The new Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 tablet is the very definition of an update: It’s the exact same design, size and weight as the last product, with almost all the changes found under the hood, and especially, in the software.
This isn’t a bad thing. By dint of an increasingly robust ecosystem, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is an excellent, more affordable alternative to Apple’s top-of-the-line iPad Air 2.
Light and thin
At 13.2 ounces, the magnesium-alloy-bodied Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is noticeably lighter than the aluminum iPad Air 2, which weighs in at just under a pound. The Kindle Fire HDX is actually a smaller tablet than the Air 2, which isn’t too surprising given the iPad’s larger screen. It’s 9.1 x 6.2 inches, while the Air is 9.4 x 6.6 inches. Apple’s iPad Air 2, however, holds the thinness crown. It’s 0.24 in thick, while the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is 0.3 in.
On a practical level, the weight and thickness differences don’t add up to much. Both devices are light and attractive, though I still prefer Apple’s cool aluminum body and cleaner lines to the Kindle Fire’s slightly geometrically shaped back.
If you’ve never seen or held a Kindle Fire HDX (7 or 8.9 inches), you are in for a treat. It feels good and smooth and has just two buttons: Power/Sleep and a volume rocker. They’re both on the back, one on the left edge and one on the right. Kindle’s home “button” is software-based and you can access it at any time by sweeping your finger from just outside the right edge of the screen. Personally, I prefer the iPad Air 2’s physical home/touch ID button, which sits on the face of that device.
Amazon put the stereo speakers on the back of the device, but since the back is not flat, even placing the device on a table doesn’t block them. Backed by Dolby Atmos technology, these speakers offer somewhat more oomph than those on the iPad Air 2, which you can still easily block when holding that tablet in your hands.
Like the Air, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 has two cameras, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 720p selfie/Skype camera on the front. The rear camera is a clear improvement over the last Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. Images are sharper and more color-correct, though I did detect a bit more grain than I’d like. The iPad Air 2’s 8MP iSight camera still outdoes it, though, on clarity and color.
Amazon packed more power into its fourth-generation Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. It now boasts a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon CPU; the last generation Snapdragon ran at around 2.2GHz. This sounds impressive, especially since, based on my Geekbench 3 tests, the iPad Air 2’s A8X chip only runs at 1.5GHz and has just three cores. Oh, but those numbers can be deceiving.
When I ran the same Geekbench test on the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, I found that the iPad Air 2’s multicore scores were significantly higher than those of the Fire HDX. This is one of the reasons Apple rarely publishes its exact component specs: they’re too misleading.
The reality is that performance with both tablets across a wide variety of tasks, including watching movies, console-level and casual gaming, and photo editing was great. The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 did not miss a beat.
Like Apple, Amazon spent some time enhancing its screen. The Kindle Fire HDX screen now boasts 2,560 x 1,600 resolution, or 339 pixels per inch (ppi). The iPad Air 2 is 264ppi. Amazon also claims full sRGB color accuracy. Looking at both Apple’s Retina display and the Amazon’s screen, it’s hard to see the difference. What I did notice, though, is that the iPad Air 2’s fully laminated screen has a bit more contrast and, in some cases (in comic books, for example), is actually slightly shaper than the Kindle. The iPad Air 2’s screen is also less reflective.
None of this is to say the HDX 8.9 screen didn’t look good. It does. I enjoyed watching movies, playing games and reading books, magazines and comics on it.
It’s all about the ecosystem
One of the great benefits of owning an Amazon Fire Phone, Fire TV, upcoming Fire TV Stick, e-reader or Kindle Fire tablet is that they are all part of an ever-widening ecosystem.
Books, movies, music and apps you buy are available on all other supported platforms, and soon with your whole family when Amazon launches “Family Library” later this year. Photos taken with any of the devices can end up in Amazon’s cloud; you can put as many of them up there as you want, provided they were taken with one of Amazon’s devices.
The interface, now Fire OS 4 (built on top of Android 4.4 “KitKat”), is largely consistent across devices. Amazon pushes Android pretty far down in favor of a smartly designed, carousel-style home screen.
Up top are large icons representing recently accessed items. If you just used the Camera, it will sit beside Mail, and Angry Birds: Star Wars II, a copy of the New Yorker, various books you’re reading and whatever else you’ve recently accessed. Below that is a more or less disorganized grid of everything you have installed on the tablet. You can hold down and drag and drop to organize the icons as you see fit.
Above the carousel is Amazon’s view of the world, also known as its main menu: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web (the proprietary Silk browser, which caches web pages to make them load faster), Photos and Docs (for documents you can store in the cloud or side-load onto the tablet).
A swipe down from just above the top of the screen reveals another, smaller menu, with access to rotation control, brightness, wireless, settings (in which the OS starts to look more like Android), May Day 24/7 video support and, now, Firefly.
That’s right, Firefly is now part of the Kindle Fire HDX tablet and works almost exactly as it does on the Fire Phone. Find a product, point your tablet’s camera at it, tap the Firefly icon (there is no dedicated hardware button) and then watch as virtual fireflies swarm the product to identify it and then deliver an approximate price and where I can buy more of the product. There are at least 100,000 supported products, so it’s no surprise that when I used Firefly on a box of Crayola Crayons, it worked perfectly. It could not, however, identify a bottle of Poland Spring water.
Much of Amazon’s world revolves around content you can buy from them. One of my favorite things about Kindle Devices is how easy it is to see all the content (books, magazines, music, movies) I own in the cloud (where I have unlimited space for them) and what I have local. Downloading to the Kindle HDX 8.9 takes just a tap. The Wi-Fi-only device I tested supports 802.11ac and MIMO (mulitple-input, multiple-output) technology to speed uploads and downloads — just like the iPad Air.
Even though Apple offers much of this same content through iTunes, iBooks and movie downloads and rentals, it doesn’t seem to know as much about the content as Amazon. Amazon’s X-Ray technology takes you inside movies. It uses the IMDb database (which Amazon owns) to tell you, in real time, about every actor on screen (in movies that support it).
Similarly, in books, you can find out who every character is and how often and where they appear in book. Plus, now you can read Notable Clips to help you quickly get up to speed on a tome that you put down for a while or have to read fast. Of course, the results are a bit mixed. First of all, not every book supports it — and in some cases, the results are not particularly illuminating.
For example, it plucked out this gem from Dan Brown’s Inferno:
Her eyes, though a gentle brown, seemed unusually penetrating, as if they had witnessed a profundity of experience rarely encountered by a person her age.
As with all Amazon products, you get more not only by being a member of Amazon, but buy ponying up $99 a year to become an Amazon Prime Member. This gives you access to all of Amazon Prime Instant videos and growing slate of original content, the streaming music library, a half million books in the lending library, 2-day shipping and special deals. It’s well worth it.
In general, the new Fire OS 4.0 smooths out the rough edges of OS 3, although not every change is welcome. I noticed, for example, that all slides (volume, brightness control, etc.), are now orange bars on top of bars instead of the smaller orange dot. The result is, I have trouble telling at a glance what level any of these things are set at. Amazon also added a lock PIN feature, which is useful for protecting your Kindle from prying eyes and children. However, if you want to turn it off, you have to disable all the child accounts you created.
There were also more than a few system hiccups like slow screen rotation and outright crashes including one while I was using the camera that took me all the way back to the boot screen.
Get it done
The halcyon days of the tablet market explosion may be over. Apple reported falling tablet sales over the last two quarters and Amazon has ceded much of its Android lead to Samsung. To fill in the gap, many tablet manufacturers are targeting business.
In addition to some very sexy slim tablets, Samsung has been hawking 12-inch office-friendly models. Apple presses the productivity angle more consistently than ever.
Amazon’s solution is to offer a new Bluetooth keyboard. For $59.99, you can turn the tablet into a mini laptop (more or less notebook sized). The keyboard is very thin and even includes a small trackpad. It’s magnetized so it can stick to the back of the new Origami cover, also sold separately.
The leather version, which I tested, is $69.99. It also has extra space to accommodate the keyboard when the cover is folded closed on top of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. Of course, when you’re using it, you can have they keyboard a distance away from the tablet. I thought the keyboard was fine, but the keys did feel kind of cheap and the typing action felt less than solid. I prefer Microsoft’s sturdier, but quite light Universal Mobile Keyboard, even though it does not include a trackpad.
Amazon doesn’t have all of Microsoft Office (Microsoft Note is in the curated Amazon App Store),like the iPad does, but it does have the very effective Office Suite Pro. The keyboard and Origami case make the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 a somewhat more attractive productivity device, but it pales in comparison to, for example, Microsoft’s considerably more expensive Surface Pro 3, which offers a larger and better keyboard, bigger screen and a fully adjustable kickstand that makes it useable on the desk and on your lap.
A great deal
At $379 for a 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 costs $120 less than a comparably equipped iPad Air 2. There are caveats, like the fact that the iPad Air 2 includes biometric finger-print reading technology, but most people won’t miss the convenience of unlocking their tablet with a touch.
For those looking for a more budget-friendly device that doesn’t skimp on quality, features and performance, and one that offers better parental controls (actual accounts!) than the iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is a clear winner.