Kindle Fire HDX 7" tablet review: Elegant hardware, but a frustrating experience

Summary:The Kindle Fire HDX is an elegantly designed gateway to Amazon's walled garden. Some will find that reassuring, others claustrophobic.

The Kindle Fire HDX is the latest model of Amazon's tablet . It's primarily designed for consumers with the emphasis on reading, watching videos and listening to music. However, Amazon has also added some features that may make it appeal to the business audience too .

kindle-hdx-7-main
The IPS screen on the Kindle Fire HDX 7" has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, giving a pixel density of 323ppi. image: Amazon

Kindle Fire HDX 7": The hardware

The Kindle Fire HDX 7" is an anonymous black slab from the front, but a nicely chamfered trapezoid from the back, which endows it with some unexpected cubist cool. The large Amazon branding across the back is slightly offputting but it is appropriate — make no mistake, Amazon's services loom very large over this device.

The rounded edges of the screen make it very easy to hold, and it's light enough (303g for the wi-fi-only model we tested) to make carrying and holding it extremely easy, as does the non-slip plastic chassis. It's very thin — a mere nine millimetres deep — but feels reassuringly solid.

Unusually, both the power button and volume rocker are on the back on the device, at index-finger-height. This is mildly disconcerting at first, but actually a nice design feature, making it easy to adjust volume while watching video without pausing (that's assuming you're using the device in landscape mode, which seems to be the default). There is a 720p front camera of adequate quality, but no rear camera. If you want to see what's inside, take a look at the pics from the teardown .

Speakers are on the back of the unit, and as a result tend to project sound away from you rather than towards you. This is most noticeable in noisy environments, where I found myself turning the device over to listen, which is hardly ideal.

The charging point and the headphone jack are the only ports on the side (there's no SD card slot to upgrade your storage).

The much-vaunted 'beyond HD' 323ppi touchscreen (7in., 1,920 by 1,200 pixels) is crisp, although perhaps not quite as sumptuous as the screen on the Nokia 2520 (although according to one set of benchmarks it outperforms the iPad mini). Unsurprisingly it's a very good tablet for reading; and watching video is also an excellent experience, with good viewing angles.

The quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor runs at 2.2GHz and, with 2GB of RAM in support, delivers a very smooth and responsive experience with no hint of lag.

Software

I tested out the ad-supported model, which means the first thing you'll notice is the lock screen, which will display an advert — for a book, a game or a Kindle add-on. You can pay an extra £10 to get the ad-free version, which I'd recommend: I found this quite offputting.

The lock screen is another harbinger of what you'll find inside the tablet: at times I found using the Kindle Fire was a little too much like surfing the web in a shopping mall — at every turn Amazon wants to sell you something.

The device runs Fire OS 3.0 'Mojito', which is Amazon's fork of Google's Android. That means Amazon has been able to customise the software with its own features, particularly around the user interface.

Because it's an Amazon device, you get immediate access to one of the world's largest content ecosystems — over 27 million movies, TV shows, songs, apps, games, books, audiobooks and magazines. Clearly this is one of the device's major selling points.

One nice touch is the inclusion of a Mayday button offering live tech support, which Amazon promises is available at any time — with the goal of connecting you to support within 15 seconds. Amazon's tech support staff can talk you through how to use to the tablet and answer queries: you can see them in a small video window, but they can't see you. When we tested the service, the support desk responded within the target 15 seconds and knew enough to answer our queries.

It's a neat little addition and possibly reflects the market the Kindle is going after: tech beginners who might want to upgrade from a Kindle reader to a tablet but don't have extensive computing skills. As such, those of us who provide unofficial tech support to various friends and family may well end up recommending Kindles if only for the peace and quiet. Mayday might also be a handy tool for tablets in a BYOD setting, taking some pressure off the corporate help desk.

Other Kindle-only features include X-Ray for Music, which offers song lyrics, and X-Ray for Movies & TV, which uses IMDb to offer trivia or plot details while you're watching videos. If you've got a Playstation 3 or a 2013 Samsung TV, you can use the Second Screen feature to display video from the Fire on the TV screen, using the tablet for playback controls or X-Ray content, for example. The bundled Silk browser is workmanlike, although the reader mode that strips out most of the formatting on a web page to deliver an easier reading experience is an nice touch.

What about the apps?

Using Fire OS also means you won't be downloading apps from Google Play like most other Android users; instead, you're restricted to Amazon's own app store. By using a fork of Android, Amazon has created a walled garden of apps, which means, for example, that you can't currently view content from Channel 4, ITV or Channel 5 thanks to the lack of Flash support on the tablet and the fact that there's no alternative app.

These and other 'missing' apps may appear at some point, but it's worth bearing in mind that developers inevitably go for the biggest and most lucrative markets first, starting with iOS, then Android, then Windows Phone. Another example: although Spotify is now free on iOS on Fire OS, you still only get a 48-hour free trial.

All tablets try to tie you into a particular content ecosystem, whether that's via iOS, Windows or Android. However, Amazon's Fire OS fork is probably about the same priority for developers as Windows Phone — at least, that's how it seems given the limited set of apps in the Amazon Appstore. This is worth keeping in mind if you're particularly app-hungry.

Amazon has touted the Kindle's enterprise-ready credentials , with support for encryption, Kerberos Intranet, secure wi-fi connections and VPN integration. Despite Amazon's claims, this remains a content-consumption device rather than an enterprise workhorse, especially because of its small size - the 8.9-inch model is a better fit for business.

But although documents look great on the 323ppi screen, getting them there in the first place isn't that easy if you want to email a document directly to a Kindle; you first need to authorise the sender's email address, which is a bit fiddly to set up, alternatively you can sync them from a computer, clip them from the web or transfer via USB. Mostly it's probably just easier to email them to your own account (I found Gmail worked well with the tablet's built-in email application).

Conclusion

If you are heavily invested (intellectually and financially) in Amazon's content ecosystem of books, music, film, magazines and audio books, then the Kindle Fire HDX will deliver a rich experience. If you've spread your content around or don't really want to haul it out of other silos, or are just looking for a handy pocket-sized tablet, then you might find it somewhat claustrophobic.

Alternatives

Two obvious alternatives come to mind, depending on your choice of entertainment ecosystem: the iPad Mini with Retina display and Google's Nexus 7.

Pros

  • Sturdy design
  • Great screen quality
  • Mayday service helps with technical problems
  • Enormous Amazon content library

Cons

  • Limited number of apps
  • Emphasis on Amazon services

Specifications

Processor  Quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor running at 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM
Display  1,920-by-1,200-resolution 7in. IPS touchscreen (323 ppi); video playback up to 1080p; max brightness over 400 nits
Dimensions  186mm x 128mm x 9.0mm
Weight  303g (wi-fi-only); 311g (LTE + wi-fi)
Storage  16GB (10.9GB available to user), 32GB (25.5GB available to user) or 64 GB (54.3GB available to user) of internal storage; unlimited cloud storage for Amazon content
Battery life  Up to 11 hours of reading, surfing the web on wi-fi, watching video or listening to music; up to 17 hours of battery life when only reading
Charge time  Fully charges in under 4 hours using the included Kindle PowerFast power adapter
Wi-fi connectivity  Dual-band, dual-antenna wi-fi (802.11a/b/g/n) with support for WEP, WPA and WPA2 security using password authentication; does not support ad-hoc (or peer-to-peer) wi-fi connections.
4G connectivity  4G LTE wireless networks with HSPA+, HSDPA, and with Vodafone wireless, EDGE/GPRS fallback; compatible mobile networks using LTE Band 3 (1800MHz), Band 7 (2600MHz) and Band 20 (800MHz).
Ports  USB 2.0 (micro-B connector), 3.5 mm stereo jack
Sensors  Ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS (4G model)


Prices

Wi-Fi-only: £209 (16GB), £239 (32GB), £269 (64GB)
Wi-Fi + LTE: £279 (16GB), £309 (32GB), £339 (64GB)


Verdict

7/10

Topics: Tablets, Android, Consumerization, Mobility, Reviews

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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