Amazon upgrades the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 with more speed and better sound

A new processor, sound engine, and keyboard accessory round out the upgrades

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Last year, Amazon completely overhauled its Kindle Fire line of tablets with thinner, lighter designs, high-resolution displays, and high-end processors. This year it's sticking with a tried and true formula: the new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, available for preorder today, looks exactly like its predecessor. But Amazon isn't completely resting on its laurels: the new model has an even faster processor, better Dolby sound, and a new version of Amazon's Fire OS. Its $379 price (Wi-Fi with Special Offers, LTE model is $479) is the same as last year too.

Amazon is making more of a productivity play with the HDX 8.9 this year. It's got an all-new keyboard accesory, a Windows virtualization app, and a new app suite for working with Office documents. The FIre HDX also gains the Firefly feature from Amazon's smartphone, and the instant caching and video streaming feature Amazon introduced with the Fire TV set top box.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014)

Last year's tablet was strikingly light and this time around is no different — Amazon says the Fire HDX 8.9 is a full 20 percent lighter than even Apple's svelte iPad Air. That makes for an easy to hold tablet while reading or lying in bed, and it's still remarkable how easy it is to pick up the HDX 8.9. Build quality and tolerances are still good, though nobody is going to confuse Amazon's tablet for an Apple product.

The HDX 8.9 is still remarkably thin and light

Inside, the HDX 8.9 has a new, 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, which Amazon says has a 70 percent faster graphics chip than last year's model. The HDX was a snappy and responsive tablet before, and it should only be faster this year. Amazon is making a big fuss about the HDX's new Dolby Atmos sound engine, which is supposed to enhance and improve the sound quality when you wear headphones. We didn't find it to be remarkable in our brief time with the tablet, though the sound quality is certainly good.

The HDX's 8.9-inch display has the same 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution and 339ppi as last year's model. It's bright and vibrant and has great viewing angles. Amazon is quick to point out that the HDX has 30 percent more pixels than the iPad Air, but in practice it's hard to see the difference. A new feature is Dynamic Light Control (coming later in the year via software update), which automatically adjusts the brightness and white balance of the display when using the Kindle app for reading books. Amazon says the display more closely resembles a printed page with this feature, which we don't really agree with, but it's definitely easier to read on than without the automatic adjustments. (Samsung is using a similar software trick on its Galaxy Tab S tablets released earlier this year.

Other highlights of the HDX's hardware are a claimed 12 hour battery life, 802.11ac Wi-Fi with four times the peak bandwidth support of last year, and a new Origami Cover that's thankfully 20 percent lighter than last year's tank of a case.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014)

The HDX 8.9 comes with Fire OS 4.0, which Amazon has code-named Sangria. It's based on Android 4.4 KitKat, and it's a minor refinement of the software, with a few new features, but not overwhelmingly different than before. The Firefly feature, which lets you identify movies, songs, and objects quickly and then instantly buy them on Amazon, has made its way over from the Fire Phone, but other interface features have not. The HDX doensn't have the four cameras and head tracking of the Fire Phone, so there are no dynamic 3D interfaces here. (Amazon tells us that it just didn't work right for the use cases of a tablet.)

It's now easier to share the HDX with your family members

Amazon has added a new Profiles feature that makes it easier to share the Fire HDX 8.9 with other people in your household, and the new Family Library lets you share books, apps, games, Prime Instant Video, and more with other family members and across devices. The ASAP feature, which debuted on the Fire TV, predicts what movies or TV shows you'll want to watch next, in an effort to avoid buffering time. The new HDX also has Amazon's MayDay help feature that connects users to a real life person to sort out any problems they may have using the tablet.

Amazon says its new Fire Keyboard accessory, a $59.99 Bluetooth keyboard with integrated trackpad, is the "thinnest and lightest full-featured keyboard with a trackpad." Microsoft might take umbrance with that claim, as its Surface Pro keyboard is awfully thin, but Amazon's take is impressively slim in its own right. It's a standard Bluetooth keyboard that should work with most any device, and its integrated trackpad negates the need for an external mouse. It doesn't provide a stand for the tablet, but it clicks into Amazon's Origami cover using magnets.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014)

All in all, Amazon's new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 doesn't represent as huge of a leap as last year's model, but it has welcome improvements in almost every respect. The overall premise of the device doesn't change — this is still something that works best if you're heavily invested in Amazon's products and services already — but if history is any indicator, the Fire HDX 8.9 will be a good tablet for reading books, browsing the web, and of course, watching lots of Prime Instant Video content.

Additional reporting by Dieter Bohn.