Amazon gives its flagship Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 a modest spec boost

If you've ever seen a TV commercial for Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, you know the company isn't shy about comparing itself to Apple. Indeed, the retail giant is hoping you'll buy its flagship Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 this holiday season instead of a boring iPad Air. This year, though, Amazon appears to be competing purely on specs: The company just refreshed the HDX 8.9, and while it has the same design as last year's model (20 percent lighter than the iPad, as Amazon is quick to point out!), everything under the hood is just a bit better. A bit faster. The tablet is up for pre-order today for $379, the same price as last year's HDX 8.9. Which makes sense: All things considered, this is a fairly modest upgrade.

For starters, this is the first tablet with Snapdragon's top-of-the-line 805 chip -- a 2.5GHz, quad-core processor that brings a 70 percent graphics improvement boost, according to Amazon. Raw performance aside, Amazon is claiming 12 hours of runtime this year, roughly similar to its predecessor. In addition to that 805 chip, this is also the first tablet with Dolby's Atmos surround sound technology. Naturally, Amazon is quick to say that it's twice as loud as the iPad Air, but that's not really the point. The point is that the sound feels more immersive, like it's coming at you from all directions. Indeed, after getting hands-on, I can confirm the audio is impressive -- if you plug in a pair of headphones. Preferably some over-ears. You're simply not going to get the same effect with just the tablet's speakers, and an Amazon rep admitted in an interview that even in-ear earbuds might not be the same. Still, the next time you find yourself on a plane with some noise-canceling headphones, you could have yourself quite the movie-watching party.

Moving on, the HDX still has an 8.9-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 display with a pixel density of 339 ppi. That said, Amazon added a new "Dynamic Light Control" feature, which changes the white balance of the pages in reading mode to make it look more like paper depending on the ambient light conditions. That means it can go from cool to warm, from blue to nearly yellow. This isn't the first time we've heard of such a feature -- the Samsung Galaxy Tab S works much the same way -- but it's a welcome addition here, especially since the price is staying the same. (If you disagree, Amazon says you can turn that feature off.) Finally, the new HDX has 802.11ac WiFi, a step up from 802.11n. Kind of a no-brainer upgrade, if you ask us.

Other than that, many of the HDX 8.9's improvements boil down to Amazon's new software, dubbed Fire OS 4.0. (Following Amazon's grand tradition of giving its software alcohol-themed code names, this build is called "Sangria.") New features include unlimited online photo storage, the ability to add up to six user profiles, as well as a so-called Family Library where you can share apps, games, books and videos with someone else in the family -- your spouse, say. For the first time, Amazon is also throwing in a word processing suite, WPS Office, which -- surprise -- stores files on Amazon's own Cloud Drive service.

Firefly, a feature first introduced on the Fire Phone, is also making its debut on tablets. If you recall, it basically lets you scan anything you set your eyes on -- and then buy it. Additionally, Amazon ported over its ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction) feature from Fire TV, which guesses at which movies and TV shows you're searching for, and gets ready to stream them before you actually hit "play." This time around, the software is built on Android KitKat -- not that this looks anything like Android. If anything, the move to KitKat might make it a little easier for developers to bring over their apps to Amazon's own app store. But as far as the UI, this is uniquely Amazon: easy to use, but heavily skinned.

Though the software contains some useful new features, it's not reason enough to buy the HDX 8.9 specifically: Amazon's other new tablets run the same OS, and last year's models will also get upgraded to Fire OS 4.0. On that note, the 7-inch HDX will still be around, except Amazon is cutting the price by $30 to $199. Always an option if you want the user profiles, but not necessarily the Snapdragon 805 chip. (We can't blame you there.) Again, the new HDX 8.9 is up for pre-order today. Aside from the tablet, there's also a keyboard to go with it ($60) and a new folding "Origami" cover that's about 20 percent lighter than last year's case. Will we review it? Maybe we will; maybe we won't. Either way: You generally know what to expect here.

Terrence O'Brien contributed to this report.