Editor's note (September 18, 2014): Amazon has introduced a new budget-friendly 7-inch tablet in the Kindle Fire HD 7.
Not since free shipping has there been a better reason to become an Amazon Prime member than the Kindle Fire HDX 7. The new tablet is affordable, powerful, comfortable, and it boasts enough new and refined features to more than earn its $229 (starting) asking price.
With prices like that it's no wonder that as PC sales decline tablets have been on the rise. However, tablets are just as commoditized now as PCs were in their heyday. Apple arguably created the tablet market, and the iPad still rules the high end; an endless array of Android clones fight it out at the low end, with both sides squeezing the middle.
Enter Amazon and its new Kindle Fire HDX tablets. The new HDX tablets -- the third generation of the Kindle Fire brand -- shoot toward the top of the tablet hierarchy thanks to three notable features: excellent pricing that's competitive with the best premium tablets on the market; an awesome content ecosystem (especially for Amazon Prime members) that goes toe-to-toe with iTunes; and real-time customer service with the new Mayday button, which brings a live Amazon rep on a video screen within seconds -- for free.
Unfortunately, the video sling feature -- you can "kick" video from your HDX to a compatible device or Smart TV -- isn't ready at launch. And neither is Goodreads integration. Also, 16GB is fast becoming too small to store HD content, and without access to the Google Play store, HDX owners are still missing out on plenty of Android apps.
Still, the HDX is the strongest evolution of the Kindle Fire brand yet; however, you'll want make sure you're a card-carrying citizen of the Amazon Prime eco-verse to get the most out of the tablet's offerings.
Last year's Kindle Fire tablets were bulky, substantial, and seemed to prioritize durability over comfort. The Fire HDX 7 is much more thoughtfully designed. Its corners aren't as rounded as I usually like, but it's well-balanced and really comfortable to hold in one hand. It's light without feeling too airy.
Both the power button and volume rocker have been moved to the back, and while they're easier to find and press compared with the old Fire HD, I'm not sure it's the best solution. It's fine when held in landscape mode -- the rear edges can be used as a tactile guide -- but it's annoying when I want to quickly wake it from sleep, but have to pick it up first to reach the back instead of just tapping a button on its side.
|Tested spec||Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7||Amazon Kindle Fire HD||Google Nexus 7 (2013)||Apple iPad Mini|
|Weight in pounds||0.66||0.86||0.66||0.68|
|Width in inches (landscape)||7.3||7.7||7.8||7.9|
|Height in inches||5.0||5.4||4.5||5.3|
|Depth in inches||0.35||0.40||0.34||0.28|
|Side bezel width in inches (landscape)||0.6||0.9||1.0||0.8|
There's a Micro-USB port on the left edge and a headphone jack on the right. The Micro-HDMI port from last year's Fire has been exorcised in favor of a new video fling feature we'll get to later. The front-facing camera returns along with an actual camera app this time, but there's no rear camera.
The new version of the Kindle Fire OS -- dubbed Mojito -- is based on Android Jelly Bean and is more of a refinement over last year's OS rather than something completely new.
The carousel returns, allowing you to swipe through a lineup of your content, but now swiping up from the home screen reveals an array of your installed apps. And thanks to the higher-resolution screen, all menu items are visible at once from the top of the home screen.
Swiping down from the the top still brings up the shortcuts menu and the settings button. The menu now includes new entries Quiet Time, which turns off all notifications -- this needed its own button? -- and Mayday, which we'll delve into shortly.
The Silk browser finally feels like a useful, welcoming tool for accessing the Web and not a clunky, low-rent app struggling to keep up with my Web-based proclivities. Pages loaded quickly and whizzed by when swiped.
Taps also are much more accurate now. Not only when tapping links, but it was especially impressive when typing. I'm usually one to make plenty of mistakes when typing on a touchscreen, but either I'm finally and suddenly getting much better or Amazon's engineers have put in a lot of work in this area. My bet's on the latter.
I'm probably a bit overly excited about just how trouble-free the Web experience was, but there's really nothing special about it. It simply works with little issue, which, compared with previous Fire tablets, I guess maybe is pretty special.
Amazon also took a critical eye toward other native apps like e-mail and calendar as well as adding a new contacts app. E-mail has been redesigned to require fewer steps to set up and is now compatible with threaded conversations, so instead seeing a single e-mail from each person in the conversation, you now see a message from the last person to contribute to the thread.
Calendar includes a number of sensible improvements that for the most part makes the interface a more efficient and gratifying experience.
Managing your storage is now a lot easier, as items can be located by type and each deleted on the fly.
While the vast majority of the changes work, there's also a missed opportunity here to add more customization. Samsung does this to great success on its latest version of the TouchWiz UI, last seen on the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. Samsung's shortcut array behaves in much the same way as Amazon's, but also scrolls to the left to include more options and can even be customized to add more choices.
It's difficult to talk about how great the new OS is without mentioning the Snapdragon 800 processor, whose inclusion makes it clear that Amazon finally got the horsepower-to-interface overhead balance just about right. Accessing different sections of the interface feels much more immediate and it's an all around a less stressful and frustrating experience.
X-Ray for music is karaoke on your Fire. Sort of. The Fire displays lyrics onscreen while compatible songs play. Lyrics are timed to appear as they play in the song, and the feature's quite a bit more engaging than I thought it would be. That may be strictly due to the excitement of learning the actual lyrics to some of my favorite songs.
And X-Ray trivia with its handy "jump to scene" button is a pretty effective way to learn more about your favorite movies or TV shows.
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 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 is near-instant personal customer service. Pull down the shortcut menu, tap the Mayday button, then tap Connect. And 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.