By Adam B. Vary
Updated September 06, 2012 at 08:24 PM EDT
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

While Microsoft and Google have spent considerable time and resources taking aim at Apple’s dominance in the growing field of tablet computing, all three companies should be keeping a keen eye out for Amazon. The new economy behemoth announced an ambitious line of Kindle devices Thursday — including the Kindle Fire HD, with both 7-inch and 8.9-inch screens — setting them at highly competitive, loss-lead prices just as its competitors plan major roll-outs for their tablet devices. “We want to make money when people use our devices,” said Amazon chief Jeff Bezos at the special presentation in a Santa Monica, Calif. airline hanger. “Not when they buy our devices.”

With the company’s goal of driving users to its online marketplace made crystal clear, Bezos also announced a suite of enhancements to its content experience, including expanding its book store to include serialized novels; integrating audiobooks into the print reading experience; and a “FreeTime” feature that allows parents to delineate exactly how long their kids can read a book, play a game, or watch a movie.

EW got some hands-on experience with several of the new Kindles — here are the highlights:

Kindle PaperWhite

$119, and $179 for free 3G model (ships Oct. 1)

The impossibly thin and light device still features the touch-enabled, passive-display screen, but with much higher resolution — Bezos boasted 62 percent more pixels on the screen — and a new patented “Light Guide” designed to illuminate the screen from above to help reduce eyestrain. Adjusting the light is simple and quick, with just a slide of your finger on an intuitive gauge. But even with the light constantly on, the PaperWhite still gets eight weeks of battery life, plenty of time to blast through George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. The most impressive feature, though, may be “Time to Read,” a little notation at the bottom left of the screen that tracks how quickly you’re perusing your book and calculates how long it will take you to reach the end of the chapter (and the book itself). No more guessing about how long you have to go as you’re reading in bed.

Amazon also announced that its bare-bones regular Kindle will get a face-lift to reflect the new matte black casing, with a bit of a sharper screen, some new fontage, and a $10 price cut to $69. It ships Sept. 14.

Kindle Fire HD

7-inch screen with 16 GB memory, $199 (ships Sept. 14); 8.9-inch screen with 16 GB memory, $299 (ships Nov. 20); model with 4G LTE wireless, $499, and data plan that starts at $50 per year

Bezos spent the most time of the presentation lauding the new technology packed into the upgraded Kindle Fire, which he said already constitutes 22 percent of tablet sales since it was announced last year. Its screen, featuring 254 pixels per inch, has the touch sensor laminated onto its surface to reduce glare. The WiFi includes two bands, two sensors, and a new technology called MIMO that uses signal echoes to bolster the feed of information — Bezos said it makes the Kindle Fire HD 41 percent faster than the latest iPad.

With the Fire HD, Amazon clearly intends to make the most of its cloud storage capabilities and content partnerships. When you pause a movie, a window pops up listing every actor appearing in the given scene, with links to their IMDb resume, and the ability to select their other movies for later viewing. In case you move to another device, or upgrade to a new one, the Amazon cloud will remember wherever you’re at in your book, or movie, or game — no need to replay through Angry Birds every time you get a new Kindle.

With all that firepower, what is it like to use a Kindle Fire HD? I got to use the 7-inch model for about five minutes, and if you want to read a book or watch a movie, it’s deeply impressive. The screen is sharp and rich, and you’ll wonder why that IMDb integration hasn’t always been available for home viewing. But when I fired up Angry Birds Space, the load time was considerably longer than on an iPad, and I picked up some lag-time in the graphics — not something you want to have happen when you’re playing a game reliant on quick response time. I also detected a twinge of glitchy-ness when I flipped through some graphically intensive magazines.

Still, $199 is a helluva price-tag for a device packed with features we’d expect on a device at twice that price. At the very least, the world of tablet computing just got much more interesting, and that’s before Apple’s big product launch event next week.

Follow @adambvary

Read more:

Apple strongly hints iPhone 5 coming next week

Meet Google’s new tablet: The Nexus 7

A self-published Kindle sensation hits Hollywood

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