Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 review: A must-have tablet for Amazon Prime members

What I've always liked about the Kindle Fire interface is how the content is organized. Instead of pages and pages of app icons like in other OSes, on the Fire each type of content is siloed into its respective section. When I tap Audiobooks, I know I'm seeing all the audiobooks I own and by tapping Store I can easily add more. There's just something comforting about having all your content automatically organized for you.

Mayday
The Mayday feature provides near-instant personal customer service. Pull down the shortcut menu, tap the Mayday button, then tap Connect. Within 15 seconds -- at least that's Amazon's goal -- a customer service representative appears on your screen. The rep can't see you, but can see whatever your HDX is currently displaying and apparently none of your actual account information is visible to them.

The rep can draw on your screen and remotely control your interface, but you can take back control at any point simply by using the tablet. The window with the rep can be moved around the screen, the rep's voice can be muted, and the call can be ended by tapping End.

Amazon Mayday reps are polite and helpful during interactions. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

In my experience, the service reps were helpful, polite, and knowledgeable. Not only about the Kindle Fire and its software intricacies, but they also had knowledge pertaining to how the Mayday service works. They answered every question I had without missing a beat.

Of course I conducted my testing before the release of the new Kindle Fires. It's a pretty cool feature, but we'll have to see how well that 15-second response time holds up when thousands are tapping the button daily.

It's incredibly ambitious. Not only in concept, but I would imagine logistically speaking as well. It also takes the real-time customer service rep one step further by making it nearly instant and self-contained on the product you're troubleshooting. Something that immediate and intimate likely has potential way beyond its current use.

Mayday reps can draw on the screen or control your tablet remotely. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

The Fire HDX launched a couple of weeks ago and thus far Amazon is -- according to my anecdotal testing -- continuing to reach its goal of a 15-second maximum response time. Hopefully this will continue through the HDX 8.9's launch.

Hardware features
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 houses a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 system-on-chip, with a Krait 400 CPU. That's the fastest version of the SoC we've seen so far. There's a powerful Adreno 330 GPU, dual-band MIMO Wi-Fi, a gyroscope, and an accelerometer.

Performance
The Fire HDX 8.9 is one of the most pixel-dense tablets around. It has an 8.9-inch, 2,560x1,600-pixel-resolution screen, equaling an impressively high 339 pixels-per-inch. The screen is crisp and menu text and icons are sharp and perfectly legible.

The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (2012) had a bright vibrant screen, but backlight bleeding or "clouding" was apparent when looking at a black or dark screen. Clouding on the HDX 8.9 is much less severe and can only be seen in the corners when the screen displays a dark image -- like during startup. Also, the HDX 8.9 displayed none of the yellow tint problems I saw on the HDX 7.

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Apple iPad Air Asus Transformer Pad TF701T Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition
Maximum brightness 472 cd/m2 421 cd/m2 383 cd/m2 326 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.40 cd/m2 0.39 cd/m2 0.35 cd/m2 0.33 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,180:1 1,079:1 1,094:1 987:1

Navigation performance is much zippier than last year and everything feels more immediate and a lot less frustrating, making for an overall much more enjoyable experience.

This newfound pep is in part thanks to the optimizations to the Fire OS, but again, credit can also be given to the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 system-on-chip. It delivers the necessary push so you're not waiting around to access menus that should have been up seconds ago.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Adreno 330 2GB Amazon Android Mojito 3.0
Apple iPad Air 1.4GHz dual-core Apple A7 Unconfirmed 1GB iOS 7.0.3
Asus Transformer Pad TF701T 1.9GHz Tegra 4 72-core GPU 2GB Android 4.2.2

Speaking of which, polygonal gaming performance was excellent as tablets go, delivering performance better than the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. Comparing it with the iPad Air is a little tougher however since many apps simply have more effects going on in the iPad version. However, the iPad Air came out on top in 3DMark, which I'll talk more about below.

The game Asphalt 8 runs smoothly, but not quite as smoothly as it does on the HDX 7. This is likely due to the HDX 8.9's higher resolution, which requires the Snapdragon 800 to work harder to fill the screen with pixels.

Riptide GP 2 ran at a silky-smooth frame rate with all graphical features turned to max, but does chug slightly when things get busy onscreen. I haven't yet had an opportunity to test games like N.O.V.A. 3; the Kindle Fire version of the game was unavailable from the HDX's interface.

3DMark delivered results in keeping with my expectations. The results below are from 3DMark Unlimited, which runs at each tablet's native resolution. The HDX 8.9 has a higher resolution than either the iPad Air or the HDX 7, which may be one reason it's outpaced by both.

3DMark (Unlimited)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
12,858

Graphics test 1 (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics test 2 (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Physics test (CPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

The HDX's speakers aren't quite as loud as the HD's, but sound is a lot cleaner and in comparison, the older speakers sound distorted and tinny.

The front camera delivers relatively clear, colorful images for a tablet camera. It's not necessarily something you'll want to use to capture special moments -- there's definitely visible grain -- but as tablet front cameras go, it's not bad. Especially if all you're doing is video chatting.

The rear camera captures an a good amount of light, but not quite as much as the iPad Air's rear camera. It does have a fast focus though, capturing sharp pictures and videos.

Conclusion
If you're trying to choose between the HDX 7 or HDX 8.9, let me break it down for you. Get the 8.9 if you want a larger, better screen or desire a back camera. Get the 7-inch if you're looking for a smaller tablet or if price is a concern -- the HDX 7 starts at $229 versus $379 for the 8.9.

If you remove price from the equation, I'd go with the HDX 8.9 for reasons mentioned above; but at the end of the day, either will serve you well.

In the current pantheon of high-end tablets, I'd put the 8.9 right up there with the iPad Air. While it lacks the premium feel of Apple's latest large tablet, they're pretty much a match performance-wise. Also, Amazon's tablet starts at $120 cheaper, and increases its value as storage configurations increase -- you can get a 64GB Wi-Fi-only HDX 8.9 for $479 versus $699 for a 64GB iPad Air. As for software features, if you consider apps alone, Apple has that on lockdown with the most and best apps of any tablet OS. However, taking into account the entire media ecosystem, Amazon is second to none.

If you're an active Amazon Prime member, the HDX is a no-brainer. If you're not a Prime member and don't mind a closed -- but vast -- ecosystem, the HDX is an excellent reason to sign up for Prime.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Wireless Connectivity IEEE 802.11g
  • Type Fire OS 3.0
  • Weight 13.2 oz
  • Storage 16 GB integrated
  • Processor Snapdragon 800
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