We review the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9, a brilliant slim-n-light rival to the iPad Air – providing you buy into Amazon’s ecosystem.
Amazon’s Fire HDX range received a refresh at the end of 2014, with a fresh new 7-inch and 8.9-inch model going on sale through the retail giant’s website. The HDX range boasts superior visuals compared to the standard Fire HD tablets, as well as more powerful processors, increased storage and the option of built-in 4G support.
But are these slim-and-light tablets a true rival to Apple’s iPad Air 2?
Design: Light as a feather
Well, the new Fire HDX 8.9 is definitely a serious competitor when it comes to design. Despite rocking a spacious 8.9-inch screen, Amazon’s tablet weighs just 375g in all, making it comfortable to clutch with one hand, even for long commutes. It’s suitably slender too at 7.8mm, although the Air 2 is even more ridiculously thin at 6.1mm.
From the front, the Fire HDX 8.9 looks like your standard Android tablet, complete with a glossy edge-to-edge panel and plain black bezels.
However, flip to the back and things get all sci-fi, with sleek angular edges up top. The power and volume buttons are placed on the rear next to the edges, which seems like an odd choice until you finally get used to them. Thankfully they’re easy enough to find without fumbling around, and we never found ourselves knocking them by accident.
The soft-touch surface feels good beneath the fingers and is reasonably resistant to fingerprints and smudges, thankfully.
Screen and media: Sharp as a pin
The main reason to opt for the Fire HDX over the standard Fire is the upgraded screen. With its super-sharp 2560×1600 pixel resolution, the 8.9-inch model rocks a ridiculous 339 pixels-per-inch, making this even crisper than Apple’s Retina display (264ppi).
If you’re streaming HD movies, you’ll love the pin-sharp visuals, which really come alive thanks to the vibrant colour reproduction. And gamers will really appreciate the stunning screen, especially the lack of ghosting, motion blur and other funnies when playing fast-paced titles.
When it comes to grabbing media, you have direct access to Amazon’s digital movie and music services, which allow you to rent or purchase the latest releases and download to your device, via Wi-Fi or 4G (if you opt for the cellular model). You can also stream movies via Prime Instant Video, which is free for Prime members.
Like the iPad, there’s a choice of storage – 16, 32 or 64GB – but no expansion via memory card, which is irritating if you’ve got a massive media collection.
User experience: Deep Amazon roots
Google Android has been overlaid by Amazon’s own Fire OS 4.5.1, which completely changes the look and feel of the tablet’s desktops and menus. And as long as you buy into Amazon’s ecosystem, including the retail giant’s apps store, Instant Video movie service, Kindle books store and so on, then you’re bound to like it.
The Fire HDX’s desktop is designed around your content, so you can quickly access your favourite bits – be it books, movies, apps or whatever – with just a single tap. Power up your device and the first thing you’ll see is your carousel, which shows you everything you’ve accessed lately – handy if you’re halfway through a book or movie and want to get stuck back in.
There’s no Google Play app store sadly, but Amazon’s own app store is a surprisingly well stocked effort. There’s a decent selection of games, plenty of media apps, some good educational titles for the kiddies and so on. And Amazon even offers up different free apps every day, if you’re a skinflint.
You can set up individual profiles for up to two adults and four kids, so each family member has their own carousel and can keep their accounts private. The ability to add PIN codes to each profile ensures that prying eyes can’t get at your stuff, and you can also restrict your kids’ accounts so they can’t piss away all of your cash on apps. Amazon’s parental controls even let you block stuff like the web browser, so wee Jimmy can’t get an eyeful of something dodgy. It’s quite simplistic control compared with the excellent Tesco Hudl 2, but we’re glad that it’s there.
Don’t worry too much about having to re-buy apps and media for other family members either; Amazon has you covered with its Family Library, which allows you to link two accounts to share goodies. Of course, the feature caps off at two accounts, which is irritating if your partner and your kids want to get involved with your Prime video streaming. In that case, you’re best off sharing an Amazon account with your partner and then linking to your kids’ account.
Amazon’s MayDay button, absent on the HD tablets for some reason, makes a welcome appearance on the Fire HDX. If you’re struggling with any aspect of the tablet, all you need to do is go to Settings and then Help, and you can connect to a live video helpline. We found we were usually connected in under half a minute and the support people were perfect, directing us by scribbling on our screens and talking us through what we needed to do.
Performance and battery life: Smooth operator
A quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor running at 2.5GHz is packed inside the Fire HDX 8.9, providing slick performance. We found that zipping around settings menus and websites was gloriously smooth, while all of the games that we downloaded ran with a perfect frame rate, including graphically challenging titles such as Dead Trigger 2.
If you’re after a tablet to keep you entertained on long journeys, the Kindle Fire HDX is a worthy alternative to Apple’s iPad Air 2. It won’t keep you going for a straight nine to ten hours like Apple’s baby, but it will survive for a solid seven hours when streaming media, long enough for a trip across the Atlantic.
Cameras: Who really cares
The 8-megapixel rear camera does a decent job of snapping your surroundings, with the resulting photos sharp and detailed enough to view back on a proper telly. There’s a flash for night shots too, plus a comprehensive selection of editing tools.
But of course, while the Kindle Fire HDX is light enough to wield as a camera, would you really want to take everyday shots with a tablet? More useful is the front-facing camera, which isn’t as sharp as the iPad Air 2’s FaceTime lens but more than good enough for Skype sessions with friends and family.
As a media and all-round entertainment machine, the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is a solid rival for the iPad Air 2. However, there is a caveat, and that’s the tablet’s deep roots in Amazon’s ecosystem. Prime members will delight in the Instant Video integration while anyone with a sizeable Kindle library can access all of their books with a tap, but anyone less convinced should maybe look elsewhere.