Amazon distancing itself from Apple's playbook with Kindle Fire HDX

Forget virtual assistants. Amazon is installing real people into the latest Kindle Fires.

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SEATTLE---School is back in session, and the holiday season is around the corner. Pumpkin spice lattes aside, it's also the perfect time of year for a new Kindle Fire release.

First launched two years ago, the Kindle Fire brand has grown to be one of the best-selling products across Amazon's vast empire.

See also: Amazon Kindle Fire wants in at the workplace with Fire OS 3.0 | Amazon debuts revamped Kindle Fire HDX range, Fire OS 3.0 (pictures)

Just honing in on a few of the new features added to its tablet brand, it is clear that Amazon is now moving well away from whatever playbook Apple has established for the tablet market and into new territory.

The debut of HDX series is a markedly subdued occasion compared to the flashy affair that Amazon threw together at the historic Barker Hangar in Santa Monica at this time last year , calling in the technorati from coast to coast.

This time, however, Amazon invited just a fraction of that media pool to its highly buzzed-about (but still evolving) South Lake Union headquarters in Seattle for a more intimate introduction with the company's founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos.

The new owner of the Washington Post Company met with reporters in tiny groups to offer a true hands-on look at the new devices.

Touted to be smaller, thinner, and lighter than their predecessors, many of the hardware specs span both the 7-inch and 8.9-inch models. Here's a glance:

  • Operating system: Based on Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean), but built upon significantly by Amazon's developers to produce Fire OS 3.0 ( more on that in a separate article )

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 2.2Ghz quad-core processor; touted to offer three times better CPU action and four times better on the GPU

  • Memory doubled to 2GB of RAM

  • More lamination on the display for visibility from more angles with less glare

  • Front-facing cameras

The only major differences between the two (aside from dimensions and weight) can be found on the camera and screen resolutions. While the 7-inch model lacks a rear camera, the 8.9-inch version comes with an 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash.

HDX display technology

This is the first spot where not only the upgrades become immediately evident, but also Amazon's tablet business strategy as well.

I only had a short window of time to demo the new tablets on Tuesday. The HDX display was the first time since I saw Apple's trademark Retina display on the iPhone 4 in 2010, and without thinking, I said, "Wow."

The resolution on the 7-inch edition has been bumped up from 1,280x800 to 1,920x1,200 at 323 pixels per inch. The 8.9-inch one was boosted to a 2,560x1,600 resolution with 339 pixels per inch.

Amazon reps boasted that the HDX technology includes 100 percent RGB representation (meaning more vivid colors across the board), and the difference between these models and the previous generation (and arguably any other tablet aside from the iPad 4) is clear cut.

Amazon also added a "real-time" contrast sensor on top of an ambient light sensor that automatically lights up individual pixels (rather than the whole screen) based on current lighting conditions, either outdoors or indoors.

True, Amazon might be playing catch-up to Apple in this regard, but there is something else baked into the HDX series that might be unlike anything we've seen before on a tablet — or any device, for that matter.

Call for "Mayday" >>

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Step aside, Siri?

Bezos was more keen in showing off the software enhancements on the Kindle Fire, and if there is only one to write home about, it's Mayday.

"If you look at Amazon's history, we're uniquely situated to be good at this feature," Bezos argued. "It's the marriage of high tech and heavy lifting, and we've done a lot of that over the years."

Gathering just a handful of us around him at a conference table like children getting ready for story time in grade school, Bezos introduced what he described as a "completely unique feature" unlike anything on the market.

Rather than just settling for voice recognition and virtual assistant technology, Mayday taps into one of Amazon's most well-known and prided characteristics: 24/7 customer service.

Filed under the Settings menu, Mayday opens a small pop-up box on the screen, connecting the user directly to a live customer service agent for free at anytime from anywhere with an internet connection. The user can see the customer service agent, but not vice versa, to which Bezos quipped that customers won't have to worry about what they're wearing when trying to get answers quickly.

Customer service agents can see the user's screen on their end and direct the user step by step, offering help for complicated tasks from configuring VPN access to simpler activities such as adjusting the lock screen. The one thing they can't see, assured Amazon reps, is sensitive data. Any time a user has to enter a password or credit card information, the user's screen is blacked out on the agent's side.

Amazon is also aiming to promise response times within 15 seconds or less, and Bezos specified that Amazon will be ready for a heavy wave of requests at launch as well as on Christmas Day, the customer call center's busiest time of year.

"If you look at Amazon's history, we're uniquely situated to be good at this feature," Bezos argued. "It's the marriage of high tech and heavy lifting, and we've done a lot of that over the years. We already have thousands of technical support reps for Kindle."

"There's no way to build that feature unless you can operate throughout that entire stack," Bezos stressed, admitting that "we could never do this without our cloud capabilities."

Mayday represents the power and breadth of Amazon's diverse portfolio in a nutshell, being that it taps into every stack in the layer outlined by Bezos. That stack, according to the company chief, consists of hardware, an operating system, key apps, the cloud, and services.

"There's no way to build that feature unless you can operate throughout that entire stack," Bezos stressed, admitting that "we could never do this without our cloud capabilities."

He added that this is true for the second-screen feature being added to the Kindle Fire operating system and all the synchronization features that Amazon provides.

Amazon is preparing Mayday for international support, but it will initially only be available in the United States.

Low-end market covered

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It could also be argued that Amazon is more interested in taking on the low-end mobile market than Apple is based on the recent (and underwhelming, to some) introduction of the iPhone 5c . (That is, of course, in reference to tablets. Bezos remained mum about any Amazon-made smartphone rumors, replying only that he doesn't like to speculate about "future road maps.")

While the most basic configurations of the HDX tablets are still cheaper than Apple's 16GB iPad 4 and iPad mini, Amazon is going toward the bottom even further with a "new" 7-inch Kindle Fire HD.

Essentially, it is a new device with some familiar parts, taking the best processor and display technology of last year's high-end Kindle Fire models and putting them in a smaller package with less storage space (8GB) and a smaller price tag ($139).

However, there is no microphone on this lower-end model, meaning it does not support the Mayday feature.

Availability

Both models are up for pre-order now. Shipping first on October 18, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX will start at $229 for a 16GB Wi-Fi only model. A 4G version will be available for $329 and will start shipping on November 14. Along with AT&T, Verizon has been added as an available wireless carrier.

The 8.9-inch 16GB Wi-Fi HDX will retail for $379 and start shipping on November 7. The 4G version will cost $479 and start shipping on December 10.

Amazon is also trotting out some new accessories for the Kindle Fire, namely some Origami-style magnetic stands available in seven different shades for both form factors.

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