Amazon has spent the last few years building up their hardware line, starting with the e-ink Kindles, and moving on to tablets powered by their own variant of Android. The latest tablet is the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, and I’ve spent the last week finding out what this tablet can do.
Shipping in a thin matt black box, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is stylishly packed. Alongside the tablet is an AC adaptor for charing the unit, a USB cable for connectivity to the charger or your desk-bound computer. The only other item is a single page guide to the hardware buttons on the HDX, how to unlock the screen, and three bullet points to get started.
This Kindle Fire is a great device to hold. It’s 100g lighter than Apple’s iPad Air, and 120g lighter than Sony’s Xperia Tablet Z. Part of that is down to a slightly smaller screen, but that helps the ergonomics of the device so its a good trade-off to make. It is not tiring to hold when watching video, and the soft-touch back, while a bit of a fingerprint magnet, provides enough friction for your fingers that a light touch is enough to hold the Kindle Fire in place. Wide bezels around the screen help you grip without getting in the way of the screen, and with a slight taper out from the glass front to the rear of the machine before a sharp angle to the flat back, it is easy to pick up from a table while still retaining the same hard styling seen in the packaging.
On the rear of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is a plastic strip running the length of the top edge. It provides a touch of tactile feedback, as well as being radio transparent for the improved WiFi and 3G ariels. It doesn’t fit style wise with the rest of the Kindle Fire, and if there’s physical area that feels rushed on the Kindle Fire, this is it. I can love with the volume and power buttons that are tucked away on the rear of the machine. They’re accessible, but when I hold the tablet naturally my fingers are close to them, but not resting on them. I need to make a conscious decision to reach for and activate them.
I get the feeling Amazon has decided to play specification bingo with this tablet. The major numbers listed are all larger than the elephant in the room that is the iPad Air, and compare very favourably with the top-end tablets from Samsung and Sony: a quad-core 2.2 GHz Krait CPU, an Adreno 330 GPU, 2 GB of RAM, and up to 64 GB of storage is a very attractive proposition, and allows Amazon to pitch the HDX 8.9 as ‘better’ than the iPad Air. Some people might be disappointed that there is no external microSD storage, but with Amazon heavily promoting ‘the cloud’ that’s not a surprising design decision.
Amazon has worked on the audio with this tablet. The speakers are mounted in adjacent corners on the long edge of the Kindle Fire, so when you hold it in landscape mode to watch a film the speakers are not obstructed by your hands. Dolby Digital Plus processing is used to tweak the sounds from various sources to make for a more natural sound. In general it works, but does tend to add in a bit more bass than I would expect.
It’s worth noting that Amazon’s designers have geared this tablet to a landscape orientation. Although it does work in both layouts, the ergonomics of buttons, cameras, and speakers scream “landscape” to Apple’s “portrait” with the iPad.
And then you have the screen. Sitting in the sparsely populated nine-inch screen space, it is slightly smaller than the iPad Air, but has a higher pixel count, a better colour accuracy, is bright and clear, and is frankly one of the best screens on a tablet this festive season. It is an LCD screen, so the viewing angle is a little tighter than other technologies, and the intensity of the backlight drops off rather quickly when you leave the natural viewing angle, but these are small quibbles. If your only concern is screen technology, the HDX 8.9 is the clear winner.
On every quantifiable measure, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is the device to beat. But any personal computing device needs more than an impressive spec sheet and solid physical design. The hardware and software need to work together with the needs of the user to create a holistic experience. And this is where consumers will need to think very carefully about purchasing a Kindle Fire.
The question of ‘what do you want your tablet for?’ hangs over the Kindle Fire more than any other consumer electronic device. This is not a ‘general purpose’ tablet that you get with any of the Android tablets that run the full Google experience. Neither does it have the flexible nature and simple ‘lets get it done’ attitude present in the iPad hardware. The Kindle Fire is a tablet for the consumption of content, rather than the creation of content. And nine times out of ten that content is going to come from Amazon.
For all the talk of this being an Android device, it’s not a flavour of Android the High Street will recognise. Derived from the Android Open Source Project base, Amazon has ensured that the content functions of the tablet will return the user to Amazon’s services. That could be to download their third-party applications, to buy books, to stream video files, or to order physical goods.
Google has been working hard to create two levels of Android… the open source part which anyone can use to start a device, and the Android services that tie people back to Google’s services such as the Google Play app store, Gmail, and Google Play Music. With developers encouraged to use Google specific APIs in their code these apps are only compatible if they are downloaded to a device that is Google certified.
Amazon isn’t Google certified, which is why many of the support functions are duplicated by Amazon and applications need to be recompiled to work with these new services and to remove any coding dependencies on Google services. While the key applications are available (for me that includes Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, and Tumblr clients), Amazon’s collection is not as comprehensive as some would like it to be. If you are an application collector you should have a careful look through Amazon’s collection to see if your favourites are there, and to be aware that the latest indie releases may not make the jump to Amazon’s bespoke system.
Where Amazon has a huge win is of course in e-books, magazines, and periodicals. They have probably the largest accessible catalogue of current ‘digital words’, and they make good use of it in the Kindle Fire HDX. The store is a click away when you are in the ‘Books’ app, and it’s a simple matter to buy a book, download a previously purchased book from your library in the cloud, and start reading.
It won’t be too much of a surprise to realise the Kindle app on the Fire is very similar to the standard Android version you would download from Google. You have your three color schemes and a choice of fonts, and you can alter the font size, margins, and line spacing. What you can’t do is set the justification – all the books on the Kindle will be justified to the left and the right margin. My personal preference is to be left justified and ragged on the right edge. Looks like I’ll have to go with Amazon’s opinion of the best way to lay out an e-book.
You can also check the notes you have made for each book, leave a bookmark in place (as opposed to the last page you were reading), and depending on the book, you may be able to use Amazon’s ‘X-Ray’ feature which expand on phrases, locations, and topics in the book. This is a nice touch, but it’s not universal so it’s impossible to rely on. Although it’s nice to use when it is available it’s not a deal-breaker.
Your progress, notes, and bookmarks are all stored in the cloud, so if you start reading on another Kindle (or Kindle app on another device) these will be synced and you can pick up where you left off. This only works with content purchased from Amazon, and not personal documents or hand-rolled e-books, but this mode of operation is in line with other e-book platforms.
I would like to see more from Amazon with their book reader. Even with the other features on the Kindle Fire my primary use is still reading, and the application needs to be a little more configurable to make it suitable for my use. Amazon has spent a lot of time considering recommendations to sell me new content, but not a lot of time building up a profile of what I like from the software the reads this content. Amazon’s book reading software is of high quality, but it’s not best-in-class and there are better independent efforts out there… of course these won’t work with Amazon’s DRM software on their content.
While the reading software is almost but not quite up to scratch, the video playback software is less user-friendly. While it hs the same ability to purchase and download content from the Amazon store, it only has a few video codecs for playback, which means copying movies over from your computer through the USB cable will not always result in a playable file on the tablet.
I could just about live with that, but an inability to remember where you are in a film is less forgivable. It’s very easy to switch away from the video player to another application. When you return to the player you’ll be back at the start of your video file, which is frustrating, especially as one of the Kindle’s strength is remembering where you are in the book reader.
When you do get a video to playback, the quality of the screen and the speakers comes back to the foreground. Issues around content and UI aside, watching on the Kindle Fire HDX is a wonderful experience, and is certainly the gold standard of the current crop of tablets.
Now in its third version of the Fire OS (this version is called Mojito), Amazon has done their best to make an Android OS of their own, and they have succeeded. There are echoes of the base port and smart eyed Android fans will recognise the notifications area, the soft keys of home and back, and the occasional dialog box that shows the roots of this tablet, but on the whole Amazon has created an Amazon OS that is relatively clear to use.
It’s not perfect, and there are moments where you can lose track of where things are, how to return to previous screens, or where to find certain options. That could leave inexperienced users a little flustered. It also has such a focus on the cloud that your first hour or so with your Kindle Fire will be made up of connecting to various social media services and cloud providers. Again, the Kindle Fire works well if you follow Amazon’s way of doing things.
Amazon has talked a lot about their customer support option on the Kindle Fire – the Mayday button, available in the pull down notifications area of the tablet – and it has created a great point of differentiation. Truth be told it’s just another way of reaching a help-desk, but being able to see the representative, and having them able to suggest and follow actions on your screens will be welcomed by the regular user. I just hope they have extra staff ready on Christmas Day!
It’s almost impossible to get away from Amazon when using the tablet – you can get suggestions of similar content for ever item in the carousel of recent apps and documents; the shop option is right under your own library in the navigation menus; you can go direct to the store for each media app direct from the top of the screen; Amazon’s current offers sit alongside Books, Music, Video and other sections of Amazon’s; and unless you paid the extra fee, your lock screen will be taken over by a full screen Amazon advert.
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 can be used as a standalone tablet, but really if you’re looking for that experience there are better options out there for you (notably the iPad mini with Retina Display, reviewed here on Forbes). This is a tablet for someone who is either already invested with Amazon’s content ecosystem, or is happy to use a single store for the majority of their digital purchases. It’s stylish and usable, and while it is focused on Amazon, it still remains open and accessible enough to be expanded through third-party software and side-loaded content.
There’s very little middle ground with the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. If you’re happy to be part of Amazon’s world and are looking for a tablet that works with everything from the company, this is the tablet for you. Although it would fulfil that task if required, there are a few too many compromises for me to recommend the Kindle Fire as a standalone tablet, even with the high specifications and solid build quality.
Disclosure: Amazon (UK) provided a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 for review purposes.