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Kindle Fire HD review: Improved, but not evolved

When you handle the new 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, you feel as if Amazon's engineers went through a checklist and nuked all of the complaints of the original Fire in an orderly fashion. Battery life not great? It's 11 hours now. Power button too easy to bump by accident? Fixed. No physical volume button? Now there is. Screen not so easy on the eyes? Noticeably improved.

But if many of the hardware complaints are resolved, why does it feel so much like last year's Kindle Fire? Why doesn't it feel like a step up? Because the experience itself has not evolved, and it's hard to look past its chief role as a portal for Amazon to sell you books, movies, apps and games. 

In other words, once you've spent $199, it's time to start spending money.

Physically, the HD is a hair thinner than its predecessor but strangely larger — wider all around, making it prettier, but harder to grip with one hand. There are no physical buttons on the face, but now there are, flush with one edge, a power button and a volume toggle. These buttons are so subtle, they are sometimes hard to locate, but at least it's better than the first Kindle Fire, which turned on and off by accident all the time on account of its pronounced power button, located on the bottom center of the device.

Amazon's Kindle Fire HD volume up/down button and power button
Amazon's Kindle Fire HD has a volume up/down button, and a power button that is flush with the side of the tablet. Both are improvements over last year's Kindle Fire.

I get why Amazon stashed the buttons: The company's vision has always been to remove any barrier between you and the book or movie or app. That means that, ideally, all you see is a screen. And that screen is definitely where Amazon put its money this time around.

The reading experience on the new Kindle Fire HD is far better than on the original. The pixels are tighter, making for a near-"Retina" display, where you can't see the dots. If you, like me, read on a tablet at night (ideally with white text on a black background), you will appreciate the HD's ability to turn the dimmer way down low, so that your eyes feel less strain in the dark. And the screen's contrast is higher while glare is reduced. You're not going to love it in the bright light of a summer day, but in most situations, words are easier to enjoy.

Pictures, too. The original Fire didn't have a photo viewer at all, and the one created for the Fire HD is a delight to use. A single finger tap brings up a photo, you can double-tap or pinch to zoom, then a quick two-fingered tap sends it back. It's good user interface, and it serves to highlight the fact that photos look good on the HD screen.

They look good once they've loaded, that is. Unless you download photos to your device, the app browses your cloud-stored shots, pulling from Amazon's Cloud Drive and Facebook. You can't even shoot photos with the built-in camera — that's just for video chatting on Skype, at least until third-party apps, such as a forthcoming Facebook snapshot program, will make use of it.

You'd think with "HD" in its name, the new Fire would be a huge step-up for movie enjoyment, but the original Fire already did okay in that department. The jump up in screen resolution is more noticeable with stills and text than moving video, especially on that small a screen.

That isn't to say watching movies isn't more fun on the Fire HD — a new feature called X-Ray (powered by my favorite trivia source, the Amazon-owned IMDB), lets you pull up movie information and photos as you're watching. 

Amazon has also partnered with Dolby to up the quality of the stereo speakers and make them louder. The first — also a stereo pair — weren't that bad, though, and there's still a tinny experience compared to a decent set of earphones. (And wouldn't you likely want to use earphones as often as possible anyway?)

Email is another app that Amazon's software developers have clearly been putting effort into, beyond the photo app and the X-Ray movie trivia. The old email program was dark and stiff, the new one is brighter, more agile to the touch and intuitive. Also, it supports more complicated email accounts, such as those that sync to corporate Exchange servers.

Looking at all of the Fire HD's software, though, I don't get a sense of the design language, like I do on Microsoft's Windows 8 and Windows Phone products. Nor can I tell exactly how ambitious Amazon is about breeding first-party software, like Apple does. Yes, there's email and calendar, but when I went to jot down some notes, I couldn't find a way to do it. Even the included (but third-party) OfficeSuite app proved no use, despite its name.

Maybe a 7-inch tablet isn't really for doing stuff, it's just for consuming media. An honest notion. But what happens when the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD comes out? More physically resembling an iPad, it will have a harder time justifying its lack of activity.

You can't take a picture, you can't write notes. You can email pictures but you can't edit them with the native photo app. Maybe Amazon's goal is to send you out to the Appstore to fill in these gaps for yourself (and pay for the right to do so). But that's not how it tends to work: Google and Apple foster app innovation in part by building their own apps, and continuing to raise the bar. 

Like with the previous Kindle Fire, another big issue is that most of the media applications require connectivity. Yes, books live in local storage while you're reading them, and you can download music or photos for use later, but much of that is premeditated. Purchase a video, and you have the right to download it, but if you are merely Amazon's loyalest customer, and a $70-per-year paying member of the Amazon Prime service, you have to establish a Wi-Fi connection to enjoy the bounty of amazing TV shows ("Downton Abbey"! "The West Wing"! "The French Chef with Julia Child"!) and movies ("Thor"! "True Grit"! "Hot Rod"!).

Kindle Fire HD
Unless you pay $15 to opt out of the Kindle Fire HD's ad experience, the home screen will deliver offers in plain text at the bottom left corner.

So let's get back to the original premise, that while the Kindle Fire has certainly received a tune-up, it's geared more than ever to serve as a means to part you from your money. Wake up the device, and the first thing you see is an ad, for a movie or some Amazon special offer. Slide the wrong slider, and you accidentally "learn more" about said product, instead of getting to your own stuff. Once you're on the home screen, you'll notice a one-line text ad at the bottom of the screen. 

Even Amazon recognizes that this could come off as a bit crass to some customers, and is offering a $15 reprieve. (You'll find the option under "Manage Your Kindle," once you've registered a Fire HD.)

But there's another new promotional vehicle that will not go away, even after you've paid the $15 bounty. In the home screen, when you turn the device from horizontal view to vertical view, you instantly see what "Customers Also Bought." It's a list of Amazon-sold media that changes depending on what you are looking at in the main carousel. This "feature" replaced the Favorites bookshelf, which had been filled with your content. Favorites is now easily accessible from any screen, by tapping a star icon at the bottom right corner, but it's clear Amazon didn't mind sneaking a little bonus advertising onto the home screen as part of the redesign.

Look, fundamentally, this is also the premise of the iPad. From iTunes to the App Store, from iBooks to the Newsstand, Apple wants to sell and sell, and claim a healthy cut from those who want to reach you as a customer. It's just that the out-of-box experience for the iPad is less up front about it. There's more to explore, more to play with. People who don't have iTunes accounts — including my mom and my sister, in fact — still manage to enjoy their iPhones and iPads to a great extent.

The Kindle Fire HD just goes a little too far. This is perilous, especially at a time when consumer options are so plentiful.

Amazon's 7-inch Kindle Fire HD
Amazon's 7-inch Kindle Fire HD features a media carousel of your content, below which you will see what "Customers Also Bought."

If you, like me, enjoy Amazon's e-books, then you probably already know that you can download apps to get at them on iPhones, iPads, Android devices and even Windows Phones. That's why I prefer Amazon over Apple when it comes to books: Amazon's are just available in more places. 

Amazon is bringing video to more platforms too — most notably with the recent introduction of an iPad app for streaming video, which gives you access to stuff you bought and also Prime subscription video that you can stream at no extra cost.

So why choose a Kindle Fire HD over an iPad? Price. It's $199. 

But what if — and I'm just spitballing here — what if Apple puts out an 8-inch iPad for $249? Then you'd get basically the same content — and a whole lot more — on a slightly larger screen, for $50 more. (And you'd be able to try it out in an Apple store before you bought it.) 

If the rumors are true and Apple really does come out with a mini iPad in October, that $199 price point that we went absolutely bonkers over a year ago will look, well, a tad high.

You could buy an original but slightly tweaked Kindle Fire for $159, but what I think you really should do is buy a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader for $119. That thing is a fine example of innovation in the face of commoditization — a product that stands out from the herd of lookalikes without costing any more. My Paperwhite review will hit closer to its Oct. 1 launch, but I can tell you right now, from what I've seen already, it's fine to pre-order it.

But if you have any money left over, do yourself a favor and keep saving up for an iPad. The 7-inch Kindle Fire HD is nice, but it's just one of the paths to a rich Amazon customer experience, and it's not the best one.

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.