Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in (2014) review
The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in is one of the best Android tablets out there, and just in time for Christmas 2014, it’s been updated with supercharged hardware and the latest version of Amazon’s Fire OS. The burning question is whether these improvements are enough to keep pace with the likes of the Apple iPad Air 2, Google’s recently launched Nexus 9, and Samsung and Sony’s crack team of Android rivals.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in 2014: design
If you’re expecting a revelatory new design, then look away now: Amazon hasn’t tweaked the design the slightest bit. Not that we’re complaining. The HDX 8.9in doesn’t grab your attention with snazzy gold finishes or ostentatious design: its magnesium unibody shell is covered with soft-touch black plastic that curls around the edges, and wide geometric borders on the all-black rear slice away towards the edges.
It doesn’t look like much, but it feels super sturdy and remains one of the lightest full-sized tablets out there. The combination of curved edges, grippy plastics and a 375g weight (390g for the 4G model) make for a tablet that’s only 44g heavier than the iPad mini 3 and 62g lighter than the iPad Air 2. Want a full-sized tablet you can hold easily in one hand? The HDX 8.9in fits the bill nicely.
There are still some things we don’t like about the HDX 8.9in. We aren’t fans of the volume and power buttons, which are positioned on the rear, close to the left and right edge. It’s a poor design decision, and one that resulted in us hunting around for the buttons every time we wanted to switch the tablet off or adjust the volume. We can only hope Amazon will see fit to make some minor design changes in 2015.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in 2014: performance
Inside, however, it’s all change: the HDX 8.9in (2014) sports a powerful new CPU and GPU. The 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 and Adreno 330 in the previous model have made way for a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 805 SoC and an Adreno 420 GPU – and these provide a dramatic performance boost. Tested with Geekbench 3, single-threaded performance is up 18% on the previous generation and multithreaded performance is up 11%. The improvements weren’t quite so dramatic in the browser tests we tried, however: SunSpider was a touch slower on the new model (733ms vs 704ms) and Peacekeeper saw the faster CPU edge out a narrow lead (1,016 vs 945).
Gaming performance is streets ahead of the previous generation. We couldn’t get our usual test, GFXBench, to work even after sideloading it onto the HDX 8.9in, so we compared the two models using Futuremark’s 3DMark benchmark instead. Using the Ice Storm Unlimited test, the new HDX 8.9in almost doubled the score of the previous version (18,986 vs 9,794). Even to the naked eye, frame rates in the array of Ice Storm Unlimited tests were vastly smoother, with two of the three tests running at twice the average frame rate of last year’s model.
Amazingly, battery life hasn’t suffered due to the super-powered new hardware. In flight mode, with screen brightness dimmed down to 120cd/m<sup>2</sup>, Wi-Fi off and a 720p movie looping continuously, the HDX lasted a herculean 16hrs 55mins, almost an hour longer than the previous model. Make no mistake, the HDX 8.9in still has the beating of every other tablet on the market. Others come close, and notably Google’s Nexus 9 isn’t far adrift of Amazon’s achievements here, but the new HDX 8.9in is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest. It will comfortably provide a couple of transatlantic flights worth or movie watching before expiring.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in 2014: display
Amazon hasn’t tinkered with the screen, and we’re glad it hasn’t, because it’s great. The 2,560 x 1,600-resolution panel boasts a ridiculously high pixel density of 339ppi, higher even than the 264ppi of the iPad Air 2, and as a result movies, games, books and websites all look fantastically crisp. It’s impossible to discern the individual pixels, even if you press your nose to the screen.
The display’s technical performance is excellent, too. Measured with our X-Rite colorimeter, it yielded a maximum brightness of 470cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of 1,135:1 – both better figures than the iPad Air 2. Colour fidelity is only a whisker away from that of the iPad Air 2, with the HDX 8.9in covering an almost identical range of colours (92% of the sRGB gamut vs the iPad Air 2’s 93.3%), and colour accuracy is a touch less refined (2.04 delta E vs 1.82delta E). It’s a close-run thing.
One small complaint is that there’s a tiny amount of backlight bleed around the panel’s edges, and a slightly more noticeable patch in the bottom-left corner, but this is only visible in a dark room. It’s nowhere near as obvious or intrusive as the backlight leakage on the Nexus 9, for instance.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in 2014: Fire OS
The HDX 8.9in’s Achilles heel remains the Amazon Fire OS – and this is despite the new HDX 8.9in shipping with the new and improved Fire OS 4.5.1, which adds a more streamlined design, a more elegant onscreen keyboard and a smattering of new features.
That said, getting to grips with Fire OS remains simplicity itself, and if you’ve already been persuaded by the Amazon way of doing things, you’ll love it. When the tablet turns up, it’s registered to your Amazon account out of the box, and all it takes to access the ebooks, movies and MP3s you’ve already bought is to tap the appropriate link on the homescreen and download or stream them from the cloud.
Buying more content is just as easy, and there are several useful features: the Mayday feature – which allows you to set up a tech-support video call directly from the HDX 8.9in’s pull-down menu – will be a boon for novices, and the second screen and Miracast support for viewing movies on your TV is equally welcome.
Fire OS 4.5.1 brings a smattering of welcome new features. Household Profiles makes it easy to create multiple user accounts on one device, and they allow up to two adults and four children to have their own carousel, app collections and preferences. A new Docs tab on the homescreen, meanwhile, makes it possible to create and edit documents and spreadsheets with the preinstalled copy of the WPS Office app, and VPN support makes the Kindle a little more suitable for office or professional use.
The new Firefly app is less convincing. The theory is that you can point the device’s camera at a product and have it automatically recognise barcodes, book covers, CDs, phone numbers and email addresses, ready to bring up links to relevant items in the Amazon store. In our testing, however, the results were woefully inconsistent, and in the main we found it far less fiddly and time-consuming to just search for the product manually.
Overall, Fire OS 4.5.1 feels smoother and slicker than the previous version, and the elegant new onscreen keyboard is a definite improvement, but we’re still left hankering for the flexibility and freedom of pure Android – and more so than ever now that Android 5 (Lollipop) is beginning to roll out to rival devices. It provides access to the full riches of Google Play, which has a much broader selection of apps than the Amazon Appstore, plus Google’s excellent selection of core apps, including Maps and Google Now. We also prefer the way the stock Android OS works; with the arrival of the slick new Lollipop interface, Android feels like it’s truly coming of age.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in 2014: features
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in isn’t as jam-packed with fancy features as some premium tablets, but Amazon has covered most of the essentials. Dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi now joins forces with Bluetooth 4, and 4G/LTE-enabled versions of the 32GB and 64GB models are available as long as you don’t mind paying a £70 premium. Sadly, though, there’s still no microSD slot.
Out back, the 8-megapixel, rear-facing camera is equipped with an LED flash, and there’s a front-facing, 1.3-megapixel camera for video calls. Neither is the last word in refinement, and the rear camera is significantly less capable than the iPad Air 2’s, capturing soft and frequently out-of-focus photographs. It’s okay for the occasional snapshot, but nothing more. The 1080p video quality is better, but focus hunts back and forth a lot. Thankfully, though, audio from the rear-facing speakers is as loud, full-bodied and clear as we’ve heard from a tablet this size.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in 2014: verdict
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in is a cracking tablet. The display is fantastic; it’s as light as full-sized tablets get; and the performance and battery life are simply superb. And despite our qualms about Fire OS, we certainly can’t fault its all-round usability.
In truth, there’s only one serious issue that the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in cannot overcome: the arrival of the iPad Air 2 has heralded a significant price drop for the original iPad Air, which now retails for £10 less than the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in. If you don’t mind the Amazon lock-in, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in remains a good tablet, but for our money, the iPad Air is impossible to resist.
|Processor||Quad-core, 2.5GHz, Qualcomm Snapdragon 805|
|Screen resolution||2,560 x 1,600|
|Front camera||1.3 megapixels|
|Rear camera||8 megapixels|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||No|
|Wireless data||4G version available|
|Size||231 x 7.8 x 158mm|
|Weight||375g (Wi-Fi), 390g (4G)|
|Operating system||Fire OS|
|Battery size||Not stated|
|Price||Wi-Fi version: 16GB, £329; 32GB, £369; 64GB, £409. 4G version: 32GB, £439; 64GB, £479. (£10 extra to remove 'special offers')|