Any seasoned tech watcher will have noticed that Amazon is quietly building a third mobile ecosystem, competing against Apple’s iTunes and Google’s Play. Starting with the original Kindle ereader, the environment has grown into tablets and currently the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ tablet sits at the top of the food chain. And very tasty it is too. Let’s take a look.
On first inspection, the HDX is black and angular. It’s kind of like a stealth tablet, with radar-reflecting angles on the back and the sides. It’s very different from say, the curves of the Nexus 10, but it’s a refreshing changing and Amazon further plays on the theme with the Origami case. Giving the HDX a once over, there’s not much to poke at. The front has the main screen and a front-facing camera, on the sides there’s the micro-USB port and the headphone port, and on the back there’s the power button, volume rocker, rear camera with flash and stereo speakers. The rear camera will do 1080 and the front, 720p HD. There’s also a large Amazon logo emblazoned in the middle of the back.
Taking hold of the HDX, it feels good in the hand weighing in at 374g, which is light enough to hold in one hand but heavy enough that it doesn’t feel cheap. The rubberised back is grippy too and the buttons on the back of the HDX for power and volume come nicely to the hand – a good touch which makes the tablet feel designed for use rather than style. Not everyone will like the plastic back, but it’s largely a matter of personal taste.
On powering up, the HDX and Fire OS come into their own. The screen is absolutely stunning at 2560 x 1600 pixels, which is equivalent to 339 ppi. (The Nexus 10 has the same resolution but in a larger physical screen). Amazon’s Fire OS takes full advantage of the screen with a gloriously smooth “flow”-based interface. There are some great touches to the interface with the soft buttons moved to the right-hand side, conveniently under the hand, instead of at the bottom.
It’s all about the apps though, and at first I was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be the same range of apps available in the Amazon Store as would be in Google Play. In terms of sheer numbers, there are far fewer apps than in Google but if you are a mainstream user who rarely veers from the path of popularity, you are going to find all your apps here. I went through my commonly used apps and mostly they were there. Office Suite Pro – check; Feedly Reader – check; Netflix – check; Facebook – check; Guardian newspaper – check; Fitbit – check. Where an app was missing, it tended to be one from a competitor, so no Google+, no Zinio, no YouTube. Of course, you can still access these services via the web browser but it tends not to be an optimal experience.
Some of native apps are better than the equivalent Google versions. Calendar in particular is functionally better than the Google equivalent, and both Contacts and Email are a whole lot more attractive, although the later doesn’t haven’t the deep Gmail integration. Pure Android persists with a largely flat UI, whereas Fire OS has subtle shading and hinting that gives a lovely 3D effect without being distracting.
The 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor has plenty of power, and action games benefit from this. There are lots of good games, but action apps like Iron Man 3 or Asphalt 8 show off the HDX’s capabilities to best effect.
More than apps, Amazon is about content and here the Kindle Fire delivers in spades. Signing into the Kindle Fire with your Amazon credentials instantly accesses all your books, music and video content. It’s easy to switch between content that’s on the device and content that’s still in the cloud – there’s a simple toggle on the top right. Audio playback is good and background noise is minimal, even when listening with earbuds in quiet environments.
For films and TV on demand, Amazon offers LoveFilm in the UK and there’s a 30-day free trial for all HDX owners. Playback of movies is as smooth as you’d expect, but the coolest feature is X-Ray, a link with IMDb which offers movie and actor information based on the film or programme being watched. It’s pretty slick and I think we can expect more of this kind of experience-enhancing app in the future.
The HDX has some other nice touches too. Kindle FreeTime is a parental controls app that lets Mum and Dad add apps and content to a child’s profile. Access to the web browser and social networking apps is restricted and the amount of play time can be controlled as well. It’s well done and increases the appeal of the HDX to families.
Turning to price, this is not a budget tablet nor is it intended to be. This is a high-end device and the price reflects this: the base cost is GB £329 for the 16 GB wi-fi version with “Special Offers” aka adverts. The top-of-the range 64 GB 4G HDX without ads will set you back £489. For comparison, the larger 16 GB Nexus 10 is available widely for around £250 and the squarer iPad Air is £399.
I’ve been using the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ for a bit over a month now and I like it a great deal. Sometimes I’m frustrated by the non-Android way of doing things or the lack of a particular app, but other times I’m in love with it – Fire OS is very well presented. The animations are smooth, the touch-screen highly responsive and the layout of the soft buttons on the right is great design. If you are looking for something between the frontier that is Android and the closed confines of Apple, it’s a perfect match and if I was recommending a higher-end tablet to a non-geek friend or relative, the HDX would come high up the try-out list. And Google, you need to up your game.
Thanks to Amazon for the loan of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″.