Imagine your perfect full-sized tablet. It's light, thin, has a gorgeous high-resolution display, multiple-day battery life, powerful speakers, and a cutting-edge processor. The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is all these things and more. From a hardware and engineering standpoint, it is truly a marvel. And, for a certain class of buyer, it may very well be that "perfect" full-sized tablet.
When I reviewed the Fire HD (7") last year, I came to a similar conclusion - I was wowed by the hardware (perhaps excepting the processor, which was a laggardly dual-core TI OMAP), but the software made it difficult to recommend for enthusiasts like you and me. Unfortunately, the story is largely the same this year, except Amazon's Fire OS feels all the more limited, I think, because the Fire HDX 8.9 really is such a great device.
Multitasking is archaic even by iOS standards. Amazon's home-brewed browser, Silk, is still painfully bad. User customization options remain stripped down to the bare essentials - you can't even change the wallpaper in Fire OS. Much of this is by design. Amazon wants a tablet that's easy for almost anyone to pick up and use, regardless of age or technical experience. It does not want users to get lost in a seemingly endless array of menus and settings, rather, Fire OS is all about putting content front and center, and guiding you into Amazon's various content-distributing properties.
That's not to say Fire OS is a complete failure in the functional sense, though. Quite the contrary - Fire OS is easy to navigate, runs very smoothly on that Snapdragon 800 processor, and I personally find the layout to be a welcome departure from Android, iOS, or Windows. It's not the most beautiful interface ever designed, but it feels bespoke to the Fire in a way that even the heavier UI layers from the likes of Samsung and LG can't approach. Once you get used to the way things are done in Amazon's world, some of it even starts to make a lot of sense.
Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
- Display: 8.9" 2560x1600 IPS LCD (339 DPI)
- Processor: 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
- GPU: Adreno 330
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 16 / 32 / 64GB
- Camera: 8MP rear / 720p front
- Ports: microUSB
- Wireless: Wi-Fi A/B/G/N, LTE (AT&T / Verizon, separate versions)
- OS: Fire OS 3.1 "Mojito"
- Weight: 374g
- Thickness: 7.8mm
- Battery: size unknown
- Price: $380-580 (buy)
- Incredibly thin and light. The Fire HDX 8.9 is truly a joy to hold - it weighs only a couple of ounces more than a Nexus 7. The soft-touch plastic is also great.
- It's quite quick when it comes to most tasks, as one would hope considering it's powered by a Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor.
- Fire OS is incredibly easy to navigate. Anyone could figure this out, and it'd be pretty hard to screw anything up.
- Mayday is a genuinely cool feature, and I doubt anyone will be executing it as well as Amazon has any time soon.
- Good speakers plus a great display means the HDX 8.9 is very much suited for watching videos and playing games.
- Excellent battery life, and Amazon promises a 50% increase in longevity during times when you're reading in the Kindle app.
The Not So Good
- Fire OS is maddeningly limited - no customization (wallpaper, keyboard, launcher, browser - you're stuck with all of 'em), few if any innovative software features, and a take-it-or-leave-it interface layout.
- The web browser, Silk, has managed to get precisely 0% better since the last Fires. It sucks. Really, really bad. And you can't replace it, because Amazon has banned 3rd-party browsers from the Appstore. Hooray!
- Parts of Fire OS, like the Appstore, still feel slow at times.
- The Appstore's selection has gotten better, but some key apps (Dropbox, anything by Google) and many newer games are noticeably absent.
Design and build quality
I really love holding the Fire HDX 8.9. It's so incredibly light (and thin), at just 13.5 oz, that it almost has me thinking my iPad Air is a tad ungainly. If you were to ask me how a full-sized tablet should feel when it's in my hand, the HDX 8.9 would be the only adequate answer I could provide. While it doesn't feel as solid as the Air (there is noticeable movement and sound when you twist is at the ends), the HDX 8.9 still feels very luxurious and premium. The soft-touch plastic has an inviting, smooth texture not unlike the Nexus 5.
I do feel, though, that Amazon made some odd choices with the HDX 8.9's design. For example, the power button and volume rocker are both on the rear of the tablet. They are positioned such that when you hold the HDX 8.9 in landscape mode, either is readily accessible to your index finger. I understand the logic, but I think that most people have become so ingrained either with side-mounted buttons or a physical home button that these are an "innovation" no one was really asking for. It's not the end of the world, but I'm still befuddled by them every time I pick up the HDX, especially if I do so in portrait mode, meaning I have to feel out which end the power button is on. The only cue as to the portrait orientation of the HDX from the front is the camera, which is on the right if you're holding it such that the power button is at the top of the back.
There's also the glossy Amazon logo inset on the back of the HDX and the glossy strip of plastic along the edge with the speakers and rear camera. This seemingly random texturizing detracts from the soft-touch plastic feel, and I don't think it does much for the HDX's exterior aesthetics much, either. Speaking of, the HDX isn't anything to drool over in the looks department. The angled tapering along the backside simply doesn't look attractive to me, and the glossy plastic's propensity for attracting fingerprints doesn't help the situation.
But really, the lightness and the soft-touch plastic make up for these shortcomings easily. The HDX 8.9 is so easy to handle that quibbling about things like button placement and glossy plastic is a bit unfair to the genuine achievement Amazon's made here from an engineering standpoint. It's just so damn light. That means you'll be able to hold it longer, have a lower chance of dropping it, and if you do drop it, that it's less likely to break. Could the bezels around the sides be a bit narrower? Sure. But overall, the form factor is a total win.
What's not a total win, however, is the hard shell stand "Origami" case Amazon sells as a $55 add-on. Instead of using a snap-in, snap-out mechanism for fitting the tablet in the case, strong magnets pull it into position, making it much easier to remove the HDX from its shell than probably any other such case on the market. The problem is that magnets are really, really heavy. The HDX goes from featherweight to blunt-force weapon in no time inside the Origami case, and all of that lightness, thinness, and loveliness goes with it. The back of the Origami case folds into a stand using, you guessed it, more magnets, but the whole thing feels more like an over-engineered party trick than it does a genuinely useful accessory. That said, I'd feel very confident of the safety of the HDX inside this case, as it's very thick and tough-feeling.
Display and battery life
Note: sorry about the dust - I was shooting outside and I just couldn't keep it off the display long enough for photos!
You're not going to find a better one. The HDX's display looks absolutely brilliant. Bright, crisp, and vivid. Viewing angles are superb, colors balanced, and sharpness is top-notch at well over 300DPI.
Some have complained about blue tinting around the edges of the HDX's display, though Amazon has retorted that this is fully intentional, caused by the blue LEDs the HDX uses as a backlight as opposed to the more traditional white. The blue LEDs increase power efficiency and achieve more accurate colors according to Amazon, and I believe it. The HDX has truly superb battery life, I've had it idle for days on end and the amount of drain has been minimal. When actually using it, the battery drains fairly slowly as long as you're using automatic brightness.
Amazon estimates 12 hours of normal, display-on usage is possible with the HDX, and that figure goes to 18 hours if all you're doing is reading in the Kindle app. When you launch the Kindle app, a number of non-essential system services are turned off and the processor throttled to eek out that extra 50% of longevity. If you're buying an HDX primarily as an eReader which doubles as a tablet when needed, this is a pretty awesome feature.
As tablets go, the HDX 8.9 is, if not the best, up there with the very best of its competitors in both the display and battery life departments. How the battery fares on the LTE-enabled variants, I'm not sure, though I assume there will be a noticeable reduction over the Wi-Fi only models.
The Fire HDX 8.9 has two speakers, both of which point out the back of the device. If my recollection serves me well, they sound almost exactly as they did on the HD 7" last year. No louder, no better, no worse. For a tablet, the quality is very good, with some real (albeit shallow) depth to the sound, though volume is a bit lacking next to my iPad.
For watching movies or TV in bed or on the couch on a quiet evening in, the HDX can get the job done. Despite there being no rear openings for the speakers on Amazon's Origami case for the HDX, the sound actually becomes louder and more focused when using it, because it is forced upward rather than out the back of the tablet. So that's at least one good use for that tank of a case.
The HDX 8.9 has a rear camera (unlike the smaller 7), but it's not anything worth getting excited over. The quality of the photos bolsters that conclusion - while reasonably capable outdoors and in good lighting, the HDX 8.9's rear shooter is far from a primary reason to consider it over other tablets.
Low-light shots produced ample noise, though detail was decent, and shutter lag was definitely appreciable.
This brings us back yet again to the Origami case, which at first glance rather suspiciously lacks an opening for the rear camera. Oversight? Laziness? Nope - the Origami case has a neat little party trick up its sleeve. Because the HDX simply slides and magnetizes into the case, it's also removed rather easily, but Amazon was more clever than just suggesting you take it out. Simple hold the HDX in landscape mode and press up on the tablet with both your thumbs with moderate force, and it will slide up roughly 1/5 of the case, exposing the camera and automatically launching the camera app. Alright, hats off to Amazon for that one - that's a genuinely neat idea.
The Fire HDX lineup is one of the few aside from the iPad currently offering more than two storage options, with 16, 32, and 64GB variants of the HDX available in both sizes. On the 16GB model I'm reviewing, roughly 11.5GB of that is available out of the box, so you can substract about 5.5GB from the remaining two capacities to figure out what they're working with.
Fire OS doesn't look all that different on the surface compared to last year's iteration of Amazon's Android mutant, but there's been a considerable overhaul of some functionality and features throughout the system.
The first thing to keep in mind about Fire OS is that it is designed to do two things: A.) be simple, and B.) make you buy stuff on Amazon. Many people buying Kindle Fires are long-time standard Kindle owners who have never owned a real tablet, or less tech-savvy individuals who just happen to buy a lot of stuff on Amazon. I imagine a substantial number are also purchased for children. The enthusiast appeal of this tablet borders on negligible, and the way the OS is laid out goes to show Amazon is fully aware of this.
Your primary homescreen consists of a single pane, made up of a few elements. Up top, you have the persistent content navigation bar, which has headers leading to all of the various content you can consume or utilize on the HDX. Shopping, games, apps, books, music, videos, news, audiobooks, web browsing, photos, and documents all have dedicated shortcuts. The once-persistent universal search bar has also now been relegated to this area, freeing up some real estate. The universal search scours the web, your content libraries (Kindle, Instant Video, Amazon MP3, etc.), the Appstore, and Amazon's physical goods site for results. It's actually pretty clever.
Below this top bar you have the carousel, a list of your common and recent activities. Think of it like multitasking meets favorites. If you were watching a movie on Prime Instant Video, for example, it will show up in this carousel (complete with cover art) ready to pick up where you left off, have it been 3 minutes ago or 3 weeks. Your apps, in the order last launched, are also here. You can hold down on any of these items to add or remove a home shortcut for them, or remove them from the carousel (they will reappear if you launch them again, though).
Moving on, you have your home apps area. This is something of a curated app drawer - not all your apps will appear here. In fact, you can add or remove as many as you like, including shortcuts to Amazon content. For your full list of apps, you need to go to the "apps" header up top, which gives you two tabs to choose from - cloud and on device. On device obviously means the apps physically installed on your tablet, while the cloud area lists all those you've purchased previously (remember, every download on the Appstore is a purchase, even if it's free. Yeah, weird, I know).
And that's really the depth of the OS. There aren't any wacky software features, no intense settings menus to dive into, and basically zero customization options. You can't even change the wallpaper in Fire OS. Yes, really. Amazon has it locked down tight. The settings menu houses only the bare necessities (it is accessed through the notification bar).
There are a few standout items, though, worth looking into.
First, Amazon's browser, Silk. It sucks. I have never used such a horrid mobile browser. It's incredibly slow, clunky, and generally unpleasant to use. It's based on the Chromium project, but all Amazon seems to have succeeded in doing here is making an even slower mobile browser than Google has in Chrome for Android. Oh, and fun fact: Amazon doesn't allow 3rd party browsers (or launchers, or keyboards) on the Appstore, which is basically a giant middle finger to its customers who are bound to hate Silk unless their only previous browsing experience has been with IE6 on an anemic single-core Intel Atom netbook with Windows XP and 1GB of RAM. Seriously, this is such a joke.
Next, the email app. The stock email client Amazon included with last year's Fire HD was an abomination, frankly. It was slow, unintuitive, and it handled Gmail threads and labels extraordinarily poorly (eg, didn't handle them at all). The new email app is miles better, and I actually am fine using it for my personal email. My work account gets too much automated mail to manage without Gmail's divided inbox tabs, but I think most people will get along swimmingly here. Good job, Amazon.
The most-touted feature of the Fire HDX has undoubtedly been the Mayday button, a simple and easy way to connect to Amazon tech support. Just hit "Mayday" in the notification bar pull-down, and if the service is available (so far it's always been), just hit connect to speak to a live human being. I tested it and was connected with Clark in under 15 seconds. You get a live video feed of the person you're speaking to (they only see your screen / hear you speak), and they'll guide you through any problems you're having. This is genuinely impressive stuff, and for less tech-savvy individuals, could be a serious reason to consider an HDX over an iPad or Android tablet of similar price.
The Appstore appears to have changed little from the version on last year's Fire HDs, which is a bit sad. I find the layout to be extremely cluttered and difficult to navigate, it's just really hard to explore content in the way you'd want to on a tablet. Apps are what make tablets fun and useful, and working through the Appstore just kind of feels like a chore - it's so busy. It's a bit slow, too, and that certainly doesn't help. As far as app selection is concerned, the Appstore is probably in a better state than when you last visited it. Most major apps are on there now (though some glaring omissions like Dropbox are still quite regrettable), and most are reasonably close to being up to date. Game selection is a bit lacking. Some apps even have special Kindle Fire UI enhancements, like Yelp, which has a tablet interface not yet available on the Play Store version.
Otherwise, Fire OS is pretty basic. It's just one big portal to consuming stuff on Amazon, whether it be apps, movies, physical goods, books, or music. Fire OS is all about pushing you into those content channels, and making it all but impossible to get lost at any time. Honestly, even compared to the iPad, I think Fire OS may take the crown for user-friendliness - it's just so damn simple. Everything is very clearly labeled (a la the navigation ribbon), and Amazon vigorously enforces the boundaries.
The Fire HDX is generally very good at what it sets out to do. If your primary interest in a Kindle is in using apps, playing games, watching movies, and reading, this really is an excellent tablet for the money. You're getting incredible hardware - I really cannot get over how light this thing is - at an incredible price. If you don't mind missing out on Google's apps and having a really crappy web browser, it's hard not to recommend the HDX.
However, if you're in the enthusiast camp, it's simply not worth it. Even iOS has access to most of Google's app suite (and a great browser), and to me, the overall experience on the HDX is utterly crippled in this regard. I just can't do without Google's stuff, and I cannot suffer through the monstrosity that is Silk when no alternatives are allowed. I simply never felt compelled to pick up the HDX and play with it.
Were the Fire HDX to [officially] run a Google-approved version of Android, well, it would be an interesting proposition indeed. Of course, that's wishful thinking - Amazon has shown no sign of giving up on the Fire OS strategy, and even continues to keep its completely Android-ready Instant Video app bespoke to the Fire lineup. Perhaps if Mr. Bezos loosened his death grip upon the Kindle experience just a little, he could expand its appeal a lot.