What a difference a few months can make in technology. A while ago, us Brits were looking enviously across at the US at the 7-inch tablets Amazon had on sale, but you couldn't buy them here. Now its Kindle Fire range is on sale in Britain, but what once seemed like a bargain is now much less appealing, thanks to Google upping its tablet game.
The Kindle Fire HD is available direct from Amazon, starting at £159.
Should I buy the Kindle Fire HD?
If you want a simple alternative to the iPad or iPad mini, this is worth a look -- there are fewer features, but what's here is generally done well. Just make sure you go to a shop to try it out before you buy.
If you can live with the slightly more complex menus though, I would recommend the Google Nexus 7 over the Kindle Fire HD. The 16GB model is £10 cheaper than the Kindle without ads, and it's a faster tablet with more features and a better Web browser.
The Kindle Fire HD is running Android, but you'd hardly know it. Amazon has changed a great many things about how the operating system works, so if you're used to using an Android phone, you won't recognise much. That's mostly a good thing in terms of the menus though: I found it much simpler to use than a typical Android tablet.
The homescreen features a straightforward list of items running across the top such as shop, games, apps, books, music and so on. Contrast this with the grid of icons you're usually presented with on an Android device with slightly confusing names. A helpful carousel of icons shows you a list of items you've recently used or opened, so you don't have to dive back into the menus to look for it again.
App store and Web browser
There are some major negatives to all this customisation though. The main one is that you lose access to Google's app store, with Amazon forcing you to use its own one. It's not a disaster, as much of what you can get through Google you can get through Amazon. The official Facebook and Twitter clients are present, for example, as well as apps such as BBC's iPlayer and Netflix. Amazon also offers one paid-for app for free every day. But inevitably there are some apps you might want that simply aren't there -- no Sky Go, for example.
The other major downer is that the web browser isn't great. I found it slow to scroll through web pages once I had double-tapped to zoom in on an area. Often I would just see a big blank area instead of text or pictures, and have to wait for a few seconds for anything to appear.
A small annoyance occurs when using the keyboard in portrait mode. Amazon has placed the system's back button, which looks like a delete button, very close to the actual delete button on the keyboard. When typing, I found myself going back a screen rather than deleting the text, which meant I had to start typing over again. Plus, as someone used to using an iPad, I missed the lack of a physical home button -- Amazon's software equivalent is harder to find and often requires an extra click.
Books, music and video
Thinking of the Kindle Fire HD more as a device for media consumption than a fully-fledged tablet is helpful to understand what it's like to use. The device is sold at close to cost price by Amazon which hopes to make up the difference by selling you music, books, films, magazines and more.
The books side of things will be familiar to anyone who has used a Kindle app on their smart phone -- you get access to all the entire library of books on Amazon and the ability to download and read anything you have previously bought with your Amazon account. The screen is high resolution enough to make text very readable indeed. Letters are crisp and not blurry as they are on some tablets.
Music is similarly strong. Any MP3s you have bought from Amazon's shop in the past are available to listen to from Amazon's servers for free. In addition you can transfer 250 tracks from your computer to Amazon's cloud service to stream onto the Kindle Fire HD and other devices, which you can increase to 250,000 for £21.99 per year. Or you can simply copy the files you want to play over with a USB cable.
Sound from the stereo speakers is pretty good for a device this size -- it's fairly tinny as you would expect, but it's loud for a tablet, and it's good not to have sound coming out of just one side, as with most slates. Photos and documents can also be uploaded via Amazon's cloud service -- you get 5GB for free or pay for more space. USB transfers are possible here too.
For a content consumption device, though, there is one big problem -- video. Amazon owns Lovefilm and you get a 30-day trial of its streaming service with the Fire HD. Lovefilm's streaming catalogue isn't bad, with a wider selection of new movies than Netflix in my experience, and the streaming quality on the programmes I watched was good.
But the main problem is that it's streaming only -- if you're on the move and without a Wi-Fi connection, you're out of luck. If I were buying this, one of the main things I'd want to do is to watch video while travelling, but the only way to do that is to transfer an MP4 video file over USB. That essentially means there's no legal way to view new films and TV programmes without an Internet connection.
Magazines and newspapers
One of the links at the top of the homescreen takes you to a magazine shop. Titles are available to buy as one-offs, or under subscription, and some have 60-day trials. It's easy enough to find and buy what you're after, but the quality of what you find is entirely down to the publisher, so you'll want to use the risk-free options wherever possible.
I tried the latest issue of GQ, which involved an awful lot of swiping through adverts for watches and shoes which don't bother me when reading the printed issue, but for some reason irritated me on the Kindle. The scrolling wasn't particularly smooth either, which didn't sit very well the super-glossy look of the magazine.
If gaming is your primary concern when buying a tablet, I'd look elsewhere. There are plenty of games to be had, but as with apps in general, the selection isn't as great as on an Android tablet. To take a popular new game at random: Angry Birds Star Wars is available, but it costs £2, whereas it's free through the Google Play store.
The games I tried seemed work well enough though. When playing Six-Guns, a 3D shoot-em-up, for example, the graphics seemed of a reasonable quality, although not the standard of, say Infinity Blade on the iPad. Action was relatively smooth, although slightly choppy in places. As a nice-to-have add on, games are fine then, but not a reason itself to buy the tablet.
Hardware-wise, Amazon makes a big deal about the Wi-Fi inside the Kindle Fire HD being superior to other tablets. This is a hard thing to test scientifically: all I can usefully say is that when using the tablet in my house, which suffers from patchy Wi-Fi, the connection seemed more reliable than with other devices I've tried in the same place, but that could have been down to environmental conditions. The battery was good for a day's use for me.
The Kindle Fire HD is an easy-to-use tablet for people who are quite happy buying everything from Amazon. But for more advanced users, it's on sale too late here -- you'll be better off with a Google Nexus 7.
Update, 12 December 2012: This review was originally published on 2 November, and later updated with the sections on Magazines and Newspapers and Games. The review score remained the same.