In September, inside an airplane hangar in Los Angeles, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a series of bold statements about the company's two brand-new Kindle Fire HD tablets. The Kindle Fire HD 7, he said, was the best tablet at a certain price. But with the larger Kindle Fire HD 8.9, "we made the best tablet at any price," Bezos said, in a not-so-subtle jab at the iPad.
When we reviewed the smaller of the two Kindle Fire HD siblings, we found it to be a mixed bag. As a platform, a service, an appliance — a window into everything Amazon is and offers — it's a phenomenal success. But as a tablet overall, compared to the iPad and Nexus 7, it faltered thanks to some performance issues, lacking app selection, and a few absent features.
The $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9 takes the 7-inch model's formula and puts it into a bigger package with an even better screen — all the more space to enjoy Amazon's massive content ecosystem with. There's also a version with AT&T-supplied LTE connectivity, which comes at a hugely discounted price. Do the better screen and omipresent connection make the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 into an even better Amazon machine? How about a better overall tablet?
The concept is right, but it needs refining
At that event in September, Bezos spent an incredible amount of time talking about Amazon's hardware prowess. I was surprised – this is a content company and a retailer, not an electronics manufacturer, and its previous devices hadn't been overwhelmingly impressive.
Both Kindle Fire HD models are a significant step up from what Amazon has made before, well-built devices that don't have any of the blocky feel of the original Fire. The two devices are virtually identical, too — if you cut the bezel off the 8.9-inch model you'd have a device almost exactly the size of the 7-inch Fire HD. Speaking of the bezel, it's exactly the same size as the 7-inch, but it doesn't look as big because the device itself is larger. It's a pretty inconspicuous device, without a lot of visual flair, but I actually like it; the matte black device has a similar soft-touch feel to the Nexus 7, which I like much more than the cold metallic feel of the iPad.
The larger model is thinner than the smaller Fire HD, and even slightly slimmer than the most recent iPad – though its .35-inch frame is still thicker than the iPad mini. It only weighs 1.25 pounds, again slightly more svelte than the iPad but considerably larger than the iPad mini — it's a pretty perfect medium between the two most common tablet sizes. It's really comfortable to hold, though it's a little too heavy for one-handed use just by virtue of its length; no matter which side you hold it on, it tends to tip toward the other end.
The tablet is sturdy and handsome, but it has some flaws. The power button, for instance, is absolutely impossible for your finger to find. It's hidden on the right side, next to the volume buttons and headphone jack, and it's hard to find even if you're looking for it. The black plastic strip on the back also wraps slightly around the edges, looking like another button – it's all very confusing. At least the Micro HDMI and Micro USB ports are together on the bottom, where they should be.
Amazon hasn't yet matched the industrial design Apple's shown with its tablets, and I think Google's Nexus tablets are slightly better as well. But the company's come a long way, and in only a year has left its PlayBook-like roots far behind.
Display and speakers
Sounds good AND looks good – an insanely rare combination
The iPad's Retina display used to be a trump card, a head-and-shoulders lead over the competition that no one could argue. Well, that's not the case anymore. The Nexus 10 and Nook HD have fantastic displays that rival the iPad's, and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 deserves to mentioned in the same breath as all three. The 1920 x 1200 panel has a pixel density of 254ppi, which is lower than both the iPad and Nexus 10, but it's near-impossible to tell the difference in sharpness. Text is crisp and clear even at very small sizes, and I almost never saw individual pixels or jagged edges on icons.
Resolution's not the whole story, though. Where the 8.9 really shines is in its color reproduction, viewing angles, and brightness. While whites have the slightest tinge of yellow — not so much to be a problem, but it's not perfect — blacks are incredibly deep, and every other color shines exactly as it should. The deep blacks create great contrast, so even the darkest scenes in The Dark Knight are watchable. Amazon touts the anti-glare lamination of the display, which I can't say I noticed — this screen is still awfully reflective — but there's still no question this is one of the best displays out there, especially for watching video.
The Fire HD 8.9's dual speakers blast sound out the back of the device, and are among the best tablet speakers I've used. Keep in mind, that's incredibly faint praise, but at least the Dolby-driven audio is audible in a room with a fan on — that's more than I can say for most slates. Dolby Digital seems to do most of the work here: with the setting enabled sound immediately becomes louder and richer, and comes through in better stereo. Keep it turned on, and you'll be very happy with the sound coming from the Kindle Fire HD 8.9.
Software and performance
Top-notch internals can't fix software bugs
In this realm, little has changed from the Kindle Fire HD 7 — check out that review for the full rundown of how Amazon's new tablets work.
From a specs standpoint, the two sizes of Kindle Fire HD differ slightly. The 8.9 is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz OMAP 4470 processor, the most recent chip from TI — it's a better chip than the Fire HD 7's, clocked a little faster. In general, the chip does well, and everything from high-def movies to intensive games like Dead Space look and work great even on such a high-resolution display. There's no real step up in power from the smaller model, though — the extra horsepower seems to be nullified by the fact that the 8.9 has more pixels to push around.
It's odd, though: the tablet does the difficult, intensive things really well, but stumbles on some of its most basic functions. The keyboard feels slow, always a half-beat behind your fingers; buttons will sometimes animate before they do anything, so you're left with a glowing button and nothing else; and there's just small bits of lag all over the system as you open and close apps, scroll through menus, and even turn pages in books. It's far from the smooth, zippy experience on some of the Kindle Fire HD's best competitors.
The juxtaposition of power and sluggishness make me think the Kindle Fire HD 8.9's problems must be software-related. I'm not surprised, either, because Amazon hasn't done a great job with its Android 4.0-based operating system anyway. The UI is at various points too confusing, too simple, and too mutable. The Home button is in different places depending on how you're holding the device — and sometimes it's not present at all until you tap on the screen or swipe in from the side. There's no multitasking to speak of, only a Favorites bar that pops up when you press the star icon; Android's standard behavior, slightly glowing dots that let you know where the navigation buttons are even when you're in an app, is a much better system.
That the home screen is just a carousel of your most recently used content is perfectly telling about this device, as is the fact that browser access is so hidden I've had to show everyone who used the tablet how to find it. It's not really a tablet, built to do everything or replace your laptop — it's an Amazon machine, a screen designed for the sole purpose of exposing you to Amazon's world of content.
As we found out last week, the Amazon universe isn't a bad one to live in. Amazon Prime is a great service for shopping — I buy almost everything on Amazon, from computers to toilet paper, because the price is always great and the shipping's always fast. The video library is huge and growing, Amazon's music and audiobook selection is enormous, and it's the best book / magazine collection out there. Amazon's done a number of clever things with its content, too, like X-Ray (which shows you information about the book or movie you're watching, including who's on screen or page at any given time) and Whispersync (which syncs your place in books, movies, and the like across your tablet, Xbox, computer, and the like). Whispersync for Voice is one of my favorite features on the Fire HD — it lets you switch at will between reading a book, and having it read out loud to you. I wound up reading in bed until my eyes were shutting, then listening to the book for another half-hour or so until I was ready to sleep. It's great.
Apps are the only time it was really hard to live in Amazon's world. You don't get access to the Google Play Store on the Kindle Fire HD, nor to Google apps like Gmail and Calendar. The third-party ecosystem is lacking, too, without a lot of games or big-name apps like Rdio, an app I personally use all day every day. Amazon's Appstore is good, but not great, and without a clear reason for being different it just feels like Amazon's constraining you for no reason.
Amazon's scaling back the ads a bit
One thing has improved since we reviewed the 7-inch model: the advertising situation. Our Kindle Fire HD 7 review unit was a pushy, ad-filled experience that almost feels like it's trying to trick you into buying things without meaning to — like the lock screen, where swiping the wrong way takes you straight to the store. Amazon's cleaned up its act a bit, now allowing you to buy an ad-free Kindle Fire HD from its site (you could always pay $15 to remove them once you were using the device), and there's at least a way to turn off the ads on the home screen in settings. They're not full solutions, and the cheapest Kindle Fire HD still comes by default with ads plastered everywhere, but with a couple of minutes and $15 you can create a much better experience.
Amazon's single biggest advantage over Apple might be its pricing. The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 starts at $299, fully $200 less than the iPad — you can actually get both a 7-inch and an 8.9-inch Kindle fire HD for the price of Apple's tablet. Or, you can get the HD 8.9 with LTE connectivity, which I've come to believe is a crucial feature for a tablet. (It also comes with 32GB of storage, or 64GB for $599.) Amazon's particular flavor of LTE leaves something to be desired, however.
The LTE comes courtesy of AT&T, which provides pretty solid coverage — I had data everywhere I would on a smartphone, and the 8-10Mbps upload and download speeds are about average for an AT&T LTE device. Once again, where Amazon innovates is price: you get 250MB of LTE data a month, plus 20GB of Amazon Cloud Storage and $10 to use in the Appstore, for $49.99 a year. Now, that's not a lot of data, and streaming one episode of one TV show would more than burn through it — but Amazon frustratingly blocks that anyway, only letting you stream video over Wi-Fi. You also can't download anything over 50MB while on LTE — Amazon says it will update the Fire to allow you to stream video, but downloads are always going to be forbidden. Still, the LTE is perfect for quick Maps lookups and checking your email when you're out. If you're a heavier data user, there are also 3GB and 5GB plans for the Fire HD 8.9 — but those are hamstrung as well, and it's a shame that you can't even pay for the device to be unshackled.
Since you can't stream video over LTE, battery life doesn't take a huge hit from the cellular connection. Even without ever turning Wi-Fi on, I was only charging the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 every two days or so — Skype calls or heavy gaming drain it faster, but in general its longevity is about what you'd expect.
Perfect for Amazon junkies, not for tablet buyers
Which Kindle Fire HD you should buy is dependent on a single question. Which do you do more, read or watch movies? If you're a reader, the 7-inch model's smaller size and one-hand usability makes it the better device. If you're a cinephile (I fall into this category, at least when it comes to how I use a tablet), the HD 8.9 is a better buy thanks to its bigger, higher-res screen. I watched a lot of movies on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and it's a pretty fantastic experience. To be clear, though, both devices are good at both things, and they're incredibly similar overall — it's just a matter of tipping the balance slightly one way or the other.
Neither tablet, though, is as good as the iPad, iPad mini, or Nexus 7. It's the apps: Android's ecosystem is already a giant leap behind iOS's, and Amazon's is like a knockoff Android store. If you get most of your content through Amazon (and that's totally possible), the Kindle Fire HD is the best way to get it – the Prime Video experience is better on this device than any other I've tested, and if you make use of the HDMI port the tablet becomes a great Amazonian set-top box for your TV as well. But for the content omnivore, or a person who wants a good email experience or a better browser or a more powerful suite of apps, Apple and Google's tablets are a better bet.
Perfect for Amazon junkies, not for tablet buyers
Which Kindle Fire HD you should buy is dependent on a single question. Which do you do more, read or watch movies? If you're a reader, the 7-inch model's smaller size, slender build, and one-hand usability makes it the better device. If you're a cinephile (I fall into this category, at least when it comes to how I use a tablet), the HD 8.9 is a better buy thanks to its bigger, higher-res screen. I watched a lot of movies on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and it's a pretty fantastic experience. To be clear, though, both devices are good at both things, and they're incredibly similar overall — it's just a matter of tipping the balance slightly one way or the other.
If you can afford it, the $100 price premium for the LTE-capable Fire HD 8.9 is worth it. (Technically it's $200 over the entry-level Fire HD, but you get 32GB of storage instead of 16.) Yes, the usage is limited, but having LTE available makes the Fire HD — and any tablet — usable in so many more situations. $49.99 a year for coverage is a nice price, too.
Neither tablet, though, is as good a tablet as the iPad, iPad mini, or Nexus 7. It's the apps: Android's ecosystem is already a giant leap behind iOS's, and Amazon's is like a knockoff Android store. If you get most of your content through Amazon (and that's totally possible), the Kindle Fire HD is the best way to get it – the Prime Video experience is better on this device than any other I've tested. But for the content omnivore, or a person who wants a good email experience or a better browser or a more powerful suite of apps, Apple and Google's tablets are a better bet.