In 2011, Amazon.com announced their long-anticipated color Kindle reader called the Amazon Kindle Fire. Get it? Kindle. Fire. The tablet was a runaway hit in spite of the lagging hardware, and Google responded with the faster Nexus 7 for the same starting price as the Kindle.
Amazon has had a year to listen to feedback, see the competition, and announce an upgrade. For 2012, the new Kindle Fire lineup is the Kindle Fire HD, the Kindle Fire (mostly the same as last year's model with slightly faster hardware on the inside), and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9. The biggest HD difference is that the screen resolution is better. Does this make a difference? Yes. Text and movies will be much sharper and easier to see. It's similar to the difference between an iPad 2 and an iPad 3 if you've ever compared the two.
The price has also changed. The Kindle Fire (no HD) starts at $159, while the price goes all the way up to $599 for a 4G 8.9 inch Kindle Fire HD with 32 gigs of offline memory.
The original Kindle Fire is a 7 inch diagonal tablet, so it's about the size of an original Galaxy Tab or Nook Color. That's about the right size for reading with one hand and carrying in a large jacket pocket, but it's smaller than an iPad, and while you may have ambitions to use it for checking email and proofing documents, chances are you'll wish you had a bigger screen when you start typing. The Kindle Fire HD starts in the 7 inch size and also adds an 8.9 inch version. That's still smaller than an iPad, but big enough for viewing larger documents or more comfortable Web surfing.
Ads, Ads, and Did I Mention Ads?
The Kindle Fire HD lineup sparked a bit of controversy by initially announcing that all models would come with ads, no exception. That means ads on the lock-screen, and ads ("Special Offers") on a link on the home screen. The company relented and said that users could pay an additional $15 to opt out of the advertising. Most users of ad-sponsored e-Ink versions of the Kindle seem ok with the idea, but they made the choice to buy a device at a cheaper price in exchange for the ad model.
One of the big deals about the Kindle Fire is that it runs on Android, just like the Nook. Android is Google's free Linux-based mobile operating system that powers tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and phones like the Droid. Amazon's earlier Kindle readers ran on a modified version of Linux but not on Android.
It may be Android on the inside, but you wouldn't know it on the outside. There's no Google on this tablet and no Google Play. You can run Google search through the Amazon Silk browser, but you can't download Chrome, Google Maps, or any other specifically Google app that you might expect on Android. The Kindle Fire runs a highly modified version of Android, so what you see as a user is a very tightly controlled experience centered around buying things from Amazon.com. Amazon has quietly been assembling an arsenal of content for purchase on this new tablet, so just shopping from Amazon will probably be a satisfying experience for most consumers. The Kindle Fire continues this tradition. Unless you resort to jailbreaking your device, it's not going to run any Google.
Just to clarify, you can read Gmail on a Kindle. That's because Gmail uses standard email protocols. You can't use the Gmail app to read your Gmail. You use the generic email app built into the device. Amazon has also added Exchange-compatible email to the mix, so you can still keep tabs on your work related emails if you so choose.
Amazon Digital Content
Amazon.com currently offers over one million digital books, comic books, magazines, and newspapers. They've recently entered an agreement to allow Kindle users to check out digital books from public libraries, but availability depends on the library.
You can purchase or rent movies and TV shows, and Amazon Prime members can stream from a fair sized collection of content at no extra charge. Amazon also claims to have over 17 million songs available for purchase as well. Amazon launched their own Android app store, and you can download apps that have passed Amazon's approval process to appear in the store.
Just as with the traditional Kindle eReader, your purchases are backed up on Amazon and bookmarked at your last viewing point using Whispersync. That now includes your video purchases, so you can start on one device and finish on another. The Kindle Fire HD and 2012 Fire devices also include Whispersync for audio books, so if you use Amazon's Audible service, you can sync between devices. That's handy if you use one device in your car and another in your living room.
Amazon also introduced a new Web browser with the Fire. The Silk Web browser offsets some of the rendering time for websites by pre-crunching the sites through Amazon's servers to make it easier for the tablet to display. In practice, the Silk browser does not seem any faster than other browsers when I use it. The compromise you give up by using Silk is that you cannot use Chrome and sync your bookmarks between devices.
Wi-Fi Antenna, 4G Access
The Kindle Fire HD brags of a new antenna design. This is supposed to create faster connections and fewer dropped signals. Unless you're streaming media, you probably won't notice a huge difference here. Books and other content tend to be downloaded first and consumed offline.
With the new Kindle HD line, they've also introduced some models with 4G capability. This is a hardware feature, so you need to buy a device that offers it. You can't add it later. That will run you $499 or $599, depending on the memory size. You also need to pay for a 4G data plan on top of the price of the tablet. Amazon is offering a very reasonable 250MB per month for a one time $50 payment, this year. There's no guarantee the pricing will stay the same in oncoming years, and that's still a shift from the pricing model used in earlier Kindle versions with data access. Lifetime access used to be part of the package. To be fair, those were e-Ink models that would tend to use less data, anyway.
Amazon is really pushing their premium Amazon Prime service that allows you to get free two-day shipping on items and view select Amazon videos for no extra charge. On Kindle devices, that Prime service includes the ability to check out one book per month through the Amazon Prime Library. In my experience, it's very hard to find good books in this library. It can be done, but most of the people I talk to have a long list of the lousy books they tried and didn't like. The Prime video streaming experience is a much better value.
Things Amazon Remembered the Second Time Around
This time, Amazon included a front-facing camera for Skype calls. They included hard volume buttons. They're working on a parental controls feature that should be introduced in October 2012, although I'll withhold judgement until I see it in action. The previous version of the Fire was released with no parental controls whatsoever, which meant you were basically handing a shopping device to your child before they necessarily understood the consequences. The new parental controls are supposed to not only prevent unintended purchases but also allow parents to limit video or game time in favor of reading time.
Immersion Reading - this feature allows you to hear the audio at the same time as reading the text of books while the text is highlighted. That's a real boon for readers with certain reading disabilities like dyslexia, and others may feel it aids their reading experience. The caveat here is that like the read aloud feature of other Kindle books, this is something that publishers can disable, and there are plenty of publishers who still think readers won't purchase the audio book if they can listen to a robotic voice read the text instead.
X-Ray for Books and Movies - The X-Ray feature allows you to get relevant Web information, like Wikipedia and dictionary entries for books, and IMDB information for movies. That means you don't have to stop and wonder "Who is that actress?" when you pause a movie. The X-Ray feature for books seems to be mostly a re-branding of the same features that were already available with Kindle books.
This is still an Amazon shopping device. Buy buying the Kindle Fire, you're giving up the easy ability to install apps from vendors outside of Amazon's walled garden. The parental controls may offer the most compelling reason to go in this direction, but I'd recommend sticking with the much improved Jelly Bean based Android tablets, like the Nexus 7 or looking to see what Apple offers in terms of smaller iPads. (As of this writing, the iPad Mini is a persistent rumor but not yet a released product.)