Like its Wi-Fi-only version, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch 4G LTE has a gorgeous 1920 x 1200-pixel display, powerful speakers and access to Amazon's massive library of content. And with 4G LTE connectivity from AT&T, you've got an added layer of portability. Starting at $399, this Fire HD costs considerably less than other LTE-equipped tablets, too. Has Amazon found the right mix?
Editor's Note: Portions of this review were taken from our original review of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9.
The 8.9-inch Fire HD looks like a larger version of the 7-inch Fire HD. As with most tablets, the front has a glossy black bezel surrounding its touch screen. In the middle of one of the long sides is a 720p webcam. This, and the placement of the speakers, demonstrates that the Fire HD is meant for landscape use.
The back of the Kindle Fire HD, which wraps around to the front of the tablet, is coated in a soft-touch material that's not as gentle on your fingers as the Nexus 10, but more comfortable than a metal-backed tablet, and more premium than a glossy plastic such as the Galaxy Note 10.1. Like the smaller Fire HD, a band of glossy black plastic runs the length of the back, and houses a speaker on each end.
At the top of the right side is a headphone jack, with a volume rocker and power button just beneath. On the bottom of the tablet are a microHDMI port and a microUSB port.
At 9.4 x 6.5 x 0.35 inches and weighing 1.25 pounds, the 8.9-inch Fire HD is not a tablet for one hand. Still, it's both smaller and lighter than the 4th generation iPad (1.44 pounds and 9.5 x 7.31 x 0.37 inches) and the Google Nexus 10 (10.4 x 7 x 0.4 inches and 1.3 pounds).
The showcase of the Fire HD is its 8.9-inch, 1920 x 1200 IPS display. While this screen's resolution isn't as high as the iPad (2048 x 1536) or the Nexus 10 (2560 x 1600 pixels), a downloaded HD version of "The Avengers" (720p) looked outstanding. We could make out every scratch in Iron Man's armor, as well as individual strands of Black Widow's red hair. The screen also features a polarizing filter and anti-glare technology, so we could still see the action at oblique angles.
The Fire HD 8.9's brightness of 481 lux trumps most of its competition, including the Nexus 10 (376 lux) and the iPad (386 lux), but not the Transformer Pad Infinity (642 lux). The category average is 362 lux.
As with its smaller sibling, the Fire HD 8.9's stereo speakers are located on the back, which usually doesn't augur well for audio. However, everything from music to movies sounded excellent. Aided by Dolby Digital technology, we were pleasantly surprised not only by the volume, but the sound quality. While still slightly tinny, the Fire HD's speakers produced more bass than we've come to expect from tablets.
The Kindle Fire HD runs a heavily modified version of the Android operating system, which is designed primarily for showcasing Amazon content. Even for those who are comfortable with Android, Amazon's UI requires an adjustment period.
The Home screen features a search bar at the top, with seven categories below: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos and Newsstand. (Additional categories show up when the tablet is held in landscape mode.) Below these is a carousel of recently viewed material, be it a book, app, movie, etc., which can quickly become tedious to scroll through.
When the Fire HD 8.9 is in portrait mode, another row of icons runs along the bottom, suggesting related content that might interest you. For example, when the main icon was of R.A. Dickey's autobiography "Wherever I Wind Up," suggestions below included Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" and "Just a Minor Perspective" by Eric Pettis.
Below suggestions is a small star; pressing on this reveals a window with content or apps you have favorited, which can include anything on the tablet. This feature is a godsend, as it prevents users from having to return to the home screen. What's missing is the purer Android equivalent of a Recent Apps menu that lets you quickly switch between apps that are already open. Instead, you need to head back to the home screen and use the carousel.
Swiping down from the top of the screen displays notifications, such as recently installed apps, as well as controls for the volume, brightness, wireless and sync. A More tab on the right opens the complete Settings menu.
We like that the Fire HD 8.9 came preloaded with content we'd already purchased through Amazon. We were less pleased with the advertisement on the lock screen, which can only be removed by paying a one-time fee of $15. Given that other tablets let you personalize the lock screen with your photos, this "feature" just reminds you that the tablet partly belongs to Amazon.
Amazon currently offers more than 150,000 movies and TV episodes and about 22 million songs. Those both trump Google Play by an order of magnitude, but where Google bests Amazon is in Apps (700,000 to 78,000) and books (4 million to 850,000).
Amazon also lists about 400 magazines in its database, including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, National Geographic and ESPN. Google Play has a good selection as well, but lacks such high-profile titles as Sports Illustrated and US Weekly.
But just how much is optimized for the Fire HD 8.9's high-res display? Movies listed as HD are 720p in resolution, which isn't so bad, considering the size of the files. An HD version of "The Hunger Games" is nearly 3GB, which not only takes up a considerable amount of space on the tablet, but can take a while to download.
Amazon is making a serious play for the Fire HD 8.9 to be a whole-family device with FreeTime, an app that lets parents set up a kid-friendly environment on the Fire HD. FreeTime lets parents preapprove apps and set time limits for activities such as games, videos and reading. Better yet, parents can set up multiple profiles.
Anytime the Fire HD 8.9 is in FreeTime mode, the background changes to a bright blue color. This way, you can tell at a glance if Junior has circumvented your password. However, there are some limitations. All content must be preinstalled and preapproved by the parent beforehand; there's no child-friendly app store. Also, the Web browser is disabled in this mode, so the Fire HD 8.9 won't be of use for kids who want to use the tablet to, say, research a school project. The Fuhu Nabi 2 tablet for kids, for example, has Web filtering technology that lets you decide the types of content your children can access.
Setting up FreeTime was relatively painless. We created an account for Junior, specifying our hypothetical kid's gender and age, and then set time limits for apps, videos and reading. There's also a setting for "total screen time." Under the Manage Your Content category, we selected which books, videos, and apps we thought acceptable for our child.
Amazon also introduced FreeTime Unlimited, a service that provides unlimited access to thousands of kid-safe apps, books, movies and TV shows from Disney, Nickelodeon, Sesame Street and PBS Kids. You can search by age range (ages 3 to 5 and ages 6 to 8), or by content type. It takes some of the pain out of having to preselect appropriate content for your child.
FreeTime unlimited for Prime members, it costs $2.99 per month for the single-child plan and $6.99 per month for a family plan (up to six kids). Non-Prime members will pay $4.99/month for the single-child plan, and $9.99/month for the family plan.
One of the biggest differences between Amazon's tablets and other Android tablets is access to the Google Play market, but Amazon's App Store has a fair amount of options. Among the top 50 free apps on Google Play, Amazon stocks a fair number of them, including Facebook, Flipboard, Netflix, Pinterest, Pulse, Twitter and "Words with Friends." Absent are the Google apps, such as Google Play Books, Gmail, Google+, Google Play Music and Google Play Movies & TV -- understandable, given that Amazon wants you to buy content from it.
Amazon says that a number of apps take advantage of the Fire HD's higher resolution, including HBO GO, Hulu Plus, "Need for Speed Most Wanted," "Skylanders Cloud Patrol," Adobe Photoshop Touch and Pinterest.
Of course, the Fire HD is plagued by the same issue confronting all Android tablets, in that there are a good many apps that are not yet optimized for larger, and higher-resolution, displays. Fortunately, Pandora now looks better on a larger display.
Confusingly, when we performed a search for "Dropbox" from the search menu on the home screen, it would show up in the Amazon Store. But when we went to download it from the Amazon Appstore, we would get an error message saying the app wasn't compatible with our device.
While Google Maps isn't available, the Nokia Maps app is free to download. The app is quite attractive, and we like that it also shows subway and public transit lines -- a helpful feature in New York.
However, there are a few apps that we'd like to see, including Facebook Messenger and YouTube.
A very handy feature of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch is Whispersync, which automatically syncs not only your content across devices, but also where you were in a particular book or movie. For example, as we were reading "Wherever I Wind Up" on the Fire HD, we opened up the book using the Kindle app on our iPhone, and it asked if we wanted to pick up where we left off. Neat.
Even better, if you've downloaded a book that has an Audible audiobook, you can switch between reading and listening seamlessly. We can see this feature being most useful for someone in the middle of a good read, but who wants to finish it while driving.
Now that contextual information about anything is a mere IMDB or Google query away, we like the fact that Amazon includes a similar feature on the Fire HD 8.9 called X-Ray.
While reading a book, you can tap on a name, place or passage to get more detailed information about that item from Wikipedia and Shelfari, Amazon's own user-supported encyclopedia. It's like having CliffsNotes built into everything you read.
When you're watching a movie that has X-Ray content (as indicated by a small icon), a little window appears at the upper left corner that shows the names of the actors currently on screen. Click on a name, and that person's IMDB profile fills the whole of the display. No more wondering "who's that guy?" when Christopher Walken shows up on screen.
Amazon says thousands of books and movies are X-Ray-enabled; the company says it started with the most popular titles, and is working its way down. X-Ray content, which was not yet available for Steve Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson when we reviewed the 7-inch Fire HD in September, is now available.
The 8.9-inch Fire HD has a 1.5-GHz TI OMAP4470 processor along with an Imagination SGX544 3D graphics core that Amazon claims enables smoother scrolling, faster Web performance and better gaming. It's a slight step up from the OMAP 4460 processor in the 7-inch Fire HD.
On An3DBench, the Fire HD's score of 8,025 bested the Android tablet average (7,363) by nearly 700 points, and edged out the Nexus 10 (7,813) and the Infinity (7,937). The 7-inch Fire HD scored 7,783 on the test.
For the most part, the Fire HD 8.9 was snappy and responsive. However, we noticed some lag when multitasking. When downloading "The Dark Knight Rises," the Silk Web browser was slow to open, as was the keyboard when entering a URL.
Our Fire HD came with 32GB of onboard storage, of which 27GB was free for our content.
The Fire HD 8.9 Silk Web browser has a black-and-white motif, replacing the gray background on the older Fire's browser. Controls for Forward, Back and Settings are now on the right in portrait mode instead of the bottom, making them easier to access with your thumb. In general, the browser opened Web pages quickly. However, we noticed that the keyboard was slow to pop up while a page was loading.
Kindle Fire HD owners will automatically receive a free month of Amazon Prime. This service, which costs $79 per year, lets you borrow any title from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library for a month (which has more than 180,000 titles), and stream more than 25,000 movies and TV shows. Amazon Prime members also receive free two-day shipping on any item.
The front-facing camera on the Fire HD 8.9 can record video up to 720p in resolution. When we called a friend over Skype, he could make out our face clearly, although details weren't the most crisp. Audio came through well on both ends. However, there's no rear-facing camera.
The LTE version of the 8.9-inch Fire HD delivered impressive throughput in our testing. In our office in New York, the tablet averaged 18.7 Mbps downloads and 9.3 Mbps uploads, as measured by Speedtest.net. Currently, AT&T's LTE network covers 171 markets.
The Fire HD 8.9 loaded ESPN in 5 seconds, The New York Times in 7 seconds, and Laptopmag.com in 6 seconds.
One annoying limitation is that you can't download anything larger than 50MB over LTE; even Mumford & Sons' "Babel" album exceeded that limit, so we had to use Wi-Fi instead. If you're waiting in an airport for your flight, and want to download the latest episode of "Game of Thrones," you'll have to find a hotspot. To be fair, the 4G LTE iPad has the same drawback.
Over AT&T's LTE network, the Fire HD 8.9 lasted 6 hours and 40 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi). That runtime is about half an hour less than the category average of 7:13. However, LTE uses more energy than Wi-Fi. For example, when we tested the Wi-Fi-only version of the Fire 8.9, that tablet lasted 9:49. Still, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 lasted just 5:17 on Verizon's network.
Annoyingly, the Fire HD only comes with a USB cable. The wall charger costs an additional $10.
Our 32GB version of the Fire HD 8.9 with 4G LTE costs $399, and a 64GB version with LTE costs $499.
Wireless broadband service is provided through AT&T's 4G LTE network. Through a special offer, customers can pay $49.99 for the first year of service, which includes 250MB a month of data, as well as 20GB of cloud storage and a $10 gift certificate. After the first year, the 250MB plan costs $14.99 per month. A 3GB plan costs $30 per month, and a 5GB plan costs $50 per month.
However, if you're already an AT&T customer, you can add the Kindle Fire HD for $10 per month to your shared data plan.
A Wi-Fi-only Fire HD with 32GB of onboard storage costs $299, and a 16GB version costs $269. As mentioned previously, removing the "special offers" from the lock screen is an additional $15.
As with the Wi-Fi-only version of the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD, we love the LTE model's full HD display and booming stereo speakers. While we didn't like that the tablet slowed down when trying to do a few things at once, parents will appreciate its built-in parental controls. For those invested in Amazon's ecosystem, and who consume a lot of multimedia, the Fire HD is a no-brainer. However, the LTE version costs $100 more than the Wi-Fi model, not including the monthly data fees. Given the 50MB file download limit over LTE, you'll need to think twice before deciding whether the premium is worth it.