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5 surprising things about the Amazon Kindle Fire HD

By Guest Blogger(view all posts by Rick.Broida)
at 8:43AM Tuesday October 9, 2012
under Newsworthy

I thought the original Amazon Kindle Fire was a pretty good tablet. It benefited from a decent, if slightly slab-like, design, a rich ecosystem of apps and media, and, most of all, an iPad-stomping price tag ($199, or $249 for the model with more storage.).

A year later, Amazon unveiled the Kindle Fire HD -- another pretty good tablet. It has a laundry list of new and improved features that make it even more tempting, especially considering that it still starts at $199.

But you know what? Having lived with one for the better part of a week, I've found that the Kindle Fire HD is far from perfect. In many respects it's one step forward, two steps back. Before you decide to buy one for yourself, consider these five surprising discoveries:

1. It's uncomfortable to hold for long periods.
The new Fire is rounded at the rear and much less slab-like than its predecessor, but the front edge has a sharp, square edge that can dig into your hand if you cup a corner while holding it. A tiny bit of rounding would have helped considerably, but as it stands, the Fire can get uncomfortable after a while.

2. The speakers aren't that great.
Amazon made a huge fuss about the Fire HD's Dolby-powered stereo sound, and while there's no question that two reasonably loud speakers are a first for any tablet, they're still small, rear-facing, and, to my ears, tinny-sounding. Great for tablet speakers, yes, but great speakers? Nope.

3. The ports are maddening.
The Fire HD has two ports: one micro-USB for charging and one micro-HDMI for video output. They're side by side. They're unlabeled. And they're nearly identical. I guarantee you'll routinely try to jam the charging cable into the HDMI port before realizing that's the wrong one. Just a dumb design decision on Amazon's part.

4. The buttons are even more maddening.
The Fire HD has three buttons: one power and two volume. The latter are a welcome improvement over the original Fire, which required onscreen menu-diving to make volume adjustments.

But here's the thing: the buttons are flush-mounted along the rear edge of one end of the tablet. There's no reference point, so they're impossible to find: you end up turning the tablet over and around every single time you need one of the buttons.

Amazon could have at least colored the buttons or raised them slightly. Instead, it's like the design team went out of its way to make them difficult to find and press.

5. The screen still suffers from glare.
Another feature Amazon crowed about during the Fire HD's launch was its anti-glare screen technology.

Guess what: The glossy screen still reflects like mad; I noticed zero reduction in glare compared with the original Fire or my iPad 3, which I compared side-by-side. That's a disappointment, because using the Fire HD outside is still less than pleasant.

Not all bad.
If all this sounds like a lot of piling on, it's only because Amazon set the bar pretty high to begin with.

The Fire HD boasts a dazzling screen, a pleasant interface, and some nifty new features (like X-ray for books and movies). It's a very powerful device with a lot to recommend it. And did I mention it's still only $199? As 7-inch tablets go, it's the bargain to beat.

That said, the smart move is to wait a couple weeks and see if the rumored Apple iPad Mini proves to be real -- and, if so, how much it costs. (My guess: an unfortunate $349 or even $399.) Design-wise, I expect it will blow the Fire HD out of the water.

We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, don't get caught up in the Fire HD hype. It's a very nice tablet, yes, but disappointing in some respects and by no means perfect.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and, and also writes for PC World and Wired.