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Tech lab

New Kindle Fire a delight — with limits

Wait a second — isn’t this National iPhone Day? Not quite. Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 5 looks pretty appealing, but I’ve yet to get my hands on one. Meanwhile, in a cunning effort to capture my attention, Amazon.com sent me its newest tablet computer, the Kindle Fire HD.

It worked. The new Fire, which Amazon will start shipping on Friday, is basically the old Fire done considerably better, with a sleeker body, a better video screen, and surprisingly good sound. With a starting price of $199 for a version with 16 gigabytes of memory, or $249 with 32 gigs, it should give its nearest rival, Google Inc.’s Nexus 7 tablet, plenty of competition. But the Fire’s got enough annoying weaknesses to keep it firmly in second place.

The Amazon Kindle Fire HD.

AP

The Amazon Kindle Fire HD.

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The original Fire’s plastic body struck me as a little crude. Amazon’s done far better this time, giving it tapered edges and a firm, smooth backside. The old Fire managed speaker volume with a touchscreen control; the Fire HD sensibly retreats to an old-school pushbutton control. The new Fire comes with a front-facing camera, intended for videoconferencing through software apps like Skype. There’s an HDMI port right alongside the ever-present USB connection. With HDMI, you can play downloaded movies on your digital TV.

Movies looked washed-out and grainy on the old version but are much better here, thanks to a 1280-by-800 screen. Still, while watching Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, I found the images a little fuzzy, definitely not up to iPad standards. But the upgraded sound system from Dolby Laboratories Inc. is as clear, rich, and, yes, loud, as I’ve heard from any tablet.

Battery life seemed decent; after a day of hard use, including a full-length movie, the Fire HD still had about 25 percent power.

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Amazon introduced the first Kindle back in 2007 as a pure e-book reader, with an eye-friendly black-and-white screen. The backlit LCD screen on the Fire HD isn’t as well-suited to reading; a study released last week by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute warned that reading on a backlit screen at night can ruin your sleep. Still, the Fire HD gives you good reasons to take the risk. Of course, you can choose from many thousands of titles. But you also get a couple of enticing new features.

One is X-Ray, a sort of super-index that provides in-depth information on people, places, and events mentioned in a book, much of it obtained from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. While browsing through Charles Duhigg’s nonfiction book “The Power of Habit,” I was able to look up biographical details on 59 people whose names appear in its pages. X-Ray isn’t available for every Amazon title, but after using it you’ll wish it was.

‘The Kindle Fire HD is a major step up from its predecessor. But you’d be better off with a Nexus 7.’

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The same goes for the movie version of X-Ray, which hooks up to the popular entertainment website IMDB.com. Touch the screen during the Sherlock Holmes film and you get a pop-up window offering biographical data on the film’s stars. You can read a bit about the actors, then resume the movie where you left off.

Another smart e-book feature integrates the written and spoken words. I downloaded Chester Himes’s crime novel “A Rage In Harlem,” and for about $4 more I got the audiobook version, read by Samuel L. Jackson. You can read and listen at the same time — the words are underlined on your screen as Jackson reads them — or just listen. You can also play the narration at up to three times normal speed if you’re in a hurry. Amazon calls the system “immersive reading,” probably because it hopes to soak us for a few more bucks. It might work, too; I certainly enjoyed it.

I didn’t even mind the commercials. As on other Kindle editions, Amazon sells ad space on the Fire HD. The ads appear only when you wake the device out of sleep mode. I found them quite inoffensive and even attractive. And the ads helped hold down the Fire HD’s price. But some consumers want an ad-free version, and Amazon has agreed to provide one, for an extra fee of $15.

Then again, Google sells its Nexus 7 for the same price as the Fire, without cluttering the screen with ads. The Nexus 7 gives you full access to the apps in the Google Play online store. The Kindle Fire offers only a smaller selection of Amazon-approved apps. The Kindle Fire doesn’t even come with an AC adapter for recharging. You can either plug it into your computer or buy an adapter for an extra $10.

No doubt about it; the Kindle Fire HD is a major step up from its predecessor and a fine mini-tablet. But because of Amazon’s constant nickel-and-diming, you’d be better off spending your nickels and dimes on a Nexus 7.

Hiawatha Bray is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at Bray@globe.com
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