Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 review: Unapologetically content-driven
At a Glance
In the handset marketplace, the iPhone is simply one of at least a half a dozen equally capable options. There’s less competition among compact tablets, but many consumers only desire those things as ultraportable entertainment devices or “wicked big phones” instead of as real, powerful computers.
And so, despite the superior build materials and productivity potential of the forthcoming new iPad mini, a 7-inch Android tablet that costs nearly half as much as a mini, fits inside smaller pockets, and runs all of the same media apps and most of the same games is still a compelling option for many.
But full-size tablets are a different story. The difference in price between an iPad Air and a full-size Android tablet is much smaller—sometimes, it’s even negligible. And the difference in power and capabilities is immense. I travel with my iPad as my sole computer. I’d only attempt to do the same with a Galaxy Note 10.1 to win a bet.
All of this is by way of putting the new third-generation 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX in context. Despite being one of the cheapest full-size tablets from a name-brand manufacturer, $379 (for the Wi-Fi-only model with 16GB of storage) doesn’t feel like a small amount of money. Nor does it seem that much less expensive than a $499 iPad Air kitted out the same way. By the way, if you don’t want your Fire HDX to present “special offers” on the lock screen, the gap narrows by another $15.
The math still seems to be in the iPad’s favor, and the final verdict must be an answer to the question: “Is there a type of full-size tablet user who isn’t being well-served by the iPad?” After about a week with the 8.9-inch HDX, I have a few ideas.
Easy on the arms
The 8.9-inch HDX shares two of the iPad Air’s superlatives: thinness and lightweight. It’s only 0.02 inch thicker, and at just 13 ounces, it’s even about 20 percent lighter than the Air.
Disappointingly, the HDX didn’t float, but it was still easy to hold one-handed during long reading sessions.
And it feels good, too. The casing is magnesium, with a coat of paint that makes it bit grippier than the iPad.
Superb display, rich sound
The 2560-by-1600-pixel screen features the by-now-customary “better than the human eye” 339-ppi density, and the image quality is further enhanced with what Amazon promises is “100 percent sRGB color accuracy.”
The improvement is hard to fully appreciate unless you lay the HDX side-by-side with the Air, but it’s a gorgeous display with rich contrast, and the improvement is noticeable. This is probably the best screen I own for watching movies.
My casual impressions have been validated by the experts at DisplayMate, who compared the screens of the iPad Air, the 8.9-inch HDX, and the Google Nexus 10 tablets and declared the Kindle as the “most impressive.”
I was more impressed by the screen’s performance outdoors. The HDX is super-bright and it reacts to sunlight by goosing shadow areas. As a result, I was able to enjoy a movie outside, or at a table near a window, which I’ve always found impossible on an iPad.
The sole disappointments of the HDX’s 8.9-inch display are about its very shape and size. The iPad Air’s 2048-by-1536 screen offers fewer pixels than the HDX, but it covers about 10 additional square inches. I often use a tablet with a keyboard for hours at a time, and the iPad’s larger display is easier on my eyes despite the lower pixel density.
Both the HDX and the iPad are too large to carry in a pocket. If you’re stuck carrying a bag, why not have a larger display?
The HDX’s widescreen aspect ratio also makes it favor the landscape orientation. That’s fab when watching widescreen movies, less fab when reading a book. It feels a bit like reading a legal document (though the effect isn’t nearly as intense as it is on a Microsoft Surface tablet).
I’m pleased that makers are putting more effort into high-quality on-device sound systems. The HDX features stereo speakers that are powerful and rich enough that for desk-side movie watching in a hotel room I didn’t feel the need to break out my Bluetooth travel speakers.
The greater amount of pixels hasn’t done anything to hurt the 8.9-inch HDX’s graphics performance. As with the 7-inch model, the lagginess and stuttering that were the signature faults of previous Fire tablets are nowhere to be seen here. This is due to a floor-to-ceiling rewrite of Fire OS’s graphics pipeline as well as the inherent power of its 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdradon 800 CPU. Overall, this is a peppy tablet and I never felt any hesitation.
Battery life is excellent, though something just south of what I’ve come to expect from the iPad. I was able to run down a fully charged battery to 50 percent in a little less than five hours of aggressive use.
Wi-Fi speeds are also solid, performing just as well through my AirPort Extreme base station as the Air. Like the iPad, it features dual bands and MIMO.
The HDX gets a new rear-facing camera with flash that takes phone-quality, if unspectacular, 8-megapixel images. This to complement its legacy front-facing 720p HD chat camera.
Is it a real computer?
You can probably guess from the intro to this review that my expectations of a full-size Android tablet as a for-real productivity device aren’t high.
That said, the HDX is at least a credible working computer, thanks mostly to what it inherits as an Android 4.2-based device. While it’s still not the sort of device that a company would likely choose to buy for its employees, at least the HDX has new enterprise features (VPN, Kerberos, ability to use mobile device management tools) that allow an IT department to support it, after an expected amount of grumbling.
The HDX’s chief limitations as a productivity device are the same problems any Android tablet owner would encounter. I bought Polaris Office from the Amazon Appstore, and it’s a fine mobile edition of an Office-type app suite. It certainly served its intended purpose.
But Android has a lack of depth to its productivity catalogue, and when you ask that a productivity app be written to take advantage of the full potential of a full-size tablet, options are thin on the ground and your best salvation are Web-based apps.
That said, the built-in email client is strong enough to help me keep up with my inbox, and the HDX works well with my Bluetooth keyboard. Wireless printing is coming soon via a software update. Alas, the HDX can’t connect to an external wired display, so it’s not a safe choice as a presentation device for travelers.
Let Kindle be Kindle
But the best features of the HDX are the ones that make it a Kindle. No other tablet—the iPad included—is so keenly tuned to the needs of content consumption.
The central feature of the Fire launcher is a “history” carousel of the videos, books, music, and apps you’ve been using. The advantage of this approach immediately makes the iPad Springboard launcher look even more primitive. It takes you right to the thing you want and makes app management and organization mostly unnecessary.
And there’s so much content to experience. A $79 annual Amazon Prime membership delivers tens of thousands of videos and hundreds of thousands of books at no extra charge; the HDX can even download Prime videos one at a time for offline viewing.
Lest all of those books and movies and games and comic books become a distraction to your kids, the HDX includes rich parental controls that allows you to set daily “allowances” for usage, by content type.
I wrote in depth about the HDX’s new X-Ray for Video and Music and Mayday features in my review of the 7-inch HDX last month. The first set of features answers all of the questions you have about the media you’re enjoying (“What song is that in the background?” “Who’s that actor?”) as it plays; the second offers live, on-device video technical support with real humans. I continue to use both of those features; they’re the real deal and I wish I could use them on my iPad.
I think the HDX is the best tablet on the market for content consumption. The drawback? You won’t see those advantages unless you’re buying your digital content through Amazon. The same could be said of the iPad, which is geared toward iTunes purchases. But let’s not overlook the fact that “controlling the whole widget” is intensely profitable for both Amazon and Apple.
I still think the iPad is the default choice for anyone interested in a full-size tablet. It might not be the best fit for absolutely everybody. Nonetheless, the conversation always begins with the question: “Well, why wouldn’t this person be happiest with an iPad?”
The operative question for the HDX is: “Do you regard productivity to be a key feature, or just a desirable bonus?” If you’re primarily motivated by content—and Apple’s terrific Genius Bar customer service holds no great allure—then the Fire HDX is a compelling choice. Perhaps even a superior option, if you use the money you save to buy an Amazon Prime membership and get all of that valuable no-extra-charge content.
The 8.9-inch HDX is available in capacities from 16GB to 64GB, with LTE (via AT&T or Verizon) or without, and with “Special Offers” (lockscreen ads) or without. I recommend getting at least 32GB of storage (HD movies really sing on this device and they take up beaucoup space), as well as popping the extra $15 to get rid of the ads.
I’m less bullish on the $100 LTE option. It’s hard to imagine using an iPad without mobile broadband. But given that the Fire HDX is better used as a passive reader, viewer, and player than as a day-long email and online browsing tool, the extra money is probably better applied toward the coffees and snacks you’ll enjoy at Wi-Fi-equipped coffeehouses.
Definitely pick up one of Amazon’s $55 Origami Covers, however. It completely encases and protects the Kindle and also magnetically folds into a stand with four different portrait and landscape easel configurations. (A leather version is available for $70 if you’re fancy.)
With the Fire HDX, the Kindle acquires the first early pangs of an identity crisis. If it has the form of a full-size productivity device, shouldn’t it try to be one? Naw. It has its own identity and it has a valuable role to play.
Apple described the case of the iPhone 5c as not just “plastic,” but “unapologetically plastic.” Amazon should do the same with the Kindle. It’s unapologetically content-driven. They’ve improved the screen and the sound and the OS features to make this the most pleasant device for enjoying other people’s creativity.
It’s definitely not the best full-size tablet for sweating through a full day of work. But it might be the best tablet for recovering from one.
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