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Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 review: The best Kindle Fire yet

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The Good The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 has zippier navigation than its 7-inch counterpart, a beautiful high-definition screen, incredibly fast 4G LTE speeds, seamless streaming performance, and access to one of the best media eco systems available. The new Fire HD interface feels better suited on the 8.9-inch screen.

The Bad Web performance is lacking compared with that of other tablets. Its physical design is fairly plain with buttons that are too flush with its chassis. The curated Appstore means many games and non-entertainment quality apps are not available. There's a $15 opt-out for ads.

The Bottom Line If you're looking for a pure media consumption experience, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 delivers better than any tablet before it. People looking for something more utilitarian, however, will want to look elsewhere.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

Review Sections

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 tablet here.

Editor's note (September 25, 2013): The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is still available; however, there are new Kindle Fire options including the new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9.

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 1.25 1.44 1.33
Width in inches (landscape) 6.4 7.3 6.9
Height in inches 9.4 9.5 10.4
Depth in inches 0.35 0.37 0.35
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 1.0 0.87 0.9

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.

James Martin/CNET

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.

James Martin/CNET

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.

James Martin/CNET

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.

James Martin/CNET

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.

James Martin/CNET

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.

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