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Kindle Fire HD: The Missing Manual, 2nd Edition by Peter Meyers

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Introduction

START SMALL, GET BIG. That motto must be on the wall somewhere at Amazon HQ. You see it in the products they sell (beginning with books and music and moving on to…well, everything), the services they offer (discounted shipping evolving into the Amazon Prime service), and the gadget group that, five years ago, unveiled the clunky but ambitious Kindle e-reader. Soon that had spawned a growing family of fellow Kindles: the jumbo-sized DX followed by many, many variants. It all culminated in the company’s first version of a tablet PC—the Kindle Fire. Now the Fire too has grown into a bigger, better version of itself. The 7-inch model you could cradle in one hand now has strapping 8.9-inch siblings.

The Fire is deceptively powerful. Though it’s got only a few physical buttons, underneath its sleek, simple exterior lies a machine that can do as much as a “real” computer. It’s a Kindle so, of course, you can buy and read ebooks. But because it’s a multi-purpose tablet, that’s just one of its many talents. With it, you also get:

  • TV set and movie screen. Bring a Fire into bed or onto the bus, and you’ve got your own personal entertainment center. Amazon’s Hollywood and TV studio dealmakers have put together a cheap and large catalog that’s big enough to rival Netflix and iTunes. Your choices don’t quite match what you’d find on a normal boob tube or cineplex, but you still have thousands and thousands of titles to pick from. This particular revolution is just getting started and it’s wickedly fun for any moving image fan.

  • Web browser. Most phones nowadays give you some way to surf. But even the biggest, smartest phone is still around the size of your palm. The Fire’s extra real estate really helps you appreciate the Web. What you see on its shiny, multi-million colored display is pretty close to what you see on a full-size computer.

  • Email, chat, and social networking. It’s all here. However you connect, the Fire is ready to help. It has a nifty built-in email program, video chat with Skype pals, and easy sharing to popular hangouts like Facebook and Twitter.

  • Portable picture frame. TV, movies, and the Web aren’t always enough. Sometimes the best home entertainment is the kind you make with your own family: pet photos, vacation albums, and birthday party videos. If you can capture it on a digital camera or camcorder, you can show it off on the Fire. Photo sharing in particular is a blast. No longer do your friends have to squint at the cellphone screen to watch little Eddie make the diving catch. The Fire’s big enough to really light up people’s faces.

  • Digital briefcase. Tired of fumbling around with printouts? With the Fire, you never have to bother printing hotel confirmations, online shopping receipts, or the work documents you want to read on the train. Out of the box, the Fire is ready to display any Microsoft Word or PDF file. A few add-on apps, which you’ll meet in Chapter 4, extend that list to almost any document type you’ve ever heard of.

  • Jukebox. Amazon’s been hard at work stocking the shelves of its digital record shop. Even better, it’s designed free software that makes it easy to remain a loyal Apple fan while playing its tunes on non-iGadgets—the Fire very much included. Whether you plug in a pair of earphones, play your music aloud on the Fire’s built-in speakers, or connect a pair of legit speakers, this gadget’s great for tuning in and turning on.

  • Video game player. Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, even 21st-century versions of Pac Man and Pong—it’s all here on the Fire, plus a cool 15,000 or so other options. A quick list of key categories include: race car driving; football, soccer, and pool; word and number puzzles; card games; pinball; and strategy and adventure fests. Hardcore teenage gamers may need a dedicated gadget for high-end performance, but for the rest of us, the Fire is a pretty amazing portable arcade.

  • Everything else. Speaking of apps: Anything the Fire can’t do out of the box, some developer somewhere is probably working on. Weather report videos, podcasts and worldwide radio tuners, recipe displays, sleep-inducing white noise machines, horoscope advisors, family calendar keepers. These are just a few of the apps that are currently available on the Fire. About half of these special-purpose programs are free, and most cost no more than a buck or two.

Tip

One simple way to load up on apps is via Amazon’s daily giveaway. At the very top of the Appstore (either on your Fire or on Amazon.com), a paid app’s price gets slashed to the low, low price of free. Installing Apps has details on downloading and other app suggestions. Also check out the final three chapters of this book, which are dedicated to guiding you through the many app options that await.

What’s New in Fire-land

Most of the Fire’s new talents come thanks to a slew of hardware upgrades. Here are the highlights:

  • New container. The first Fire was a blocky, squarish affair. The second-generation HD models come inside an all-new hardware jacket. It’s noticeably slimmer and sleeker, with tapered edges that make it a pleasure to hold.

    Note

    This book covers every version of the Fire except the original, first generation model released in November 2011; coverage of that device and its flavor of the Fire operating system await in the first edition of this book. The new models that you’ll read about in the pages ahead include the 7-inch non-HD Fire, the 7-inch HD version, and the 8.9-inch big boys (one of which comes with 4G/LTE, for getting online when you don’t have WiFi). Unless specifically mentioned, the features in this book apply to all these new models.

  • Faster innards. You’d have to crack open the housing to see these changes, but the results are apparent from swipe one. The thing feels faster than its predecessor. The fluid motion on the main screen’s icon carousel (The Home Screen), the way photos zoom when you spread your fingers apart to enlarge them, the vertical scrolling speed of long lists—all of it responds really quickly.

  • Better screen. What you see on the display itself also looks extra spiffy. HD model owners, of course, get the most pixels. For them the clarity is remarkably crisp. Non-HD owners get a pixel boost too, compared to last year’s model. Everyone sees less glare.

  • Bigger real estate. The difference between 7 and 8.9 inches may sound minimal, but it gets you a noticeably larger amount of display area to work with. For those looking to push their Fire into laptop-replacement duty (working on slideshows and reports, reading PDFs, composing long emails), the extra space can be a big help.

  • Louder, crisper sound. You know that dinky, tinny sound that most portable gadgets emit? The Fire projects in a loud, clear voice. Thanks to a pair of stereo-capable, Dolby-powered speakers, the sound is pleasant, audible, and perfectly adequate for entertaining pals at a picnic table. (Non-HD owners don’t get the extra Dolby sweetness.)

  • Longer battery life. The numbers differ a bit for each model—the 7-inch non-HD model goes for about 9 hours, its HD cousin goes for about 11 hours, and the 8.9-inch models top out around 10 hours—but they all extend the original model’s lasting power by at least an hour.

  • Quicker downloads. Souped-up antennas deliver bits from Internet to device pronto. New, less cluttered flavors of WiFi (5 GHz) now complement the standard 2.4 GHz band on all the HD models.

  • More storage. This one’s especially useful for the HD models, where a couple of movies and a few pixel-rich games can easily occupy 6, 8, or 10 GB. The operating system and assorted administrative files alone require another 2-plus GBs. The starter level in HD-land is 16 GB; you can pony up extra to bump that up as high as 64 GB.

  • More connection options. In addition to the existing USB connector, the Fires now come with a few ultra-handy new ways to slurp down content and connect with other gadgets. Bluetooth is the biggie. With this popular wireless technology, you can use an external keyboard or send tunes to a speaker. HDMI is great for connecting to living room TVs and entertainment centers. Road warriors can use the 4G/LTE cellular capability on the 8.9-inch model to surf the Web, do email, and chat even when they’re not near a WiFi signal.

  • Video camera. An entirely new arrival, the front-facing video camera on the HD models makes video chats possible (and complimentary, thanks to a deal Amazon cut with Skype, the popular Internet messaging company). The lens does double duty as a still camera for apps programmed to use it.

Even more important than these physical changes, Team Fire did a big refresh on the software front. They’ve added media features and even improved how the device runs.

  • Operating system overhaul. The Home (main) screen has been simplified. Items you’ve most recently used sit side-by-side in an easily swipeable carousel. Favorites, which can include apps, websites, and ebooks, can be summoned at a tap.

  • Photos. Getting your pictures onto the original Fire was a frustratingly multi-step affair. No longer. Your Facebook photos are now just a couple of taps away, and the pictures you store on Amazon’s increasingly useful Cloud Drive show up instantly.

  • Reading and viewing extras. Amazon’s X-Ray service is a nifty example of how a subsidiary-owning conglomerate can thoughtfully improve how you read books and watch movies. For ebooks, X-Ray lets you see a visual guide to where a book’s characters and key places occur. (That trick comes courtesy of Shelfari, an online book-reading service run by Amazon.) You can quickly pull up actor profiles in many movies thanks to a similar link to the IMDb entertainment encyclopedia.

  • Syncing. Amazon’s Whispersync service is now almost five years old. If you have a Kindle, you may already rely on it. This feature keeps track of your position in a book, making it easy to start on your BlackBerry during the commute to work, pick up on your office PC during lunch, and finish the day using a Kindle in bed. Now the same feature is available for audiobooks and games, so you can keep track of how many levels you’ve conquered—even if you delete and later reinstall a game. Whispersync keeps track of your progress even when you switch between audio and Kindle book editions.

  • Immersion reading. Speaking of audio and ebooks, here’s another cool new feature. Pony up a few extra bucks, and you can listen to a professionally recorded audiobook while the ebook text gets highlighted as it’s read. Amazon even claims this kind of so-called bi-modal reading improves comprehension.

  • Kid control. The official name for this new feature is FreeTime. That is, you, the parent can now enjoy guilt-free time while your darlings use your Fire in tightly controlled ways. Set up specific profiles for each Fire user, and from there you can choose how much time they each get for app playing, book reading, and so on.

Under the Fire’s Hood

Making all this happen is a combination of hardware and software that matches the Fire’s exterior: simple and sufficient to get the job done. Storage size ranges from 8 GB (on the 7-inch non-HD model) all the way up to 64 GB for the most capacious 8.9-inch model.

The screen is a 16-million-color IPS display. That’s short for in-plane switching, which means that even if you’re not looking directly at the Fire, what’s on the screen still looks clear. In other words: Two kids in the back seat of a car both get a decent view of the movie.

Most significant is the underlying software. The Fire runs on the Google-designed and freely available Android operating system version 4 (nicknamed Ice Cream Sandwich, for those keeping score at home). But you’d never know it if you compared the Fire to one of the other Android-powered tablets out there—Amazon made all sorts of custom changes. You’ll read about the details in the pages ahead, but in effect, Amazon laid an easy-to-operate topcoat of its own design over the basic Android framework. Amazon gets its base layer of programming for free, but you benefit as well, given that many Android apps are playable on the Fire.

About This Book

Tucked alongside the Fire and its power cord is a playing card–sized “getting to know your Kindle” guide. It’s enough to usher you onto the home screen, where you’ll find a bare-bones User’s Guide—the kind that covers a headline–only list of features, without telling you much about which ones are most worth your time. This Missing Manual, then, is the book that should have come in the box. In the pages ahead, you’ll learn about all the Fire’s nooks and crannies. But what’s more valuable, you’ll find out which apps and options work best and which items are still works in progress. You’ll also get real-world counsel on how to beef up the Fire’s still-developing talents with third-party apps.

About the Outline

The book is divided into five parts, each containing a handful of chapters. Everything’s arranged to help you get the most out of the Fire’s key talents, from reading and watching to staying in touch and using apps. You’ll find it helpful to start with Chapter 1 for a quick tour of the Fire’s parts and navigation. After that, read the chapters in any order you like—page-specific cross references point you to related material you’ll need to understand any explanation. What follows is a highlight reel of what each part contains:

  • Part I. The first chapter explains what you need to know about how the Fire organizes its contents and how to operate its touchscreen controls. Reading (and Listening to) Books (Chapter 2) tells the story of every Kindle’s main talent; it’s also where audio books are covered. The Newsstand (Chapter 3) is next, with coverage on finding, buying, and reading magazines and newspapers (both plain-text editions and multimedia-powered app versions). Documents and Spreadsheets (Chapter 4) is primarily for Microsoft Office fans—be they businesspeople or students—but it’s also where you’ll learn how to do things like read PDF files and load the Fire with ebooks that don’t come from Amazon.

  • Part II. That beautiful screen you’re holding is ready to show off beautiful images—moving and still alike. Watching TV and Movies (Chapter 5) introduces you to the ever-growing commercial lineup that Amazon offers, ready for display not just on the Fire, but also on your computer and network-ready TV. For your own version of showtime, Photos and Home Videos (Chapter 6) gives you the scoop on getting your own pictures and movies onto the small screen. Listening to Music (Chapter 7) covers more than just buying and playing the 20 million songs Amazon now sells. You’ll also find out how to import any existing iTunes or Windows Media Player collections you have, as well as the kinds of apps you’ll need to play podcasts and even real radio.

  • Part III. The Fire’s WiFi connection is ready to do more, of course, than just buy books and songs and movies. Email, Contacts, and Calendar (Chapter 8) explains how to get the most out of three apps that ship with the Fire, and Browsing the Web (Chapter 9) sets you up with Silk, Amazon’s homemade Internet explorer.

  • Part IV. The hundreds of thousands of special purpose programs—apps, as they’re commonly called—that have revolutionized the software industry and filled our virtual skies with Angry Birds are available, or coming soon, to your Fire. Amazon’s set up a special store (the Appstore for Android) where it vets each submission to make sure it’s Fire-compatible. The chapters here—Playing Games (Chapter 10), Creative Corner (Chapter 11), and Managing Time, Tasks, and Travel (Chapter 12)—distinguish the best from the rest, in an effort to help you spend your app budget wisely.

  • Part V. Three brief, back-of-the-book help guides. The first (Settings [Appendix A]) guides you through every option in the buried-deep control room of that same name. The second (Troubleshooting and Maintenance [Appendix B]) lays out a half dozen or so remedies to the most common Fire ailments and lists links to some helpful advice and support sites. Appendix C explains how to sign up for the 4G/LTE service on the 8.9-inch model as well as a few other features reserved just for the big screen Fires.

About→These→Arrows

In order to keep the navigational pointers in this, as well as every Missing Manual, concise, we’ve adopted a simple shorthand for pointing out how to burrow through menu or button hierarchies. Rather than slowing you down with a cumbersome series of instructions—Tap the middle of the screen to summon the Options bar; on it, tap the Menu button and, from the row that pops up above it, touch Send—a series of arrows helps more efficiently convey that info, like so: Options bar→Menu→Send.

About MissingManuals.com

This book is loaded with web links. If you’re reading the print edition, sure, you can type in each address every time you want to visit an online pointer. Why not, though, bookmark the Missing CD page for this title (www.missingmanuals.com/cds/firemm2e)? There you’ll find a list of every link mentioned within these pages.

The Missing CD page also offers corrections and updates to the book. To see them, click the View Errata link. You’re invited to submit corrections and updates yourself by clicking “Submit your own errata” on the same page. To keep this book as up to date and accurate as possible, each time we print more copies, we’ll make any confirmed corrections you’ve suggested. Or go directly to the errata page at http://oreil.ly/T86x7K.

While you’re online, you can register this book at http://oreilly.com/register. Registering means we can send you updates about the book, and you’ll be eligible for special offers like discounts on future editions of Kindle Fire HD: The Missing Manual.

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