How I turned my Kindle Fire HD from a cash register and billboard into a good machine for an e-book lover
September 16, 2012 | 10:37 am
Granted, many readers might not object because the Web has inured them to obnoxious huckstery of just the kind that H.L. hated. And they won’t miss the apps now AWOL from the Fire’s marketplace, such as the OverDrive software to read free e-books from libraries, because they never used them in the first place.
But I myself do care. Unless the killjoys sabotage us, the fixes in this post will probably work with both the 7-inch model I bought for $199 and the 8.9-incher set for delivery in November in $299-$599 versions. Take heart, Amazon. If your basic hardware were crappy, I wouldn’t have spent half the weekend circumventing your atrocities.
Why am I sold on the hardware despite some rough spots such as an on-off switch and volume control designed more with aesthetics than practicality in mind? At a resolution of 1280 x 800, the screen on my Fire model is sharper than the one on Amazon’s first tablet. The colors are more vibrant for Netflix and Amazon movies. With an improved touch screen, the virtual keyboard is much more accurate. Text to speech is less robotic even if you’re stuck with only one voice, that of a young female. I enjoy hearing her, but a little variety, please. The stereo speakers are loud enough, a delightful aberration in the world of tablets; the results are closer to hi-fi than on my iPad 3.
Also, while lags show up at times, the new model is far, far speedier than the first one, and the WiFi is zippier, too. What’s more, the 16GB of storage matches that of a Nexus 7 going for $250 even if part of it is taken up with Ama-bloatware. Fixed with the right apps, the Fire might even make a decent library loaner for trusted and tech-savvy patrons.
I myself would have been willing to pay $50 or even $75 more for a Fire HD as open as a generic Android 4.0 machine; maybe its reading app could even read non-DRM’ed ePub files, natively. No philanthropy expected of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and friends. Amazon very smartly allowed the ads to be removed for $15 extra (another sneaky little cost beyond the $199—besides the $10 for a simultaneously purchased power charger). Some additional money-making opportunities here, via an open Fire option? Come on, Bezos. Do the right thing for consumers and shareholders alike. Am I right in thinking that Amazon may have set up the Fire HD so you can’t even download Opera Mini from the developers, not just the Google Play Store?
For those of us who want a good open e-book machine now, one possibility would be to root the Fire to get around various limitations Amazon has inflicted on us. But at least two major negatives exist here. First, you just might void your warranty. Second, what happens when Amazon updates its software? Will the rooting still work? In the context of older Fires—don’t count on the instructions applying to the new ones—see previously given rooting advice.
Alas, I must make clear that the fixes here are not necessarily without risks. But since no rooting occurs, you probably are safer than otherwise. One workaround without rooting would be to download the software from sites other than the Fire-banned Google Play Store. In fact, you can go directly to the OverDrive site and download this much-improved library app to your Fire without much fuss by following the instructions there. Trouble is, not all sites are as safe to download from as the OverDrive site is. So what’s the prescription? Just borrow a friend’s Android machine or use your own and, via a file-management program and the cloud-related Dropbox transfer utility, move the already-downloaded Play apps over to your Fire from the other machine.
I can’t give instructions for every situation, every device, but a techie friend should be able to help you if this is unfamiliar territory to you—check out ExtremeTech’s Five free Fire apps everyone should sideload. Also see the comments where readers contribute their own tips. While the piece is ten months old and while I’m not certain about all the software choices—I myself prefer Opera Mini over Dolphin Browser HD—the basic concepts here still apply.
1. Begin by pulling down the Fire’s settings menu with a download swipe from the top of the page, then tapping the plus sign and selecting Devices. Within the latter menu, allow for installations from unknown sources, so you’re no longer confined to downloading from Amazon and friends.
2. Use the Astro file manager, ES File Explorer or similar application on the other machine to extract the APK files, the installation packages for various apps. You can find them in the Google Play Store.
3. As attached files, email the APKs to your Fire.
4. Download them at the Fire end and click on them to begin the installation process—self-explanatory.
5. Consider a more streamlined approach: Instead of bothering to email every bleepin’ file, you can simply email the APK for Dropbox, which lets you move files from macine to machine. Dropbox will let you pick up files not in a directory associated with the application. Like the other apps mentioned here, Dropbox is in the Google Play Store.
6. Once the APKs show up in the Dropbox folder accessible from different machines, you can click on them to save them first, then begin the installation process.
But which programs to bring over to the Kindle? Not all but the overwhelming majority of my efforts were successful. Some specifics:
–I installed on my Fire the wonderful Moon Reader + Pro, a paid app that Amazon still lists in its marketplace. It doesn’t show up in Amazon App Store searches from the Fire HD and, when I access the store on my desktop, a circle with an X inside indicates that Moon won’t run on the HD. A nasty little lie? Perhaps something is eluding me and I’ll be up against calamities later on, but Moon Reader + Pro is terrific on my Fire HD—get it at the Google Play Store and transfer it to the Fire. The Play Store also offers a free version of Moon Reader. The pay version, at least—I don’t recall the situation with the free one—will even let you use the Fire’s text to speech. Coincidentally or not, Amazon seems especially keen on making it harder to catch up with TTS-capable programs.
–In the case of FBReader, the popular free program, which, like Moon Reader, is great with the nonproprietary ePub format, I confidently downloaded the APK directly from the developer’s site. Alas, the related TTS plug-in refused to install. Because Bezos apparently doesn’t want any text to speech running on his beloved Fire aside from the company blessed one-voice version? Come on, Jeff. Doesn’t your e-narrator have any sisters and brothers? And what about selling “Amy” and other voices from Ivona, which, at least in my opinion, is the leader?
–Picking up APKs from the other machine via Dropbox, I brought over Mantano (another speech- and ePub-capable reader—complete with DRM capabilities, so it can work with OverDrive books).
–Committing perhaps the ultimate sacrilege, I used the other machine to copy over the Kobo and Barnes & Noble e-reading apps. Speaking of Kobo apps, here are some related thoughts from David Goldfield, a blind accessibility-specialist.
–WattPad, the socially based e-book reader, worked fine—in fact, it’s even in Amazon’s own app store, not just Google’s Play Store.
–Surprise of surprises, when brought over from the other machine, Google Books didn’t install with the library showing up. Did Bezos’ people block the related IP address or addresses?
–To make it easier to download books from public domain sites and elsewhere, I installed the Opera Mini browser via the Dropbox method, Amazon very possibily having blocked the Opera site (I’m not sure). What a wretched creation is Silk—the Amazon-supplied browser! David Pogue, the veteran New York Times technology columnist, pegged Silk just right when he wrote in a column headlined The Fire HD: More Soot Than Sparks: “Some things take too many steps. You can’t open your bookmarks list from a Web page—only from the Starter screen of Web thumbnails, which takes four steps to reach.” By contrast, when I want access to the bookmarks within Opera Mini, I just tap on an arrow and a star and I see not just the existing choices but also a way to bookmark a new site.
I just hope Amazon isn’t dumb enough to take technical or other countermeasures against consumers with the nerve to want to own their hardware for real. If Jeff Bezos and friends do, perhaps Jon Stewart can invite Bezos on and have a little fun, parsing the absurdities of the Amazon worldview in regard to the Fire.
Meanwhile, even if they lose some functionality such as the ability to borrow from the Kindle Lending Library, perhaps Fire HD fans can try future versions of the CyanogenMod ROM now available for the older Fires.
Ideally, however, Bezos will stop being so infatuated with the idea of the Fires as a “service.” This is a low-key way of saying: “Yes, the service approach entices you by lowering the initial costs. But that isn’t all. We hate the idea of your owning something for real. Our goal is to control as much of your electronic existence as we can by limiting your access to apps. We couldn’t get away with zapping 1984 from your Kindle without people fuming against us, but maybe you’ll be dumb enough to ignore the ramifications of what we’re trying to do with the Fire.”
Mind you, I don’t fault Bezos alone in the megalomania-and-control department.
Google, for example, perhaps with cloudy ambitions in mind, deprived the Nexus 7 of a memory slot; and of course, we already know about Apple’s allergy toward the same. But to me, Bezos’ control mania surpasses Google’s, approaching that of the late Steve Jobs’. Jobs is still the champ. At least so far—fingers crossed—Amazon hasn’t disabled the Fire’s ability to accept apps not blessed by Bezos. Do Google’s Android people have a requirement against this? If not, can they add one?
All right: I know I’ve been hard on Bezos and friends. Call it tough love. Although a small Google shareholder, I’ve felt the same in regard to the Book Settlement that the Do No Evil boys wanted.
My concerns notwithstanding, I respect Amazon’s passion for innovation (and I truly, truly approved of the Department of Justice’s antitrust suit against the biggest publishers, whether or not Amazon benefited; the law is the law). I’m not asking for anyone to boycott Amazon, a futile act given the popularity of the company’s offerings.
Rather, as a long-time customer who over the years has bought thousands of dollars of merchandise through Amazon, from an HDMI splitter to vanilla extract, I am calling on Bezos to be more responsive to my needs and those of the many people like me. I’d rather that openness be an integral part of all Fires. But if not, it should at least be an option for customers willing to pay extra. Hey, Bezos: I’ve got better ways to spend my weekends than messing with Dropbox and APK transfers!
Note: I may be tweaking this post. Feel free to offer corrections or suggest clarifications or other additions.
Update: Without messing with Google Play or a transfer from another machine, you can get the ES File Manger at SlideMe or Freewarelovers, notes Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader. Thanks, Nate. I’ll welcome other people’s relevant pointers.
Meanwhile, as a fan of the Kindle Chronicles blog and podcast, I’ll recommend Len Edgerly’s in-depth coverage of the the new Fire, complete with a YouTube illustrating the reading and listening experience, including the use of Audible books. I myself appreciate the progress but hope that Amazon will improve the speech synthesis capabilities—a different issue from Audible, of course—to include more and better voices.