Android can be a scary place.
It’s why Amazon’s Kindle Fire range of tablets has been such a huge success - it offers a safe and cosy walled garden designed to protect tablet newcomers from the big, bad, confusing world of Android, and it really works.
And with the Mayday button on the new HDX it’s going even further by offering 24/7 help with any Kindle Fire confusion. Amazon staff answer HDX-related questions for free at any hour via video call, popping up on your screen in less than 15 seconds. Seriously.
But this isn’t just about wrapping cotton wool around everything, and spec-wise the Kindle Fire HDX is serious competition for the strongest tablets out there. We’re looking at the 7in version, which runs on this year's superstar processor, the 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800, with a new 1080p screen, dual-band Wi-Fi and optional 4G. And if that’s not enough Amazon's also launching a more expensive, 2560x1600 8.9in version, a review of which will follow post-haste.
So the Kindle Fire HDX appears to be both kick-ass and cuddly, but is it the fairy tale device it at first seems?
Design and build: awesome angles
The HDX certainly doesn't look or feel like the safer option. It's a wonderfully neat, compact and sturdy build made up of a soft-touch, matte back and strip of glossy plastic running along the top, housing the two speaker grilles.
Wider and squatter than the Nexus 7, it's a more angular, masculine design than last year's curvy Kindle Fire HD, and this time it looks like it means business, with a front facing camera up top in landscape and just a microUSB port and headphone jack at symmetrical heights up each edge.
Small, round buttons for power and volume sit around the back on either side, just inside from each edge in landscape. This is how you'll tend to use the Fire HDX as it can't really be held in one hand in portrait as the Nexus 7 can, especially if Amazon's excellent magnetic case is attached. It's an unusual placement but it's where our fingers rest so the buttons work well.
The Nexus is a touch lighter than the 303g HDX (313g with 3G or 4G) and it's easier to grab one handed but both tabs fare very well in pockets-about-town. And the HDX does have a bit more personality to its design.
Screen: Eye-popping with a hint of blue
Amazon might not offer the same amount of eye-widening app treats as the full Google Play store but everything looks just as exciting on the Fire HDX's screen as it does on the stock Android champ, the Google Nexus 7, the PPI of which it matches with 323 pixels per inch.
It's no surprise that Amazon prioritises picture quality, because that's what Kindle tablets are all about: watching stuff. From HD Lovefilm streams of Looper to hi-res images loaded onto the HDX, everything looks clear and clean from every angle. Skintones look natural and vivid colours dazzle in the best possible way.
The better-than-full HD screen on the HDX is gorgeous, then, with one small niggle: white webpages can nudge towards the creamier end of the spectrum and when using apps or browsing pages with a white background, you occasionally encounter a blue tint, especially in the corners. It's minimal, barely noticeable when watching movies, but once you spot it you won't be able to stop your eyes travelling back to it. If films are your bag, clap your hands over your ears and pretend you never heard us say anything about the HDX's slightly blue LED tendency.
Dual stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus audio sound nice and punchy, too, and the placement at the top of the HDX's back mean you're unlikely to accidentally cover one up. Even the virtual 5.1 surround sound does a decent job - we actually paused a Netflix stream to check if some background jazz was coming from the tab or another room.
Performance: Blazes, naturally
People buy Kindle Fire tablets because they don't want to get lost in the Google Play woods, not for the latest specs. But with the HDX, Amazon's gone for high-end processing power in the form of a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip, Adreno 330 graphics and 2GB of RAM. The Nexus 7, by comparison, is 'only ' running on a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro.
What does that mean? They've chucked everything at the HDX, and Fire 3.0 runs beautifully as a result. It's amazing that a tablet as reliably fast and capable as this new Kindle Fire is going for just £200 – Amazon's really stepped up the performance, and it makes the difference in the little bits of navigation around the OS. Some of the stores, such as Games, can stutter when scrolling through choices, but apps download quickly thanks to dual-band Wi-Fi, while streaming is spot-on.
So it's a bit of a beast, but it's worth mentioning that you might not be able to download the exact Android games (or versions) that you’re after. Amazon controls what goes on its App Store with a fervour that makes even Apple look pretty chilled out. If gaming on your slate is a high priority you’re probably still better off with a Nexus 7, and its unfettered access to the Play Store.
There's still no rear camera on the 7in Kindle Fire tab (unlike the 8.9incher, which has an 8MP cam), but we wouldn’t consider that a deal-breaker for most tableteers. Skype's present and correct on the Kindle store and there's a decent HD front-facer with a camera app for selfies. It's not as good as the iPad Mini in poorly lit living rooms but it does the job.
More after the break...
OS and apps: Flaming Mojito
We’ve already touched on this, but just to be clear: Amazon tablets do run on Android, just not as we know it. The latest Fire OS 3.0 ‘Mojito’, on the HDX, is based on Jelly Bean, but as usual it’s more than just a skin of widgets, settings menus and useless pre-installed apps.
There’s no access to the regular Google Play stores. Instead, your options are Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, etc. With the extra pixels, Amazon’s now able to display most of the menu options on one screen, which is great if you want to bypass the Amazon stores to head to the Silk browser, gorgeous scrolling photo gallery and Docs.
But you won’t want to as Amazon does a superb job of presenting what’s on the device, what you already own in the cloud and what’s available to buy from the stores. The only piece of the puzzle that’s missing is movie downloads - it’s frustrating with a Wi-Fi only tablets that all those Lovefilm movies can only be streamed. You can load your own HD movies, via microUSB from your computer, but we’d like the option to quickly download a flick before a flight, for instance.
The same amazingly useful carousel of recently used apps returns but is now joined by a grid of installed apps, available if you swipe upwards from the main homescreen. It’s a neat touch that makes accessing any app - not just the one you used yesterday - very quick. In portrait, Amazon uses mini app icons under the huge ones to suggest similar apps - calendar under email and newer versions of Angry Birds under the game you’ve already got, for example. Sure, its intention is to get you downloading and spending more, but it can be a time-saver too.
Swipe down from the top of the screen and there’s a quick access menu to auto-rotate, a brightness slider, Wi-Fi settings, a ‘Quiet Time’ notifications killer and the new Mayday button. Compared to what’s classed as customer service elsewhere, this is pretty special. Twelve seconds after we pressed the quick access button and hit ‘Connect’ a lovely Scottish gentleman was giving us advice on using the HDX – Amazon staff pop up as a video call window and can see and manipulate what’s on your screen - they can’t see you, thank heavens. Resist the urge to ask them to deliver you pizza - they’re real human beings, kids.
It’s 24/7 and must be costing Amazon a fortune but we’ve been testing the HDX since it went on sale and response time has been excellent.
Check out our Kindle Fire HDX picture gallery
Universal search includes libraries, stores and the web. Elsewhere, the Silk browser - which didn’t exactly live up to its name in the past - now absolutely flies, with fast, responsive browsing. Amazon’s Cloud Drive for storing photos from iPhones, Android phones, Facebook and the like is easy to use, too, and although it doesn’t offer anything particularly new, we can see plenty of HDX users jumping on board with this. For managing files in the cloud, we still prefer Google’s comprehensive Drive and opening, editing and sharing documents on the Nexus 7 is an absolute dream with Google’s apps front and centre.
What lets the HDX down is its limited access to the Google Play store and its increasing number of quality tablet apps, essentials and fantastic games. Protecting your users from the dross is one thing, (and you can sideload apps the naughty way if you’re particularly committed) but it would be nice if Amazon would let through more of the quality content, and in a timelier fashion.
Battery Life: A Fire that won’t go out
With a battery life of nine-and-a-half to ten hours of constant games, Lovefilm, emails and browsing, that's just below Amazon's eleven hour boast but still incredible for a tablet with such a high resolution and such an affordable price.
Standby stamina is pretty handy, too – after a couple of days of light use the HDX was still hanging on at around 30%. The Nexus does have a slightly brighter screen, but with both set to halfway we found the Nexus 7 needed charging slightly more often over the course of a week.
Storage: All hail the 64GB model
Price and storage are going to be huge factors in any HDX vs Nexus 7 decision. And at 16GB, we'd choose the Nexus – the HDX costs £10 more (without the ads) and uses up more space on Fire 3.0 than the Nexus does on stock Jelly Bean. For 32GB, the prices stay roughly the same, too, at a reasonable £240.
But if you're serious about an HD movie collection stored locally on a Wi-Fi tablet, the HDX comes in a £329 64GB version that the Nexus just doesn't offer yet. Want to feel even more smug? A 64GB iPad Mini with Retina costs £480. If you're going for a 3G/4G model (starting at £270), chances are you're a streaming baby and won't worry about loading up the HDX with your music and movie library, in which case you may as well keep it small.
This is a real Nexus 7 alternative. As long as standing at the cutting edge of new apps isn’t a big priority the HDX has you well and truly covered, from browsing to cloud storage to buying books, music and magazines. Bringing a new, pepped up Fire OS, zinging along on a Snapdragon 800 and with a crisp, dazzling screen, this 7in Kindle Fire is even up there with the iPad Mini for the best hardware we’ve seen on a small tablet.
It’s the friendliest, most iOS-like version of Android we’ve seen, too. But for us, despite the cool points from the HDX’s build, the sensible 64GB option and the genius Mayday button, Google’s Nexus 7 remains our top small slate. Amazon offers a huge variety of download treats, but without the smartphone hardware, app ecosystem and spit and polish of iOS or the openness and customisability of the Nexus, it’s still got a little bit of work to do. That's why it earns a spot in our list of the best tablets money can buy, below Google's finest.
But in a world that already includes the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini it takes something special to standout, and the Kindle Fire HDX certainly does that. That's thanks in no small part to the genius Mayday button, which is probably what every other Android tablet manufacturer is hitting right about now.
Kindle Fire HDX 7
A stunning tablet at a tasty price, if you’re happy to trade app quantity for quality of experience this is a dream device