Amazon's new Kindle Fire pleasantly surprises (October 20th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Amazon
- Bright, beautiful screen
- Snappy interface response
- Helpful Mayday function
- Solid build quality
- Comparatively small app library
- Micro USB port sometimes tough to access
Since their introduction, Amazon's Kindle Fire line of devices have typically occupied the "good enough" tier in tablets, but the retail giant's newest offering represents a notable step toward the sort of real, quality device CEO Jeff Bezos has promised for two years now.
Introduced in 2011, the original Kindle Fire was a super low-cost iPad alternative, and Electronista's review of it treated as such, decrying a number of missing features, the low storage space, and an overall lack of polish. Last year's Kindle Fire HD improved on the first-generation model, giving it a higher resolution screen, but still lacking a certain something.
With the third-generation Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon appears to have finally proven itself capable of producing not just a "good-enough" tablet, but a quality one. A device that still has its flaws, but one that seems closer to Amazon's overall vision of a tablet.
The Kindle Fire HDX represents an evolution of Amazon's design aesthetic, with its angular exterior marking a departure from the rounder look of previous generations. The model Electronista got its hands on -- the 7-inch model -- is also a bit slimmer than previous generations, measuring 7.3x5.0x0.35 inches and weighing just 10.7 ounces. It is by no means as slim as an iPad mini, but neither is it weighty and clunky.
In terms of build quality, the HDX is about as solid as a plastic-backed electronic device can feel, with the exception of the iPhone 5c. The new Kindle Fire feels tough, though. Really tough, to the point where we'd worry much less about dropping it than, say, an iPad mini or a Nexus 7. There's just a certain solidness to the device's build, probably due to the fact that it is likely to be handled by many slippery-fingered children.
Our unit also came with Amazon's origami-style Kindle Fire HDX cover, which we're not ashamed to admit took a bit of finagling to get to work properly. Once one gets the folding mechanism down, though, it allows for orientation of the device in landscape and a slightly off-angle portrait mode as well. The cover also adds to the air of toughness about the device, with its hard plastic shell turning the HDX into a veritable tank of a tablet. The built-in magnets hold the HDX inside the case much more securely than, say, the iPad mini's Smart Cover, but the device will also easily slip into and out of its case with just the right amount of pressure.
The Kindle Fire HDX sports a super-glossy display. When used outside in bright conditions, the tablet is better suited as a mirror than as a reading device, but it functions quite well under other lighting conditions.
To say a bit more about that display, it outputs at 1920x1200, a resolution that leaves the iPad mini far behind. That resolution is one of the device's true high points, as the screen is a wonder to behold.
The rest of the device is suitable, if not necessarily remarkable. Above the passable front-facing camera on either side are the HDX's speakers. They put out sound that isn't going to drown out a noisy bus -- that's what the headphone jack is for -- but that is well suited for a night at home binging on Amazon Instant Video content. Amazon's insistence on "suitable" over "superior" is understandable and even admirable: the HDX is fully, unabashedly a low-cost content consumption device, and additional bells and whistles would either raise the price and eat into Amazon's slim (and maybe non-existent) margins on the tablet.
Internals, Performance, and Battery Life
Continuing in Amazon's tradition, the new Kindle Fire eschews expandable memory, but users can take advantage of Amazon's streaming and cloud storage options, of which there are many. That may prove little comfort to users that want to pack their devices full of apps, but we're guessing the most likely use cases won't suffer too much due to lack of space.
Powering the HDX is a quad-core Snapdragon 800 clocked at 2.2GHz alongside 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 GPU. All that together makes for a very smooth user experience, without the freezing and stuttering that was known to affect previous models. Amazon says this will result in four times the performance of previous models, a claim we did not get to test, but that seems likely given the way it handles both the Fire OS interface and titles such as EA's Real Racing 3.
The Kindle Fire HDX positively breezes through graphics-heavy titles, even if Amazon's App Store library isn't necessarily loaded with such titles. Suffice it to say, your average Kindle user will have no trouble loading up the most popular cross-platform games, and the more intensive titles will run quite well on Amazon's new device.
Web surfing is also quite snappy on the HDX. In truth, the Silk browser that Amazon includes with its tablets is quite speedy and pleasant to use. Silk has a built in "Trending Now" feature that, when tapped, shows the user a few of the most popular items on the Internet at the moment. It's nothing truly groundbreaking, but it adds a nice touch to a session of idle web browsing.
In terms of battery life, Amazon claims 11 hours of operation on a single charge. In our experience, it came just under half an hour shy of that, but we were pretty regularly using wireless connections in between graphics-intensive gaming sessions. In less intensive sessions, one is likely to find the HDX meeting or exceeding Amazon's estimate. Suffice it to say the device will give you a good deal of video streaming, video gaming, and reading. The latter, especially, will yield considerable longevity, as Amazon has built in a Reading Mode that shuts down background processes while a user is reading. Engaging Reading Mode, according to amazon, could yield 17 hours of life.
One of the complaints often leveled against the iPad is that it is a content consumption device. For the Kindle Fire line, that is plainly the point of the tablets, and the Kindle Fire HDX is no different. After initial setup, the user is presented with Amazon's Android fork, newly christened Fire OS 3.0 Mojito. There is really no visual similarity between Fire OS and the stock Android 4.2.2 that it is built on, and that is because Amazon wants users to consume content on these devices.
The home screen, as usual, presents all of the content available for download from one's existing Amazon account. Tap on a book or magazine, and the device immediately begins syncing it to local storage. A banner along the top provides access to portals to buy physical products from Amazon as well as the company's numerous digital offerings. Games, apps, books, music, magazines, audiobooks, and more are all available from the home screen, driving home the fact that Amazon really wants this device to be a one-stop shop for whatever users want to buy. In a sense, it is much more convenient than competing devices from Apple and other Android tablets, as it really does provide a quick and responsive commerce portal.
In terms of its app library, Amazon's App Store is an order of magnitude smaller than the two major repositories. It hits many of the high points -- your Angry Birds, your Jetpack Joyride, Facebook, and so forth -- so HDX owners won't be terribly disappointed with the selection. Those looking for the latest and greatest apps probably aren't looking at a Kindle Fire in the first place, but for its most likely use cases, the app library should prove sufficient.
One of the true differentiating features for the Kindle Fire HDX is Amazon's addition of a Mayday help button. Swiping down from the top of the screen brings up the notification and quick settings menu, and Mayday is there nestled among the quick settings options. Tapping it takes one to the Amazon Assist screen, which provides the option to check the device's user guide or to connect to the Mayday service. Upon pressing connect, the user enters the Mayday queue, and we waited just a few seconds before the smiling face of an Amazon tech assistant popped up in a little box on screen.
Amazon Tech Advisors are able to remotely view the content on a user's screen and, most importantly, to visually guide users through whichever process is giving them trouble. They do this by drawing diagrams onto the user's screen, and they are able to walk one through the process of, say, downloading an app or signing on to a Wi-Fi network. The user can see the rep, but the rep cannot see the user, so privacy isn't a concern with the service.
In all, Mayday is really quite cool and easy. Amazon says most calls are answered within 15 seconds, and we'd imagine that most issues are resolved shortly thereafter. That aspect of the device is unmatched by any of its competitors, and it further demonstrates the "easy tablet" mindset with which Amazon approaches its devices.
What is the Kindle Fire HDX for?
You'll notice that our coverage of the device has contained a number of references to suitability and sufficiency; these are not meant as backhanded compliments. The HDX is not an iPad mini, and it is not a Nexus 7 or any tablet of that ilk. It is a device that appears to have a very specific ideal use case: consumption of Amazon content. It is also very good at that job.
The Kindle Fire is an "easy" tablet. It puts the most recently used content up front and centered for easy access. It holds the user's hand through many things, with a number of helpful on-screen indicators demonstrating how to accomplish certain tasks on the device on its first use. It does so in a much less intrusive fashion than, say, the pop-up help options on Samsung's Galaxy devices.
All that is to say that the HDX -- as were the Kindle Fires that came before it -- is aimed at a simplified tablet experience. We believe its price point and its rugged build quality make it ideal for a family tablet. Children can drop this, and it will survive, and parents can still use it for reading, movie viewing, and more.
Especially because of its durability, the Kindle Fire HDX might be the best tablet to hand to a child. Amazon is likely aware of this, as the retailer has built in a Kindle Free Time feature that is prominently displayed on the home screen. That feature allows parents to set a password and create a profile specifically for a child to use. The parent can then add books, TV shows, movies, and apps that are suitable for the child to access. It is a very thoughtful addition, and it will likely prove quite useful for many HDX buyers with children.
We enjoyed our time with the Kindle Fire HDX, and it is pleasant to see that Amazon continues to learn from past missteps, honing its tablet line and improving its quality from year to year. Reading, gaming, and general app use on the HDX are on par with comparable devices. Since its introduction, the Kindle Fire line has continually been among the top-selling tablets, and Amazon has really carved out a niche for itself in the segment. Those buying the newest model will not be disappointed, and will likely be as pleasantly surprised as we were.
The Kindle Fire HDX sells directly from Amazon for $244 for a 16GB Wi-Fi Only model. With Amazon's "Special Offers" feature -- which replaces lock screen images with targeted advertisements -- the same device is available for $229.