Editor's note (September 18, 2014): The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 reviewed here is now discontinued. Check out the replacement 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX here.
Editor's note (March 15, 2013): On March 13, 2013, Amazon cut the starting prices of both the Wi-Fi and 4G versions of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9. The Wi-Fi version now starts at $269 (down from $299), and the 4G version's new starting price is $399 (down from $499). Some text in our review has been changed to reflect this, but the tablet's rating remains unaltered.
If you're interested in purchasing a Kindle Fire, know that the Fire HD 8.9 is the version to get. It has a large 1,920x1,200-pixel-resolution screen that facilitates Amazon's current Kindle Fire interface better than the 7-incher. Also, its faster processor makes for a much smoother and zippier experience.
The Fire HD 8.9's unique screen size lands in between the 7.9-inch iPad Mini and the 9.7-inch iPad. While the iPad Mini carries with it the trump card advantage of Apple's ecosystem and industry-leading App Store, the Fire HD 8.9's lower pricing, superior streaming capability, and higher-resolution screen make it a better deal if you're looking for a media consumption device. Especially if you're an Amazon Prime member. The Mini does have speedier performance and as mentioned, many more app options, however.
The fourth-generation iPad is still the ultimate premium tablet. Its performance in just about everything beats all other tablets, and it's the best doorway to the most and highest-quality apps you can find on any mobile device. But, the Fire HD 8.9 has superior video-streaming prowess and is also a lot cheaper than the iPad in both Wi-Fi (starting at $269) and 4G LTE (starting at $399) models.
I should also note that Barnes & Noble offers the 9-inch Nook HD+ for $269 as well, with a slightly higher-resolution screen than the Fire HD's as well as expandable storage. The Nook ecosystem however isn't as mature, nor is its app store as well-stocked as Amazon's. There's also no 4G version of the Nook HD+.
The Fire HD 8.9's $269 entry price is a fantastic deal, as the content and services Amazon provides are well worth the price. It's not as versatile as the iPad or Nexus 10, but it's the best version of the Kindle Fire yet and the best media consumption tablet out there.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD's (Wi-Fi: $269 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB; 4G: $399 for 32GB, $499 for 64GB) design feels more at home with an 8.9-inch screen, compared to the 7-inch version. As a larger tablet, the Fire HD 8.9 better facilitates the Kindle Fire's new operating system and its faster processor produces much smoother navigation.
|Kindle Fire HD 8.9
|Apple iPad (third generation)
|Google Nexus 10
|Weight in pounds
|Width in inches (landscape)
|Height in inches
|Depth in inches
|Side bezel width in inches (landscape)
Beveled bottoms are the new hotness -- for tablets, anyway. From the Nexus 7 to the iPad, and Microsoft's Surface tablet, beveled bottoms are to 2012 what legitimately thin form factors were to 2011. Beveled bottoms have the power to make a tablet look thinner than it actually is. The Fire HD 8.9 is actually thinner than the current iPad and matches the Nexus 10's profile length.
The tablet is dark gray and looks fairly plain, with a tablet-wide black strip on the back as the only real distinguishing aesthetic trait. In the middle of the top portion of the bezel sits a 720p Web chat camera with a nearly invisible ambient light sensor sitting to its left. The bezel itself is surrounded by an outer plastic shell for added protection.
Along the bottom edge directly in the middle are Micro-USB and a Micro-HDMI ports. On the right edge, from top to bottom, are a headphone jack, volume rocker, and the power/sleep button. Both the volume rocker and power/sleep button sit flush with the tablet's body, making them difficult to find without looking. Sitting alone on the top edge is a microphone pinhole.
The back is smooth and not nearly as grippy as the Nexus 10's rubbery back. Dual inch-long speaker grilles adorn the Fire HD 8.9's back at the far left and right sides, continuing to the tablet's right and left edges.
For some strange, ill-conceived reason, Amazon chose not to include an actual power adapter with the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and instead supplied only a Micro-USB-to-USB cable. While the tablet will charge when connected to a plugged-in computer, it will do so very slowly and only when asleep. Thankfully, if you own the original Fire (or pretty much any Micro-USB-to-power adapter), its charger should be compatible with the Kindle Fire HD 8.9.
Software features: The refining
Since the debut of the original Kindle Fire, Amazon has completely redesigned the interface. The new interface debuted first on the Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Fire (2012) and hasn't changed at all here. It still feels streamlined and mature, eschewing the toylike quality the original interface had. On the 8.9, images and text are even sharper, thanks its 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution and high contrast. The carousel interface is still here, but scrolls faster and looks smoother, with app icons rendered in sharp, less pixely forms. Apps can be removed from the carousel at will and/or added to favorites, which appear at the bottom of the screen, negating the need to scroll through your entire catalog to find the app you want.
Newsstand, Books, Music, Videos, Docs, Apps, and Web return as top-of-the-screen content tab options and have now been joined by Shop, Games, Audiobooks, Photos, and Offers. Search returns as well and now allows you to search in Amazon's stores in addition to the Web and your own library.
Settings can be accessed with a quick swipe down from the top bezel and now feature more options for social network integration, more customization, and tighter security. Within each content tab are the very useful cloud and device denotations at the top that help identiify which pieces of content are on the Fire HD or currently in the cloud.
There are problems, though. As streamlined as the interface is, at times it serves only to illustrate how much better it could be. After entering a content tab, you can't travel directly to another and must instead tap back and choose a new selection. I would have loved to see a more elegant solution that allows carousel options to always be available onscreen.
Software features: The newening
The streamlined interface isn't Amazon's only accomplishment here; it has added several new features to further set the Fire HD 8.9 apart from other tablets.
With X-Ray for Books you can get more information about characters, terms, and historical figures mentioned in a Kindle book, and it also highlights exactly where (via page number and a graph) in the book those details are mentioned and can jump right to the appropriate page. Definitely useful, but the ability to search for specific terms should be at the top of Amazon's to-do list when the time comes to revise this feature.
X-Ray for Movies is frankly a lot less useful, as it's essentially an integrated IMDb feature that provides access to actor bios while you watch the movie. Just tap the screen while watching "The Avengers," for example, and a drop-down menu of the actors who are in the current scene appears. Select whichever actor you're interested in, and as long as that person is actually listed in IMDb, you'll have access to his or her bio. Impressively, this works in real time, adding and removing people from the list as they enter and exit scenes. It's not compatible with all movies yet, and I've yet to see it featured in any of the TV shows I've watched on the device.
Immersion reading uses the audio and Kindle versions of a single book and combines them to create an experience currently not reproducible on any other tablet. As the text is read by the original audiobook reader, each word is highlighted on the Kindle book version, allowing you to follow along bouncing-ball-style (well, sans an actual bouncing ball) with the story. It takes a bit of getting used to, but can be appealing for audiobook fans like myself who love to listen but want to retain the actual experience of reading as well.
In addition, Whispersync for voice allows you to stop reading at any spot in the Kindle version of a book and then continue later at that exact spot in your audiobook and vice versa.
Now each of these scenarios, however, requires that you'd be willing to purchase both the audiobook and Kindle versions of a book. So, who would actually own both versions of the book? Well, probably people who want to take advantage of these two features. As an incentive, Amazon claims it will offer discounts on audiobook versions of books if you already own the Kindle version; however, this won't extend to every book/audiobook combo.
You can now import your photos from Facebook to your Amazon Cloud Drive and view them (or any photos already in your Cloud Drive) on your Fire HD 8.9. Unfortunately, if importing directly from Facebook, you're not able to specify which photos you want to import and are forced to import them all.
Newsstand includes a slick page-turning animation and the option to tap on an article and read it in simple text. The Kindle Fire's e-mail interface, thankfully, has also been redesigned, now looking less like a '90s message board and more like a modern, legitimate e-mail client. Also, contacts can now be automatically imported by e-mail account instead of by each individual contact, as it was on the original Kindle Fire. A full calendar app with built-in reminders has been added as well.
Amazon's FreeTime is a downloadable app that allows Fire owners to create new parental controlled profiles. Each new profile can be customized with access to the content of your choosing with access to these parameters only available after supplying a predetermined password. Daily time limits can be set for each profile, either by total use time or by individual types of content: books, videos, and apps.
When activated, FreeTime delivers a limited version of the OS showing only the content already chosen for that profile. The background also turns blue so parents can easily see whether their kid is currently in the mode or has somehow hacked his or her way into the full OS.
FreeTime is a great option for families looking to share their tablet, but I wish it was more seamlessly integrated into the interface. As a separate app it requires that you launch it first and then choose a profile, whereas the Nook HD's implementation of a similar feature is always accessible from the home screen.
We've got ads!
Much has been made of Amazon's decision to ship all versions of the Kindle Fire HD with ads appearing on the lock screen. You can opt out of these ads by paying an extra $15; they will no longer appear afterward. The ads range from Amazon coupons to movie trailers to books; a new one appears each time you press the power button to wake the tablet. On either side of the screen is an unlock slider button. The right-side slider unlocks the screen normally and the left one unlocks the ad, taking you to the trailer, coupon, and so on. All the ads appear as high-res, high-quality images taking the place of the lock screen background. It's actually the least intrusive ad method I've ever seen, and I appreciate the coupon offers. If I owned a Kindle Fire HD or 8.9, I would personally not opt out. Although I can understand why some people would be bothered by being constantly advertised to on a device they purchased, it's not an issue that should affect your buying decision.
The Prime advantage
In addition to free two-day shipping on select products, Amazon Prime members receive two other benefits that all Fire HD owners can directly take advantage of. Prime owners receive access to Amazon's growing list of streaming movies and TV shows and can borrow a single Kindle book every month with no due date. Prime membership is $79 per year, and each version of the Kindle Fire HD comes with a free month of Prime so you can try out the service. Honestly, if you don't have a Prime membership, the appeal of the Fire HDs are greatly diminished. It would be almost like owning an iPad without an iTunes account.
No quad-core for you!
While it's difficult to find a tablet release without also finding a quad-core processor inside of it, Amazon bucks the trend by embedding Texas Instruments' dual-core 1.5GHz OMAP4470 CPU inside the Fire HD 8.9, with the GPU stylings of the Power VR SGX544 GPU in tow. It also includes 1GB of RAM, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth, and a gyroscope.
How much is 4G?
The 4G version of the Fire HD 8.9 is identical to the Wi-Fi-only version, but sports a superfast cellular connection, with a starting cost of $399.
The price has been lowered from the original by $100 and for a line of tablets that has thus far prided itself on low prices is still pretty high, but the actual cellular plan appears cheaper than what's currently available on tablets. For $50, Amazon offers 250MB per month for 12 months. Both 3GB and 5GB monthly plans are also available. For comparison, 4G on the iPad costs $15 per month ($180 per year) for the same amount of data. A proposition that's $130 more expensive than the Fire HD.
Wi-Fi vs. 4G LTE
Amazon touts the Fire HD 8.9's inclusion of dual antennas, MIMO support, and both 2.4GHz and 5GHz band support, but Web page load speeds under Wi-Fi were consistently several seconds behind the fourth-generation iPad running Safari. However, in every instance I tested it, Web page loading speeds over 4G LTE were on average 3 to 4 seconds faster. Also, I found quickly scrolling down Web pages had a hard time keeping up and consistently produced lots of clipping. While navigating through the Fire HD's OS interface felt much zippier than on the 7-inch version, the Web experience on both tablets felt sluggish in not just load speeds with simply navigating. It sometime took 1 to 2 seconds for the keyboard to appear after tapping the address bar; on other tablets like the iPad or the Nexus 10, this happens instantaneously.
Streaming-video performance was where the Fire HD 8.9's new networking hardware earned its keep. I started streaming "The Avengers" on both the Nexus 10 and Fire HD 8.9, and while neither had any trouble reproducing a crystal-clear 720p image when within close proximity of my test router, things changed as I left the lab and walked several feet away. At about 20 feet away (and with two or three walls in between), the Nexus 10 lost the streaming signal and delivered only a spinning circle for several minutes. It eventually connected to CNET's internal network and picked up the signal again as I walked down six flights of stairs and switched to a lower-bandwidth SD signal. As I left the building, the Nexus 10 was no longer streaming the movie. The Fire HD 8.9, however, kept streaming its HD signal, even as I left the building; I was a good 50 feet away when I finally got the spinning circle.
Packed with pixels
The 8.9-inch version of the Kindle Fire HD features an in-plane switching (IPS) screen, running at a 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution. Colors pop from the display and have a really vibrant, high-contrast look. There is unfortunately some very visible backlight bleeding at the top when viewing dark screens.
|Kindle Fire HD 8.9
|Apple iPad (third generation)
|Google Nexus 10
|Maximum black level
|Maximum contrast ratio
Amazon says it combined the touch sensor and LCD into a single layer of glass for the Fire HDs, which purportedly should decrease reflections, but I honestly didn't see a difference between it and other premium tablets in that regard.
I used Riptide GP to test relative game performance compared with the current iPad and Nexus 10. Both the Nexus 10 and iPad are able to maintain consistently high frame rates during play, but the Fire 8.9 could not keep up . Frame rates are still playable, just not as silky smooth. However, N.O.V.A. 3 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted each run at consistently smooth clips.
Thankfully, since the release of the 7-inch Fire HD, many "Kindle Fire Edition" games have released into the Amazon Appstore, reducing the need now to sideload apps. Conversely, many useful utilitarian apps available on the iPad are nowhere to be found here.
While watching movies, playing games, or listening to music, the Fire HD 8.9's speakers delivered clear, loud (if you need it to be) sound that's noticeably better than what I've heard from other tablets. While the speakers are on the back, thanks to the tablet's beveled bottom, they don't sit flush with the desktop and actually send out sound at an angle that reverberates off the desk, enhancing the quality.
There is a lack of bass, however, and ideally I'd rather listen through earbuds or larger speakers. For tablet speakers, though, there are currently none better.
I've had the Kindle Fire HD 8.9's brightness set to about 75 percent during the three days I've had to play with the device, constantly streaming video, downloading apps, playing games, and navigating the interface. During that time, the battery required charging about once every 5 hours. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.
|Video battery life (in hours)
|Kindle Fire 8.9
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 was made for Amazon's new Fire interface. Compared with the 7-inch version, navigation is snappier and the higher-resolution screen better displays menu options. Amazon's content offerings are vast, especially if you're a Prime member, and its 4G LTE speeds are incredibly fast. Starting at $269, it's one of the best tablet values available. The Kindle Fire line is still the strongest media consumption tablet line going, and this latest version is the best one yet.