Android might be the king of smartphone operating systems, but when it comes to tablets, it has found the going tough against Apple’s formidable iPad range, which has by and large dominated the tablet market with its potent mix of interface and apps.
The only real challenge that it has faced -- mainly in the US -- has come from Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet range. Not to be confused with the Kindle devices, which are e-book readers, the Kindle Fire tablets run on Android, which is heavily Amazon-ified, and, as a result, is unlike any Android device you have ever seen and used.
Not that it looks very different. When you clap eyes on the flagship of the Kindle Fire range, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, the impression you get is one of Spartan smartness rather than cutting edge design. The front is dominated by the 8.9 inch display which gives the tablet its name and has no hardware buttons at all. The sides are relatively bare too, with the volume rocker and power/display on/off key on one of the shorter sides, and the micro USB and HDMI ports on one of the longer sides.
The back is made of slightly rubbery plastic, with a thick band running on the lower part, housing two speakers at either end. The tablet tips the scales at slightly over half a kilo, and at 8.8 mm, is thinner than an iPad, if not as crazily anorexic as the Sony Xperia Z tablet. No, it won’t turn heads or stand out in a crowd, but you won’t mind being seen with it either.
The Kindle Fire HD, however, really comes into its own when you switch on. Not just because of its brilliant 8.9 inch display that comes with a 1920 x 1200 resolution (yes, this is a full HD resolution) with a pixel density of 256 ppi, which is marginally under what the new iPad offers. What REALLY makes the Kindle Fire stand out is its interface and user experience.
Unlike other Android devices, there are no swappable homescreens, widgets or grids of app icons here. No, what you get instead is a carousel of recently opened applications, which you can swipe across. And every time you highlight an item on the carousel, what you will see below are similar items that are available from Amazon -- so if you highlight a book, you will see titles on similar subjects below, ditto if you highlight an app.
Notifications are hidden away at the top and appear unobtrusively, while favourites can be accessed from a star in the corner on the homescreen. You can move between different sections by scrolling through a row of names on the top of the display. Incidentally, all this is against a jet black backdrop, which makes the interface look very classy indeed.
If further evidence were needed that this tablet is more Amazon than Android, just head to the app store, which is again controlled by Amazon. No, you cannot access Google Play on this tablet. The proponents of ‘openness’ might scream murder at this, but we could not help but notice that Amazon’s store had better quality control in place than Google Play. There was no soft porn around and although, apps are fewer in number than on Google Play, but the popular ones (Angry Birds, Flipboard, QuickOffice, etc.) are not just there, but also seem optimised to run on the device’s display (a major problem in other Android tablets). Battery life is staggeringly good -- we found ourselves getting 10 to 11 hours with Wi-Fi running and mail and social networks on push.
And that really is what makes the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 a formidable device -- the stress on experience rather than hardware. It does pack in decent specs (check them at the end of the review), but there are tablets out there that offer much more in hardware terms. And yet, the Fire HD runs more smoothly than most and once you get the hang of the interface, is a real joy to use, whether browsing the Web using Amazon’s Silk browser, watching videos, playing Angry Birds, or simply keeping track of mail, social networks, and documents.
It is not perfect, though -- you cannot put an item of your choice in the carousel, the speakers are not the loudest, and you cannot switch between apps the way you can on Android. Those who worship specs will also moan about the absence of quad core processors, expandable storage, rear camera and 3G connectivity.
And yet, for all that, we cannot help liking the Kindle Fire HD. Because, for all its perceived faults and foibles, for all the Amazon-coated Android it works on -- it just works and is wonderful to use. Yes, like that tablet from Cupertino. Higher praise we cannot give.