Amazon's $379 Fire HDX 8.9 doesn't look revolutionarily different from the 2013 model of a similar name, but it does offer a number of impressive enhancements, including a sharper screen, faster quad-core processor, Firefly (think Shazam on steroids) and Dolby Atmos technology for immersive audio. The premium tablet includes impressive parental controls and comes with Amazon's multimedia content and unlimited photo storage. The HDX also lasts longer on a charge than the iPad Air 2 for $120 less. For families in search of a premium, large-screen tablet, this is the device for you.
Molded from a single piece of die-cast magnesium and coated in soft-touch nylon, the Fire HDX 8.9 feels as premium as Amazon's previous HDX tablets.
On the front, the 8.9-inch glass display boasts a sharp 2560 x 1600 pixels, surrounded by a small bezel. A 720p camera sits in the top middle, if you hold the tablet in landscape mode. Along the left and right edges you'll find the microUSB charging port and headphone jack, respectively. The back of the tablet angles in slightly for about an inch, with the power and volume buttons on the left and right side, respectively. On the top angle, you'll find Dolby Atmos speakers flanking either side of the 8-MP camera and flash.
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Measuring 9.1 x 6.2 x 0.3 inches and weighing 13.2 ounces, the HDX is shorter and lighter than the iPad Air 2, but 0.06 inches thicker than Apple's tablet. The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 is 0.26 inches thick, but at 9.73 x 7 x 0.26 inches and 1.02 pounds, it is larger and heavier than the Fire HDX 8.9 or the iPad Air 2.
Amazon includes 16GB of storage standard, of which only 9.9GB is available to the user, and without the ability to expand. After downloading two games and five other apps, I didn't have the storage space to grab a 1080p version of the movie Gravity. If you plan to buy the device, I recommend you upgrade to the 32 GB (24.3 GB available to user) or 64 GB (52.9 GB available to user) versions for $429 or $479.
The 8.9-inch touch-screen display on the Fire HDX is easily one of the best on any tablet. It features a resolution of 2560 x 1600 pixels, or 339 ppi, which bests the iPad Air 2's 264 ppi and the Galaxy Tab S 10.5's 288 ppi. Similar to how Apple made the iPad Air 2 thinner, Amazon was able to do the same on the HDX by integrating the capacitive touch layer into the glass display.
That crystal-clear density pays off when watching video, reading books and playing games. I could almost feel the heat of the fire from Smaug's mouth in a 1080p trailer for The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies. The green of Evangeline Lilly's eyes shone like emeralds, and I could make out each claw on the running wolves.
Click to EnlargeAmazon also claims that the HDX 8.9's display has 100 percent sRGB color accuracy, which it didn't quite reach in our tests. Using our colorimeter, the Fire HDX 8.9 reproduced 95.6 percent of the sRGB color gamut. The iPad Air 2, which sports a 2048 x 1536-pixel, 9.7-inch display, hit 99.6 percent. The Galaxy Tab S 10.5-inch (2560 x 1600 pixels) delivered an even higher 154 percent, but its hues tend to be oversaturated.
When viewed outside, side by side, the iPad Air 2 was clearly dimmer than the Fire HDX, but reflected less of buildings and plants nearby. Both the HDX 8.9 and Air 2 offered excellent viewing angles and were relatively easy to read on a bright day.
With a Delta-E score of 7.5 (0 is best), the Fire HDX didn't display colors as accurately as the iPad Air 2 (0.9) and the Tab S 10.5 (3.4). However, at 383 nits, the Fire HDX 8.9 outshone the iPad Air 2 (368 nits) as well as the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 (322 nits).
Amazon is the first tablet maker to include Dolby Atmos technology, which creates a 360-degree sound environment. That means if an object on film that was shot with Dolby Atmos zooms toward and then past you, you can sense the movement and hear the difference from in front of you to behind you. So far, not a ton of movies have been shot with this technology, but Guardians of the Galaxy, Gravity, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Life of Pi are great examples.
I listened to the fish fly through the air in Life of Pi using my Skullcandy headphones, and the pounding all around made me feel as though I were back in the IMAX 3D theater where I saw the movie the first time.
Too bad the enveloping sound doesn't carry through to the tablet's dual speakers. The flying fish in Life of Pi didn't have the same effect. While listening to music, Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" was more than loud enough to fill my small apartment living room, but it lacked depth. James Blunt's ethereal voice in "You're Beautiful," however, rang clear and melodious.
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On our audio test, in which we measure the volume of a tone played from 13 inches away, the Fire HDX registered 82 dB. That's higher than both the Air 2 (81 dB) and the Tab S 10.5's (79 dB).
Click to EnlargeAmazon's operating system, a forked version of Android known as Fire OS, is now on its fourth iteration. A carousel, which dominates the top two-thirds of the home screen, is a scrollable list of your most recently accessed content. Just above that is a list of types of content, including games, apps and books. Swiping up from below the carousel reveals a full list of installed apps.
The basic design of Amazon's interface belies the sophisticated features inside. Fire HDX 8.9 owners have free unlimited photo storage -- including full-resolution snaps -- in Amazon's cloud. Plus, the tablet is smart enough to predict which movies and TV content you may want to watch next. It then caches them in the background, so they can start playing the very second you want them to. I didn't notice much, if any, lag when queuing up video, but testing this fully would require more time, as the tablet learns your habits and likes over a longer period.
In the new Fire OS, as many as two adults and four children can set up separate profiles, with individualized home screens, Facebook accounts, bookmarks and game levels.
The Fire HDX 8.9 also comes with Amazon's Mayday support, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. With the touch of a button in the pull-down settings menu, you are connected to an Amazon expert via video (you can see them, but they can't see you) within 15 seconds. The expert can see and draw on your screen to walk you through solutions to whatever problem you may have.
I called Mayday to ask about X-Ray for books, which wasn't working on a few of my Kindle books. Mary was friendly and quick to answer, but she wasn't able to find me a solution. She did escalate the call to a hardware specialist, who later called me back on my personal line.
Later this fall, Amazon promises an over-the-air upgrade to the HDX 8.9 that will include a new way to read on a tablet called Dynamic Light Control. Using an ambient light sensor, the tablet will change the white point of the display to match the color and warmth of your surroundings, so that what you're reading will more closely resemble a paper book. This change worked nearly instantaneously during a demo.
Prime members will also get a perk with the upcoming update. Family Library will allow spouses to link their Amazon accounts so they can easily share apps, games, audiobooks, books and Prime Instant Video content. That sharing will work across Amazon devices and Amazon apps for iOS or Android.
Click to EnlargeAmazon offers more than 200,000 Fire tablet apps, which is respectable, but less than a third compared with Apple's 675,000 titles. Google doesn't reveal how many of its apps are tablet-optimized. Some big names are missing, including Google Drive, Snapchat, Dropbox and Avast Mobile Security & Antivirus. However, you will find a bunch of standards, such as Facebook, Spotify, Evernote and Candy Crush Saga.
Amazon throws in $5 worth of Amazon Coins (500, to be exact) with every tablet purchase. The coins can be used to buy apps and games, as well as to make in-app purchases. Amazon also bundles in WPS Office, which makes it easy to create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. Exchange email support with ActiveSync, which comes preloaded, also lets you check and reply to work emails on the Fire HDX 8.9.
First introduced on the Fire phone, Amazon's Firefly feature will recognize thousands of objects, movies, and music you either take a picture of or listen to using the HDX's camera and mic, and offer you the option to purchase them through the tablet. Firefly can recognize 240,000 movies, TV episodes and songs, according to the company. It also accesses Amazon's product list on all sorts of packaged goods and matches them up to things you may want to buy from Amazon.
Using the app, I could have easily bought more Velveeta Shells and Cheese, but Firefly didn't recognize a can of Fancy Feast, which I recently bought from Amazon. It didn't recognize an episode of Law & Order playing on my TV, but it directed me to Manhunter based on a DVD I showed it.
Amazon's Prime membership ($99 per year) makes a fairly attractive reason to consider a Fire HDX 8.9. Through Prime you get two-day free shipping, but you also get tons of Amazon content. More than 200,000 TV episodes and movies are accessible through Prime Instant Video. More than 500,000 books can be rented through the Kindle Owner's Lending Library with no due dates. You can also listen to more than 1 million songs ad-free via Prime Music.
Click to EnlargeThrough all Amazon content you can also enjoy Amazon's X-Ray feature. We were unable to get X-Ray to work on e-books through the Fire HDX 8.9, but on previous Amazon devices it allows you see where characters or themes appear throughout a book. X-Ray for music plays the lyrics as a song plays. And X-Ray for video shows you exactly what actors are appearing on screen and throughout a film. Both music and video versions of X-Ray worked exactly as advertised.
Click to EnlargeWhen it comes to a family-friendly tablet, it's tough to come up with a better option than Amazon's options. Parents can create profiles for up to four children, and within each, decide which books, apps, games and videos the kid can access.
Also through FreeTime, parents can set daily limits for the amount of time spent on the Fire HDX 8.9. Parents can restrict certain categories -- such as games and video -- requiring Junior to read something educational before he can play. If you sign up for Amazon FreeTime Unlimited for $2.99 per month, children can access thousands of educational books, as well as a curated list of music, apps and videos.
Click to EnlargeThe Fire HDX 8.9's quad-core 2.5-GHz Snapdragon 805 processor made it feel zippy and responsive during everyday use. The camera was ready to shoot within a second, and the system returned to the home screen nearly instantly. However, opening Injustice: Gods Among Us caused the tablet to freeze more than once. And it took nearly 5 seconds to open the Silk browser, which comes preloaded.
On Geekbench 3, which measures multi-core performance, the Fire HDX 8.9 scored 3,082, which is better than the 2,776 of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 (octa-core Exynos CPU) and the tablet average of 2,312. But it couldn't touch the 4,547 score achieved by the iPad Air 2.
Similarly, on 3DMark Ice Store Unlimited, which measures graphics performance, the Fire HDX scored 19,574. That's better than the Galaxy Tab S (13,481), but not as good as the iPad Air 2 (21,660).
Click to EnlargeThe Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 hangs its imaging hat on the 8-MP rear camera, which includes an LED flash, Electronic Image Stabilization to remove hand jitters, a wide-aperture lens and support for Panorama and High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos. I could easily make out blight on the leaves of some red roses shot on a sunny day, but the color seemed blanched. However, the red in a picture of a building mural in Greenwich Village was rich and accurate.
Click to EnlargeWhen I took a selfie with the 720p HD front camera, my skin looked fuzzy and out of focus. It was so bad that I couldn't make out the line of my lips.
On the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness, Amazon's big tablet endured for 10 hours and 19 minutes, which beats the Galaxy Tab S 10.5's endurance of 8:57 and the iPad Air 2's time of 9:20.
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Amazon also says that the Fire HDX 8.9 should charge in less than 5 hours, if you use the included charger.
Along with the 2014 model of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, Amazon has introduced its first $60 Fire Keyboard, which includes a 3.1-inch trackpad (1.5 x 2.75 inches). The touchpad is on the small side, but worked well. While you can reach up and touch the screen to navigate this tablet, I appreciated the option of a pointer. However, there is no right-click option.
Setting up the Bluetooth connection to the Fire HDX 8.9 was quick and easy. I particularly liked the dedicated row of Amazon-specific keys, such as the back, home, shopping and email buttons. You can even control the tablet's brightness from the keyboard.
I found the flat, square keys comfortable and easy to type on. However, we measured 0.88mm of travel, which is less than what we consider comfortable for a typical notebook (1.5-2mm).
Amazon continues to offer the Origami cover for the Fire HDX 8.9. The $45 case is a sleek and thin leather cover, with a custom slide feature that quickly exposes the rear-facing camera and automatically launches the camera application. If you pass the folding IQ test, you can also turn the folio-style case into a stand for use in landscape or portrait mode.
Click to EnlargeImpressive battery life and comprehensive parental controls are just a couple of great reasons to buy the $379 Fire HDX 8.9. The high-resolution display is stunning, and you get fast performance and a suite of exclusive features for getting the most out of Amazon's vast library of content.
On the other hand, you won't get the full Google Play app store and the base model of 16GB doesn't offer enough onboard storage. I'd recommend that you pick up the 32GB model, which will still cost you $70 less than the $499 iPad Air 2. Overall, the HDX is still a much better tablet for play than it is for work, but it's one that I highly recommend.