Two years ago, Amazon's first Kindle Fire was a popular tablet. But let's be honest: apart from a tempting price tag, it didn't really hold a candle to higher-end rivals like the iPad. Fast-forward to today, and Amazon has managed to merge budget pricing with hardware that, in some ways, is actually superior to its competitors from the high-rent district. Join Gizmag, as we review Amazon's best tablet to date, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9".
Amazon delivers the goods
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Pick up the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9", and the first thing you'll notice is how ridiculously light it is. It's so light it almost feels like a children's toy (in a good way). And at 374 g with an 8.9-in display, it strikes a terrific balance between screen size and weight.
The HDX 8.9 is big enough to be considered a large-display tablet, as it gives you 79 percent as much screen area as the iPad Air. Yet it's nearly as light as much smaller slates, weighing just 13 percent more than the Retina iPad mini. If you've been torn between the perks of large and small tablets, then the Fire HDX 8.9 combines the best of both worlds better than any other tablet out there.
The HDX has a plastic body, with a matte finish that feels pretty solid and comfortable in hand. The back has an angular shape, with a thicker center sloping down towards thinner edges. This makes it easy to get a good, firm grip on any of the sides.
Amazon also switched its power and volume button placement this time around, so that they sit near where your hands typically rest while holding it in landscape mode. The buttons in older Kindle Fires were planted in awkward and puzzling spots, so the new placement is a definite improvement in that department.
You might expect such a light tablet to have a lot of compromises on the inside. While the tablet's software is somewhat limited (more on that in a minute), its hardware most definitely isn't. In addition to that feathery build and fairly large screen, the Fire HDX 8.9 gives you stellar display quality and cutting-edge performance.
The HDX 8.9 has one of the best displays I've seen on any mobile device. It's extremely sharp, with 2,560 x 1,600 resolution that measures out to 339 pixels per inch. That's 30 percent more pixels than the iPad Air gives you, packed into a 21 percent smaller screen. Brightness, color range, and color accuracy are all terrific as well. There was no skimping here: the HDX 8.9 has an incredibly crisp, clear, and vivid display. It really pops.
Last year's model, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, had a good display for its time. But its performance was uneven, giving you just enough lag to feel like something was a bit off. With the new HDX 8.9 that goes out the window. I didn't run into a single performance issue. That shouldn't be a surprise, considering its quad core Snapdragon 800 is easily some of the fastest mobile silicon around. But it's still nice to see real-world use live up to expectations. Everything is zippy, fluid, and buttery-smooth.
Battery life is outstanding as well, and in the same long-lasting echelon as Apple's latest iPads. In our standard test, where we stream video over Wi-Fi (with brightness at 75 percent) the Fire HDX 8.9 lasted almost exactly ten hours. That's a terrific result for any mobile device, but it's even more impressive when you consider how light and thin the HDX is. With normal – or even heavier than normal – use, you should have no concerns whatsoever about lasting a full day.
If the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 gives you any reason to hesitate, it's in its software. Like with older Kindle Fires, Amazon's custom Android skin (now dubbed "Fire OS") doesn't have any Google services on board. So if you're looking for official apps for Gmail, Google Now, Google Maps, Chrome, Hangouts, Google Play Music, and so on, then this isn't the tablet for you. Most Android tablets ship with those services baked in, and the iPad's App Store has official apps for all of them as well. The Kindle Fire family doesn't.
Apart from the complete lack of Google software, the Kindle Fire's app selection is very solid, but far from amazing. Since the Fire OS is built on top of Android, many developers simply port their Play Store tablet apps into the Amazon Appstore. But for whatever reason (laziness? loyalty to Google?) many others don't. Amazon's Fire OS is a very solid and attractive platform with at least something serviceable in every important app category. But a versatile platform, with loads of options, it is not.
Yet it has improved. Amazon's Silk Browser, which I wasn't a fan of in previous generations, is now very smooth, stable, and fluid. Your home screen still shows a carousel full of giant icons for your recently-used apps and content, but now you can also swipe up from the bottom to see a traditional grid of apps. And tabs for basic categories like books, music, videos, newsstand, shop, and games all still live, quite conveniently, at the top of the home screen.
Amazon-specific content, as you might expect, is as good as ever. I think the Fire's Kindle app is the best version of the e-reading application on any platform, with a smooth UI and several fonts to choose from (all of which look outstanding on that display). Many movies and TV episodes from Amazon's Video library include Amazon X-Ray, which lets you get instant IMDB info for the actors on the screen at that moment. And if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you get a solid (not quite Netflix, but in the same ballpark) collection of streaming content without paying another dime. And now you can even download many of those videos for offline viewing.
The most innovative piece of the Fire OS puzzle is a new approach to customer service, called Mayday. Swipe down from the Fire's status bar, tap the Mayday button, and within seconds you'll be connected to an Amazon rep who can help you and answer questions about your device. Your Mayday rep is sitting in front of a webcam in some remote call center, and you see him or her in a little video chat box on your screen. You can see and hear your Mayday rep, but she can only hear you.
Your Mayday rep can even draw on your screen and, if you grant permission, control your device. So if you're stumped about, say, how to setup a new email account, your Mayday rep can open the email app and scribble arrows and circles on the screen (similar to a sports telestrator) to show you the ropes. The UI of Fire OS is very simple and straight-forward, but if you have little or no experience with technology, or are just new to Amazon's software, you have 24-7 on-device customer service just a button-push away.
I never actually needed the Mayday button, but I still wanted to take it for a spin, so I asked my wife to cook up a bogus request. She pressed the Mayday button, clicked a connect button to confirm, and within a few seconds a bearded man popped onto the lower-right portion of the screen. He politely introduced himself, asked what the problem was, and patiently listened as my wife pretended to not know how to download Candy Crush.
He explained how to get the game, step-by-step, even drawing on my screen. If I was really having trouble figuring out how to do this, his advice would have made it crystal clear, as he talked me through the process and circled the "Games" section at the top of the screen.
If learning the intricacies of a new device makes you feel like you're learning a foreign language, then the Mayday button can be a revolutionary feature. You don't have to Google it, you don't have to ask a tech-savvy friend about it, and you certainly don't have to take your device into a store. It's like a Genius Bar that you don't even have to leave your couch to visit. In fact, I'd say the Mayday button is the most innovative form of customer tech support since Apple's Genius Bar.
A tablet grandma could use
All of this combines to make the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (or its smaller 7-in counterpart) an excellent tablet for people who don't know much about technology – but who want to enjoy the perks of a tablet nonetheless. It may not have the most customizable or geek-friendly operating system, but it does give "regular folks" easy access to the things they're most likely to need. Apps, games, music, videos, books ... they're all clearly labelled on the home screen. If you're still unclear about something, a support rep can jump onto your device and show you the way. It's a tablet your grandma could use.
I'm used to devices that include Google services and allow for more customization, and it is a little hard to sacrifice those things when switching to the Fire HDX. But Amazon's Fire OS gives you very solid versions of all the tablet essentials. You have email, you have a web browser, you have an app store, and you have excellent content services. I wouldn't normally gravitate to something like Fire OS, but the hardware is so good that I can live with a weaker app selection and an operating system that has a narrower focus. Tablets are mostly about media consumption anyway, and the Fire OS unapologetically embraces that at the expense of the geekier stuff.
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is Amazon's best tablet yet, and easily one of the top tablets you can buy today. On a hardware level, it's far and away the best tablet value around. Its software isn't the most versatile, and its app selection could be better. But I think it's going to be enough for most customers. And the fact that the Kindle Fire's hardware and software have improved so much in the last couple of years? Well, that makes us very eager to see what Amazon has up its sleeve for its next round of tablets.
Gizmag recommends the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 for anyone who wants a basic media tablet wrapped in some of the best mobile hardware around. It's available now, starting at US$380 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi only version. Just remember that you'll need to throw down an extra $15 if you don't want ads ("Special Offers") on your lock screen. You can read more at the product page below.
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