I feel like I’m living inside the Home Shopping Network.
For a week I’ve been relentlessly buying things, downloading things, finding new ways and new excuses to purchase things I definitely don’t need. That’s what Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets have always been for — Jeff Bezos loves to say “we want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices.” And when people use Kindle Fires, they buy diapers and televisions and music and Hi-Chews and shoes.
But this year’s $229 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX promises to be much more. When he introduced us to the new HDX, Bezos touted its class-leading spec sheet, and its refined and improved operating system. He talked about its new apps and services, even its new accessories. This is the year, Amazon seems to be saying, that the Kindle Fire becomes something more than a beautiful catalog. This is the year it takes on the iPad mini, the Nexus 7, and the cream of the tablet crop.
But if you just want to keep buying things, that’s cool too.
The black box
The HDX is less of a device and more of a portal, so the more the hardware gets out of the way and lets Amazon’s software and content shine, the better. That all starts with the 7-inch screen, a gorgeous 1920 x 1200 panel with excellent viewing angles, amazing color reproduction, and that wonderful feeling that whatever’s on the screen is leaping out toward you. It's as spectacularly reflective as any other tablet, no matter what Amazon might want to tell you, but it’s a massive upgrade over last year’s model, and puts the HDX right on par with the Nexus 7. And with no big, mismatched bezels like the Nexus 7, the screen even looks a little bigger and brighter.
Unfortunately, that’s where my love affair with the new HDX hardware ends. In an effort to keep the front and sides unadorned, Amazon placed the volume and power buttons on the sharply beveled back, which doesn’t work at all. The recessed buttons are hard to find with your finger, easy to confuse with one another as you rotate the tablet around, and feel like a cheap TV remote.
Well-designed, but it never quite disappears in your hands
The tablet is full of conflicting angles, as the back and front both slope toward the skinny edges. It’s not uncomfortable and it’s handsomely designed, but you notice the ridges every time you pick up the tablet, and I couldn’t help constantly running my fingers along the edges of the back. The HDX doesn’t quite fade away or disappear, and even though it’s sturdy and good-looking it just feels like you’re holding an object instead of peering through a window to another universe.
The problems are only exacerbated by the $49.99 Origami case. The Smart Cover-like magnet is handy, turning the HDX on when opened up and off when closed, and keeping the flap attached to the back when it’s open, but clearly I’m bad at origami. I had trouble figuring out how to turn the case into a stand, and when one of the case’s magnets gave out after about three days I simply stopped trying. There are better accessories, I’m sure, and the HDX feels sturdy enough that I’d bet you don’t really need a cover anyway.
The HDX quickly replaced my Kindle Paperwhite as my go-to reading device — it’s just so easy to hold in one hand. It’s shorter and narrower than an iPad mini, shorter and wider than the Nexus 7, and at 0.66 pounds and 9.0 millimeters thick feels almost identical to the other tablets. It doesn’t feel quite so perfectly machined, as sleek or as smooth as the mini, but it’s utilitarian hardware that certainly gets the job done.
That job remains getting you to buy and use as many Amazon products as possible. But for the first time, the HDX does other things well too.
A fork in the road
Five years ago, Amazon and Google were partners. Amazon’s music service came pre-loaded on the T-Mobile G1, the first Android phone ever, and the plan was simple: marry Amazon’s unparalleled wealth of content with Google’s software design, and together take over the world.
In hindsight, it might have worked. Amazon’s library of music, movies, TV shows, books, and everything you could ever want to buy is bigger and more accessible than ever, and Android has evolved into a truly great operating system. But Google and Amazon have become competitors, each after a slice of the huge tablet market — so Google’s worked to turn the Play Store into a force to be reckoned with, and Amazon’s taken the core of Android and forked it into an alternate version that tries to do just as much.
Fire OS is more subdued than Android, and much more media-focused
Fire OS 3.0, codenamed "Mojito," is Amazon’s latest software effort. It’s not the flexible, versatile, platform Android has become, and still feels very much media-centric. The top navigation is just a list of ways to give Amazon your money: Shop, Games, Videos, Audiobooks, Newsstand, and more. The homescreen is still a reverse-chronological carousel of every book, app, and movie you’ve opened or purchased since the beginning of time. Mojito does offer a new grid view of your apps, which makes life easier — before, if you didn’t open Hulu for a week, it wound up buried in the carousel behind all the other things Amazon really thinks you should be buying and watching instead.
The dark white-and-gray-on-gray aesthetic is much more subdued than the bright, vibrant colors of Android, and the swipeable multitasking menu is more akin to iOS, but from the notification pulldown to the settings menus Fire OS won’t feel unfamiliar to most users.
Version 3.0 comes with a lot of non-obvious improvements, particularly for business users — with new security features and IT-friendly maintenance tools, the HDX is the most enterprise-friendly Kindle ever. The Silk browser has been subtly improved, though it remains cluttered and clunky next to Chrome or Safari.
Much more obvious is the new, overhauled email app, which finally supports conversations, labeling, and archiving of emails. It’s not as good as the standard Gmail app, with a little more interface chrome and a few unnecessarily hidden features, but it’s one of the better stock email apps I’ve used. The calendar and document-editing suite feel brand new too — the Kindle Fire has never been for getting things done, but it’s surprisingly productive now. The improvements go a long way toward turning the HDX into something other than a 7-inch combination of television and ebook reader.
But make no mistake: it’s still mostly a 7-inch combination of television and ebook reader. A remarkable one, at that, with a swath of content that continues to amaze me. The reading experience is as versatile as ever, with plenty of fonts, background colors, and margin widths to tweak to your liking. (Having a gorgeous, high-res screen makes for great reading, too.) And if you’re a Prime member, the HDX comes with the largest movie library you’ve ever imagined, all available for streaming and, for the first time, downloading. You can download any movie or show and watch it offline, which is a frequent flyer’s dream — I spend $20 or so every time I fly just buying movies and shows to watch on the plane, and I’m pretty sure the HDX will pay for itself by the time I finish watching The West Wing on cross-country flights. With loud, high-quality speakers and its terrific display, the HDX makes a great mini TV too.
Giving you things to read and watch has never been a problem for Amazon. Nor is rationing it, which it does through the great FreeTime app that lets you decide what your kids can do on the HDX, and for how long. What the company’s working on now is information about all that content, which is where X-Ray comes in. X-Ray could always tell you with a tap which characters are present in the chapter you’re reading right now, but now it also shows lyrics for whatever song you’re listening to, trivia about actors and characters in movies, and so much more.
It’s largely powered by IMDb, and is insanely powerful — I found myself scrubbing through movies by selecting songs and seeing where they played, then doing my own weird personal karaoke with the lyrics. X-Ray is the best bet-settler ever, an awesome trivia tool, and a really cool way for Amazon to collate and supplement the content it already offers. Oh, and you liked that song in that episode of Under The Dome? Here, buy it on Amazon.
Buying things is not only easy but fast, because the HDX is by far the fastest and most powerful Kindle Fire model ever. Amazon’s always been obsessed with its tablets’ spec sheets, and here there’s good reason. The HDX has a 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, along with 2GB of RAM and a new Adreno 330 GPU that Amazon says is four times as powerful as the last model. It’s likely due to some combination of refined software and powerful hardware, but the HDX screams: the carousel is smoother than ever as you swipe through it, apps open and resume almost instantly, and even games as complex as Asphalt 8 play flawlessly. It’s one of the most capable, functional tablets I’ve used. It has great battery life, too, taking nearly two days full of streaming, game-playing, and reading before giving up; most people will probably only need to charge it every four or five days.
That’s why it’s such a shame that the functionality of the HDX is so severely limited. Because it doesn’t run Google-blessed Android, but instead a fork of Android 4.2, the HDX doesn’t have Google’s Play Store. Instead it has the Amazon Appstore, which is just like Play only much, much worse. It’s just a small set of Android apps that often appear to be outdated and unoptimized for 7-inch screens. There’s
no Netflix, no Candy Crush, few to-do list apps or big-name games. If it had the Play Store, the HDX would become an incredibly attractive tablet even next to the Nexus 7 or the iPad mini, but without it it just feels crippled.
Update: The Netflix app, which exists for the Amazon Appstore but is currently not compatible with the HDX, is apparently being updated for the device. That's great, but there's still a long list of apps I don't see in the Appstore.
The weirdest thing about the Kindle Fire HDX is that Amazon hopes you’ll never have to use its best feature. It’s called Mayday, and it’s the most remarkable customer service tool I’ve ever seen. You tap the "Help" button on the device, then hit "Connect," and you’re automatically transferred to Amazon’s customer support line. But it’s not a robotic phone tree, and there’s no hold music. You get a real live human being on the other end, usually within 15 seconds. (It typically took about 10 seconds for me to get through, though it once took about a minute — of course, I’m using the device before it ships, so things could change quickly.)
That person — I spoke with Oliver, and Laura, and two or three other Southern-sounding people whose names I didn’t catch — pops up in a small square window on your screen. You can see them, but they can’t see you. They can, however, control your entire tablet. Once I’d verified my name, email, and billing address, my cheery representatives could download apps, delete files, and change settings. Typically they’d draw diagrams on the screen to show me how to fix things myself, but if I asked they’d happily just do it. It worked quickly and easily as long as I had a good Wi-Fi connection, and every time I was blown away by how easy and useful it was. I didn’t have to explain my icon layout or convince them that yes, my tablet is on — we could just jump right in.
As long as Amazon can figure out how to make Mayday scale, it'll be spectacular
There are certainly issues with Mayday, both in terms of privacy and scaling. I have no idea how Amazon will serve millions of people at a time, especially because I started using the service for every minor question rather than even attempt to figure it out myself. I also started asking the Mayday crew for recommendations for movies to watch, or games to play, and they’re only too happy to lead me to the store to oblige.
There’s also something viscerally terrifying about Amazon’s ability to see into my tablet at any given time, even if there are some safeguards — you have to initiate the connection yourself, and there is a way to disable the feature permanently. As long as Amazon can keep up with demand, this is almost certainly going to be the most customer-friendly customer service system ever created. It’s a Genius Bar in my living room, and I don’t even have to put on pants.
The Kindle Fire HDX does its primary job brilliantly — with a great display and fast internals it’s the best way ever to consume all of Amazon’s content, from books to movies to music to banana slicers. It’s also a much more broadly capable device, finally able to replace your computer in places and not just complement it. For $229 (with 16GB of storage and Amazon's Special Offers ads) that’s a pretty great deal.
But when Amazon and Google went from partners to enemies, everyone lost. Amazon doesn’t offer the best of its services and apps for other Android devices, and the Fire HDX is missing the Play Store and its hundreds of thousands of apps. If you have Kindle books, Prime videos, recurring Amazon orders, and all the rest, there’s no better tablet to buy than the HDX. But there’s a huge ecosystem of apps that live only on Android tablets. Tablets like the Nexus 7, which just so happens to also have a great screen, beautiful hardware, and a $229 price tag. Amazon claims the Kindle Fire lineup is massively popular, and that it’s easy for developers to port their apps from Play to the Amazon Appstore, but something’s not working. Amazon has everything else, but it doesn’t have the apps.
The combination of Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX would be virtually perfect: all the content, all the apps. We don’t get the best of both worlds, and you’ll have to decide which you want to pay your $229 to enter. It’s Amazon or it’s Google, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
Photography by Michael Shane