- Review Date: 11/11/2013
- Bottom line: The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9" is the simplest-to-use high-quality, large-screen tablet, with built-in, on-demand tech support. And it's the best choice for handling your Amazon content.
- Pros: Fast. Gorgeous screen. Very easy to use. 24-hour, on-demand video tech support.
- Cons: Lousy cameras. Not as many apps as standard Android tablets or iPads. Interface very focused on buying things from Amazon.
Tired of asking for tech support? Tired of giving tech support? The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9" comes with its own support team built into the tablet, an array of chipper, headset-wearing folks collectively known as Mayday. It's the best large-screen tablet for the tech-averse, although it's not quite as flexible as our Editors' Choice, the Apple iPad Air.
Physical Design and Networking
The tablet comes in 16, 32, and 64 GB models, with or without ads on the home screen, and with or without AT&T or Verizon 4G LTE connectivity. The base price is $379 and can reach up to $594. Each step up in memory costs $50, ditching the ads (Special Offers) costs $15 on top of that, and adding an AT&T or Verizon Wireless LTE modem is another $100. We tested the base 16GB, Wi-Fi-only model with Special Offers.
Extremely slim and light, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 measures 9.1 by 6.2 by .31 inches (HWD) and weighs in at 13.2 ounces. It's lighter than the iPad Air, which admittedly, has a larger 9.7-inch screen. The tablet is well-built, mostly of soft-touch black plastic with some modernist-looking angles on the back. The 2,560-by-1,600, 339 pixel-per-inch 8.9-inch display shows rich colors but not reflections. It's denser than the iPad Air's, at about the same brightness. The result is that Web site text appears slightly smaller than on the Air, but it isn't blurry at all. The front and rear cameras are on the top center of the tablet, when held in landscape mode.
The tablet has dual-band Wi-Fi with a MIMO antenna, and results were decent on the Ookla Speedtest.net app, but we got much better performance on the iPad Air both in strong and weak signal conditions. For instance, at about 30 feet from a router with a 100-megabit connection, through a steel door, the HDX got 7.66Mbps down while the iPad showed 18.1Mbps.
Battery life is very good here: We got 7 hours, 44 minutes in our tests where we loop a video with the screen set to maximum brightness. That's 90 minutes more than the iPad Air; it's also 13 minutes longer than the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. With brightness notched down to half, the Kindle HDX 8.9" will surely hit Amazon's 12-hour estimated battery life.
Fire OS, Performance, and Apps
The HDX runs Amazon's Fire OS "Mojito" 3.0 on a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor. The Fire OS is based on Android and runs third-party Android apps, but it has veered far from the Google path; there are no Google apps here, and no Google Play store access. Instead, you get a simplified interface that's focused on surfing the Web, games, books, music, and video from the Amazon store.
Benchmarks are excellent, as this is a top-of-the-line processor: The Browsermark benchmark hit 3,155, the best we've seen on any similar device other than the iPad Air. Cloud-based acceleration makes some popular Web pages, such as the New York Times, appear even more quickly than this result would imply, often within a second or two.
The GFXBench graphics benchmark showed 39 frames per second, also good for this very high screen resolution. More importantly, the HDX blazed through various apps, including processor-intensive games like Asphalt 8 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
We go into a lot more detail on Fire OS 3.0 in our 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX review, so check that out for more details. A bunch of additional features are coming later this month, so I didn't have a chance to test them, including many enterprise security features, and the ability to wirelessly "fling" video to a TV using a Miracast adapter like a Netgear Push2TV box.
The flagship feature is still Mayday, Amazon's innovative new tech support system. When I worried that Amazon's Facebook integration would post to my news feed, for instance, I summoned Mayday, and got Molly, a cheerful rep who told me that nothing would be posted without my permission and then led me through the steps to unlink Facebook from my tablet.
The Mayday advisors can help with tablet operation, but they won't assist on questions of taste. When I asked a Mayday advisor for a great book to read or app to play, they could direct me to a particular part of the store, say science-fiction best-sellers, but wouldn't commit to a specific title.
I also like FreeTime, Amazon's parental control system. This feature lets you fill out approved content lists for several different children and set separate daily time limits for books, videos, and apps. It's mostly useful for very small children, though, because as our analyst, Eugene Kim found, there's no Web access at all in FreeTime. Not even filtered or whitelisted.
With the tablet, you get $5 in Amazon Appstore credit, and you're likely to find most of the Android apps you want in the store. (Yes, there's Candy Crush Saga!) I noticed that titles in Amazon's store are sometimes behind, or are older versions than you'd find in the Google Play store, though. For instance, Amazon offers a version behind both of our Geekbench and Antutu benchmarks, and the store lacks some of the more recent Kemco RPGs. As for Amazon competitors, Netflix and Hulu are present; Nook and YouTube are not (although you can access YouTube through the HDX's very speedy Web browser). If you're sufficiently techy, you can sideload any Android app by using a USB cable.
Our 16GB model had 11.36GB of free storage. There's no memory card slot, but Amazon gives you unlimited cloud storage for content you buy through the company, plus 5GB for your own personal files.
The 8-megapixel main camera and 1-megapixel front camera here aren't great. Painfully limited dynamic range seems to be the main problem; in low light, the cameras drop down to shutter speeds that are pretty much guaranteed to introduce blur, while strong light blows out bright areas and causes some serious lens flare. HDR mode didn't help one bit. The camera is good enough for video chatting, but not much else.
The front camera records 720p video at 30 frames per second, while the rear camera grabs 1080p video at the same frame rate. Exposure on the front camera was way too bright, so my skin looked ghost-white. A video recorded with the main camera indoors had an annoying pulsing affect, outdoors, it looked washed out.
Amazon says our test tablet had "near-final" firmware, typical manufacturer-speak for "if you find a problem, we're going to hustle to fix it with a firmware update." Let's hope they're hustling.
Playing back music and video is an Amazon specialty. The twin back-ported speakers are lifted slightly off the ground by the angle of the back, and as a result music sounds warm. It's a decent volume, although not room-filling. While the HDX plays MP3, AAC, FLAC and OGG music, and H.264, MPEG4, Xvid and DivX video up to 1080p, the interface is really oriented towards buying content from Amazon. Streaming movies through Amazon Prime instant video is just plain terrific. You get razor-sharp in high definition, with rich surround sound. I wouldn't sit more than three feet away, but held at arm's length, it's an immersive experience.
Amazon's Fire OS adds little bits and bobs of information to your media experience. Pause a movie, and you can see who's in the scene and what song is playing. Play a song purchased recently from Amazon, and you get lyrics, too.
The last-gen Kindle Fire's HDMI port is gone, replaced by wireless TV streaming via Miracast, so you need a compatible TV or a box like Netgear's $59 Push2TV adapter. Miracast streaming quality is highly dependent on how crowded your room is with Wi-Fi networks. With fewer networks online than when I tested the previous Kindle Fire HDX, I had no problem streaming The Avengers in 1080p, although Asphalt 8 still had a little too much lag to drive.
Comparisons and Conclusions
The Kindle Fire is not a hard-core productivity tablet; it's designed mostly for consuming media from Amazon. While it's certainly possible to load it up with your own content and office apps, that isn't what its super-simple interface is made for. You might notice that in general, the HDX has better specs than the iPad Air at a lower price. It's just less ambitious from a software perspective, which makes it a better tablet for some people but makes the iPad a better tablet for more people.
If you want to surf the Web, play games, read books, and watch Amazon Instant Video on a big screen, the HDX is absolutely perfect. And thanks to FreeTime, it's a great kids' tablet, too.
All of these things can also be said for the $229, 7-inch HDX, a very similar tablet. You're primarily paying more for the bigger screen and longer battery life here (as well as the rear camera, which isn't much of a prize.)
Our Editors' Choice for larger tablets, the Apple iPad Air, is also great for books and Instant Video, and it has a much broader choice of great apps available, but it's also $120 more. And if you're not interested in Amazon video or advanced games, and can put up with a slower Web browser, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ is now $149, an amazing value for a pretty good tablet.