Halfway between 7 and 10 inches, halfway between Android and iOS, the HDX 8.9 could be the best of both worlds.
On the other hand, it could be the most indecisive tablet we've ever seen. On the other hand (stop counting) maybe it's a stroke of genius: the perfect tablet for people who can't decide which tablet to get.
Amazon aims high
With the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, the online retail giant has reaffirmed its determination to play rough in the high-end mainstream tablet market. It sits between the established "small" (7-inch) and "big" (10-inch) tablet forms. The 16GB Wi-Fi version (without ads on the homescreen) will set you back less than what the iPad Mini Retina, iPad Air, or Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition costs.
Its little brother, the Kindle Fire HDX 7, has its sights on the value end of the market, matching the price of Google's Nexus 7, so you might wonder quite where the HDX 8.9 fits in. In many ways it feels like one step down from the tablet top tier; if your budget won't quite stretch to the very best that's not such a bad place to be.
Is this a premium product?
In a word, no. That is, the HDX 8.9 doesn't feel particularly special, even though it's priced a long way above the "value" end of the scale. While it lacks the design chic of its Apple and Samsung rivals, it is remarkably thin and light. It's comfortable to hold thanks to rubbery backing and edges that don't feel cold or sharp. That's important in a tablet designed primarily for leisurely, handheld reading and viewing.
Flip it over and you can't fail to notice a large embossed Amazon logo. It's something that will turn off tech brand snobs for sure. The tapered top strip houses an 8MP camera and LED flash framed by a few Darth Vader helmet creases, flanked by stereo speakers. Hardware volume controls are usefully located to sit beneath the fingers of your right hand when holding the tablet in landscape mode. There's work to be done in the desirability stakes but in terms of practicality Amazon has done a good job here.
Beneath the surface
As with the Kindle Fire HDX 7, the HDX 8.9 is actually built on Android but because the interface is a bespoke top layer it doesn't look or feel like an Android tablet. The design and layout of the interface is neat enough but lacks some cohesion and isn't as intuitive as it could be, as if Amazon's designer's couldn't decide on a single system or heirachy for its various online services, apps, settings and navigation controls.
A row of text labels runs along the top of the screen, reminiscent of the company's own website. Maybe that's as unsurprising as it is uninspiring, because most of them take you off to Amazon's physical and virtual stores.
We find the interface more user-friendly than Windows 8 and it doesn't have Android's tendancy to become cluttered, but it still feels as if it needs a stronger direction and focus. There are too many blank screens with no explantion (for example, if it fails to connect to the app store) and an over-reliance on swipes from offscreen in order to bring up essential menus and navigation controls. For simplicity and ease of use, Apple's iOS 7 is still the best.
READ MORE: Check out our Apple iOS 7 review
Operating system - Fire 3.0 Mojito (based on Android 4.2.2)
Processor - 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 CPU, Adreno 330 GPU
RAM - 2GB
Screen - 8.9in, 2560x1600 resolution (339ppi)
Cameras - 8MP rear with LED flash, 720p front
Storage - 16GB/32GB/64GB (not expandable) plus cloud storage
Connectivity - Bluetooth, dual-band Wi-Fi, MicroUSB, 3.5mm headphone
Battery life - Up to 12 hours (claimed)
Dimensions - 231 x 158 x 7.8mm
Weight - 374g
Ring-fenced app store
While the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is built on Android, it won't access the main Google Play app store. Instead, developers can submit Kindle editions of their apps to Amazon where they are then vetted and, if all is well, added to the Kindle App Store. The benefit is that it cuts out a lot of the dross and reduces the likelihood that you'll be scammed or mugged off by a dodgy app, and most of the big-hitters from Android are available, but there are some big exceptions, such as WhatsApp Messenger and Instagram.
There are apps for all the functional stuff but if you want high quality games, educational apps or serious creative apps you'll be disappointed by the omissions. Apple's App Store continues to be leagues ahead in terms of the quality and range of apps available.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Kindle Fire HDX Apps
Kindle FreeTime: a safe place for kids
Much of Amazon's tablet ethos revolves around security, and this extends beyond the app store. There's a feature called Kindle FreeTime, designed to allow parents to "child-proof" the Kindle Fire HDX. It allows you to put the tablet into a mode where only specific apps or books can be used, and it's also possible to impose time limits on these sessions.
As a parent, you set up a new profile for a child or a number of children and authorise certain apps or books which will be accessible when you log in to that profile. The profile can only be exited by entering a password, set by the parent. It's a simple system that works very well and could be a major selling point for parents looking for a family-friendly tablet. It's not unique (the Android 4.3 update includes a similar feature) but it is very useful and currently not something that's available on many other tablets.
Mayday, the video helpdesk
Another helpful feature is the Mayday button. Accessed from the settings pull-down menu, this connects you to the Kindle helpdesk with a couple of taps. In our tests, calls have been answered in just a few seconds. Once you're connected you get to see your helper in a little video window (they can't see you), and from there they can answer technical questions, aided by the ability to remotely control your device (with your permission) or sketch onto your screen to show you how to do things yourself.
We've found the helpdesk's level of technical knowledge to be sufficient to solve minor queries and the service has always been friendly. This is a service to help out users who have "lost" all their photos, or found that "the internet has been switched off", so we'll cut it some slack for the slightly vague responses we got to some more technically taxing queries.
Amazon's battery life claims of "Up to 12 hours of reading, web surfing over Wi-Fi, video watching or music playback" are probably achievable at low brightness settings, and in many sitations (in bed or on a flight) you won't need the luminance cranked up to the max. In our tests it lasted 5 hours, 20 minutes playing a continuous stream of live TV via the iPlayer app with brightness turned right up. A side-by-side test with a Google Nexus 7 saw the smaller tablet pegging out at the 3hr, 45mins mark. Standby performance is a little disappointing, though: our 25%-charged Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 drained itself completely in a 63-hour spell of inactivity.
Music and video streaming
If you're the kind of person who grumbles a mild obscenity and hits the "back" button as soon as the suggestion of a free 30-day trial pops up on your screen, the Kindle Fire range is probably not for you. The HDX 8.9 is full of such things because it's really all about getting you hooked up to Amazon's media subscription services, such as a LoveFilm (for on-demand movies and TV), Amazon Prime (for access to a library-style book-lending service) and Audible (for audio books).
You can still buy music and ebooks as one-offs, and there's also the option of uploading your own existing music files to Amazon's cloud storage, from where they can be streamed back to your tablet.
If you're going to get the most from the HDX 8.9 you'll need to buy into all of these, literally and figuratively. Once you do, the Kindle Fire 8.9 really starts to make sense. So long as you're in range of a strong Wi-Fi signal you'll have access to a huge amount and variety of entertainment.
A screen for crisp video
The screen is one of the HDX 8.9's best features. Depending on your source, images and video can sometimes have a slightly yellow hue but this is very minor and not something you're likely to notice unless doing side-by-side testing. The pixel density is sufficient for the little dots to be invisible to the naked eye, rendering fonts, icons and webpages very cleanly. Viewing angles are pretty good, too, with an acceptable level of brightness reduction when shared around a boardroom table or across a sofa.
The HDX 8.9 is certainly a safe option. Bigger than an iPad Mini Retina, cheaper than an iPad Air or Galaxy Note 10.1, it's an outstanding middle-of-the-road option, and that's not as much of a contradiction as it would seem.
Tidier and simpler than the regular Android option, the HDX 8.9 will please those looking for a no-fuss tablet solution, but if you stretch the budget just a little bit further you could have the best from Apple or Samsung. For this reason the far cheaper HDX 7 makes a lot more sense to us.
Review by Tony Horgan.
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