Why you should buy a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (review)

After using the evaluation Kindle Fire HDX that Amazon sent me for a few days, I was so impressed I bought one of my own.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

I like to have a tablet on each mobile platform to keep up with what's new. That leads me to buy too many gadgets, but I only buy those I find to be outstanding. That was the case with the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 from Amazon. This tablet is so good it has replaced two tablets in my stable.

Kindle Fire HDX
Image: Amazon

Amazon sent me a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 to test recently and my review made it clear I was impressed by it. I found it to be so good it didn't take me long to buy one. Why I find it good enough to get my hard-earned cash can be detailed in several categories in which the Kindle Fire HDX shines.

The hardware

The full specs of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 are in the review so I won't rehash them. The model I bought is the 8.9-inch version, with 64GB of storage, and with integrated 4G LTE. 

See related: Kindle Fire HDX: Smooth operation, great screen (hands on) | Belkin QODE Keyboard Case for Kindle Fire HDX 8.9: Poor design at a price

The high-resolution display on the HDX is simply gorgeous. Everything displays crisply, and colors are bright and vivid. I tend to use tablets in both landscape and portrait orientations, and the HDX handles both nicely.

Amazon's Fire OS used on the Kindle is not only designed to be easy to use, it is very efficient.

The 8.9-inch screen of the HDX is almost as big as that of the iPad Air, which I also own, but the Kindle only weighs about the same as the much smaller iPad mini. This makes a big difference when using the Kindle for extended periods, something I do regularly.

The back of the HDX is not slippery so it can be used securely in the hand. This is something I can't do with the iPads as I find them too slippery, and I've almost dropped them several times. That's not the case with the Kindle.

The power and volume buttons are on the back of the Kindle, and I find them easy to use as a result. Most other tablets have them located on the side of the devices, which forces the OEMs to make them too small compared to these on the HDX. It quickly becomes intuitive to use them by feel as they are near the fingers when holding the tablet.

Audio is not overly loud on the Kindle, but it has a nice sound with Dolby technology. Listening to music and watching video is a nice experience due to the sound quality.

Integrated LTE is something I get on tablets when available. It's nice to have high-speed connectivity when Wi-Fi hotspots are not around. I don't like using my phone as a hotspot as it ties up my phone and kills the battery quickly.

The LTE option on the Kindle Fire HDX is better than that on the iPad Air as it works on both Verizon and AT&T. This makes it possible to switch carriers, something you can't do with an iPad.

Next: The user experience

The UX

More than any other reason, the user experience (UX) of the Kindle Fire HDX convinced me to buy it. Amazon's Fire OS used on the Kindle is not only designed to be easy to use, it is very efficient.

Kindle Fire HDX home screen
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Android purists will argue that a full Android UI is superior to Fire OS, but I've come to disagree with that view. The Kindle home screen is a gem of a design, as it puts the things you use most where they are most easily accessed. This is accomplished in three areas of the home screen: the carousel, apps at the bottom, and the thin strip of content at the very top of the display.

The carousel is what makes Fire OS such a joy to use. Every time you open an app or some content, the icon for it automatically appends on the left of the carousel. It's common in normal use to see apps, ebooks, music album art, and preview thumbnails of documents side-by-side in the carousel. This makes is simple to return to something you were doing earlier.

I have lots of apps installed, but I suppose like many users I tend to use five or six of them most of the time. Given the way the carousel works, my main apps are right there on the screen a tap away. The carousel content changes dynamically, and that makes it subtly powerful. It's like the Kindle always puts what you need right where it can do the most good. That's the mark of a great user interface (UI).

The app 'dock' at the bottom of the home screen isn't really a dock, it's a dynamic area where you pin the apps you want on the home screen. There can be as many or as few as you want, as all apps live in the Apps segment that's on the top of the screen.

This custom home screen area always displays one or two rows of icons in landscape or portrait, respectively. You can pin any apps you want and put them in any order you prefer. This turns the bottom of the home screen into a dock of sorts. It's a convenient place to put your most frequently used apps for easy access, for those rare times when one is not right there on the carousel.

The thin strip of content categories along the top of the screen provide easy access to apps and content on both the Kindle and in the Amazon cloud. The Music category not only taps into your music library, both local and online, it also accesses the Amazon Cloud Player integrated right in the OS. There is no separate app to deal with to listen to music, just tap on an album on the music page (or on the carousel), and the music plays.

Kindle book content works the same way, and it's no surprise the HDX is a fantastic ebook reader. This is the best version of the Kindle app on any platform, which is how it should be for Amazon's tablet.

Fire OS is optimized for the good hardware used in the Kindle Fire HDX, and it's the smoothest Android tablet I've ever used. The interface and apps flow fluidly on the screen. There are no lags, nor herky-jerky scrolling. The HDX is pure joy to use.

Next: Sideloading apps; Value proposition; Is it better than the iPad Air?

Sideloading apps

The Kindle Fire HDX is firmly entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem, and that means there is no access to the Google Play Store. Apps must be purchased from the Amazon App Store, which has a much smaller selection than Google's. That said, I have yet to find an app I want that is not available in the Amazon store.

Amazon realizes that its app selection is not the best, so it has enabled the Kindle to accept sideloaded apps. These are apps you can find on the web and copy to the tablet over the micro-USB connection. This process is simple, and once the app is on the Kindle you install it. These work fine and greatly broaden the usefulness of the Kindle.

You can also install Google Apps through a process detailed on the web. I have Gmail, YouTube, Google Play Music, and Google Search installed on my Kindle through this method. It's straightforward and works well. You can actually install the Google Play store app, but it requires some serious hacking. I don't find I need it with the simpler method of sideloading apps.

The value proposition

My Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is configured the same as my iPad Air. They both have 64GB of storage, and LTE. I gave $829 for the iPad Air, a princely sum. That makes the Kindle a bargain at $579. That's a big difference in price, and factored into my decision to buy the HDX.

The Kindle Fire HDX has hardware just as good as that found in tablets costing much more. Some will argue that it's not real Android, but as detailed in this article I find it to be better than Google's version. Amazon has nailed it with the Kindle Fire HDX and Fire OS.

Kindle Fire HDX owners should not overlook the Origami Case from Amazon. This case is one of the best I've used on any platform, and is incredibly useful. See it in action on my review of the Kindle.

Is it better than the iPad Air?

No. It's different than the iPad, and some will like it better, others will like the iPad better. There are some things I like on the Kindle Fire HDX more than similar things on the iPad, and vice versa.

The Kindle Fire HDX has enterprise features built into the Fire OS. It has VPN capability, a full Office document viewer, and wireless printing, making it a good BYOD solution. Amazon also has WhisperCast, which allows the IT department to remotely support Kindles used in the workplace. This includes the ability to push corporate content to the work force using Kindles.

I don't recommend products over others as everyone has different things they like better than others. I like using my iPad Air. I enjoy using the Kindle Fire HDX.

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