Amazon Kindle HDX 8.9 review: a high-end tablet at a mid-range price

It's worth noting just how far Amazon has come since the early days of the Fire line. With the first generation, it was tough to see the tablet as anything more than a content-delivery device designed to keep users locked into the Kindle ecosystem. It was an uninspired bit of hardware that seemingly arrived off the same factory line as the BlackBerry PlayBook. Granted, Amazon's new HDX tablets still aren't the sexiest devices around, but the company's taken great pains to ensure they're some of the best. That means a stellar screen, some zippy internals and a slimmed-down body. Starting at $379 for the 8.9-inch model, the price has come along for the ride as well. It's hardly expensive, but we've long since stopped using the word "budget" to describe it.

Still, Amazon's managed to keep pricing down thanks to its content-centric business model, which assumes you'll continue buying stuff long after you open the box. This comes with some drawbacks, of course -- namely, an ecosystem that's far more closed-off than regular Android would be. But as long as you're stuck with Fire OS, the company's going to do what it can to provide the best experience possible with the addition of some compelling features. Does all that add up to a truly competitive device? Or has Amazon strayed too far from its budget roots?

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Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 review

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Amazon

Kindle HDX (8.9-inch)

Pros

  • Great screen
  • Strong performance
  • Mayday tech support and other helpful software features

Cons

  • No Google Play access
  • $80 more expensive than its predecessor
Summary

The latest Fire tablet has some top-of-the-line specs and nice software enhancements, but Amazon's closed-off ecosystem will continue to be a sore spot for shoppers who prefer regular Android.

Hardware

Introduced the same day as the 7-inch model, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is in many ways a scaled-up version of its smaller sibling. Both have slimmed down noticeably from last year's HD series. In fact, the HDX has shed some bulk all over, down to 9.1 x 6.2 x 0.31 inches from 9.45 x 6.5 x 0.35 on last year's model. Not to mention, it's come a long way since the first-gen Fire came out. Also, at 13.2 ounces, it even manages to be 0.7 ounce lighter than last year's 7-inch version.

The rear of the 8.9 is nearly identical to the 7-inch model, which is to say it's mostly fashioned out of a pleasant soft-touch material. Once again, too, that rear cover is home to a big, glossy Amazon "A to Z" logo. As with the rest of the Fire line, the company's gotten a bit more aggressive with branding. But hey, what do you expect? Sneaking advertising onto things is what Amazon does best. And besides, we strongly recommend you pick up a case for the thing, so you'll likely have that logo covered most of the time anyway.

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The matte rear slopes a bit on all sides, making the tablet a bit more comfortable to hold. On the right side, you'll find a big power button, with a volume rocker over on the left. The buttons sit just above where your hands will likely cradle the tablet, which makes it easy to adjust the sound without taking your hands off the device. And despite the proximity to my hands when I was holding it, I never found myself accidentally turning off the device. The physical buttons are also bigger this time around, which we imagine many shoppers will see as a welcome improvement. Along the top of the rear side is a glossy strip that houses two rear-facing speaker grilles. Also, unlike the 7-inch version, it makes room for an 8-megapixel camera and flash.

The Fire is just thick enough to accommodate the headphone jack on the right side and the micro-USB charging port on the left. Up top, you'll find those dual-mic holes, which will come in handy for the Mayday tech support feature we'll tell you about in a bit. Once again, there's no HDMI-out socket here; Amazon clearly wants you to use its Second Screen technology to watch videos on your TV, keeping you further locked into its content store. Still, the addition of an HDMI port would have been another nice way of distinguishing the higher-end 8.9-inch model from the smaller version. Like last time, there's no microSD slot on board; Amazon has always argued that people should use cloud storage instead (and besides, it's never been a particularly big fan of side-loading, either).

Camera

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It took Amazon three generations to bring a rear-facing camera to the Fire line. Even now, only the larger model has one. And all in all, it's a pretty standard camera for a tablet like this: 8-megapixel stills and 1080p video (the webcam on the front does 720p). After getting over the inherent awkwardness of shooting photos on a 9-inch tablet, we found that the camera performs reasonably well. Colors look good in the daylight, though they start to appear washed in more overcast conditions. Things were a bit more uneven under the harsh lighting of the Engadget newsroom, which cast a reddish tinge over many of our sample shots.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot the software can do to help. As rear cameras represent a new area of focus for Amazon, the built-in app is very much in need of some TLC. Functionality is mostly limited to toggling between video and stills, turning the flash on and off and switching between the front and rear cameras. You can also tap to focus, as you can on many other mobile devices. Once you've taken a photo, you can share it via email, Facebook and Twitter from within the app. In settings, you can turn HDR off and on and flip to panorama mode. That last mode does a decent enough job stitching images together, but it's tough to take a panorama that isn't at least a little blurry. Also, the ability to adjust things like white balance from within the app would have been nice.

Internals

Sure Amazon's a big believer in the cloud, but it's still giving you a choice of internal storage options: 16GB ($379), 32GB ($429) and 64GB ($479). As ever, these tiers include Special Offers. If you don't want to be bothered by a regular stream of advertising, you'll have to add $25 to each of the above prices. And, hey, while you're tacking on extras, why not pony up for 4G, which you can now get on both Verizon and AT&T? That'll be another $100, bringing the price of the highest-end unit to $594. For another $10 a month, you can add your 4G Kindle Fire HDX to your AT&T Mobile Share or Verizon's Share Everything plan.

The 8.9-inch HDX is powered by the same processor inside the 7-inch version -- but that's not a bad thing. The quad-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor is a big step up from last year's dual-core 1.5GHz offering, and is one of the best chips you'll find in any mobile device right now. There's also 2GB of RAM inside to help things along. Amazon's given the graphics performance a boost as well with the addition of a "console-quality" Adreno 330 GPU, promising four times the performance of its predecessor. You're not getting a PlayStation 4 here, of course, but it's obvious Amazon is taking tablet gaming more seriously than it used to.

Display and audio

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Amazon gets points for moving the Fire's speakers up toward the top. To give you some context, the placement on the HD always seemed a bit silly. Amazon had to know that as users held the tablet, muffled sound was pretty much a certainty. As with the last generation, Amazon's leveraging Dolby audio for its stereo speakers. While they get loud, you're best off relying on an external speaker when possible; at maximum volume, you lose audio fidelity pretty quickly. They'll do for watching quick videos, certainly, but if you plan on listening to a lot of music, some extra audio gear might be in order.

While the speakers feel like something of an afterthought, Amazon is clearly waging a battle on the display front. The company keeps upping its game, and indeed, the screen here dazzles, with 2,560 x 1,600 resolution and a pixel density of 339 pixels per inch. That's a big jump up from the HD 8.9's 1,920 x 1,200 display, not to mention the new HDX 7-inch tablet, which has a 1,920 x 1,200 screen. It's even enough to make the iPad Air's 2,048 x 1,536 resolution (264 ppi) seem modest. It's simply a gorgeous thing to behold, making movie watching a downright pleasure. Heck, it even managed to make Sharknado look pretty good, which is no small feat. All in all, images are sharp, the level of detail is impressive and the colors are vibrant.

The company also promises you can easily use the device outdoors, thanks to dynamic image contrast, which adjusts the contrast (rather than just brightness) of each pixel, based on the light hitting the camera's sensor. While the feature generally works as advertised, the highly reflective display still rules the tablet out for poolside use. As ever, that's why you might buy one of Amazon's E Ink e-readers instead.

Performance

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It's not just the exteriors of the HDX tablets that look the same; the internals are also remarkably similar. And that's a good thing. Inside, you'll find a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 GPU that's aimed at helping the company make a play in the expanding world of tablet gaming. The result is more than enough power for just about anything you're likely to do with the Fire. The carousel move breezily and apps load in a snap. The tablet also performed admirably when we took Gameloft's Asphalt 8: Airborne for a spin, handling the high-speed action with panache. Of course, until more developers view Fire OS as a worthy platform, gaming won't really be a selling point. Still, the horsepower under the hood is definitely a step in the right direction.

Web pages load quickly, thanks in no small part to the built-in Silk browser, which does the heavy lifting with the help of Amazon's massive server farm. We ran SunSpider in the browser and scored a solid 581.7ms (lower numbers are better on this test). It's not as impressive as the iPad Air's 388ms, or even the smaller HDX's 553.7ms, but it handily beats the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0's 798ms. We were also able to run Quadrant this time (thanks to Amazon's ever-expanding app selection). The HDX racked up a solid 19,675, just edging out the 7-inch's 19,655. Benchmarking software is still fairly limited here, but even after using the tablet as we normally would, we can confidently say that Amazon now has two powerful new slates on its hands.

As for battery life, Amazon rates the 8.9-inch HDX at up to 12 hours of use with WiFi on. We actually got around 15 hours of video playback, but that was with the brightness set lower than we normally do (that would be the 50 percent mark).

Software

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Here, as ever, is the rub. As good as Amazon is getting at making tablet hardware (and it's getting quite good indeed), the company's approach to software is still a polarizing one. Amazon's business model, after all, revolves around a closed-off version of Android that keeps users locked into its content offerings. The best we can hope for, really, is that the company does the most it can inside that system. Thankfully, the company's made some progress on that front, beginning with actually giving its software a name: Fire OS. Of course, we can quibble all day about whether it's fair to refer to what is essentially a super heavily skinned version of Jelly Bean as its own operating system, but let's focus on the changes and leave that conversation to the comments section, shall we?

At a glance, the operating system is a dead ringer for its predecessor (for our purposes, we'll just refer to it as "Fire OS 2.0"). The layout of the home page betrays Amazon's clear intent for the device, serving up content in a large carousel in the center. Here's where your apps, movies, books, et cetera live. Above this is yet another gateway to content: a toolbar featuring categories like games, apps, books, music and videos. Click on one of those, and you can check out what you've picked up through Amazon, broken up into your on-device and in-cloud offerings. Want to download something you've purchased from the cloud onto the tablet? You can do that with a tap.

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There is, however, a key difference on the home screen. A swipe up reveals a more traditional grid-style icon layout. Amazon has made minor concessions to critics who took issue with its heavily skinned operating system; what we have here offers something a bit more familiar to users making the jump to a Fire tablet from a regular Android device. Swipe from the right while in an app, and you'll see another river of content, though this time it's just items you've used recently. Got it? Amazon wants to make it very clear that you're never too far from content, content, content.

And, of course, Play Store access is a no-go, yet again. Openness, after all, has never really been a part of Amazon's game plan with the Fire line. The company sells you a device more or less at cost and you get locked into Amazon's app and content stores. That's the deal. For casual users, such a closed system won't make much difference in day-to-day use. After all, Amazon's been making a big push to bring the most-used apps to its ecosystem, and the selection only gets better as the Fire's popularity increases. The company's also making a big developer push by easing the porting process from Android and offering support for HTML5 users. For if you're accustomed to having unfettered access to Google's store, this may continue to be a dealbreaker.

Mayday

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What's the killer app for a device targeted at casual users? How about built-in video tech support? If you've been considering buying the Fire for a loved one, but don't want to be on the phone at all hours, walking them through the finer points of adjusting screen brightness, there's Mayday. You'll find this feature filed away in Quick Settings, along with screen locking, brightness, wireless and Quiet Time, which turns off notifications and other distractions when you need it. All are accessible via a quick swipe down on the home screen; you'll likely only have to walk your un-tech-savvy loved one through the process three, four times, tops.

The service is available 24/7, offering a real, live human being who can show you features, troubleshoot and even recommend apps. Amazon's leveraging its existing customer service staff, with the goal of providing support in less than 15 seconds. Indeed, in our tests, we got responses well within the projected time. It's an ambitious goal, to be sure, and one that the company acknowledges will be put to the test on Christmas Day, as new Kindle owners will seek customer support (and maybe just get a kick out of seeing a floating talking head on the screen).

Rest assured, however, while you can see them, they can't see you, so you can get your device calibrated without having to put your pants back on. The support staff can take control of your device and draw sports broadcast-style circles and arrows to help walk you through on-screen features. If you need to handle something sensitive like entering a password, they can freeze their end.

We tried the feature a few times in our hands-on and reviews of the two new Kindle tablets, and have found Amazon's staff helpful and chipper. Personally, I'm in the habit of troubleshooting things on my own until they're fixed or beyond repair, so I'm not sure I'd ever use Mayday -- at least not after the novelty wore off. But then, I'm not the target audience here. There's a lot of appeal in a feature you can show someone when the device first comes out of the box and then sit back and watch the device walk your loved one through issues. Of course, we're assuming they can turn it on, and that they can get online. But hey, nothing's perfect. Maybe in the HDX 2?

Second Screen

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This feature, sadly, is still not ready for prime time. Along with the much-ballyhooed Goodreads integration, we're still waiting for a software update. In theory, however, there's a lot to like. Much like the PlayStation app and Microsoft SmartGlass, Second Screen is an attempt to make the best of our short attention spans. Amazon knows as well as anyone that we spend much of our time sitting in front of the TV using our tablets, so why not offer up complementary contextual content as you're watching video? The feature lets you "fling" video to your TV, picking up the video stream where you left it on your tablet. It works by pulling the video from the cloud onto your Samsung Smart TV or PlayStation 3/4. Since that content is being pulled in from the cloud, you don't have to worry about using your tablet's processing power.

Once that content is flung, you can go about your business, checking email or playing a game. Or, you can follow along with the video using X-Ray, which will monopolize the full tablet screen. From there, you can view IMDb info about the actors on screen and check out new X-Ray features like songs and trivia. We've yet to try it out in its final edition, but in early hands-on testing, we were impressed. It takes a few seconds to buffer, sure, but it's a lot better than attempting to follow both the video and X-Ray information on the same tablet screen. For power users, wired video-out would have been a nice option, but again, it's something most customers likely won't miss.

Etc.

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Speaking of features that aren't quite ready for prime time, we're still waiting on Goodreads to finally roll out as part of a Fire OS 3.1 update coming sometime this month (and when it does, please no comments on all the WWII books I've been reading). When it arrives, it'll bolster Fire OS's fairly limited social efforts, letting you write reviews, share excerpts, keep track of what your friends are reading and get much better tailored reviews, which have thus far been unimpressive in Amazon's e-book world. Sharing through Facebook and Twitter has been added to a number of apps, however, so hopefully that'll tide you over for the next couple of weeks.

X-Ray's gotten a bit more love, too. The company's expanding the service to include music, bringing scrolling lyrics as you listen to songs purchased through Amazon's store. When I checked the feature out for my review of the 7-inch HDX, I had a heck of a time finding albums in my library that utilized X-Ray. Things have gotten better, though there definitely still seem to be more records without lyrics at the moment, and until we can rap along to Killer Mike in the privacy of our own bedrooms, what's the point, really? Strangely, there are even some records that only have one or two songs with included lyrics. Take "The Man Who Sold the World" by David Bowie (who we name-checked in the last review). The first track has lyrics, but you're on your own for the rest. Amazon made a big deal about going through the proper routes for the lyrics (as opposed to just crowdsourcing them), which most likely has something to do with the delay.

Fire OS 3.0 also sees an increased focus on enterprise usability, a nod to the ever-expanding group of users who bring their own devices to work. Among the changes, thankfully, is threaded messaging in Amazon's email client. Seeing as how there's no Gmail offering in Amazon's app store, that's a feature that will likely impact many, many users. The new Fires also support wireless printers for documents; hardware data encryption; a native VPN client; and support for enterprise solutions like Citrix.

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On the flip side, the new tablets have also gotten a bit more kid-friendly -- or, perhaps, a bit friendlier for users with kids. FreeTime lets parents better monitor their kids' time with the device, with the option to limit usage to specific apps and content. Parents can also set daily time limits on a content-by-content basis. That way children can read all they want, for example, but only watch up to 30 minutes of video per day. It'll hardly be a make-or-break feature for most buyers, but let's face it: If you've got kids at home, there's a pretty good chance they're going to be spending time with your devices.

Accessories

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Remember how we strongly encouraged you to pick up the Origami cover for your HDX when we reviewed the 7-inch version of the HDX? Yeah, well, that hasn't changed. In fact, the 8.9-inch version makes the Origami case seem even more compelling. Before we get into that, though, here's a recap. The cover snaps magnetically onto the rear of the HDX, offering a hard protective shell with built-in protection for those big power and volume buttons. There's also a bit of give on the top, so the rear-facing speakers aren't fully muffled when you've got it on -- though, as you might expect, you're still going to lose a bit of sound fidelity there. On the front is a flap that attaches magnetically to the bezel, turning the display off and on as you flip it. On the back of the flap is a velvety surface to ensure that the case doesn't do more harm than good.

The real trick, however, is in the creases on the flap. Fold them up and the cover magnetically attaches to itself, creating a stand for the HDX that can be used in both landscape and portrait modes. It's a nice consolation for those times when you don't have another screen to fling your movies to. Cooler still is the added camera functionality for the 8.9. Flip the flap all the way around and slide the tablet up, and it will automatically go into camera mode, even when the Fire's lock screen is on. It may take you one or two shots to get used to this functionality (since the whole thing is held together by magnets), but once you've done it a couple times, it's easy to take a quick snap.

The competition

So, how does the HDX stack up? Starting at $379, it's not the cheapest tablet in its class by any stretch -- nor is it the priciest. It comes in $20 under the iPad mini with Retina display, offering a much sharper screen (2,560 x 1,600 at 339 ppi) versus Apple's 2,048 x 1,536. As for Android, the HDX is priced $80 above Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3 8.0, but that makes sense, given the better specs: Samsung's tablet sports a lower-res 1,280 x 800 display and runs off a 1.5GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos 4 processor. LG's G Pad 8.3, meanwhile, comes in at $350, bringing with it a 1,920 x 1,200 display and a 1.7GHz quad-core chip. The G Pad has a lesser Snapdragon 600 processor, which stuttered a bit in our tests, though some might appreciate that it runs full Android.

The Fire HDX is easily the priciest Fire tablet yet, but considering the hardware Amazon's offering, it more than justifies the cost. Of course, it's worth restating that the Fire doesn't offer Google Play access, but for mainstream users, that might not be a dealbreaker. And hey, for customers like that, the addition of features like Mayday and Second Screen could actually make the tradeoff worth it.

Wrap-up

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The Fire line just keeps getting better. Just as the HD marked a big improvement over the first generation, the HDX brings a number of premium features that puts Amazon's offerings on par with some of the best tablets. The screen is great; processing power has been bumped up considerably; there's finally a rear-facing camera; and the hardware is markedly slimmer. On the software side, additions like Mayday tech support and Second Screen offer a compelling user experience. That said, the limitations of Fire OS versus regular Android will almost certainly continue to dissuade some shoppers from taking the plunge.

As for pricing, we can think of more expensive tablets, including the $499 iPad Air and $399 Galaxy Note 8.0. But with an $80 price hike over its predecessor, the high-end section of the Fire line has moved well beyond the budget category that first defined it. And at the end of the day, the $150 price increase from the 7-inch version doesn't bring that many additional features. Priced anywhere from $379 to just under $600, it's a pretty big splurge for a holiday gift, but it's a reasonable sum to ask for a tablet that hardly cuts any corners.

Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren contributed to this review.

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Amazon Kindle Fire HDX review (8.9-inch): a high-end tablet at a mid-range price