Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (8.9-inch) review: Great, but perhaps too proprietary for some

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Not content to cede the high-end tablet market to the likes of Apple and Samsung, Amazon stepped up its game late this year with the unveiling of the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX. With the release of the new Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon made a lot of improvements over the previous generation Fire tablet. But are the improvements enough to compete with the big boys? Read on to find out. 

Design and build

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The new 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX measures 231mm x 158mm x 7.8mm and weighs just 374 grams for the Wi-Fi version and 384 grams for the 4G versions. I’ll get to the screen in a bit, but for now I want to talk about the build of its rear casing. Amazon did an exceptional job with the look and feel of the HDX. Its rear is made of a soft matte plastic and it’s great to handle. It’s also pretty much scratch resistant, and feels like can take more of a beating that the aluminum back of the iPad Air.

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The back has angular chamfers helping give the tablet a “techie” look and also allows the bezel to be thinner as the bulk of the center slopes downwards near the tablets edges. By their nature, tablets are orientation agnostic, but the placement of the Amazon logo infers the company wants you to hold the HDX in landscape mode—something that seems counter-intuitive.

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However in this mode the only two physical buttons on the device reside in their most natural feeling places. The volume buttons are on the back right, while the power button is on the back left. It’s nice that Amazon moved these buttons to the back, instead of trying to fit them into the sides of the HDX, which would have required the tablet be thicker. When held in portrait mode, however, the volume and power buttons seem misplaced, and I found my fingers missing them all the time. 

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Besides the two buttons, the only other physical interfaces the HDX has are the microphone jack and the mini-USB port. There is no microSD card slot, so expanding its storage is out – just as it is on the Nexus 10, Nexus 7 and iPad line. The rear top of the device is covered in a glossy black plastic that houses the Wi-Fi antenna, the speakers, and the rear camera and flash. 

Screen

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And now we get to the screen. Amazon didn’t skimp on the 8.9-inch IPS LCD, giving the HDX a 2560 x 1600 pixel display with a pixel density of 339 ppi. The quality of the display allows the HDX to show 100% of the sRGB gamut, something Amazon says is “perfect colour accuracy.”

Both the viewing angles and the colors displayed looked terrific whether I was viewing photos, reading a book, or surfing the web. But the thing is, sometimes when I was reading a book I would notice a slight blue “bleed” around the edges of the screen. This is because Amazon chose to use blue LED lights instead of white ones. They did this in order to maintain the tablet’s battery life. From an engineering perspective, I can see why they did it. Most people won’t notice it anyway – and even if you do, the effect is hardly a deal breaker.

As for touch responsiveness, the touchscreen performed as well as the touchscreen on any iPad I’ve ever used. This is as much thanks to the technology in the touch panel as it is to Amazon getting the touch interface elements of its Fire OS just right.

Performance

Inside the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX you’ll find a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a Adreno 330 GPU. That’s pretty much as good as it gets as of Q4 2013.

I’m a firm believer in the adage that raw processing power inside mobiles and tablets don’t matter nearly as much as companies would like you to believe. For the most part, raw processing power specs are all marketing. What matters is how well the company has optimized the software to take advantage of the hardware. Apple has done this exceptionally well with iOS, which is why it can rely on often far less RAM and still perform better than its Android competitors that have more memory or processing power.

All that being said, performance should be based on real-world usage: how quickly the tablet boots up, how fast apps launch, et cetera. In my real-world usage testing, the HDX performed exceedingly well. There was hardly a delay between touching an app’s icon and seeing it launch. Web pages loaded fast and there was no stuttering in 1080p video playback, or any kind of lag when I was scrubbing through the video. Make no mistake, Amazon has a speedy tablet on its hands here.  

Software, Content and OS

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Ah, the software. This is where we get into the meat and bones of what makes the Kindle Fire HDX so different than other Android tablets. The Kindle Fire HDX runs Amazon’s proprietary Fire OS. Specifically, the version that ships on the Kindle Fire HDX is Fire OS 3.0 ‘Mojito.’

Now, The Kindle Fire HDX is an Android tablet. Fire 3.0 runs on top of a custom Android Jelly Bean build. But Amazon being Amazon has discarded most of what Android users will recognize about the OS in favor of having their own, unmistakably unique ecosystem. 

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Coming from an iOS background I was actually surprised how quickly I took to the new Fire OS. It’s got a nice UI, a Carousel sits at the top of the screen with your most recently used or viewed apps and media in it. Below the Carousel you can pull up any of your apps quickly in Grid View. It’s actually a really great layout. 

Also, at the top of the screen you’ll see a textual menu giving you quick access to all of your games, book, apps, videos, magazines, photos, and, of course, Amazon’s store. Tapping on any of these links will show you all your content in two different sections: “On Device” and “Cloud.”

These two sections exemplify how much Amazon believes its cloud services will be the future of consumers’ digital lives. It’s a smart move an Amazon’s part—as it builds consumer shopping loyalty and also creates lock-in for a user as Amazon wants all their digital content in one place: on Amazon’s servers. In other words, Amazon wants to build an Apple-style ecosystem, but with the added benefit of being able to offer anything a person might ever need to buy—not just digital content.

But the complete integration of all Amazon’s services could actually end up biting the Kindle Fire HDX in the butt. I understand the company is trying to lock people into an ecosystem, but Amazon is doing this by eschewing the best of what Android has to offer in favor of it’s own, inferior offerings.

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The biggest example of this is that those using the Kindle Fire HDX have no access to the Google Play store and its hundreds of thousands of apps. Make no mistake, Amazon’s Appstore offers a decent selection of apps, having most of the popular ones (Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds), but what it lacks are any official Google apps, like Maps, Gmail, and YouTube. You can’t even download Chrome on the HDX, instead you are to use Amazon’s Silk browser, which, while a fully competent web browser, lacks the many features that make Chrome one of the best browsers on any device.

UK users will also be disappointed to learn that the only UK video on demand app available is BBC’s iPlayer. There’s no 4oD, Demand 5, or ITV Player. 

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However, one cool software feature of the Kindle Fire HDX is its “Mayday” button. Swipe down from the top of the screen and tap “Mayday” and within 15 seconds you’ll be video conferencing with a live Amazon employee who can help talk you through any questions you have about your Kindle Fire HDX, and help you troubleshoot problems if you’re having any.

Mayday is available twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, and it’s completely free. Also don’t worry if it’s 2 AM, you’re in your boxers, and you need help. When you Mayday with an Amazon employee you can see them but they can never see you. Mayday isn’t just about audio and video help either, the Amazon Tech on the other end can actually take over your device if you give them permission, so they can quickly check your settings and show you how to perform a specific task.

With Mayday and a great UX in the form of Fire OS, Amazon has implemented a lot of interesting software features, making the HDX an ideal choice for the first time tablet buyer. However, Fire OS could be too proprietary for some—especially those who uses Google and Apple’s services religiously. 

Storage and Cameras

The 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX features a 1.3MP, 720p front-facing camera for video calls via Skype. It also allows you to record 720p HD video too. The rear camera offers a lot more, including a flash, an 8 MP sensor with an f/2.2 aperture, and electronic image stabilization. Neither setups are bad for a tablet, but I would actually like to see Amazon (and others) make the front facing camera better than the rear facing one for a change. Tablet users, unlike smartphone users, use the front facing camera more often than the back. 

As for storage the Kindle Fire HDX comes in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB models. There is no expandable storage on the HDX, so make sure you buy a size that is going to give you enough space for the life of the tablet. The only people who should ever buy a 16GB tablet are those using it only for web browsing and email. If you’re into media like movies, games, and magazine, you’ll find the bare minimum you need is 32 GB — and even that can quickly fill up.

Wireless connectivity and other sensors

Amazon built the HDX with all the latest wireless offerings. Bluetooth 4.0 comes as standard, as does dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi (MIMO+HT40), with full support for 802.11a/b/g/n. All models come with the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. If you opt for the 4G model, you also get, of course, 4G HSPA+, HSDPA, Vodafone wireless, and EDGE/GPRS fallback support, as well as GPS. Other sensors include your standard ambient light sensor, accelerometer, and gyroscope.

Battery and power 

The Kindle Fire HDX has a built-in battery, which means you can’t easily replace it. Amazon says the average “mixed-use” user will get 10 hours of life per full charge. “Mixed-use” is a sketchy phrase as everyone uses their tablet differently. If you’re only surfing the web or watching video, you could get up to 12 hours. Look for an 18-hour battery life if you’re just reading eBooks (but again, if you’re just reading eBooks, go with the Kindle ereader).

In my tests of playing video, recording video, surfing the web, playing games, and Skyping, the HDX I used averaged a good 9+ hours. Amazon includes a Kindle PowerFast power adapter in the box for wall charging. The name “PowerFast” is a bit ironic, however, as the HDX takes over four hours to charge fully. You can also charge it via USB with the included microUSB cable.

Conclusion

I’m torn about the 8.9–inch Kindle Fire HDX. It’s an exceptionally well-designed tablet with a great OS. However, because of the proprietary nature of the Fire OS, it locks people out of a lot of the great things about Android. It also locks them out of the Google Play store.

I wouldn’t get the Kindle Fire HDX for myself (I’m an iPad guy, and this is in no way as good as an iPad). However, I would buy the Kindle Fire HDX for someone who lives and breathes and buys everything through Amazon. I’d also consider getting it for an elderly grandparent or someone who is not techie at all because the Mayday feature would mean they could get help with it any time of day or night. 

I’m also sorry to say the Kindle Fire HDX is a non-starter for anyone who uses Google’s services heavily. Giving a Google power user a Kindle Fire HDX would be like giving a thirsty person a cup for water and then cutting off the water supply.

To get around these drawbacks, all Amazon needs to do is allow access to the Google Play store. Sadly, that’s something I don’t see them doing. It’s a shame too, because the Kindle Fire HDX really is a good tablet. 

The Wi-Fi only model with “special offers” (i.e. ads) costs £329, £369, and £409 for the 16, 32, and 64 GB models, respectively. Add £10 on top of those prices to get rid of the ads. The Wi-Fi and 4G model with “special offers” costs £399, £439, and £479 for the 16, 32, and 64 GB models, respectively. Just like the Wi-Fi only models, add £10 on top of those prices to get rid of the ads.

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