I had the first generation Kindle Fire and have used the Kindle Fire HD 7 for a few months. Both served me well and the increase in speed and flexibility afforded by the HD version made the upgrade investment worthwhile. I’ve had a few friends and colleagues ask me about the Fire and the “must-have” apps I would recommend, so I thought a blog post was in order.
I’m not going to discuss the Kindle vs. iPad vs. Nexus debate here; there are plenty of other places to find those rants online. It’s a debate that may never end because, like many tech issues, the answer often lies in your subjective view of the world. What works best for anyone given their wants and needs for a tablet and the budget they have available differs greatly. I will say that I leaned toward the Kindle initially because I’m deeply invested in the Amazon and Amazon Prime universe. The seamless integration of these services with a Kindle made it the right choice for me.
This post is about what to do with the Kindle Fire HD after you’ve moved past the decision and have the tablet in hand. Suggesting any apps are “must have” also is a sticky wicket, because that’s a very subjective list. Nevertheless, here are my favorites, so far, broken down by category. This is not the complete list of apps on my Fire. Also, note that a few require “sideloading,” which is an easy and safe undertaking. It is not the same thing as “rooting” your Fire. I’ve included a quick tutorial on sideloading at the end of this post. If I remember sideloading an app, I’ve noted that in the description. If it’s not noted, that means the app is available for download directly from the Amazon App Store, or I simply forgot that I sideloaded it! (Tech tip: Many of the apps listed here also work well on the first generation Kindle Fire.)
Amazon improved the built-in Silk browser with the HD version of the Fire, and its integration with Amazon’s online store makes it a good choice when you’re doing Amazon-centric web activities. But it still seems to lag a bit when compared to two other options you have and it won’t play Flash on websites that use it. I have Dolphin and Chrome installed on my KFHD. Both are available via sideloading. Dolphin has some neat features, including the ability to use gesture shortcuts to reach bookmarked sites. I’m a big fan of Google Chrome and use it on all of my devices. The biggest advantage is its speed and its ability to sync your bookmarks across all your devices. No matter what I’m using, I know I can open Chrome and find my bookmarks arranged the same way everywhere. (Tech tip: Some people find that turning off the “Accelerate page loading” option in Silk’s settings speeds up the browser. I found no noticeable difference and turned it back on.) (Tech tip: No matter what browser you use, sometimes links are hard to select on a small screen. Don’t forget about the pinch and zoom feature. Also, double-tapping on the screen zooms a page in. Just be careful not to hit a link while tapping. Double-tap again to zoom out.)
Because of my day job as a press secretary, I’m a bit of a news junkie. My morning routine includes using apps from USA Today, AP, NPR and BBC News. To access my Google Reader account, and more, I use Flipboard. I really like Flipboard’s ability to send news stories via email, post them to social media outlets, and share them to many other installed apps. (Tech tip: The screen layout and access to features sometimes changes on the news apps depending on whether your screen is in portrait or landscape mode. Be sure to turn the Fire and see which layout works best for you.)
I suppose weather falls under news, too. I use AccuWeather’s app. The Weather Channel app works well enough but I’ve gravitated toward AccuWeather more for its interface. The accuracy is comparable, so find the one you’re most comfortable with.
Having access to files throughout the day regardless of where I am or what device I have handy has proven incredibly useful. So, I’ve started to use “the cloud” for a lot of my file storage. That means that Dropbox is front and center on my list of productivity apps. I believe it’s a sideloaded app. You also can download the Evernote app from Amazon. If you aren’t using Dropbox or Evernote yet, you’re missing out on two of the best online, cloud-based products out there today.
No matter how much I love being paperless these days, I still find the need to jot down the random thought or phone number on a sticky note. The ColorNote app is what I use to bring the concept of sticky notes to my Fire.
I also recommend downloading the free Calculator Plus app. It turns your Fire into a great calculator, taking advantage of all the screen real estate to offer up giant buttons and a list of current calculations.
While you probably don’t want to write a thesis on a tablet, there are times when being able to read, edit and even draft documents on your Fire is a handy thing. OfficeSuite is a great app for that. There is a free version but I grabbed the pay version when it was on sale and it is a valuable app to have around. (Tech tip: the Fire HD has Bluetooth capabilities. That means you can sync up a wireless keyboard if you tire of using the on-screen one. I’ve yet to find one I liked well enough or increased my typing speed enough that it was worth keeping though.)
The Fire HD has a front-facing camera that’s designed for use with Skype, but you can do still photos with it, too. The trouble is the built-in way to handle still photography is a bit clunky. That’s where an app like Photo Editor has proven useful from time to time.
If you’re a blogger in the WordPress ecosystem, the WordPress app is a useful addition to your Fire, as well.
As for email, which is the core of productivity for many of us, the Fire’s built-in mail program does a pretty job handling multiple accounts from multiple sources. I still have my office email on that app, but I found out I could sideload the Gmail app and I never looked back for that part of my email life.
Finally, think about downloading Skitch, a drawing app that is now brought to us by the good people at Evernote. The big advantage with using Skitch as your drawing and sketching app is its integration with Evernote.
The Fire does a great job helping me keep up with the social media side of my life. You should have the Facebook and Twitter apps on your Fire; I have found both to be more useful than the computer versions. I also use Hootsuite as my social media aggregator and the Kindle Fire edition is well done. There is no app yet for Google+; I’m generally accessing it via my Dolphin browser. Make sure you connect your Google+ account to your Flipboard account — then you can compose posts through that app. (Tech tip: The Google+ .apk is available for download, but after I sideloaded it I couldn’t get it to work properly. Perhaps, in time…which seems to be the story of the life of Google+ anyway.)
If you like movies and books, you’re going to love Amazon’s integrated system, especially if you’re a Prime member. And why not? Sure, it’s $80 a year, but besides streaming movies and TV shows, you can borrow one book a month instead of buying it and you get 2-day free shipping on a lot of products.
For other sources of TV, movies and music, the Roku app does a good job controlling your streaming player. Pandora’s app for the Fire is fantastic, too. A couple of apps that, combined, can help you find most of the radio stations and shows you might like to stream, are iHeart Radio and Tunein Radio. Both have free editions that work well; the paid version of Tunein Radio includes the ability to record what you’re listening to.
No matter how you get your movies, make sure it’s something you want to see before you stream or rent it by checking it out on the IMDB app for the Fire. It works very well.
I’m not sure if there is any area more subjective than games. After all, one man’s relaxing fun is another man’s annoying waste of time, right? Still, I thought I ‘d share a couple of games that have entertained me and my teenage kids for a while. These include a few of the Angry Birds versions, especially Angry Birds Space, Angry Birds Star Wars and Bad Piggies. For something a little more impressive for your high IQ friends, download the Scrabble app. You also might consider the Game of Life app if you want to bring family night games to the tablet instead of the table. (Tech tip: You can pinch and zoom on the Angry Birds screens to get a better view for aiming your weapons of fowl destruction.)
Of course it’s odd to talk about reading apps on an e-reader, but I do have one more suggestion that isn’t so much about the books but how to read them at night. With the Fire being a backlit reader, there are times that the screen is simply too bright to read with the lights off. (Those married folks among you will appreciate the need to read with the lights off as your spouse tries to sleep while you insist on “just finishing this chapter.”) A great solution to this problem is the ScreenDim app. It allows you to drop the screen’s brightness lower than the standard brightness setting does. You can save presets for quick access to different settings throughout the day, but I find that somewhat unnecessary. Plus, if it ‘s off, it’s not using your Fire’s computing power or battery. That’s why I usually just turn it on at night for bedtime book snacking. (Tech tip: You can try Auto Brightness on the Fire but it doesn’t seem to really keep up. I’ve found the same thing on my iPhone. That technology seems to lack true functionality on most devices. If you know the secret to making Auto Brightness work better, please share it with everyone in the comments section!)
Apps, Apps, Everywhere
There are many more apps available in all the categories listed above; I mentioned earlier that I was only highlighting some of my favorites. The list of all the apps on my Fire is too long to list in one blog post. Look for what you need and give it a try. If you don’t like it you can always delete it from your Fire. It’s no loss if it was a free app. If you shelled out a few bucks for an app and don’t like it, well, next time do what I do and research things thoroughly through the user reviews and outside sources on the Internet.
If you find some apps you consider a favorite, please share that information in the comments section. By working together, we’ll soon build an awesome compilation from many favorite lists.
You can sideload by downloading a file to your computer and then moving it to your Kindle via a USB cable. But it’s much simpler to sideload directly to your Kindle. To do so, download a file explorer app from the Amazon App Store. I use and recommend ES File Explorer. Once that’s installed, you need to head to your settings under “More,” then “Device.” Once there, change Allow Installation of Applications from the default of “off” to “on.” I tend to leave mine in the off position for security when I’m done sideloading, but that’s a personal preference. If you want to sideload an app, you then need to find the .apk file for it, which often is available at many sites online. After downloading the .apk file to your Kindle, you can find it in the Downloads folder by using ES File Explorer. Tapping on the file usually opens the installer and, voilà, you’re sideloading! (Tech tip: once you’ve installed the app, you don’t need the .apk file anymore. I move them to my Dropbox account so they’re quickly available if I need them, but they aren’t taking up space on my Fire.)