How good is Amazon’s new Kindle Fire really?

September 19, 2012, 7:10 PM UTC

FORTUNE — When the first Kindle Fire arrived last year, some critics and users were quick to judge. The hardware could have been faster and better designed, the software less spastic. And where were the volume buttons?

Fast-forward a year or so and there’s a slew of new Kindles to buzz over. The first to arrive, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, is entirely new. Weighing in at 14.6 ounces, this tablet keeps that stealthy all-black scheme, but it’s now wider and squatter. Instead of shrinking, the black borders around the screen are larger, some would say unnecessarily so. The corners and back are more rounded. That’s mostly a good thing, as it’s easier to hold for longer periods of time.

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Newer tablets seem to be adopting quad-core processors, but Amazon (AMZN) chose instead a dual-core Texas Instruments’ CPU here, along with 16 GB of storage, 1GB of RAM, Bluetooth, a gyroscope, a new set of built-in Dolby Digital Plus audio speakers, and dual WiFi antennas that CEO Jeff Bezos says translates to faster download speeds and more consistent reception. The display has been streamlined to reduce glare.

We spent a week with the Kindle Fire HD in tow, and  found it to be a significant improvement over last year’s version all-around. For the most part, it feels like the hardware has caught up with software. Apps, books, videos and other media opened faster. Images are brighter and sharper on this new display, though in most cases, you still won’t be able to read comfortably in the sun. As for those Dolby speakers? They’re the loudest we’ve ever heard on any tablet: lacking in bass, but sharp and clear.

Amazon’s software, a heavily customized version of Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system, still resembles a book shelf, with a carousel-like row of recently browsed media to swipe through. But in lieu of a bottom row of favorited media, the row is now context-sensitive, changing based on the piece of media at the forefront of the carousel. If a book is highlighted, then the row below reveals several other works “Customers Also Bought.” It’s smart — certainly another way for Amazon to potentially boost its sales even more via recommendations — but  keeping the ability to somehow pin your favorite apps to the homescreen would have been useful. And for those wondering, the newest version of Amazon’s Silk Browser is reportedly 30% to 40% faster. Anecdotally, we noticed Web sites loading faster, but not as fast as Chrome on other Android tablets or on Apple’s (AAPL) iPad.

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Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet may be a big improvement on last year’s model, but there are some issues holding it back. The display may be sharper and brighter, but the tablet didn’t always respond to our touch. (Opening a book for instance, sometimes required two or three taps.) We also never reached the 11 hours of battery life Amazon has advertised — in the real world, it was more like 8.5. And we wish Amazon would include a power adapter in the box. Instead, that’s a $20 item owners have to buy separately, which shouldn’t have to be the case.

There’s also the question of what you’re using this for. Is it, as Bezos recently said, “the best tablet at any price?” No. Google’s Nexus 7 is lighter, priced similarly and better geared towards multitaskers, though it offers half the storage that Amazon does. And of course, if price isn’t an issue and you don’t mind the somewhat larger size, the iPad still can’t be beat where the union of hardware and software is concerned. But if you’re invested in the Amazon ecosystem, the Kindle Fire HD is one of the better mobile solutions for accessing it.