updated 02:53 pm EDT, Fri October 5, 2012
Despite the Amazon skin, new Kindle Fire impresses
At AT&T's Unwrapped event, Electronista got to spend a little bit of not-quite-hands-on time with the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, the bigger brother to the Internet retailer's Kindle Fire HD 7. The new line of Kindle Fires are Amazon's attempt at realizing CEO Jeff Bezos' goal of having "the best tablet at any price." They don't quite get there, but Amazon has managed to produce a sleek and powerful device that's sure to satisfy its customers, if not those looking for a bit more control over their tablet experience.
While its smaller brethren, the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD, are aimed at taking on Google's surging Nexus 7 and similar small form factor tablets, the Kindle Fire 8.9 is aimed squarely at Apple's iPad. It's got a vibrant 8.9-inch screen outputting at 1920x1200, with 254 pixels per inch. When introducing the new tablets, Bezos spent a good deal of time hailing the screen on the 8.9, with its true-wide polarizing filter supposedly allowing users to view the full spectrum of color from all angles.
In person, the screen hype is justified. Colors on the larger Kindle Fire seem to pop off the screen, and images are just about as crisp as anything you're likely to see. The Amazon rep ran through some scenes from The Hunger Games for us -- streamed from Amazon Instant Video, of course -- and the image remained bright and distinct from just about any viewing angle we tried.
Inside, the Kindle Fire has an OMAP 4470 processor, which Amazon claims outperforms the Tegra 3. We couldn't make a side-by-side comparison with a Tegra device, but the Kindle Fire HD seemed to perform well under a few controlled examples. Our attendant brought up the X-ray feature, which displays information on a title and its cast, while the Hunger Games clip played on. The Kindle Fire displayed easily navigable information atop the movie, and the attendant dove down into character and cast information without the video missing a step beneath. It's not the sort of feature you'll want to leave on constantly, as it definitely obscures the video on the screen, but it will definitely serve for getting an extra bit of knowledge on a title without stopping or flipping over to IMDB.
We also had the chance to check out gaming on Amazon's new tablet, and it's no slouch in that department. The attendant showed us a graphically taxing title -- the name of which escapes us now -- said to be exclusive to Amazon devices. A simple accelerometer-based game involving racing balls from one end of a track to another, the title still showed off some impressive dynamic lighting effects, with shadows pooling beneath fruits and cheeses and light moving along the sharp edge of a kitchen knife as he tilted the device.
We'd been interested to check out the Whispersync function, which Amazon recently brought to games on its devices. Whispersync keeps all of your devices up to date on your progress through an e-book, and for games works beautifully. The attendant started up a title on one device, progressed slightly, and then picked up another device, where the progress and achievements were already present. As technophiles that game across multiple devices, it's hard to describe how handy such a feature would be for us. Nothing quite as discouraging as knowing you'll have to pick one device and stick with it when you're starting up a lengthy title like, say, Final Fantasy III; better that you'd be able to sync your progress from tablet to phone and back again.
As to the physical aspects of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, we can't say too much. This was a very controlled demonstration,and the presenter turned us down when we requested whether or not we might handle the device for ourselves, leading us to believe that either the device or the software powering that version are not entirely finished.
We were able to touch the device's back, though, and to feel a bit of its weight. It feels about comparable to an iPad, and we'd imagine -- when actually held in one's own hands -- the Kindle Fire 8.9 has a reassuring heft to it. Its back cover is smooth to the touch, but it doesn't feel like it would slip out of one's hands.
Our only real complaint about the device is the skin Amazon has put over the forked version of Android 4.0 that the device runs on. On the original Kindle Fire, Amazon's interface was noticeably laggy, with stutters and jumps detracting from the user experience. That's not the case here, as the Fire HD 8.9 swiftly and smoothly displays animations as one peruses content on the device. We're still of the opinion, though, that the device suffers from such a strong focus on putting Amazon products up front. Of course, this is a complaint that's only really applicable for the more tech savvy among us, and those aren't necessarily the people Amazon is targeting with its device.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 will be going on sale on November 20, but it's already available for preorder from Amazon. The 4G LTE version we checked out will start at $499 for the 32GB model and $599 for the 64GB model.