In 2011, Amazon surprised us with the Kindle Fire, an Android-based 7-inch tablet that made it easier than ever to watch video, read books, and of course buy stuff from Amazon. It came at a time when smaller tablets were not very common or popular, and it provided a way to access Amazon's content stores when there wasn't really one before — all at an aggressive price. Two years on, the company has expanded its tablet line to two devices and launched a suite of mobile apps on both iOS and Android.
The new HDX 7 is faster, sleeker, and better than ever. It’s also the best way to access Amazon’s wealth of content on the go, but it doesn't quite give the iPad mini or the Nexus 7 a run for their money.
Now Amazon is releasing the 7-inch HDX’s bigger brother: an 8.9-inch model with an incredibly high-resolution display and the same signature design features seen on the smaller version. The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 also costs more, starting at $379 for a 16GB Wi-Fi model with Special Offers — but other than that and its physical size, it’s not terribly different.
The smaller HDX has clear competition: it's priced the same as the Nexus 7, and even can compete with the iPad mini if you're an Amazon devotee. But the 8.9-inch model is curiously located in the market: it’s smaller than an iPad or 10-inch Android tablet but just large enough that it doesn’t fit in a jacket pocket. It’s also priced in between the typical $500 10-inch tablets and the sub-$250 7-inch models. And even though it’s been just a month since we reviewed the HDX 7, Apple’s already announced the new iPad Air and forthcoming iPad mini with Retina display, the latter of which is priced awfully close to the HDX 8.9.
The original Kindle Fire had an important place in the tablet market of 2011. But with Amazon’s apps available on other platforms and the price divide between great tablets rapidly diminishing, where does the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 fit? With so many choices on the market now, is Amazon’s flagship the best option or even the best Kindle Fire?
A small big tablet
The design of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is virtually the same as the HDX 7. It's beveled edges and soft-touch plastic everywhere, save for the top strip of glossy plastic that houses a camera and speakers. The HDX 8.9 is well built, like its smaller sibling, but it doesn’t match the crafted aluminum of the iPad Air or mini. It’s leaps and bounds ahead of Samsung’s tablets, however.
What’s most striking about the HDX 8.9 is just how light it is. At 13.2 ounces, it’s 34 percent lighter than last year’s model (Amazon shaved off nearly 7 ounces), and a full 20 percent lighter than the iPad Air. It’s light and comfortable enough to hold with one hand, which is commendable (and rare) for a larger tablet. At 0.31 inches thick, the HDX is also thin enough to slip into a shoulder bag and forget about it, though its 9.1-inch by 6.2-inch dimensions mean you won’t be putting it in a jacket or pants pocket.
Surprisingly light for a large tablet
The HDX 8.9 uses back-mounted power and volume buttons, though I found them less annoying than on the 7-inch model. Since the 8.9 works best in landscape mode, the buttons are pretty easy to find when you’re holding it with two hands. Rotate it to portrait for reading, however, and they are a bit more difficult to suss out with your fingers.
The back of the tablet is also home to stereo speakers, which get impressively loud without distortion, and a new 8-megapixel camera and LED flash. The sound is crisp and articulate, and the speakers’ prioritization of dialogue was crucial when I was trying to keep up with the off-color one-liners in The League. The camera is typical fare for a tablet shooter: it works in a pinch, but it’s not in competition with a smartphone. There’s also a front-facing camera for video calling on Skype, and it works well enough.
Amazon’s always touted the displays on its tablets, and the screen it’s using on the HDX 8.9 is a doozy. At a ridiculous 2560 x 1600-pixel resolution and 339ppi, it’s either higher-resolution or more pixel-dense than virtually any other tablet on the market. It also has great viewing angles, excellent color reproduction, and high brightness levels. It’s really just a great screen, whether you’re gaming, watching video, or reading text — it’s right up there with, if not better than, the Retina display on the iPad Air. The HDX’s automatic brightness sensor gave me some trouble, however (it would vary the brightness up and down at random intervals), so I ended up turning it off.
And apparently you’re supposed to see everything on that one screen. This year, Amazon removed the Micro HDMI port from the HDX, instead choosing to support Miracast wireless screen-mirroring to compatible devices. It also will support second-screen experiences on a very select handful of consoles and TVs in the near future, which give you access to Amazon’s X-Ray features, playback controls, and other apps while a movie or TV show is playing in the background. I don’t own any of the supported devices for screen mirroring and second-screen features, and I suspect that’s true for most people, so I missed the easy plug-and-play way to watch content on my TV. Nearly every TV released in the past 10 years or so supports HDMI, while very few support Miracast — I’d rather Amazon just supported both.
The Origami case nearly doubles the weight of the hdx
Amazon is offering a $54.99 “origami” folding case for the HDX 8.9. It’s nice and sturdy and has a hard, textured finish that will protect your tablet from nearly anything. It’s an interesting folding design, propping up the HDX in landscape or portrait modes, and it has the ability to wake the tablet up automatically when you open it. But I’m not a fan. The cover weighs a hefty 10.9 ounces — it nearly doubles the weight of the HDX — and nullifies all of the weight savings of the HDX over other tablets. The case also muffles the speakers somewhat, makes accessing the power or volume keys difficult, and blocks the camera entirely. Amazon is aware of the camera issue, and cheekily prompts you to slide the HDX up an inch or so whenever you launch the camera in the case (which also launches the camera app). But between the size, price, and the HDX’s inherent ruggedness, you can do without the case.
The HDX 8.9 runs Amazon’s new Fire OS 3.0, and it’s a noticeable improvement over Amazon’s earlier software attempts. But it still feels like it’s just a portal to Amazon’s content and retail stores, rather than a fully fledged mobile operating system.
Fire OS 3.0 is based on Android 4.2, but you wouldn’t know it: Amazon’s signature carousel of recent apps, books, documents, games, videos, and whatever else takes the place of any home-screen widgets. The top bar offers quick access to the company’s stores. The launcher has been graciously improved with a grid of your installed apps, accessible by swiping up on the carousel, but the entire experience feels very basic compared to standard Android or even iOS.
Amazon’s Silk browser has been updated and improved, and still uses Amazon’s servers to compress webpages for faster browsing. It’s also still heavier and clunkier than Safari or Chrome, and it hangs for no reason at times. The browser feels like an afterthought on the HDX, and given how much time people casually browse the web on their tablets, that’s a bit of a problem.
Productivity features on the HDX are lacking compared to other tablets
Productivity’s become a focus for large tablet manufacturers; the need to get things done on the go has been aggressively pushed by Microsoft and its Surface. The HDX now includes the ability to access documents on the go, and has greatly improved email and calendar apps. But the productivity features feel like lip service: you have to sync your documents over USB or through Amazon’s Cloud Sync app; any editing requires the purchase of a separate app; and there are no first-party keyboard accessories available. And if you use Google Drive or Office 365, you’ll find the HDX fairly useless for any document or spreadsheet work on the go.
And then there are the apps. Or lack thereof, to be more specific. As we noted in our HDX 7 review, the Amazon Appstore pales in comparison to the Google Play Store and doesn’t hold a candle to the wealth of iOS tablet apps. Many newer apps and games are still not available in Amazon’s store, and the ones that are frequently aren't optimized for the HDX 8.9’s larger display. For its part, Amazon says that the app selection has increased 187 percent over last year, but the company admits it still has a long ways to go. Fortunately, Netflix has been updated to work on the HDX tablets since our HDX 7 review, and it works quite well. But that’s one of many Amazon still needs.
But third parties aren’t the point. The HDX 8.9 is designed to, and excels at, displaying and playing Amazon’s massive content ecosystem. Prime Video, which is now downloadable for offline viewing, looks great on the new display, though I did notice some dropped frames in a 1080p episode of Sherlock. Amazon’s cool X-Ray shows you more about the stuff you’re watching or listening to, and it kept me from pulling out my smartphone to look up something in IMDB. If you want to take advantage of the new offline feature (and you do) I strongly recommend investing in the 32GB or 64GB versions of the HDX. The 16GB model I tested comes with a paltry 10.9GB of space for apps, videos, pictures, documents, and anything else you put on your tablet. That single episode of Sherlock weighed in at over 6GB on its own, so if you plan to watch hi-def content, you’re going to need more space.
Amazon put the same 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip and 2GB of RAM in the HDX 8.9 as the HDX 7. It’s incredibly fast (Amazon says it's three times more powerful than last year’s model, and I believe it), but the 8.9’s higher pixel density definitely takes its toll. It’s not a huge problem — the main Fire OS interface is still super responsive — but in addition to the dropped frames in video, I noticed some low frame-rates in high-intensity games such as Asphalt 8. For the most part, the HDX 8.9 is snappy and fast, however.
Remarkably, the HDX 8.9 kept its cool even when I watched video for a long time or got in on some really intense racing sessions. The tablet never got warm, which can’t be said for the iPad, and its light weight enabled some really long gaming sessions. Amazon claims you can use the HDX 8.9 continuously for 12 hours for average activities and up to 18 hours if you’re just reading. I found it to live up to those claims — getting two days or more of frequent use out of the HDX was no problem. You’ll probably run out of storage space before you run out of battery on those intercontinental flights.
The HDX 8.9 has the same Mayday help function as the HDX 7, and it’s just as impressive here. When I couldn’t figure out how to access my existing New Yorker subscription on the HDX, a very helpful Todd was there in seconds to inform me that it’s not transferable to the Kindle and that I’d need to purchase a separate subscription. It may not have been the answer I was looking for, but it saved me from fruitlessly Googling around for an answer. It’s still not clear how well the Mayday service will scale — the HDX 7 has been in consumer’s hands for a few weeks, but neither version is likely to see many sales until the holidays — but it’s indeed one of the best features of the Kindle Fire HDX.
$379 just isn't a mind-blowing price for a tablet anymore
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is a solid device and an improvement over last year’s model. It's fast, light, and has a great display, but it doesn't really measure up to an iPad Air or even a modern 10-inch Android tablet when it comes to actual functionality. Watching video on the high-res display is awesome on the 8.9, but it's too big to be truly portable, and other than video, doesn't offer a great reason for the larger screen to exist. The same argument can be made between the iPad mini with Retina Display and the iPad Air, but Apple’s robust accessory ecosystem, better productivity apps, and vastly superior selection of games at least give the Air more than just a big screen to work with.
No, the HDX 8.9 is still very much a machine to access Amazon's content stash and to purchase items, books, movies, and anything else you can imagine from the retailer. It does those things best from the comfort of your home. If you’re cross-shopping between the HDX 7 and the HDX 8.9, I’d recommend going with the smaller model. It’s far more portable, just as powerful, and can do everything that the HDX 8.9 can do except take pictures. (It’s also significantly cheaper.) On paper, the 8.9 is the best tablet Amazon offers, but in practice, the 7 is a better choice.
But the real problem for the HDX — though it’s a win for Amazon, and for you — is that you can do all of the things you do on an HDX with an iPad, thanks to Amazon's support of iOS with a bevy of apps (Amazon, Amazon MP3, Kindle for iOS, Amazon Video, the list goes on). Plus, you can access hundreds of thousands more apps and expand your tablet's functionality with countless accessories. Apart from Amazon Video, the same can be said for the Nexus 10 or almost any other Android tablet on the market.
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 does have some redeeming features: its battery lasts a really long time, the screen is amazing, offline Prime Video is awesome, and the Mayday help feature is genuinely groundbreaking and useful. Amazon did right with the hardware, but as was the case last year and with the HDX 7, the software leaves a bit to be desired.
The HDX 8.9’s base price of $379 doesn’t compare as favorably to the competition as last year's HD (for $20 more, you should just get an iPad mini with Retina Display), but the larger capacity models and the LTE versions are attractively priced (a fully loaded 64GB model with Verizon or AT&T LTE will set you back $579, compared to $829 for a comparable iPad Air). Still, though the HDX 8.9 might cost less than an iPad or Nexus 10, you give up a lot in the way of functionality, without really gaining much. Last year, it was easy to say that the larger $299 Kindle Fire HD was a great value, but a year later and another $80 on top, $379 is just not a mind-blowing price for a great tablet.
Amazon appeals to a niche with its Kindle Fire line: that customer that wants to access Amazon's content in the easiest way possible. For everyone else, there's the iPad and other tablets, which also have access to Amazon's world.
At the end of the day, whether they purchase and use the HDX 8.9 or not, people are still buying stuff from Amazon, and as far as it is concerned, that's a win.