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Brilliant Device Ruined by Amazon's Restrictive Software
on 27 November 2012
This is a carefully considered review that acknowledges the good and bad fairly. I have been an Amazon customer for several years and have always praised Amazon's peerless customer service, its quick response and despite the criticisms here I happily acknowledge that my telephone complaints about this product were dealt with politely and generously. But this device has severely changed my whole view of Amazon's business practice.
This is a detailed review which touches many aspects of not just the hardware but the whole experience of using the Kindle Fire HD, especially for those users who were hoping for more than just a closed system passport device to access Amazon's apps, books and films. I recognise that the many glowing reviews here are justified in the context of users who perhaps feel they are happy with a highly restricted device, or who are content with a more sophisticated form of their previously owned e-readers.But for those of us who want a proper tablet experience, this otherwise brilliant machine is so shockingly restricted in its severely stripped and customised operating system that the description "Tablet" is barely valid, though after a lot of hard work and fiddling, it is possible to radically transform it into a decent, fast and responsive device which then competes very well with the Kindle Fire HD's main rival, the Nexus 7. Out of the box though, the hardware appears sluggish and the software is poor.
Value for money for UK customers vs the US version
The US version is $199. At the time of purchase that converted to just over £124. Straightaway we see that UK customers are paying a premium over US customers, and although a small part of that might be due to our higher sales tax (VAT), nevertheless US customers do have some sales tax to pay yet are getting a much better deal. This is not confined to this product and UK customers of globally available devices are constantly being short-changed compared with US equivalents. This is a very poor practice and it's about time UK users stood up and said "enough".
The price of this device, including advert removal (see below), and a decent power charger, is considerably over the advertised £159. It totals around £187. If the software had not so dreadfully been interfered with, this would still represent very good value, but given the control freakery of the standard operating system, this is not good value. No power charger included? That is not on. Again, a US power charger is typically $10-$15. Here, Amazon offers one at just under £18. Purchasing a cheaper charger is pointless because that would take all night to charge the Kindle Fire HD. Plugging it via usb into a computer will make charging considerably longer still.
Now we come to the adverts, which are euphemistically described as "special offers", opting out of which costs an extra £10 but even this outrageous fee doesn't actually remove the ads, since the "customers also purchased" line of icons on the display ARE adverts and are still present after paying the £10. Amazon should hang its head in shame over this. Some reviewers who do not object to this are entitled to their views. My view is that I do not wish to be treated as an obedient and compliant subcriber to Amazon's advertising, especially since I actually paid to remove the ads, and they are still there.
Right from the word go Amazon, for the first time, has got my back up even before using the Kindle Fire HD, and in my opinion it has shot itself in the foot with this blatent and unacceptable interference with a privately owned tablet. I want a device that serves my needs, NOT the needs of Amazon. This fundamental principle has been breached and is a blot on Amazon's otherwise deserved reputation for fairness.
Hardware and Performance
If the average user is happy with the default performance of the Fire HD then fine, but I feel they might be blissfully unaware of just how good the hardware is when it is released from the worst of the neutered software that is running it. Let me be clear that you do not have to do anything radical to make this device much much better, or invalidate your warranty, or do anything Amazon would have any reason to object to. Most of the solutions are actually available on Amazon's own store and certainly there is no need to do much more than replace much of the default software with more decent stuff - more about this below.
The hardware and potential performance is actually very good. The screen is exceptionally good, with brightness and contrast easily class leading, especially compared with the poorly calibrated and washed out display on the Nexus 7. The processor is perfectly adequate and potentially fast. The menu system is clear and easy to use. The controls and adjustments are straightforward. The physical build is solid. I have no objection to the highish weight compared with the competition. I would rather have a solidly built device than something more flimsy for the sake of style. Holding the Kindle HD is satisfying and reassuring. On this, the Kindle Fire HD is a commendably good piece of kit. Thumbs up, but sadly there are some glaring problems.
Operating System and Software
The O/S is nominally based on Android 4. But no-one would know from the display. Do not for one moment accept the notion that the stripped down, customised, neutered o/s is somehow a customer-oriented, hand-holding, user-friendly design, conceived for our benefit - and here comes my most negative comment about this product. It is a blatantly and heavily restricted o/s for one single reason, which is to do everything possible to prevent me from buying anything other than Amazon digital content. This wouldn't be so bad if Amazon's Kindle Fire HD store and apps were half decent in breadth and depth. But the store is threadbare of decent apps in its current state. While its book choice is exemplary, I was dismayed to see that the Amazon App store is shockingly poor. It is not just the small number of apps, but the paucity of quality apps which are available elsewhere in their thousands.
If you are going to produce a device which cripples access to open content and enslave the user to a closed loop system, the least you can do is provide a viable store which serves even basic needs. In its present state the Fire's app store is very poor, given that the average user is handcuffed into using it without escape. This entirely commercial decision is not only an insult to the customer, but is utterly counter-productive for Amazon. If you drag customers who purchased in good faith kicking and screaming into a poorly stocked content store, you are building a customer-base of discontented, frustrated and potentially disloyal people. Far from winning me over with this tablet, which could have been SO good, I feel exploited and cheated. Amazon, what ARE you thinking? All you are doing by shutting down open access to third party content is to alienate me. I concede that Apple does the same thing. But the difference is that Apple has content of a hundred times the volume but crucially ten times the quality.
This petulant and childish habit of so-called "eco-system" (Ugh!) providers battling out their market position by restricting their customers is bad enough, but shackling customers to inadequate content is simply unacceptable.
I purchased this as a gift for my partner. She loves the screen and feel of the Kindle Fire HD. But after a few minutes we both saw the flaws. The email app is adequate but no more. We could not see the Skype app, and for some reason it was not installed. Nor was a camera app and using Evernote, choosing the camera produced an error
message. I downloaded a third party camera app and it worked, then downloaded Skype from the store. Why provide a camera then fail to make it work by default?
The heart of any Tablet is web browsing, so when I saw the default Silk browser I thought we would have an experience to enjoy. Not so. "Silk", as in "smooth as...." is a poor description of a browser that makes the Fire HD appear as though it has a weak processor. Far from being smooth and silky, this browser is painfully slow. It stutters, jerks and crawls its way through website browsing especially when there are many images. The "acceleration" option makes it no better, and I can only guess that the caching and buffering Amazon is trying to attempt is either poorly optimised or simply does not work.
Things radically improve by installing Google Chrome beta, and better still with the Dolphin browser which transforms web browsing into near ipad smoothness. This is an example of how much untapped potential there is in the Kindle Fire HD's hardware. I cannot understand why Amazon would bother with a default web browser that makes the whole device appear sluggish.
The YouTube experience out of the box produces a very fine, rich display, but again it is absurdly slow to load each clip. YouTube via the Dolphin Browser loaded clips in a quarter of the time. Embedded YouTube clips fail to play, and that is because there is no flash by default. The "flash won't work" conventional wisdom is a myth. Flash 11.1 works absolutely fine after installing it, so why not include it by default?
OK, I've been somewhat harsh up to now so let me summarise the good things:
* Brilliant Screen/Display
* In the main good and intuitive navigation
* Very slick store access and commendably good interface
* Excelllent auto-install of apps
* Solidly Built
* Option of Cloud or Device installed apps very good
* 16 gigs storage very reasonable
* Unlimited Cloud storage for paid apps and very fair storage for personal content
* Good value except for the advert removal fee and lack of power charger
* Potentially fast and smooth operation once default browser is replaced
* HDMI output is an excellent idea and very useful
Now the bad:
* Ridiculously neutered core software which locks the user to Amazon
* Only just adequate email, contacts apps
* Small point, but icons way too large
* Zero customisation without running through hoops
* Zero access to third party stores without a lot of work
* Sluggish default web browser
* No flash by default despite it being perfectly possible to install
* Price is not so much value when you add the £10 "advert removal" and the price of a decent charger
Major Issue Closing Apps
Maybe I have missed something here but I don't think so. Many users will be aware that on occasions their Kindle Fire HD slows down to a crawl for no apparent reason. Here is the reason: When you have finished with an open app, It does NOT close. If you hit the home screen button, which is the seemingly obvious way to close an app, it is still there in the background, and if it is an app that uses resources, it will slow you down. If you have opened then "closed" several apps, they are still in memory. This is a blunder by Amazon. The only way to free up memory and CPU for certain is to laboriously open settings/more/apps/force shut down. This is an absurd way to have to properly close an app, and needs to be addressed urgently with an update.
UK Prime Members
If you are a US customer you not only get this device considerably cheaper in relative currency terms, but if you are a US Amazon prime customer, you get free access to thousands of streamed TV programmes and films. Yes, FREE access. This is a major selling point but is denied to UK prime customers. The measly "one borrowed book"
per month is not anywhere near an adequate substitute and indeed Amazon should really remove any mention in its advertising relating to UK prime customers, since in reality there is little benefit at all. Moreover, whatever the legal ramifications as to why UK customers do not get the same benefits are, Amazon should have been scrupulously fair and made some kind of realistic concession to compensate UK customers for this ommission. As usual, the UK customer gets a very poor deal compared with the US despite the fact that Amazon is in a global market. This is not good enough.
I will concede that after spending several days and many many hours getting rid of the poor out of the box experience, removing the clunky default software, downloading some third party apps which in itself involves convoluted and time consuming circumventing of Amazon's control freakery, our Kindle Fire HD has become a very respectable device.
If Amazon had thought intelligently about the backlash and resentment it is fostering by its blatant disregard for customers who wish to occasionally opt out of its heavily restricted system, it would have a far greater satisfied number of customers. As it stands the Kindle Fire HD is an example of control freakery at the extreme. Not only has this put me completely off buying anything from Amazon's app store, it has utterly changed my previous position of being a loyal customer with nothing but praise for its service.
Amazon needs to think very carefully about what it is doing here because it is storing up resentment and potentially losing hard won customers. I acknowledge that some customers are perfectly happy to be restricted in this way, but for those of us aware of just how much better the Fire HD could be, this device falls way short of its competition and the locked-in system is not only unacceptable but will in my view do nothing but lower Amazon's reputation. When you force customers to buy your content, all you are doing is encouraging them to look elsewhere because they resent being manipulated like this. I would be more likely to buy Amazon content if I was given the freedom to choose. Amazon's policy in this regard is psychologically a disaster, commercially lacking in vision even in its own interests, and morally reprehensible.
For that reason my single star is I think fair. If Amazon would kindly update this device, get rid of the closed system, open up access to third party apps, sort out the browser, compensate UK prime members from lack of access to free videos that US customers enjoy, with other commensurate features, revise the core software to serve the user, not Amazon, and get rid of the Adverts, and I mean ALL the adverts, without the £10 charge, then I will happily edit this review and give the Fire HD the five stars it would have deserved if Amazon had not strangled it for their own purposes.
Until then this review stands, and given that I have been a loyal and regular customer for years, and one who has praised Amazon to the hilt in the past, I would take an extremely dim view if any of this review is censored.