Review: Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 4G LTE Wireless
Battling to claim a piece of the growing tablet audience and to succeed in its retail rivalry with Apple, Amazon clearly needed to produce a tablet with a larger display to compete with the iPad. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9, with a nearly 9-inch display, is the company's answer to that challenge. Making the proposition even sweeter is the tablet's availability in a Wi-Fi-only version ($299 for 16GB, $369 for 32GB) and a 4G LTE Wireless version ($499 for 32GB, $599 for 64GB). The 4G incarnation is especially compelling given its price and connectivity: It's the least-expensive large-screen 4G-equipped tablet on the market. Even so, there's no escaping the fact that you're buying into Amazon's ecosystem and way of doing things, and that could be a deal breaker for some people.
(Note: All prices include Amazon's advertising “offers” on the lock screen. To dump these marketing pitches, you'll have to ante up another $15.)
As with the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, Amazon's new tablet is largely defined by—and differentiated by—its tight integration with Amazon's retail and Web services. Both tablets use a customized version of Android 4.0, providing an environment that's not quite as hand-holding protective as Apple's walled garden, but is definitely not a window to the open frontier of ordinary Android. Amazon supports only a subset of the greater Android app universe, and it offers limited file-handling abilities. Offsetting those restrictions is the clean, friendly interface, which appeals most to the casual tablet newcomer who values the type of content Amazon offers—movies, TV shows, books, and music—above all else.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 has the same distinctive physical-design traits as its smaller sibling does, just in a bigger package. A large bezel, with rounded corners and curved edges, surrounds the screen. The tablet also sports a smooth, soft-touch back, with a decorative plastic accent running along the horizontal edges, and with dual-driver, rear-firing speakers mounted on either side. The buttons have identical placement as on the 7-inch tablet, sitting along the upper-right side when you hold the device horizontally—and they suffer from the same flat design that makes them hard to find by touch.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 feels solidly constructed; it’s like a tank, both in its design and its weight. This tablet's hefty feel is one of several disappointments, however. It's the first of a new class of 9-inch tablets (the Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ being another entry in the category), but it's also one of the heaviest models, at 1.25 pounds. Granted, that's noticeably and blissfully lighter than the 9.7-inch iPad is at 1.44 pounds; but the 10.1-inch Windows-based Asus VivoTab RT weighs 1.19 pounds, and the 9-inch Nook HD+ weighs 1.14 pounds.
When it comes to size and weight, tablets with 8.9-inch displays have the potential to hit the sweet spot. I first noticed this last year, when Samsung released its Galaxy Tab 8.9, one of just two tablets to ship at this oddball size until the new wave of competitors hit this season. The difference was in the weight: Samsung's 8.9-inch tablet was noticeably lighter than any of today's options, weighing just 1 pound. It also had a trimmer chassis, by nearly half an inch in the length and more than a quarter of an inch in the width. In contrast, however, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 measures 9.45 by 6.46 by 0.35 inches and feels clunky and awkward to hold. Perhaps the balance of the components makes it feel heavier than it is, or maybe the perception holds because the display is smaller compared with the screens on some similar-weight 10.1-inch tablets.
At the bottom edge of the display sit a Mini HDMI connection and a Micro-USB port. The latter supports data transfers as well as charging. Amazon doesn't include a power brick; that's an extra $20 cost (and, regrettably, it requires more space than its small footprint belies, since the USB cable attaches on the side instead of on the top of the brick). With Micro HDMI, at least, you don't have to buy a pricey proprietary adapter (cables range in price from $10 to $30).
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9's display has a lot going for it. At a resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels, the IPS display offers a pixel density of 254 pixels per inch, about the same as on the Nook HD+ and just 10 ppi less than the Apple iPad's Retina display.
As on the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, Amazon uses optical bonding on the 8.9 to mitigate glare and to produce clearer text and better colors. And as on other tablets with bonded displays—including the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD, the Acer Iconia Tab A700, the Toshiba Excite 7.7, and the Google Nexus 7—the process eliminates the pesky air gap that causes greater reflectivity and reduced contrast.
In side-by-side tests, the display on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 yielded mixed results. I prefer the color reproduction on the Nexus 7, and the detail of the Nexus 10: On both of those competing tablets, blacks are deeper, whites are whiter, and images look sharper than on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9. Some of that deficiency may be due to the Kindle Fire HD's software (more on that later). Text reproduction is good; with the tablet's initial release software, however, I saw more pixelation in text than I expected given the display's high pixel density.
The experience of working with a larger display is dependent on the apps that you use, and how optimized they are. Some of the apps that I tried looked positively dull, as if they were standard-definition broadcasts on a 1080p HDTV. Others looked better, more akin to 720p on a full 1080p TV. Even some of the apps that Amazon called out produced a mixed experience, which makes me worry that one of the challenges for consumers will be finding apps that truly take advantage of the display's resolution.
The 4G LTE and Wi-Fi versions of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 each use a 1.5GHz Texas Instruments OMAP4470 processor. In our benchmark tests, we found significant improvement over the OMAP4460 in the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD. On processor benchmarks such as AndEBench and Geekbench, the 8.9 performed better by about 20 to 25 percent. The difference was even more pronounced on tests such as GLBenchmark 2.5.1 Egypt HD Offscreen, in which the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 was substantially better, posting nearly double the frame rates of the 7-inch tablet (12.0 frames per second to 6.1 fps). On Egypt Classic Offscreen, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 produced a rate of 38 fps, more than double that of the Kindle Fire HD 7-inch, and the same as the rate of the Nvidia Tegra 3-based Asus Transformer Pad Infinity. On top of that, the 8.9 bested the 7-incher on our webpage load tests, doing about 10 percent better on Futuremark's Peacekeeper HTML5 test and about double that on the SunSpider test (there, the 8.9's score nearly matched that of the Apple iPad mini).
Oddly, though, in my hands-on trials, the 8.9-inch tablet was a bit sluggish to respond on occasion. Some graphics were jerky and not as smooth as on the Fire HD 7-inch. In addition, Amazon says the battery should last for about 10 hours, but I found that the tablet drained well faster than that during my casual use. (Our lab tests for battery life are still pending.)
Amazon equips the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD with Dolby Digital Plus audio, but I have to say that this feature was lost over the 8.9's surprisingly middling speakers. Loudness levels were sufficient, and some tracks sounded good (and, at times, about on a par with what I heard piped out of the Google Nexus 10). But when I played the 8.9 side by side with its 7-inch sibling, the 8.9's audio (as delivered through the stereo speakers) sounded thin and tinny next to the more well-rounded audio of the 7-inch model. I liked the audio through headphones, but I can't say that I heard huge differences in the audio output.
This is the second tablet to ship with Dolby Digital Plus audio, though Amazon technically doesn't have a monopoly. Until you hear the difference for yourself, with an array of content, it's hard to appreciate what Dolby Digital Plus—and good speakers—can do. Dolby's new mobile platform, which brings the audio format introduced with Blu-ray to tablets, proves most effective on content that is in need of a fix to even out the frequency response. For example, on the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, I could hear a bigger difference in a game soundtrack than on the Nexus 7. The same happened with music tracks from Lady Gaga, Owl City, and Mary Black; with Dolby Digital Plus turned on, I heard instruments and strains of music that were not evident when the feature was turned off (it's on by default). But an R.E.M. track didn't benefit as much, simply because (as Dolby representatives said upon hearing the track) it didn't need much help to begin with.
HD movie playback produces mixed results as well. Given the display's high resolution, I was disappointed to see that Amazon's streaming video service still exhibited artifacts in my use on several Wi-Fi networks. Amazon says that it streams HD purchases at the highest bit rate your network can handle, up to 6 mbps at 720p; that arrangement may account for my experience, but without a doubt I preferred the quality of downloaded video over that of streamed video. And my disappointment wasn't just limited to Amazon video: I played video on Hulu Plus, and was surprised by how uninspiring the video looked. By comparison, Hulu had wowed me on the smaller Barnes & Noble Nook HD.
Amazon continues to make it easy for you to store content in the cloud, as well as to move content from the cloud to your device. Nonetheless, if you plan to have lots of high-definition material, I suggest going with the 32GB version, since the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 has no memory card expansion slot.
Like the 7-inch version, the 8.9-inch model has a front-facing 720p camera for video chat, and also offers Bluetooth. The 8.9 model with 4G LTE adds GPS, so you can use it with social media and mapping apps—but no such apps come preinstalled to jump-start your use of the GPS itself. (You'd be forgiven for not realizing GPS was even part of the 4G version because of this omission.) Amazon says its Wi-Fi radio's design boosts performance significantly, but as with the Kindle Fire HD 7-inch, I noticed no particular benefit in my casual use.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 continues to lack what are often considered standard inclusions for a tablet. For instance, it has no rear camera (to be fair, the Nexus 7 lacks one as well, but the Nexus 10 doesn't), and GPS functionality is absent from the Wi-Fi-only models. The omission of such features probably would be acceptable if Amazon were aiming this model only at the value market—but Amazon claims that this tablet, like its smaller sibling, is the best tablet at any price. Maybe not.
Software: Streamlined and visual OS
(Portions of this section are from the review of the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, and remain applicable to the 8.9.)
The first thing to greet you when you power on your Fire HD 8.9 is an ad. In their full-color, HD glory, the ads feel much more intrusive than the grayscale advertisements on Kindle e-readers. The Kindle Fire HD's ads annoyed me, and I promptly started looking for the way to opt out for $15 extra—it's possible, if you can find the link buried amidst Amazon's options. (Hint: It's not on the tablet; you need to activate this feature via your PC, under Manage Your Kindle.)
As always in the Kindle universe, when you start up the tablet, it's already registered to you. The content sections make it easy to access your already purchased digital stuff: At the top of each section is a button for cloud or device. Your existing cloud content for books, magazines, music, movies, TV shows, and apps is already visible, ready to be transferred to device with the tap of a button.
The interface of the 8.9-inch tablet is the same as that of the 7-inch model, but made to fit the larger display. Interface elements remain sharp and appealing, although some graphics do fall apart (for example, music album covers appear a bit overblown for their image size).
The Kindle Fire OS is defined by its simple-to-navigate home screen, with a black background and large, bold icons in its carousel menu, each for recently accessed content. In portrait mode, beneath the carousel, your screen will show recommendations of things other customers bought. I didn't like this item being front-and-center, though: While I don't mind Amazon's passing me suggestions, having those suggestions appear on my home screen is unappealing (and they're supposed to disappear once you upgrade to the ad-free tier). I liked the new shortcuts to some apps; for example, you can now launch a new mail message directly from the home screen.
In the carousel, you get control over what appears; if you don't want something there, you can tap and hold the item to remove it, or to add it to your favorites list. You can add something to your favorites by tapping the star in the slide-out menu, and you can access favorites from the home screen by tapping the star and scrolling through the pop-up shelf along the bottom. If the content occupies the full screen, the nav menu slides out from the right side with the home, back, search, and favorites buttons.
Amazon streamlined and rejiggered the order of the top navigation bar to provide quick access to the Amazon store—now in the primary spot—as well as to books, apps, music, videos, the newsstand, docs in your Amazon Cloud Drive, and more. Amazon also enhanced its notifications and settings shortcuts navigation, turning it into a pull-down shade in the style of Google's Android notifications shade. And Amazon put its much-discussed Kindle FreeTime parental controls and profiles enhancements into a separate app, instead of leaving them as a menu option buried amidst the settings.
The interface is streamlined and clean throughout. Amazon's sans serif fonts stand out for their smooth appearance. Oddly, though, in the book app the interface offers no way to adjust the brightness (as the Kindle app for Android tablets does), and there are no page numbers in sight.
That's not to say that Amazon's reimagining of Android isn't arcane at times. But at least the company has a bold vision. And Amazon has corrected previous issues: For example, back at launch the Photos app couldn't interpret rotation data correctly, and it messed up the presentation of a folder containing both portrait- and landscape-oriented images. Now, that issue is fixed.
Overall, Amazon has increased the functionality and practicality of the Kindle Fire OS as compared with its first-gen tablets. For example, I can receive an attachment, open it, edit it in an app that supports the file type, save it, and then send it out again—all from the tablet.
The new software has an improved email app, with Microsoft Exchange support, as well as Facebook and Twitter integration, to make it easy to share passages of books. You can also tap into your Facebook account to pull images to your tablet, and share Amazon Gamecircle scores.
Unfortunately, Amazon continues to omit some basic built-in apps, such as a to-do list or a notepad.
Ecosystem: Missing, messy apps
(Portions of this section are from the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD review, and remain applicable to the 8.9.)
The Kindle Fire OS is now a custom skin of Android's 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, a notable jump up from its previous Android 2.3 Gingerbread roots. The update to 4.0 suggests that Amazon will amass more tablet apps optimized for larger displays—and optimized for tablet, period.
Regrettably, in my tests I could easily download apps that were not intended for my device, including apps for phones. And content optimized for the high-definition screen is in scarce supply currently. Amazon says it plans to help users find content by calling it HD, but the company hasn't revealed whether HD apps will eventually be sortable by category. Doing a simple search on “HD” in the app store revealed a messy array of content, some repetitive and not much that was cutting-edge or appealing.
As with your music, video, and book content, you're buying into Amazon's retail ecosystem for your apps—and that means you're limited to the company's selection, which Amazon says is more than 30,000. Compare that with the 600,000 apps in Google's Play store (though not all of them are made for tablets).
What Amazon does really well, though, is integrate the shopping experience—and cloud-based content—with your local content. In most instances I found the environment cleaner to navigate than Google Play.
One big concern I had going into the larger tablet was finding Kindle Fire HD-optimized apps that took advantage of the larger screen and its higher resolution. Unfortunately, my experience in this regard was quite mixed. I downloaded many apps that looked fine in terms of presentation, but then ran into other issues such as less-than-sharp video in Hulu Plus and jerky and pixelated graphics in games like Vector Unit's Riptide GP, Gameloft's The Amazing Spider-Man (Kindle Tablet Edition) and The Oregon Trail: American Settler, and even EA's Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
The 4G LTE advantage
The 4G LTE option on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 represents another groundbreaking step in the span of the past two weeks for connected tablets. (First, we had the Google Nexus 7 with Wi-Fi + Mobile Data and its unlocked Micro-SIM card slot.) As noted earlier, the 4G LTE tablet starts at $499 for 32GB—that's a $130 premium over the non-4G-capable 32GB model. On top of that, you'll need to pay a one-time annual fee of $50 to AT&T for a basic 4G data package. But even so, that brings the cost of a dedicated connected tablet to an all-time low, as compared with the monthly data plans available for competing tablets.
The service includes 12 30-day data sessions, each at up to 250MB of data per session. You can purchase additional 3GB and 5GB data plans from AT&T, and use the tablet with any of AT&T's shared data, prepaid, or postpaid plans—domestically and internationally.
The relatively reasonable rate for data makes the 4G LTE Kindle Fire HD a key weapon in Amazon's arsenal for attracting consumers to its tablets over competing models. It makes the connected 8.9-inch tablet a viable option for people who seek occasional always-on connectivity that won't break the bank.
As with Amazon's 7-inch tablet, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9's greatest appeal lies with families and with people who tend toward mainstream, multipurpose uses that won't push the tablet's performance limits too hard. The tablet's integration with Amazon's numerous and varied services remains its core strength; from shopping to streaming media to storing your documents in the cloud, Amazon has you covered. E-reading and music playback are both well executed, and the email capabilities are more functional than before. You're buying into Amazon's limited app ecosystem, though, so if a wide selection and the ability to get the latest apps are a primary concern for you, a standard Android tablet would be a better choice. For other tablet shoppers, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is a good, affordable starting point to test the big-screen tablet waters. And the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 4G LTE is one of the best deals for light always-on connectivity.