Kindle Fire HDX 8.9-inch tablet review: Great hardware, but no iPad slayer yet

Summary:The larger HDX tablet boasts some impressive specs and Amazon fans will feel right at home, although others may miss the wider range of apps found elsewhere. Business users will enjoy its e-reader capabilities.

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9-inch tablet is the larger version of Amazon's latest tablet (find our review of the 7-inch model here ). While the target market is mainly aimed consumers, Amazon is also wooing business users: according to the books-to-cloud-computing giant, the Kindle Fire is the second most popular tablet in business use in the US. The latest model has additional features to further increase its workplace appeal.

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The IPS screen on the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9" has a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, giving a pixel density of 339ppi. Image: CNET.com

The hardware

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9" is an impressively trim package: it's 7.8mm thin and light (at 374g for the wi-fi-only model, it's significantly lighter than the 469g wi-fi iPad Air), yet reassuringly sturdy thanks to its magnesium chassis. It weighs in about a third lighter than the previous-generation Kindle Fire HD 8.9" (567g).

The bevelled edges of the screen make it fit very easily in the hand, which makes it perfectly comfortable to hold for the duration of a movie, for example. As with the 7-inch model, the power button and volume rocker are on the back of the device, at index-finger height if you're holding the tablet in the default landscape mode.

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The volume buttons are on the back of the tablet, at index-finger height when in landscape mode. Image: CNET.com

This positioning of the buttons is handy piece of design because it makes it easy to reach the controls without having to look away from the screen, when watching video, for example, and keeps the tablet's silhouette even cleaner — the Micro-USB port and headphone jack are the only connections to sully the sides.

The 2,560-by-1,600-pixel, 339ppi display is very good, and although I didn't like it quite as much as the Nokia 2520's, it has been the top performer in benchmarks. It delivers an excellent reading experience, with clear but not over-bright pages. I found the HDX as easy to use as an e-ink Kindle.

The 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor with 2GB of RAM ensures that there's no lag when switching between apps. Unlike the 7-inch model, the 8.9-inch unit has two cameras — 720p HD at the front and 8MP 1080p full-HD at the back.

Software

I tested out the ad-supported model, which is cheaper but displays an add-on the lock screen: paying an extra £10 for the 'without special offers' model will rid you of this irritation, and it's money well spent.

The device runs Fire OS 3.0 'Mojito', which is Amazon's fork of Google's Android OS, which has allowed Amazon to customise the operating system as it wants. One of the main selling points for this device is access to the Amazon content ecosystem — over 27 million movies, TV shows, songs, apps, games, books, audiobooks and magazines.

One handy addition is the 'Mayday' button, which offers live on-screen video tech support, with Amazon aiming to answer calls within 15 seconds. Amazon's support staff can help if you run into difficulties, and explain how various software components work.  As well as saving the time (and patience) of the more tech savvy friends and family, such a feature might also be useful in an enterprise setting, freeing the helpdesk from attending to the more trivial tasks.

Other Kindle-only features of note include X-Ray for Music, which offers song lyrics, and X-Ray for Movies and TV, which uses IMDb to offer trivia or plot details while you're watching videos. If you've got a Playstation or Samsung TV you can show video from the Fire on TV screen, using the tablet for playback controls or X-Ray content. Kindle FreeTime allows you to create a children's account with limited access to apps or browsing.

The bundled Silk browser is basic, but adequate — although the 'Reading View' that strips out most of the formatting on a web page to make for an easier read is a nice touch, turning over-busy web pages into a more relaxing reading experience.

All these additional features come with a trade-off under Fire OS rather than Android: you won't be downloading apps from Google Play, like most other Android users, but are restricted to Amazon's own, much smaller, Appstore.

By using a fork of Android, Amazon has created walled garden of apps, and 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. At the moment, Amazon's Fire OS fork is probably about the same priority for developers as Windows Phone.

One example: BBC content is available and looks great, but in the UK you can't currently view video content from the other national broadcasters  (Channel 4, ITV or Channel 5), as none have released a Fire OS app and the Silk browser doesn't support Flash out of the box.

Amazon does have an experimental streaming viewer that may help in some cases; downloading apps from alternative app stores is possible but unlikely to appeal to non-technical users and is not exactly encouraged by Amazon: "When you use applications from unknown sources, your Kindle and personal data are less secure and there is a risk of unexpected behaviour," you are warned.

However, all the basics are in place and there are workarounds for the absence of some apps — the baked-in email application did a nice job of displaying my Gmail, for example.

Amazon has touted the Kindle's enterprise-ready credentials, citing support for encryption, Kerberos Intranet, secure wi-fi connections and VPN integration — all welcome additions. The 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX is a better match for enterprise usage than its smaller 7-inch sibling, and I think is most likely to crop up in an enterprise setting as a handy device for reading documents. These (even simple Word documents) look very elegant on the Kindle, and I can see it finding a niche as an executive e-reader.

Getting documents onto the device is a little fiddly: if you want to email a document directly to a Kindle, you first need to authorise the sender's email address, for example. There are other options, though: sync them from a computer; clip them from the web; transfer via USB. The easiest way is to email them to yourself, of course. To do more than just read the documents you'll need to buy OfficeSuite Professional from Amazon Appstore.

Conclusion

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 inch is an impressive hardware package, and if you are already bought in to the Amazon world of books, music and more – or are already an Amazon Prime customer - then you will find it a very rich experience. Like the Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch its primary aim is to function as a gateway to Amazon's products and services, so if you are looking for a tablet for general usage and don't intend to make Amazon's services the heart of your digital life then you may find it a more limited experience.

At the moment the splendid hardware is held back by an underwhelming set of apps, and that app ecosystem is big part of the equation choosing a tablet. Business users will like its excellent e-reader capabilities which will make Word and Excel far more agreeable to consume. And if Amazon can persuade developers to start building more apps for Fire OS (likely to happen if HDX sales rocket) then this could quickly become the tablet to beat.

Alternatives

Two obvious alternatives come to mind, depending on your choice of entertainment ecosystem; the iPad Air or Nexus 10 are obvious contenders.

Pros

  • Sturdy, lightweight 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  2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 CPU, with Adreno 330 GPU, 2GB RAM
Display  
2,560-by-1600-resolution 8.9in. IPS touchscreen (339ppi), video playback up to 1080p
Dimensions  231mm x 158mm x 7.8mm
Weight  374g (wi-fi only) 384g (LTE + wi-fi)
Storage  16GB (10.6 GB available to user), 32GB (24.9 GB available to user), 64GB (54.3 GB available to user); unlimited cloud storage for Amazon content
Battery life  Up to 12 hours of reading, web surfing over wi-fi, video watching or music playback; up to 18 hours of battery life for reading only
Charging  Fully charges in under 4.5 hours using the included Kindle power adapter, or slightly longer with other micro-USB power adapters
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 with 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)
Camera  Front-facing 720p HD Camera, 8MP 1080p HD rear-facing camera

Prices

Wi-Fi-only: £339 (16GB), £379 (32GB), £419 (64GB)
Wi-Fi+LTE: £409 (16GB), £449 (32GB), £489 (64GB)

Verdict

8/10

Topics: Tablets, Amazon, Consumerization, 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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