(Pocket-lint) - Timing is everything and in the case of the Fire HD 7 tablet, Amazon has been dealt a particularly unlucky slice of it.
Had the Fire HD arrived in our hands before we had a chance to play with the Tesco Hudl 2, we'd be impressed by the refresh to Amazon's entry-level 7-inch device. But as we've been extensively using the new Tesco Hudl prior to Amazon's tablet arriving, it's hard not to compare them directly, considering they are both priced in a similar bracket and seemingly aimed at the same family market.
So can the Amazon Fire HD 7 stand its ground against the better-specified Tesco tablet and be considered the ideal family tablet?
Amazon has released two new entry-level devices this year, with similar specifications but different screen sizes. The cheapest model is the Amazon Fire HD 6, with a 6-inch screen, and there's a slight upgrade in the model we're testing, the Amazon Fire HD 7, with its 7-inch display.
The 7-inch model has a screen resolution of 1280 x 800, enough to qualify for an HD badge of sorts but still only scoring a 216ppi pixel density. That's low in comparison to other tablets on the market, and although at this price point it's less of a surprise, the Tesco Hudl 2 is just £10 more and offers a 1920 x 1080 resolution 8.3-inch panel.
READ: Tesco Hudl 2 review
Text from eBooks is sharp enough on the Amazon device and when you condense a video to a 7-inch screen it looks good. Specification loyalists will moan, but the target audience will more than likely concern itself with the experience rather than the stats, and in that it's more than presentable.
Our only issue with the screen is something that's concerned us with previous generations too: for some reason (which we suspect is related most to eBook reading) the display has a distinctly yellow tinge to it. This is by design rather than manufacture and becomes less pronounced when the brightness has been turned up from the default, but whites don't quite seem as white as on other devices.
That said, it's nowhere near as distinct as some of the colouration of OLED panels on some mobile devices, and is actually of benefit to movie playback, providing a more cinematic look. It also makes sense for reading being easier on the eyes, but let's not forget this isn't a Kindle just for reading.
What will perhaps polarise opinion more is the build quality and design of the Amazon slate. It is, to be honest, a bit of a brick. And the rear is as plastic in feel as they come.
Amazon told us that the Fire HD 7's 10.6mm thickness was chosen purposely, and certainly it feels as if it could genuinely be dropped from waist height without much if any visible damage. It would take quite a bashing in a bag without suffering too, we suspect, and although the chunkiness would put off some, it might actually be seen as a selling point to others.
Families with small children, for example, will feel more confident with an Amazon Fire HD in their offspring's hands than an iPad mini or, even, Tesco Hudl 2. It's also easier to hold, albeit a tad heavy at 337g.
Unfortunately, the type of plastic on the rear feels a little cheap or, at the very least, in-fitting with Amazon's price points. But at least the glass on the front is solid and more robust than some of the former generations of Fire tablets.
In use, we have fewer quibbles about the Fire HD 7. Its up-to 1.5GHz quad-core processor (two cores running at 1.5GHz, two at 1.2GHz) and 1GB of RAM might not be the fastest on the market but it is capable enough of ensuring a smooth experience with the Fire OS 4 user interface and when running most apps.
There's a little juddering when a lot of cover art is on screen at once and needs to be scrolled through - for example, on Amazon Instant Video content under the video tab - but it's splitting hairs really as video playback itself is smooth and consistent.
Speaking of which, although several Amazon-only features are restricted to its more expensive HDX devices, the inclusion of X-Ray for movies and TV shows is always welcome. It provides a side bar with cast and interesting information based on the scene you're watch when streaming clips. If you're not the sort of person who likes commentary and extras on DVDs, you probably won't care. But we are fans.
Cameras & audio
The Fire HD 7 won't win any camera awards, and neither will you win any photography awards while using one, with just a 2-megapixel camera on the rear and a 0.3-megapixel videocam on the front that will mainly be used for Skype video calling and the like.
What's more impressive is the sound quality that the rear stereo speakers are capable of. The tablet utilises Dolby Digital Plus processing and is capable of decent volume without any distortion. You will happily have it sat in a corner of a hotel room while you watch a show or film and compared to an iPad mini with Retina display, the sound is beefier and more rounded.
We've also had no issues with the Wi-Fi connectivity either, even though it only utilises a single antenna. It supports 802.11b/g/n and we've used the tablet all around the house and connected to external hotspots with no connection dropouts or issues.
Battery life is also good, promising around eight hours for browsing, reading books and other general usage. It seemed to have matched that boast too, in our testing anyway. We didn't do anything mad, like leave video running for four hours straight, but in everyday use we only had to recharge it after a few days.
Storage, on the other hand, is disappointing. Considering that there's no microSD card slot you are restricted to the built-in storage paid for and any Amazon Cloud Storage you might have on your account. All Amazon accounts come with 5GB of free storage and Fire tablets come with unlimited storage for Amazon content you don't wish to pre-load onto your device and any photos you take with it.
That internal storage is also restricted because of system files necessary to keep the tablet ticking along, so will fill rapidly though if you want to install an app or two or download any video to the device itself. Only around 4.5GB is available to use on the 8GB model and 11.6GB on the 16GB version. The former, which we have on our test Fire HD, is restrictive and forced us to keep most of our content in the cloud or delete apps before we could install others.
The lesson learned here is it's worth spending that little extra for the bigger storage space. Unequivocally. And especially if you are considering the Fire HD 7 as the centrepiece tablet for the whole family.
It's definitely setup for such use. Each family member can have their own profile for starters, with options for parents to lock a child's account to only show age appropriate content. In addition, the new feature Amazon FreeTime gives parents the opportunity to set goals and rewards for children who use the tablet for educational purposes. For example, you can set a certain amount of time that a kid has to play educational games or read. If that time is met, entertainment content, like films and favourite shows, will be unlocked.
Amazon FreeTime also provides personalisation options for children, with backgrounds and fonts being more favourable to a younger audience. And the whole family can share the same apps paid for through the master account. It is simple enough to setup and gives the Fire HD more of a purpose and mission statement.
It's like Fire OS 4 itself. Some will hate that the Fire HD - like all Amazon devices - uses a form of Android, not full-access Android operating system itself, and layer on a skin over the top that strips the operating system of some of its more varied functionality. But then some will adore it for its simplicity, especially when children are involved.
That indeed might be the Fire HD's saving grace when faced by the technically superior but similarly priced Tesco Hudl 2: Amazon is a familiar family-friendly fare.
At £119 for the ad-supported 8GB model (if you don't want adverts then you need to pay an extra £10), the Amazon Fire HD 7 might be affordable but struggles against a Tesco 16GB tablet that's faster, has a higher resolution screen and the full Android experience for just £10 more. Even without ads, the 8GB Amazon model at the same price as the Tesco model pales in comparison.
However, we can see a strong argument for the Fire HD if you are a habitual Amazon consumer, someone who buys your entire family's eBooks and music through the online retailer or, better still, are an Amazon Prime user, then you will be able to instantly access all of your content from the second you turn on the tablet. As will a three-year-old (after you've set up their profile, of course). That's who this tablet is for. It's a device that anybody can pick up and use intuitively without needing to understand the ins and outs of an Android operating system first.
Some things will drive technology buffs mad, though, so the Fire HD 7 is less likely to appeal to them whereas a full Android tablet like the Hudl 2 is far better matched.
If you would rather keep things simple, it's worth giving Amazon's latest slate a try. There's a sense of Amazon resting on its laurels, but what's worked well before continues to do so now. If only it was a little more affordable given the current competition - but with that in mind the 6-inch Amazon Fire HD 6, priced at £79, is perhaps the better option if you're looking for a bargain.