There's no shortage of Android tablets to choose from, so how are you supposed to pick the right one? Of course there are spec sheets to compare, and on the outside they range from examples of high class engineering to plasticky trash, but beyond that it can be the tweaks and customisations to the Android interface that can mark out the best from the rest. It might be that you want a 100% vanilla Android experience; nothing added, nothing taken away. In that case the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 isn't for you, but if you want a more calm, focussed and joined-up multimedia experience, this might just be your ideal partner.
While this latest Kindle Fire is built on Android, its creator Amazon has customised the interface to such a degree that it feels like a whole new operating system. There's no access to the Google Play Store – instead you get your apps from Amazon's own curated equivalent. These are Android apps which have been vetted by Amazon and approved for the Kindle Fire range. As a result, not all Android apps are available. For example, you're not going to find Bit Torrent downloaders (this is a well behaved app store for well behaved people). The omission of the more shady apps from the Google Play Store is hardly surprising as Amazon is in the business of selling content, both physical and digital, and that's really the whole point of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9.
On-demand movies and music
This isn't just a tamed Android tablet. Amazon has neatly integrated its own offerings into the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, combining free cloud storage (which can also be used to store your existing media) with its digital music and book stores, along with its own LoveFilm subsidiary for on-demand movies and TV shows. The idea is that you're buying into the whole Amazon ecosystem. It's an ethos much closer to Apple's than the standard Android free-for-all.
The headliner for the new hardware, previously available in the US but only just released in the UK, is the hi-res screen. Its 1920x1200 resolution beats the iPad Mini on pixels per inch, rendering fonts very cleanly – great for e-reading. Not so great is the slightly yellow hue to the display, which makes whites appear a little creamy. It's nothing major but it can feel as if the brightness is permanently pegged back a few stops.
LoveFilm free trial
You're likely to watch a lot of video on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9in, even if it's only for the first month as you wring out the maximim value from your free LoveFilm trial. Such is the luxury of picking out movies and TV shows for instant viewing, you might also be inclined to sign up for £4.99 a month. However, handheld video viewing highlights an issue with the speakers, which are muffled by your hands unless you spin the tablet around, in which case the power and volume controls are prone to accidental presses from your left hand.
Despite Amazon's claims of "Booming sound" those speakers aren't great. In fact they're notably worse than those of other quality tablets, with a very thin, tinny sound. There's better news emanating from the headphone socket, with impressive control over high frequencies and stereo separation, and fullsome bass that doesn't compromise the midrange. For music listening it's a winner.
As an ebook reader
The Fire HD 8.9 begins to feel rather sharp at the edges after you've been holding it for a while, but less so in portrait mode, so if that's your preferred ebook orientation you should find it quite comfortable, aided by a slightly rubbery rear panel. A microUSB port and micro-HDMI complete the ins and outs.
More after the break...
Music and video playback
Talking of in and out, the Kindle Fire would rather you bought, stored and streamed all of your media from its own servers, and while you can play content from the device itself, it's not keen to do so out of the box. The in-built music app does indeed play MP3s but lacks panache in its visual presentation, and can also allocate incorrect album art to certain files. It gets better once you download third party media apps, but unfortunately some of the best (such as DoubleTwist) aren't available from the Kindle store.
It's a similar story with video, but once MoboPlayer is installed you'll be able to play most popular video formats, and in general the Fire HD 8.9 keeps pace with framerates. That should be enough to get you through some off-grid jaunts, flights and train journeys.
Just one camera
We're used to seeing front and rear cameras on tablets, but the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 has just one front-facing lens, designed for video calls. It's another nod to the notion that the Fire HD is made for consuming rather than creating.
Ease of use
As you navigate the main interface you could be forgiven for thinking this was a whole new operating system. Apps are accessed from a familiar tiled icon menu, but the homescreen is devoid of any widgets. Instead, most of the space is taken up by a carousel of recent items, which can be apps, websites, movies, books, music, documents or photos. It works as a shortcut menu to the items you use most often but lacks structure and can become messy. If you take the cheapest price option from Amazon you'll also see ads beneath the carousel and on the lockscreen. You can pay an extra tenner when you buy or after the event to keep it ad-free.
Where are the widgets?
Along the top you get a main navigation menu, with options for Search, Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newstand, Web, Photos and Docs. These are your main entry points, used to access your local and online media and browse the web. It's a simple way of working that makes sense if you want a tablet primarily for media-munching, but removes much of the immediacy that has become the key strength of vanilla Android.
As a first-time user there will be times when you find yourself flapping and tapping randomly in an attempt to bring up a settings menu, quit reading a book or perform some other seemingly basic function, but that stage will soon pass.
Browsing (and streaming) benefits from dual-channel Wi-Fi, and the hi-res display brings text into sharp focus. Once you're zoomed in and scrolling around, the built-in Silk browser sometimes needs a fraction of a second to draw in parts of the page before they appear.
This is not really a device for serious work but the main email app combines with built-in Swype text entry for a neat experience all round. Twitter, Facebook and Skype apps are also available.
It would be easy to criticise the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 for lacking numerous features available on rival tablets, but that would be missing the point. While the likes of Samsung and Sony offer similar digital media services with their tablets, Amazon is the only rival that comes close to matching the sense of calm, security and family-friendliness that's been such a major selling point of the iPad.
For some, the Wild West nature of Android is its greatest asset, but for others, quite the opposite. If you're in the latter camp and don't like the taste of Apple, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 should be top of your shopping list.
Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Not for everyone, but for compulsive media consumers this is an all-you-can-eat buffet