The New Kindle Fire HD

by Steve Kelley, CVRT

When you think about accessible devices--you know, computers, tablets, and gadgets with screen readers and magnification, you rarely consider low-cost, over-the-counter devices, like the Kindle Fire HD, do you? The tablet world of accessibility really has been dominated by the iPad, with Voiceover for a screen reader. With few notable exceptions, the iPad’s been bulletproof and worth the praise heaped on it. If you're comfortable with the Apple world, and the $400+ entry-level price for an iPad fits your budget--stop reading now! The iPad is a great choice for an accessible tablet!

On the other hand, if you're still reading, maybe accessibility features are new to you, you’re not sure a tablet will work for you, or perhaps you’re looking for an alternative that costs less? The latest version of Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, may be just the tablet for you!

screenshot of kindle accessibility screen

Why a Kindle Fire HD?

Here are some of the features worth your consideration:

  • The 7-inch Kindle Fire HD costs less than $50, the 8 inch is under $90!
  • The Kindle Fire HD has a screen reader called VoiceView-- Amazon's version of TalkBack
  • Screen Magnification is available with a triple tap in any application or app.

The bottom line here is that the Kindle Fire HD includes very usable accessibility, in an over-the-counter tablet for less than 50 bucks! Power up the Fire HD, go to the Accessibility Settings and turn on the VoiceView screen reader or the Screen Magnifier—there is no additional software to download or buy! In fact, users can turn on VoiceView from any screen, by holding down the power button, listening for the audible prompt, then touching the screen with two fingers, slightly apart.

Introducing the Newest Feature!

Wait, there's more! Drum roll please... In mid November, 2016, Amazon updated all the recent versions of the Kindle Fire HDs with Alexa, the personal, digital assistant previously only available on the Amazon Echo devices (Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot). So now, on the Kindle Fire HD, even those selling for under $50, press and hold the Home icon on the bottom center of the screen, and voila, Alexa is at the user's beck and call! Even a novice can put Alexa to work creating a shopping list or listening to the latest news podcasts.

What makes this so exciting for newcomers to tablet accessibility is that Alexa, as an app, brings a higher level of functionality to the Kindle Fire HD for new users, or users with little knowledge of tablets or accessibility. Frankly, regardless of whether you are a new user or not, Alexa is just fun to use!

Just like the Amazon Echo devices, the initial setup of Alexa, the digital assistant, is done through the Alexa app, which requires a user familiar with tablets or computers to configure. Once this is done, however, a novice user can locate the Home icon, touch and hold to initiate Alexa, and provide the basic verbal commands to interact with the tablet, "Alexa, set a timer for 3 minutes."

Here's a practical example, for reading an Audible audio book. An experienced user will first need to add the Audible "skill" (what Amazon calls the apps or voice commands Alexa can respond to). Once added, anyone can open the skill and have the book read by touching the Home icon and saying, "Read my book." It can be that easy!

screen shot of results of kindle alexa search for jon batiste recording

Likewise, some of these skills will enable novice users to get the time, weather forecast, podcasts, play music, create a shopping list, add something to the calendar, set a timer, and much more.

Kindle Fire Basic Features

Access to Alexa is really just icing on the Kindle Fire HD cake. Besides the recent addition of Alexa, the Kindle Fire HD is a full color tablet that starts at under $50 retail from Amazon, with the VoiceView screen reader and screen magnification built in.

What Else Can It Do?

The Kindle Fire HD is Amazon’s version of an Android tablet. Amazon calls their customized Android operating system, FireOS, and their screen reader VoiceView is very similar to Android’s TalkBack. For users already familiar with Android tablets and phones, the learning curve will be minimal.

One of the biggest differences between the Kindle Fire HD and a plain vanilla Android is that the Kindle Fire HD comes with plenty of built-in PR for Amazon products. The home screen is a virtual billboard for products, and it is so very easy to make purchases from Amazon using this device. In previous versions of the Kindle Fire, users could pay more for the tablet in exchange for less offers and advertising. That doesn’t seem to be an option on this latest version. Personally, the ads don’t bother me considering the deep discount of this tablet itself over competitors.

Useful Apps for Users With Visual Impairments

Like other tablets, basic applications or apps come pre-installed and others may be purchased or downloaded free from the Amazon AppStore, or at nominal cost. Of course, the Kindle Fire HD comes with the Kindle reading app, Email, Silk web browser, Audible Audio Books, Calendar, Contacts, Camera, Music, Shopping, Deals, and Newsstand, to name a few. It may be a bit heavier on the media and shopping apps than the other Androids, but there are more than enough apps to make it much more than a tool for shopping on Amazon.

Several easy-to-use apps, very handy for visually impaired users, like BARD Mobile, and Serotek’s Sero are free to download from the AppStore. BARD Mobile is used to download books from the Library of Congress Talking Books Library, and offers an interface that is nearly identical to that on the NLS Talking Book Player.

screen shot of bard app on kindle

Sero (formerly iBlink Radio), is a simple app used to connect to podcasts and national radio reading services. Either app is intuitive enough that a newcomer to tablet gestures could be up and running with minimal instruction. Somewhat more difficult to navigate, the OverDrive app connects with many local libraries to allow library patrons to download audio books, and electronic text formats such as ePub and Kindle books, on loan for several weeks at a time. Once the loan expires the book is disabled, unless renewed. For readers trying to get back to accessible books, these apps alone can really make a device like the Kindle Fire HD a great value!

That said, this Kindle Fire HD user is still waiting for a good Bookshare app to show up in the Amazon AppStore (Is anyone at Amazon reading this?) On the other Android tablets, both Darwin Reader and VoiceDream Reader integrate beautifully with a Bookshare subscription, and make it so easy to download and read books and magazines. No doubt there are advanced Kindle Fire HD users who have figured out a way to install these apps on the Fire. This lack of a DAISY reader (DAISY is the file format used by Bookshare for electronic text) might be reason enough for a dedicated Bookshare subscriber to consider another tablet, like a standard Android.

Braille users will be pleased to know that the Kindle Fire HD offers support for some braille displays using the free app, BrailleBack, available in the AppStore. Once installed, BrailleBack enables users to connect supported braille displays to the Fire with Bluetooth.

Just as you can with most other tablets, a keyboard may be paired via Bluetooth to make text input much easier. However, although the new Kindle has a microphone, it does not yet have dictation available from the keyboard, like you might find on the iPad and other Android tablets. Keyboard input using the screen reader on a tablet can be a challenge, and dictation makes it much easier.

How Does It All Stack Up?

The Amazon Kindle Fire HD has become a very accessible tablet over the years, with VoiceView for a screen reader, a Screen Magnifier, contrast adjustment, and color inversion settings. With the recent addition of Alexa from the Home button, it makes a very usable device for any user new to tablet technology (be sure to check out Brian Charlson’s demo of the Kindle Fire on Tek Talk). Is it in the same league as the iPad for integrated accessibility? Not yet.

With Alexa, solid accessibility, the Amazon ecosystem of support and products, and a very inexpensive entry price, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD makes a great value, and a terrific opportunity for newcomers to accessible tablets to see what everyone has been talking about. For the rest of us, the new Kindle Fire HD makes a great “excuse” to get a second tablet!

Additional Information

Using Your Kindle

Choosing the Right Device

The Fire TV with VoiceView from Amazon

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