Unboxing the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 was a familiar experience, as it looks and feels identical to its 7-inch predecessor.
Unboxing the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 was a familiar experience, as it looks and feels identical to its 7-inch predecessor. Slightly larger, of course, but the design is virtually indistinguishable -- right down to the subtle molding seams at each of the four corners.
Indeed its horizontal and vertical dimensions have swelled to make room for that 8.9-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 IPS LCD. The tablet measures 9.45 x 6.5 inches (240 x 165mm) across but it's actually slightly thinner than the 7-inch model: 0.35 inch vs. 0.4 (8.9 vs. 10.3mm). It's great to see that Amazon didn't take the opportunity to make this thicker, but honestly you'll be hard-pressed to notice the difference. You will, however, notice the increase in heft: 20 ounces vs. 13.9 for the 7-inch model (567 vs. 395 grams).
As on the 7-incher, we're reasonably fond of the design language Amazon has deployed here. It's a bit dark, to be sure, with a soft-touch matte black backing that's livened up only by a slightly glossy (but every bit as dark) band that runs lengthwise, roughly one-fifth the way up from the bottom. Branding on the tablet is delightfully minimal, the Amazon logo subtly printed on the bottom and "kindle" embossed on the shiny band.
That band again runs from one speaker to the other, visually connecting stereo speakers that are still a disappointing rarity on tablets. But, unfortunately these are relegated to the wrong side of the thing, unlike the Nexus 10 which kindly points them in the right direction. Each speaker is protected beneath a slotted grille, but curiously those slots are shorter than those on the 7-inch Fire HD, and don't wrap as far around the side. Visually this makes them slightly less interesting than the ones on the smaller Fire, but it's still a nice touch.
Around the rim of the device is a dark rim made of a more durable material. Here all the physical inputs and outputs are found. On the upper side of the right edge is the 3.5mm headphone jack sitting just atop a flush-mounted volume rocker and power button. We still wish these stood out a bit more, as the tiny ridges on the volume button are a challenge to find and it takes more sensitive fingers than can be found on this editor's hand to locate that power button without looking. Mind you, this is still a huge improvement over the original Kindle Fire, which lacked physical volume controls altogether.
Center-mounted at the bottom are the micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports, separated by exactly the same distance as on the 7-inch model, opening the door for a video output and charging cradle that would work with both. Between these ports is the tiny microphone opening, which is curiously up on the top of the smaller Fire HD. There's nothing to speak of on the left side and on the upper edge can be found a pop-out tray where the micro-SIM tray lives -- assuming you opted for the LTE model that we tested. That's the only visual differentiator between the WiFi and cellular models, with both dimensions and weight staying the same.
Internals and configurations
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is chock full of very similar stuff to its 7-inch predecessor, including a dual-core OMAP processor. This one is a 4470 model running at 1.5GHz -- a 300MHz step-up from the other. Amazon doesn't advertise RAM but a system check shows 770MB. As for storage, the base $299 configuration has 16GB built-in, while another $70 bumps that up to 32GB.
An LTE model is available, starting at $499 for the 32GB model. Here you can pay another $100 and go up to the full-fat Fire HD, a 64GB edition with LTE. Of course, all of these include Special Offers, the in-your-face lock screen advertising that we find a bit distasteful, but it's only $15 to opt out and now you can even choose to pay that money up front and have yours come out of the box with nary an ad in sight.
The WiFi-only model includes the same MIMO wireless getup that we found to be quite impressive on the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, offering better range, reception and performance than other tablets and smartphones we tried. The 4G LTE model augments that with an AT&T cellular radio, which can also fall back to HSPA+, HSDPA and EDGE in a worst-case scenario. (For those curious about bands, it is as follows: LTE 17, 4; WCDMA 1, 2, 5, 8; GSM 850Mhz, 900Mhz, 1800Mhz and 1900MHz.)
$499 is a bit dear for a Kindle device, but you do at least get an off-contract LTE tablet that has access to one of the most attractive prepaid data plans out there.
$499 is a bit dear for a Kindle device, but you do at least get an off-contract LTE tablet that has access to one of the most attractive prepaid data plans out there. Pay $49.99 once and you get a year's worth of data access, with 250MB at your disposal each month. Pay for that and Amazon will throw you another 20GB of Cloud Drive storage and even give you $10 to blow in the Amazon Appstore. Granted, it's an extremely modest amount of data, but for casual users who check the news and email while on the road, or download the occasional book, it should be more than adequate.
That said, you're not free to use that data however you like. Content downloads greater than 50MB in size must happen over WiFi, and for the moment Amazon Instant Videos cannot be streamed unless you're on WiFi. However, we're told that, at least, will be enabled sometime before December, but movie downloads will remain WiFi only.
Display and speakers
With tablets like the 2,048 x 1,536 fourth-gen iPad and 2,560 x 1,600 Nexus 10 on the market, it's a little hard to get too excited about the 8.9-inch 1,920 x 1,200 IPS LCD found in the Kindle Fire HD 8.9. But, while it won't win any awards for pixel density, it's still a great display and perfectly well-suited to the sort of content consumption this slate is designed for.
The Kindle Fire HD doesn't offer quite the "Gosh I can't see the pixels" experience of the Nexus 10, but text is rendered very cleanly and of course 1080p videos look fantastic
Brightness and contrast are as good as you'd expect an IPS LCD to be, and viewing angles are superb. It doesn't offer quite the "Gosh I can't see the pixels" experience of the Nexus 10, but text is rendered very cleanly and of course 1080p videos look fantastic -- though the micro-HDMI output means you can make them look even better on a big 'ol HDTV.
Still, not everything looks great. The patented carousel of content that the Kindle Fire HD presents relies on icons that are now forced to render larger, and at a higher resolution, than was surely ever intended. Book covers and movie posters look fine in the carousel, as do Kindle-optimized apps, but many third-party Android icons look atrocious. Mind, you can't knock a tablet too harshly for blurry icons, but when this is your primary means of interaction with the thing, it's unfortunate that it's quite often so ugly.
While the display is a definite step forward over the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, the speakers are a half-step back. They're curiously not the dual-driver design of the smaller slate and lack some of the oomph that little brother packs. Maximum volume is lower and fullness of sound reproduction a bit weaker, but overall sound quality is about the same. That is to say, tinny but acceptable and, when placed face-down on a desk, this makes for a decent hotel room music player.
Performance and battery life
Again, 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD has a dual-core TI OMAP4470 processor running at 1.5GHz, a 300MHz upgrade from its predecessor. This makes the heavy-handed Fire OS that's sitting on top of Android a bit more responsive, but things can still be sluggish from time to time. Webpages render quickly and pinch-zooming is quite responsive, but scrolling through those is often a very stuttery affair.
The slate delivers an average SunSpider benchmark score of 1,412ms, a solid improvement over the 1,767ms that the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD clocked in, and respectably close to the 1,371 the Nexus 10 puts down. For comparison's sake, our top-scoring tablet, the fourth-gen iPad, burns through the test in 865ms.
As part of our testing we also downloaded and installed a number of games, as we figure that'll be a popular activity here. Simple, 2D stuff (like Angry Birds Star Wars) of course ran with aplomb, but 3D games too ran perfectly well. Unfortunately, given the more limited nature of the Amazon Appstore we weren't able to run all of our favorite benchmarks, but we don't think casual gamers will be left wanting.
Amazon advertises 10 hours of battery life for the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD, one hour less than the 7-inch version. Given that the smaller slate survived nine hours and 57 minutes on the burndown bench we expected something around nine hours flat for the 8.9-inch model. Actually it did better -- one minute better, delivering 9:01. (We tested with LTE disabled to better compare with the 7-inch model.) That's over 90 minutes longer than the Nexus 10 managed on the same test (in which we play a looped video and set the display at fixed brightness) and comes in 25 minutes short of our favorite Android 10-incher of the moment, the ASUS Transformer Prime Infinity TF700.
If you hated Amazon's heavy-handed way of hiding each and every aspect of stock Android you're still going to be mighty unsatisfied here. But, it is at least a lot less sluggish.
The 8.9 is running the same user interface that the 7-inch model ushered in back in September. Its foundation is Ice Cream Sandwich this time and in general it provides a noticeable step up over the original Fire's interface in terms of usability and responsiveness -- but it's still very much the same. If you hated Amazon's heavy-handed way of hiding each and every aspect of stock Android you're still going to be mighty unsatisfied here. But, it is at least a lot less sluggish.
All apps, movies, music, websites and just about anything else you can access on the tablet get added to the main, floating carousel of content in last-in-first-out order. Just about anything you read or play gets pushed on the top of the queue and, with a flick of your finger, you can zip your way through all your recently accessed stuff. If you're the type who tends to jump between just a few things, you'll always find them toward the top.
But, if you're the type who needs to dig a little deeper, you can do that too. Movies, music, books, apps and the rest of your content can sorted by content type, and in each category you can view all your content that's already on your device and all that's patiently waiting for you in the cloud. Should it be time to summon any of that benched stuff back into active rotation, just tap it and it'll be sucked right down over WiFi or LTE -- assuming, of course, said content is less than 50MB in size.
Amazon's partnerships ensure that just about anything that's available for digital consumption will be at your fingertips.
If you're looking for books, music or movies the breadth of selection is impressive. Amazon's partnerships ensure that just about anything that's available for digital consumption will be at your fingertips. That Amazon's prices are generally among the best in the business certainly helps, too.
However, when it comes to that other, crucial aspect of tablet ownership, that wild and wonderful world of the app, the selection is rather more limited. Amazon has managed to get major developers like Rovio to offer their upset fowl for purchase and there are plenty of other top-tier apps on offer. But, it's still a small fraction of those available in the Google Play store as a whole. Yes, you can sideload APKs if you have the technical savvy to do so, but you'll always be locked out of many of the best Android apps out there -- most notably Google's own Gmail and Maps.
And then of course there's the Silk browser, Amazon's cloud-accelerated HTML renderer that's supposed to use the power of the crowd to speed up webpage rendering. In the original Kindle Fire we found such claims of acceleration to be woefully overstated and even the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD rendered pages more slowly than the Nexus 7. That's still the case, and while the 8.9-inch is an improvement in speed, it's still slower than most comparable tablets, like the Nexus 10.
Since September, Amazon has added a few other tweaks to the OS, including the expansion of the X-Ray function to textbooks, enabling you to get glossary definitions and index locations for those more complicated terms -- or just hop over and get their definitions in Wikipedia. This joins X-Ray for movies, which pulls up IMDb info for whatever actors are in the current scene. There's also FreeTime, which gives parents much more control over what their kids can and can't do on the tablet -- and for how long they can do it.
Finally, we can't discuss a Kindle's software loadout without mentioning Special Offers. This is standard-issue on all Kindle devices at this point and it turns the tablet's lock screen into a full-page ad for such diverse things as books, video games and shaving cream. In fact, our very first experience upon booting this Fire HD tablet was an advertisement for an Amazon.com credit card. That is what you call a bad first impression.
While they're generally not obnoxious, these ads serve as a constant reminder that this tablet exists exclusively to sell you stuff, and to us that gets a little disheartening after a while. Thankfully, you're never more than $15 away from stripping the advertising out entirely, and so you can decide whether to keep 'em or kill 'em.
At $299 and (way) up, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 finds itself starting $100 less than the cheapest comparable tablet, the Nexus 10. For $100 more you're getting a higher-resolution display and a completely unmolested version of the latest Android operating system. For some that's well worth the additional cost, but if you want cellular connectivity, your decision is easy.
These days you can get yourself a 16GB Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 for the same $299 price, a tablet with weaker performance and far fewer pixels, but a relatively uncompromised version of Android.