Less than a year after debuting one of the strongest competitors to Apple’s iPad (and ahead of Apple’s iPhone 5 event, where some rumors suggest the introduction of an “iPad mini”), Amazon has strengthened its hand in the tablet sector with new Kindle Fire models that improve screen resolution and provide a choice between 7- and 8.9-inch models (including a 4G LTE version of the latter). Amazon’s grayscale touchscreen e-reader also gets revamped and rebranded as the Kindle Paperwhite, which introduces a higher resolution E Ink screen featuring capacitive touch input and a front-lit display.
Aside from the impressive array of hardware, Amazon continues to use its wide reach of cloud services and synergistic subsidiaries (such as Audible.com and IMDb) to offer a variety of compelling new services to complement the new tablets. And unlike some other recent high-profile launches (we’re looking at you, Nokia Lumia and Microsoft Surface), Amazon actually included some pricing and availability information.
(See our related article on Jeff Bezos’s comments on media ecosystem lock-in, “Did Bezos Knock Apple or Android?,” 7 September 2012.)
Fired Up and Embiggened in HD — Both sizes of the Android-powered Kindle Fire HD dramatically improve screen resolution from the original Kindle Fire, with the 7-inch model getting a resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels (compared to 1024 by 600 for its predecessor) and the 8.9-inch version topping out at 1920 by 1200 pixels. The displays use in-plane switching (IPS) for improved colors and cut down on glare (Amazon claims a 25-percent reduction compared to the third-generation iPad) by laminating the touch sensor and LCD into a single layer of glass.
Amazon has beefed up the Wi-Fi chip in the Kindle Fire HD with automatic switching between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks, dual antennas, and Multiple In/Multiple Out (MIMO) for “40 percent faster throughput compared to the latest generation iPad.” The 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD also comes in a 4G LTE version that’s powered by AT&T’s network, but the 4G rate is significantly more affordable than that offered for the iPad. For just $49.99 per year, you’ll get 250 MB of data per month, 20 GB of Amazon Cloud storage, and a $10 credit for Android apps at the Amazon Appstore. That compares to the $14.99 monthly fee AT&T charges for 250 MB of usage for the third-generation iPad’s 4G connectivity. While Amazon doesn’t list the pricing, the 4G LTE Kindle Fire HD product page does note that 3 GB and 5 GB data plans will also be available.
In the United States, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD starts at $199 for 16 GB of storage and $249 for 32 GB, and it’s expected to ship on 14 September 2012. The 8.9-inch Wi-Fi-only version starts at $299 for 16 GB and goes to $369 for 32 GB, while the 4G LTE version is offered at $499 for 32 GB and $599 for 64 GB. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until 20 November 2012 for the 8.9-inch models to ship.
Much as Apple has done in recent years when a new iOS device is introduced, Amazon will continue to sell last year’s non-HD model of the Kindle Fire, though with a twist. The 7-inch original gets a spec bump to a faster processor, more RAM, and longer battery life while staying at the same screen resolution (1024 by 600). Its price also drops to $159, which is $30 lower than the Google Nexus 7 tablet.
While there are no Kindle Fire models specifically subsidized under the “with Special Offers” moniker, all the models in the Kindle Fire lineup come with ads. Electronista reports that ads and special offers will appear in the lower left hand corner of the lock screen; those can be removed by paying an optional $15 one-time fee.
Finally, the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD will also be available for sale in several European countries — the first time Amazon’s tablet has been sold outside the United States. The updated Kindle Fire will sell for €159 in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain and £129 in the UK, while the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD retails at €199 in the Euro zone and £159 in the UK. The 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD looks to remain a U.S. exclusive for the time being.
Paperwhite or Paperweight? — Amazon also updated its Kindle Touch e-reader with the new Paperwhite lineup, which uses a higher resolution E Ink display with a pixel density of 212 pixels per inch (compared to the standard E Ink version of the Kindle at 167 ppi). The Kindle Paperwhite replaces the Kindle Touch’s infrared touch-sensitive screen with a tablet-like capacitive touchscreen (a first for an Amazon E Ink e-reader), and it includes new font options (including Baskerville and Palatino) that have been “hand-tuned” by Amazon for sharpness. But the biggest addition to the Kindle Paperwhite is its front-lit display (a feature that also appears on the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch and Kobo Glo e-readers), which Melissa J. Perenson writes at Tech Hive gives the e-reader its name:
Once the light is on, though, it becomes very clear why Amazon dubbed this Kindle the Paperwhite: With the light on, the Kindle’s display appeared white, and not the tinted, newspaper-gray color you may be used to seeing on an E Ink display.
Amazon’s front-lit display scheme guides light between the anti-glare layer and capacitive touch layer down toward the display instead of shining directly into your eyes (as backlit displays do). And Perenson also notes that the matte surface added on top of the anti-glare surface helps to give the Kindle Paperwhite a “more papery” textured feel.
The Kindle Paperwhite is available in a Wi-Fi-only version ($119 with special offers, or $139 with no ads) and in a Wi-Fi+3G version ($179 with special offers, or $199 sans ads) with free global 3G connectivity.
Ye olde button-operated Kindle with Wi-Fi connectivity has also been given a speed bump (Amazon claims a 15-percent-faster page turn rate), new fonts, and a lower price — $69 for the version with special offers, and $89 for the non-ad version. Additionally, the Kindle Keyboard remains in the lineup, but only in a Wi-Fi+3G version starting at $139 with ads (and rising to $159 without ads). The Kindle DX remains on sale, too, with its 9.7-inch E Ink screen and built-in 3G (no Wi-Fi).
Fire, Whisper to Me — On the software and services front, Amazon extended its X-Ray book metadata feature first introduced on the Kindle Touch last year to movies and books for the entire Kindle Fire/Fire HD lineup (with X-Ray for Textbooks available just for the Kindle Fire HD). With X-Ray for Movies, tapping the screen enables you to look up an actor’s biography and filmography info from the Amazon-owned IMDb. Powered by Wikipedia and Shelfari (also owned by Amazon), X-Ray for Books continues to provide quick lookups of all passages in a title that mention a character, place, or idea. And X-Ray for Textbooks integrates glossaries into each textbook page while also providing related content from Wikipedia and YouTube.
Amazon also introduced Immersion Reading, a service also borne of corporate synergy that pairs audiobooks from Amazon-owned Audible.com with select Kindle ebooks to provide real-time highlighting of text as the book is narrated to you. Additionally, Amazon’s Whispersync — its technology for synchronizing your place in a book or movie across multiple devices — has added Whispersync for Voice, enabling you to switch from reading text to listening to the companion Audible.com audiobook narration and back again. The Whispersync for Voice service also works with both iOS and Android devices as long as you’ve purchased the Kindle book and have the Audible app installed on your device. Amazon says it’s offering over 15,000 Kindle books and Audible.com audiobooks at launch.
For parents, Kindle FreeTime (available on all Fire/Fire HD models) provides tools to select what content their children can view as well as limit screen time by type of content (e.g., allow unfettered reading time but limit the amount of time staring at videos and games). Additionally, you can set up multiple profiles to personalize content choices and time limits according to child.
All Kindle Fire and Fire HD models receive free unlimited Amazon Cloud storage for digital content purchased from Amazon, while the Kindle Fire HD models get free worldwide Skype video calls to complement their front-facing cameras.
And if you’re an Amazon Prime member, your Kindle Fire/Fire HD gets unlimited access to stream the over 25,000 movies and TV shows included in the Prime Instant Video library (including the recently added EPIX consortium of Paramount, MGM, and Lionsgate studios). Additionally, Prime members will also be able to borrow books from the 180,000-strong Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (this applies to all Kindles). For those not currently subscribed to the $79 per year Prime service, the Kindle Fire comes with a free 30-day trial.