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Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 review: A high-end tablet for the whole family

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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
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Firefly in the wild. Josh Miller/CNET

Supa Dupa Firefly

Firefly is a refreshingly useful and innovative addition that almost justifies casually toting around this 8.9-inch tablet like a futuristic, high-tech magnifying glass. Original found on the Amazon Fire phone, the feature uses the rear camera and dual microphones to analyze an artifact and identify it, then provide relevant supplemental information -- not to mention how to purchase it from Amazon, of course. It's simple to use: you point the camera at what's piqued your interest -- a scene in a TV show, song in a commercial, can of cheese, etc. -- and, like piece of modern art, a flock of small, bright white lights buzz around the screen until a result, successful or not, is dutifully displayed.

amazon-fire-hdx-8-9-firefly-screenshot.jpg
Firefly didn't recognize this object. Do you? Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

After successful identification of the mystery object (usually 10 seconds or less), a small window on the right side of the screen pops up with related links and annotative insight, such as the names of actors in the scene with IMDB profiles, an album name with link to to a Vevo music video, or details on how much a pack of 12 costs with Prime two-day shipping. Additionally, there's a vertical strip to the left of the information window that displays thumbnails of recent search history. In the case that you were only hate-identifying the latest Jonas Brothers radio hit or regretfully recalling which season of "Bar Rescue" you're currently watching, you can easily delete individual searches too.

screenshot2014-10-27-11-14-28.png
Firefly compatible apps are sparse, and I found only the Vevo app to be most useful; once downloaded, it's integrated into the information window and links to the corresponding song's music video. Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Firefly is a highly functional amalgamation of SoundHound, Google Goggles, and other content-identifying apps, however I found it works best for music, as well as TV and movies -- both of which have their own individual buttons for added audio recognition. When it came to items and objects, they were only recognized if available for purchase on Amazon. Art, images or logos were usually recognized as an iPhone case or other item that was emblazoned with the matching design. Firefly is far from perfect, but it's a unique function to help explore and navigate our increasingly content-rich world, and it gives the Fire HDX 8.9 a fun and useful feature no other tablet offers.

Hardware

The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 ships with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 system-on-chip which consists of a 2.5GHz quad-core Krait 450 CPU and Adreno 420 GPU with 2GB of RAM. The 8.9-inch tablet comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models with no expandable storage option.

The slate also offers Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, an accelerometer and a gyroscope. It's also available in 4G LTE capable versions.

Unlike Netflix, Amazon Prime Video lets you download TV shows and movies for offline viewing. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance

Performance was speedy and smooth for the most part, with unfortunate occasional bugginess. During my time with the tablet, apps randomly crashed while launching, and it restarted without warning a handful of times. Also, when a game or video would enter fullscreen mode, a friendly message noting that the bottom navigation bar is only a swipe away overstayed its welcome and insisted on popping up frequently, well after the message had been received and digested. After using the tablet for awhile, it was as annoying as a pop-up ad and impossible to turn off.

Screen specs compared

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 Apple iPad Air 2 Google Nexus 9
Maximum brightness 484 cd/m2 257 cd/m2 413 cd/m2 252 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.38 cd/m2 0 cd/m2 .38 cd/m2 .21 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,273:1 N/A 1,086:1 1,200:1
Screen resolution 2,560x1,600 2,560x1,600 2,048x1,536 2,048x1,536
Pixels per inch 339ppi 360ppi 264ppi 228ppi

An Amazon Prime membership unleashes a bounty of TV shows, movies and books, and there's no better hardware to enjoy it all on than the Fire HDX 8.9. Housing a sharp 2,560x1,600-pixel-resolution screen and lifelike colors, the 2014 edition of the tablet solidifies its spot as one of the best movie-watching tablets. The clear, crisp, and full dual rear speakers don't hurt either.

The rear camera captures an impressive amount of detail. Josh Miller/CNET

Touchscreen response was consistently swift and accurate. Scrolling, swiping, and tapping all registered immediately, though sometimes while quickly browsing the Web, I had to intentionally double-tap a link for it to load.

Device CPU RAM OS tested
Google Nexus 9 Nvidia Tegra K1; 2.3GHz dual-core Denver 2GB Android 5.0
Apple iPad Air 2 Apple A8X 2GB iOS 8
Nvidia Shield Nvidia Tegra K1; 2.2GHz quad-core A15 2GB Android 4.4
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) Qualcomm Snapdragon 805; 2.5 GHz quad-core Krait 450 2GB Amazon Android Sangria 4.0

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
20,298
Apple iPad Air 2
21,647
Google Nexus 9
25,854
Nvidia Shield Tablet
28,104

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Score

Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
21,268
Apple iPad Air 2
31,302
Nvidia Shield Tablet
32,050
Google Nexus 9
37,261

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Physics Score

Apple iPad Air 2
10,409
Google Nexus 9
12,481
Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
17,504
Nvidia Shield Tablet
19,640

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 received high gaming benchmarks, hanging at the top with the likes of the iPad Air 2, Nexus 9, and Nvidia Shield tablets. Gaming speeds were impressively fast, and gameplay mostly went smoothly; however, large games comprised the majority of apps that crashed on me upon launch. If and when they got going, gaming usually ran without a hitch, with levels loading in 10 seconds or less. Simple mobile tasks performed consistently, even if many large apps were open in the background.

img20141028212158hdr.jpg
Not the most vibrantly saturated, but sharp enough. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

The rear 8-megapixel camera is one of the best I've seen on a tablet, though that's not saying much. It's not great; colors are a bit lackluster with a blue tint, and digital noise is prevalent even in the most well-exposed shots. However, if focused well, details remain sharp at full resolution. Similarly, the front-facing camera produces underwhelmingly washed-out photos, yet it holds its own for videoconferencing.

Conclusion

The Fire HDX 8.9 of 2014 isn't just a speedy and sleek tablet at a competitive price; it's a personal vessel for diving deep into Amazon's growing ecosystem. The thoughtfully curated app store and heavily modified user-interface is limiting for some, but it positions the tablet into a small niche of user- and family-friendly slates that also pack a performance punch and a bevy of useful features.

Unlike the 8.9-inch Fire HDX, the 7-inch model didn't receive a 2014 refresh, yet it's still tops in the crowded small-tablet category and mirrors many of its larger sibling's best features, with the exception of Firefly and Dolby Atmos. The high-end extras will cost you, though starting at $379 for a 16GB model, it's still cheaper than the Apple iPad Air 2 and Google Nexus 9 , which don't offer parental controls as expansive as the Fire line's. Its UK price is £329, and while it's not yet available on Amazon's Australian site, its US price works out to AU$420 converted.

Successfully combining sleek hardware, family-friendly functionality, deep integration with Amazon services, and media enhancing extras, the tablet fulfills casual needs and then some. If you're an Amazon Prime member looking for a slate to share with the family, the Fire HDX 8.9 is a worthy high-end alternative to consider.

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