Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 review:

A high-end tablet for the whole family

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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 is the first tablet with Dolby Atmos audio-enhancing technology and Amazon's item-identifying Firefly function. Its user-friendly operating system includes Mayday instant customer service, extensive parental controls and the ability to set up individual profiles. It's still one of the lightest and slimmest tablets around.

The Bad Amazon's curated app store has far fewer apps and games than Google and iOS app stores. The heavily modified OS leaves little room for customization and there's no microSD card slot.

The Bottom Line Impressive Amazon features and an outstanding display make the the Fire HDX 8.9 one of the best and most affordable media consumption tablets.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 9.0

Editors' note: The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 shares an operating system with both the Fire HD 6 and 7 tablets, and parts of this review are similar to theirs.

The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 is one of the most understated high-end tablets of the year. Though physically it's virtually indiscernible from the 2013 model, it packs a more powerful processor, an updated OS with more family-friendly functions, and exclusive features like audio-enhancing Dolby Atmos and item-recognition software, Firefly.

Like its predecessor , the Fire HDX 8.9 is a fine piece of hardware that's brought to life with a easy-to-use operating system and convenient access to your Amazon Prime content and services. The stunning 8.9-inch HD display with matching multidimensional audio is tailor-made for streaming -- or downloading -- Prime movies and TV shows. If you're a Prime member, the HDX 8.9 is a great way to take full advantage of your subscription in style.

Exclusively found on the release is Dolby Atmos technology and Amazon's Firefly function. Though present on on other devices, they make their tablet debut here. Together with Amazon's Mayday instant customer-service feature, they render the Fire HDX 8.9 a unique slate and give it a distinct edge over its high-end competition.

The latest operating system's ability to add individual user profiles makes the tablet effortlessly shareable -- especially with children, thanks to the curated kid-specific selection of educational apps and games-- but unfortunately, it falls prey to the downsides that plague all Fire tablets: the restrictive OS lacks customization options, and without access to the Google Play store, you miss out on a multitude of apps and games. The good news is, if an app store with over one million options sounds overwhelming, or if you're already firmly entrenched in Amazon's ecosystem, the simple Fire tablets are the ideal portal for keeping you hooked, and the Fire HDX 8.9 is the best of the bunch.

Design

The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 has the same design as the 2013 model and for good reason; it's one of the better-looking large tablets around. It rocks the same minimalist aesthetic and subtle angular design that sets it apart from the large slew of faceless rectangular slates.

Dimensions compared

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 Apple iPad Air 2 Google Nexus 9
Weight 0.82-pound (372g) 0.65-pound (295g) 0.75-pound (340g) 0.94-pound (425g)
Width (landscape) 9.1 inches (231mm) 8.4 inches (213mm) 9.4 inches (240mm) 8.9 inches (226mm)
Height 6.2 inches (158mm) 4.9 inches (124mm) 6.6 inches (169.5mm) 6.05 inches (154mm)
Depth 0.31-inch (7.8mm) 0.26-inch (6.6mm) 0.24-inch (6.1mm) 0.31-inch (7.8mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.7-inch (18mm) 0.6-inch (15mm) 0.8-inch (22mm) 0.8-inch (22mm)

The easy-to-locate concave power and volume buttons make a return on the left and right edges, respectively, with a Micro-USB port and headphone jack to accompany them. Despite its age, it's still one of the slimmest large tablets and continues to reign as the lightest. Its design successfully marries fashion and functionality, and now with a new trio of accessories, the latter is even more true.

Amazon accessories

Alongside the new HDX 8.9, Amazon released a new proprietary cover, a bare-bones Bluetooth keyboard and a Micro-USB-to-HDMI adapter. The updated origami covers looks a bit more rugged-chic, with a textured leather front that's mirrored in plastic form on the back. The front flap can fold itself into a stand, and when opening or closing the case, the screen wakes and shuts off accordingly. The tablet connects to the case magnetically -- instead of securely snapping in -- but I didn't find it to be as secure as I'd like. Personally, I prefer the look of this new case, with the functionality of the old one.

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The Origami cover and Bluetooth keyboard in action. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Bluetooth keyboard for the Fire HDX 8.9 mirrors its simple and sleek design sensibilities. It's thin, superlight, and from behind could be mistaken as a Fire HDX tablet itself -- sans stylish angular points. The keyboard ships with its own Micro-USB-to-USB cord for charging (but no charging block) and is simple to pair once charged, with a extended range of connectivity. Its slim and featherweight design is its best feature, as its functionality leaves a lot to be desired.

Performance hiccups occurred more often than I consider tolerable for a stationary keyboard accessory, but it beats typing on-screen. Scrolling and highlighting text using the trackpad is tricky -- scrolling through a document in the native doc app happens at a snail's pace -- and when navigating the Sangria homescreen, it's difficult to click and drag to the off-screen options on the top navigation bar. I found manual scrolling with the touchscreen to be the easiest option. Furthermore, when typing in the native doc app, 10 to 15 seconds of lag crops up every time it autosaves. For anyone interested in using the Fire HDX 8.9 for casual writing projects, the simple Bluetooth keyboard nails portable design and enhances the tablet's productivity potential, but its functionality is far from flawless.

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The concave buttons return. Josh Miller/CNET

Features

Amazon's latest operating system, Fire OS 4 Sangria, isn't much different than last year's Mojito, but it adds a few features to make sharing the tablet with family members simpler and extending the battery life easier. The Fire HDX 8.9 tablet boasts all of the high-end whistles we saw on last year's model with the aforementioned additions of Firefly and Dolby Atmos.

Amazon recently introduced its FreeTime service, which helps parents manage how and when their children can use the tablet, and the addition of user profile options help parents take that control a step further. With the Sangria OS, you can create individual user profiles for adults and children, so instead of going into the settings menu to turn on the kid-friendly tablet mode, you simply create a separate profile for your child. Android tablets have long had a similar feature, but Amazon's function is geared toward making the Fire tablets more shareable among families. Soon there will be an update to allow content from one Amazon account to be shared across multiple Fire devices, but it has yet to roll out.

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You can add up to two adults and four children profiles. Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

One of the other subtle differences that's new to Sangria is the ability to manage power consumption when the tablet isn't in use. The SmartSuspend option is a new function that helps increase stand-by battery life by turning off the Wi-Fi when the tablet is sleeping. In automatic mode, the function's timing adjusts based on when you typically use the tablet, but you can also manually schedule when you'd like the Wi-Fi turned off. There are a variety of battery-saving apps that can do this, but this new built-in function is a user-friendly addition for the less tech-savvy.

Fire tablets also help take easy advantage of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription service. For $10 or £8 a month (it's not yet available in Australia), you can access over 700,000 publications and audiobooks. For anyone interested in a tablet with e-reader sensibilities, the service functions as a high-end library where the latest magazines are always available and they're never torn to shreds. Dynamic Light Control is a setting on the Fire HDX 8.9 that works within the Reader app. Depending on the ambient lighting in your environment, the function changes the white point of the display to make it closely resemble a piece of paper in a book. Like the shareable family library, it's currently not available, but it's expected to roll out with an over-the-air update later this year.

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New operating system, same carousel. Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

The multidimensional sound powered by Dolby Atmos elevates the theater-for-one experience that's native to the tablet. The new technology aims to take surround sound to the next level by designing audio to sound like it's happening above and around you, as if you're walking through the scene and hearing the noises for yourself. It's impressive for movies with lush soundscapes, but unless you're an audiophile or making side-by-side comparisons, it can be tough to discern the difference. One thing is for certain; the pair of speakers on its back are still some of the most loud, clear, and full sounding on a tablet.

The biggest downside to the Amazon Fire tablets is their lack of Google Play store access. The Fire tablets instead offer Amazon's app store, which still offers a great number of apps, but not as many or as varied a selection as Google's. Sometimes, it also takes awhile for the latest games and apps to to hit the store, however a curated app store is less overwhelming in terms of options -- a relief for the non-tech-savvy -- and it matches the simplified operating system.

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Firefly in the wild. Josh Miller/CNET

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