The tablet market is bursting at the seams with new models and innovations. One of the newest arrivals is the refresh of Amazon’s Kindle Fire lineup: the Kindle Fire HDX 7″ and 8.9″. We’ve been playing with, stress testing, and otherwise putting our pair through the paces over the last few weeks. Read on as we detail the good, the bad, and the verdict for the Kindle Fire.
What is the Kindle Fire?
The Kindle Fire is Amazon’s foray into the tablet market and designed to be tightly integrated with the entire Amazon media and shopping ecosystem. The device, just like Amazon’s wildly popular Kindle ebook reader, is intended to serve as a vehicle for Amazon users to enjoy all Amazon has to offer through their book, movie, music, and app stores.
The original Kindle Fire was introduced during the holiday season of 2011; it’s important to look at where the Fire lineup was to really appreciate where it is now. The 2011 release was, to put it bluntly, a complete dog. It was slow, it had a kludgy user interface, and it failed to beat out any other major tablet in the market in any major or minor category. When Amazon released an updated version in 2012, it wasn’t much of an update at all (same slow processor, same lackluster screen, same battery, just a bump from 512MB of memory to 1GB and a refresh of the Android-based Fire OS); reviewers and consumers alike were still quite underwhelmed by the Fire lineup.
The next year, during the 2012 holiday season, Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire HD lineup in 7″ and 8.9″ models. The processor was barely a little faster, the screen was significantly better (but still not quite blow-you-away smooth), the memory stayed at 1GB, and over all the specs were still lackluster. A small refresh of the Kindle HD 7″ in 2013 did little to help. Three iterations in, the Kindle Fire was still a bit of a dog and nothing that threatened the other major tablets on the market.
In October of this year, Amazon released a massively updated Kindle Fire in the form of the Kindle Fire HDX (available in a 7″ and 8.9″ model) that went a long way towards resolving the issues that plagued the earlier Kindle Fires. The system-on-a-chip driving the new Fires, a snappy 2.15Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, is light years ahead of the Texas Instruments OMAP 4 4430 found in earlier models (while it’s difficult to boil mobile CPU stats down to a single number, know that the original Fire had a 1GHz dual-core chip, the updated Kindle HD in 2012 only had dual-core 1.5Gz, but that the new Fire HDX has a quad-core 2.2GHz chip). The new Fires also received a RAM boost from 1GB to 2GB.
The screen is radically improved; the 1024 x 600 (169 ppi) display found on the first and second generations, and the 1280 x 800 (214 ppi)/1920 x 1200 px (254 ppi) of the third generation 7″ and 8.9″ have been replaced with a beautiful 1920 x 1200 (323 ppi) and 2560 x 1600 (339 ppi) on the Kindle Fire HDX 7″ and 8.9″, respectively.
The overall improvement to the Kindle Fire line is enormous and takes the Kindle Fire lineup from curl-your-lip bad to tablets worth looking at. Let’s start exploring by taking a look at the body, screen, and Amazon case.
Exploring the Body, Screen, and Origami Case
The Kindle Fire HDXs have, like most tablets, a glass front with a piano-black reflective border around the screen. This piano-black design element also continues onto the backside and, although an eye catching design, is pretty much just a parking place for finger prints. We would have much preferred that the entire back of the case have the nice rubberized surface that covers 95% of the case already.
Both models have the power button on one side (just beneath the micro USB charging port) and the volume on the opposite side (just beneath the headphone jack). The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ also has a small bump out from the piano-black accent bar where the forward facing camera is located (a feature not present on the smaller 7″ model).
Both the larger 8.9″ model and the smaller 7″ model are pleasant to hold. The beveled edges, which would appear at first glance to be potentially uncomfortable, are comfortable and fit well in the hand. The units are very light (10.7 and 13.2 oz, respectively). For perspective, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ model is a solid 20% lighter than the already light iPad Air.
Finger prints aside, we were pleased with the body. The screen, too, is beautiful. The units both have over 300 ppi (the 7″ has 323 and the 8.9″ has 339), which puts them well above the iPad Air’s 264 ppi. If you’ve seen a recent iPad around and been impressed with the clarity of the screen, you’ll be equally if not more impressed with the Fire. The screen is beautiful and even with a magnifying glass it’s hard to see the pixels. At no point during any of our testing did we find that the screen stuttered, lagged, refreshed poorly, presented pixelated icons or interface elements, or otherwise revealed any sort of rendering flaws.
That said, there was one flaw with the screen present on the smaller Kindle HDX 7″ unit that (much like the spotty illumination on the first generation Kindle Paperwhites) was very difficult to ignore once we noticed it. The unit had light bleed all around the screen. Regardless of the application, but especially noticeable with light backgrounds, there was a continual blueish white glow around the edge of the screen.
When reading a Kindle book where the entire screen, save for the text, is pure white, it looks like there is a halo of blue around the entire page. Maybe some people will never notice, or if they notice they won’t care, but once we noticed it we couldn’t stop noticing it. The photographs above show the light bleed under bright indoor lighting conditions and in a darkened room.
This isn’t actually a defect in our particular unit. Amazon explains:
To achieve the perfect color accuracy on Kindle Fire HDX 7″ at the lowest possible battery consumption and device weight, we used blue, not white, LEDs. Blue LEDs allow for a much more accurate and rich representation of color and result in an up to 20% improvement in power efficiency.
As a result of using these blue LEDs, you may notice a very narrow, faint blue tint around the edge of the device when looking at items with a white background, such as books or web pages. All displays have some level of light emission around the edges, and the light on the Kindle Fire HDX 7″ is blue due to the technology used to render perfect color accuracy
Now, we’ll be the first to say that the colors on both the large and small HDX look absolutely beautiful, crisp, and true to life. That said, however, the blue haze on the edge of the smaller 7″ unit was really irritating. If you’re debating getting the 7″ or the 8.9″ model, we’d strongly recommend stopping by a brick-and-mortar retailer that carries the units so you can decide if the blue halo is a deal breaker.
In addition to sending a us the two Kindle Fire units to review, Amazon also sent us two of their Origami cases: a new case designed specifically for their HDX line.
The Origami cover attaches to the Kindle Fire HDX bodies magnetically (the edges of the plastic back are essentially guides to keep it straight and don’t actually hold it in place all the way around). The cover features a rather striking geometric design that is integral to the actual function of the case. You can fold the cover behind the case and magnets within the two smaller triangles stick together to turn the cover into a really sturdy stand, like so:
You can also rotate the unit and the Origami stand works in the vertical orientation too; in fact there’s absolutely no wrong way to place the stand down as it works in all four potential orientations.
It’s a very clever design, which makes us feel all the worse for not really caring for the case. Despite the cleverness of the folding cover, there was a whole lot to dislike about the Origami case. The principle complaint we have is that the Origami cases, thanks to all those magnets in the back and the cover, are ridiculously heavy. The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″, for example, weighs 13.2 oz but with the addition of the Origami case it weighs in at 24.15 oz.
The difference was so noticeable immediately after putting the case on, we actually got out a kitchen scale just to confirm it was as heavy as it felt:
While a case will always add weight to a device, we didn’t experience the same thing when we put the official Amazon case on the Kindle Paperwhite, for example. The Origami case takes the Kindle HDX units from “Oh wow! This is so light!” to “What is this? An iPad 1?” (the iPad 1, for the curious, weighed in at 24 oz without a case).
On top of our dismay over how ridiculously heavy the cover was, it tended to (especially on the bigger HDX 8.9″) not stay completely flat. The magnets would hold the case shut, but the middle of the cover would stay slightly bent up. While we’re sure that, when tucked in a bag or the like, the weight of other objects and the walls of the bag or briefcase would keep it flush, it didn’t sit well with us. The whole point of the cover is to keep things from touching the screen, not create a little tent for them get sandwiched against it. If you used the warmth of your hand to warm the plastic cover and hold it down, it would usually flatten most of the way down, but still, if you use the stand for an extended period of time and then close it, expect a little origami tent of sorts.
Further, there’s no opening for the rear facing camera found on the 8.9″ unit. You actually have to slide the Fire up in the case (remember it’s held in by magnets and not a hard lip) to use the camera and then slide it back down. This is clearly an intentional design as a sensor in the Kindle HDX turns on the rear-facing camera automatically when you do this and it’s a feature advertised on the Kindle HDX page.
Now, in fairness, it does seem to catch pretty firmly when you slide it up, but still. We don’t know about you, but we really wouldn’t want to continually risk knocking the case off or dropping the unit while we’re fumbling around with sliding the case up and down. Maybe it was just too unique of a design for us, but we were really uncomfortable pushing the device up and out of the case like that every time we wanted to access the camera.
We can’t stress enough how much we wanted to love the Origami case because it just looked so cool and the premise of the neat foldy-bendy-magically-becomes-a-stand cover was great, but in application we can’t get over how heavy, clumsy, and insecure it feels in the hand given that the only thing holding it in the case is a magnet (and not an actual wrap around lip securing it firmly to the case). Perhaps, however, like the blue halo, our complaints about it won’t matter to you. Try it out in-store if you can; maybe the beefiness of the case and the neato-foldy-stand will win you over.
That said, our previous complaint about the finger-print-attracting accent bar on the back of the units aside, we were really happy with the physical side of the Kindle Fire HDX units. They’re nice and light (sans the cover of course), they’re comfortable to hold for long periods of time (and if you have the heavy Origami case, you can always use the stand to avoid holding it), and (despite the blue bleed on the screen edges of the 7″ unit) the screen itself was beautiful. You’ll strain your eyes looking for pixels on those 300+ ppi screens and never find one.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the the physical side of the devices, let’s take a look at setting the device up.
Setting It Up
The Kindle Fire HDX setup is dead-simple. We’re talking: if you’re breathing and you know your Amazon login, you can do it with zero hiccups. In fact, if you bought the Kindle for yourself or a member of your family that is on your Amazon account, you don’t even have to do that! It comes precharged and preregistered to your account.
Setup is as simple as registering it to your Kindle account (if it was a gift and not preregistered), giving it your Wi-Fi password, and sitting back as the setup wizard walks you through the basics of navigating the Fire OS (a tutorial which amounts to pretty much “this is how you swipe around the screen to find your apps, books, and other stuff).
Once you’ve finished the getting started tutorial, you’re deposited at the main navigation panel, seen in the screenshot above. There you’ll find the carousel, a list of your recently accessed apps and media, and a navigation bar at the top that links to Amazon shopping, games, apps, books, music, and other media like photos and documents. Each of the top navigation bar elements links you to both the locally stored content (e.g. books stored on your Kindle currently) and your content in the Amazon cloud.
The bottom of the screen is, like other Android tablets and the iPad, a shortcut dock for apps. Swipe the screen up and the dock becomes more like a drawer, revealing even more shortcuts to recently installed applications.
The user interface of the Fire OS is very user friendly but if you run into any trouble you can always swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal another navigation panel like so:
The Mayday button, second from the right, is one of Amazon’s big selling points for the Kindle Fire HDX line. The premise is simple: you tap the Mayday button and, assuming you have internet access on the unit at the time, you’ll be connected to Amazon’s tech support service with full video/audio support:
We took it for a spin and, we have to say, the service is extremely useful and worked exactly as Amazon promised. We were connected in less than 5 seconds (Amazon claims a typical turn around of less than 15 seconds) to the support system where we explained that we were reviewing a Kindle Fire and needed to test out the Mayday service.
The support specialist we were paired with was more than happy to oblige and, even though we didn’t have an actual problem, she walked us through turning the user accessibility features on and off (such as the read-aloud feature). Not only can you talk with and see the support specialist, but they can actually, ala remote desktop, take control of your Kindle and perform the fix on your behalf.
It was, hands down, the most seamless and easy tech support experience we’ve ever had. If you’re buying a tablet for a tech-phobic relative who would benefit from that kind of immediate and hands-on help, the Mayday feature is a huge selling point. If you’re often fielding questions over the phone that involve statements like “OK, Mom, tell me again what you can’t open.”, this kind of service is pure sanity-saving gold.
The User Experience: Inside the Amazon Ecosystem
In the previous section we talked about how easy it was to setup and how great the Mayday feature is, but what about actually using the unit on a daily basis?
The Fire OS 3.0 user experience is pretty great. Amazon has done a bang up job making it extremely easy to use the device and to get at your Amazon content. After registering the device, for example, we had immediate access to our entire Amazon cloud library of books, music, and apps as well as all the Instant Video streaming through Amazon Prime. There was zero friction between getting the HDX out of the box and loading up our Amazon purchased books, streaming music, and browsing and downloading videos. Time from ripped-shrink-wrap to playing with videos and apps was about 45 seconds.
That’s really where the Kindle HDX shines: in Amazon’s ecosystem. It was built to help build Amazon’s user base, it’s clearly oriented towards selling Amazon products just like the Kindle ereaders were meant to move books off the virtual shelf, and it does an excellent job of doing so.
For example, not only do you get the Kindle’s neat X-ray system for books, it also works on movie and TV shows now. Kindle Paperwhite owners will be familiar with the X-ray system, it allows you to check out the bones of a book including relevant character information and other references. Now, you can use the same cool X-ray technique on media. Here’s a screenshot of an episode of the comedy show Key & Peele:
Note: Ignore the blacked out screen, the Kindle screenshot tool (the power button + volume down) blacks out any streaming content because of copyright restrictions.
On the sidebar, you can see information about all the actors in the scene and who they are playing, as well as links to more information (tap on any actor and you get an overview of the actor, other titles in the Amazon library with that actor, and what they are best known for. You can also check out, from the detailed X-ray view, all the other actors in the show or movie, trivia, and music.
What’s really neat about the X-ray feature is that in the view seen in the screenshot above, the lightweight side-panel, it only shows the characters in that particular moment you’re watching. (The entire cast is available via the Characters screen in the detailed view). It’s a pretty neat way to get immediate information about what’s going on. You can go from “Who is this actress?” to “Ah-hah!” with a swipe of your finger.
Music playback is equally as intuitive, as is loading up books. If you’re using content accessed/purchased exclusively through Amazon the entire experience, as we mentioned before, is zero-friction.
The User Experience: Outside the Amazon Ecosystem
What about venturing outside the Amazon ecosystem, however? There, we found things were a mixed bag. It’s really easy to venture outside the Amazon ecosystem to load your own media content if you’re willing to go through the very minimal hassle of sideloading it via USB transfer. It’s pretty hassle free, all things considered, to copy MP3 files over to the /Music/ folder, or ebooks converted to Kindle-format to the /Books/ folder. Perhaps not as frictionless as using stuff you bought right from Amazon, but well within the reach of most users. It’s certainly easier to sideload content on the Kindle Fire than it is to sideload content on the iPad, so the Fire certainly has that going for it.
Where things get a little hairy is applications. Amazon has their own appstore, Apps for Android. There is no way to directly access Google Play, the primary Android app distribution channel, without doing some serious (and potentially warranty voiding) tinkering like rooting your device.
This isn’t to say that you can’t load non-Amazon provided apps; you most certainly can (and we did). It’s possible to allow installation from unknown sources, copy APKs (the Android equivalent of installation files) over to the the device via USB transfer or downloading from a web-based source, and install them.
It’s not super easy, however, and there’s no direct way to get an app from Google Play to the Kindle Fire without having another device with Google Play installed and the ability to extract/backup that application and rip it off the host device to move it to the Fire. In otherwords, if there’s an app you want on the Kindle Fire that isn’t on the Apps for Android marketplace within the walled-garden of Amazon, you’re going to have to work to get it.
While we 100% understand Amazon’s motivation here: they want to make money and they want to have tighter control over the apps users can easily load (after all, one of their big goals is to make life smooth and easy for people using the Fire), it’s more than a little frustrating to be unable to easily transfer your apps from Google Play to your Kindle without jumping through a bunch of hoops. Who wants to put up with that hassle or face paying for the apps all over again in a separate ecosystem?
Amazon FreeTime: Making Fire the Kid-Friendliest Tablet
In addition to the Mayday system making the Kindle Fire particularly friendly for the non-tech-savvy, the Kindle Fire has another feature worth highlighting that ups the family-friendly-factor: FreeTime.
FreeTime is, hands down, the easiest to setup and use kid-friendly/kid-proofing tool for any tablet system on the market right now. You can create multiple profiles for each of your children and, using those profiles, specify which books, apps, games, and videos you want each child to access. You can set time limits for general use to limit the amount of time the child uses the device as well as restrict only certain categories: allowing only so much time for games and video but unlimited time for reading books, for example.
Further more, once you set up the profile, you can add on Kindle FreeTime Unlimited for $2.99 a month, which offers a wide array of curated videos, books, TV shows, and apps that are all age appropriate and selected for the child based on the age set in their profile. Three bucks a month from what amounts to a nearly infinite well of content (and content that has been human-curated and vouched for) is a steal.
Once the Kindle Fire is in FreeTime mode, there’s no way the child can mess with the settings, access restricted content, or otherwise harm the device (outside of, you know, doing it the traditional way with a hammer). In fact, and this impressed us enormously, when you switch to FreeTime it even locks down the USB access so the kid can mount the device on their computer to load music and pictures but they cannot access any of the content from the adult profile. If you’ve sideloaded music, movies, or books that aren’t kid-friendly, they can’t get to them even if they’re clever and try to load the device as a flash drive on the computer. The entire experience is completely silo’ed and safe.
Now it wouldn’t be a true get-our-hands-dirty review without putting the device through the paces. Before we delve into the benchmark metrics, however, let us say this: benchmarks are great for comparing the hardware specs of various devices and we love geeking out over them, but at no point during our extensive testing of the Kindle HDX units did we ever find ourselves wishing they were faster, brighter, or, really, better in anyway. They’re very capable current generation devices. With that said, let’s dig into the benchmark results.
Battery Life: Test results are in hh:mm format, the higher the value the better.
The most important benchmark for the majority of users is battery life. A little faster or slower processor doesn’t matter as much as running out of juice while sitting on the train without your charger.
We conducted our battery tests using two tools. First, we ran a test using HTG’s in-house browsing simulator. The browsing simulator is a script that loads web pages on a 20-second rotating schedule. This test is designed to effectively simulate casual web browsing as if you were up all night goofing around on the web. The browsing continues until the battery runs completely dead.
The second test is the Peacekeeper Battery Test. This test loops the Peacekeeper browser test (a 4-5 minute high-intensity browser test) indefinitely until the battery is depleted. The Peacemaker test more closely simulates using the device for gaming, videos, and more intensive web browsing as it taxes the device more than simply loading news web sites and the like.
The Kindle HDX 8″ fared significantly better than the iPad air and the Kindle HDX 7″ fared about as well as the iPad Air. All three of these devices fared worse than the Google Nexus 7 which, in fairness, is well known for having great battery life.
Browser Assessment – SunSpider Java Test: The test results are in milliseconds, the lower the value the better.
Browser Assessment – Peacekeeper Browser Test: The test results are a composite score, the higher the better.
The Peacekeeper browser test mixes together various HTML5, video, and graphic rendering tests to give a solid indication how well a browser and the hardware it runs on can handle the dynamic content found across the web. In other words: how well the device can handle the kind of heavy YouTube watching and flash-game playing most users will put it through.
The Kindles did moderately well with the Kindle HDX 7″, by default of having a smaller screen to push pixels to, slightly outpaced the larger 8.9″ model. The iPad air performed twice as well on the test.
CPU Assessment – Geekbench 3.0: The test results are a composite, the higher the score the better.
Geekbench benchmarks a wide variety of CPU-dependent items including integer calculations (using encryption/decryption tests and archive/image compression/decompression), floating point calculations (such as those used for fractal generation, image filters, and ray tracing), amd memory reading/writes. The tests are performed both on a single core and using all the available cores on the device.
The results here were interesting in that the HDX units performed worse than the iPad Air when it came to single-core processing, but in the multi-core test the HDX 7″ performed on par with it and the HDX 8.9″ did significantly better.
GPU Assessment – 3DMark Unlimited: Composite score, the higher the number the better.
3DMark provides GPU stress testing for a wide variety of operating systems, both desktop and mobile. For our GPU test we put all four devices through the 3DMark Unlimited test which simulates intensive gaming: the kind of gaming where frame rates drop, GPUs get hot, and battery reserves are quickly depleted. The higher the 3DMark score, the better.
In the GPU stress test the Kindles held their own against the iPad and excelled beyond the Nexus. The HDX 7″ proved to be particularly snappy: with a lower resolution but the same CPU/GPU combination, it blew past it’s bigger brother the HDX 8.9″.
Now again, we want to stress, the benchmarks are great because they give us a baseline to compare, but often times in real-world use the differences aren’t noticeable, as there is such variation between the total hardware package that underlies each device.
You might look at the lower HDX 8.9″ score compared to the iPad Air in the GPU stress test and think “Oh no, well that’s no good for gaming!’ but the HDX holds its own just fine. We threw a pile of graphically intensive games at it like Rayman Jungle Run and Galaxy on Fire 2 HD without any indication that the HDX units couldn’t handle them.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
After weeks of testing, retesting, and stress testing the devices, what do we have to say about the matter?
- The screen is absolutely beautiful; the extremely high ppi and accurate color representation make for a stunning display.
- Both models are very lightweight and comfortable to hold.
- Integration with the Amazon ecosystem of books, music, and media is flawless.
- The Mayday system is awesome. If you’re buying a tablet for a less than tech-savvy relative (or you are, in fact, that less than tech-savvy relative) the Mayday feature is a godsend. It’s literally two taps and you get to talk to a tech support specialist who can not only talk you through something but actually do it for you.
- FreeTime is, hands down, the absolute best kid-proofing solution available. Combine it with FreeTime unlimited and for $2.99 a month you’ve got yourself a super kid-friendly tablet with a nearly infinite library of age appropriate books and media.
- The 7″ HDX starts at $229 and the 8.9″ HDX starts at $379, putting the HDX line up in a solidly more economical class than the similarly sized iPad Mini (starts at $399) and the iPad Air (starts at $599)
- The blue haze around the 7″ model is unacceptable. We’d rather have less-than-perfect color representation than a weird blue halo around the screen.
- Piano black accents? Might as well have a sticky patch that says “Place unsightly fingerprints and dirt here”.
- The Apps for Android store: Yes, we understand why Amazon has a separate appstore. No, we don’t like it. Purchasing apps for iOS and Android is annoying enough, let alone apps for this Android and that Android.
- Amazon’s Origami cases have the potential to be awesome but are almost as heavy as the tablets they protect and cost far too much for what you get.
The Verdict: The Kindle Fire HDX lineup, especially the 8.9″ model, is a complete overhaul of the Fire tablet system and a much, much, needed PR makeover. Where you could once find dozens of the early model Kindle Fires on Craigslist with listings like “Won it as a door prize. Don’t want it.” you likely won’t be snapping up any of the HDXs in similar fashion anytime soon. Unlike their predecessors, the Fire HDX units are actually snappy, modern, and pleasant to use.
If you haven’t heavily invested in another tablet ecosystem like the iOS App Store or the Android Google Play store, picking up a Kindle Fire HDX makes a lot of sense. If you’re buying for a non-tech-savvy relative (especially one who already uses Amazon) it, again, makes a lot of sense. If you’re buying for a kid, it’s an outright no-brainer as the Kindle Fire’s FreeTime feature is hands down, especially when coupled with FreeTime Unlimited, the absolute best thing going for kids in the tablet market.
The Kindle Fire HDXs combined with the vast media library available through Amazon (and available, to a large extent for free, to Amazon Prime members) makes the updated and snappy Fire lineup an extremely appealing (and economical) entry to the tablet market.
Review Disclosure: The units and covers used for this review were loaned to How-To Geek by Amazon.