original Fire, both on the software and hardware fronts. Let me put it this way: this is the tablet I would suggest to someone who isn't certain if they actually want a tablet, or doesn't really understand what one is for.
The Fire HD sets out to achieve some very well-defined use-case goals, and it accomplishes most of them brilliantly - by being straight-forward, simple, and focusing wholly on that limited set of functions. Really, it all comes down to this: if you can ignore what the Fire HD doesn't do, it's very good. If you can't, look elsewhere.