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

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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.

James Martin/CNET

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

James Martin/CNET

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.

Tested spec Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Apple iPad (third generation) Google Nexus 10
Maximum brightness 413 cd/m2 455 cd/m2 368 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.45 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 917:1 939:1 836:1

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.

Games performance
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.

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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.

Battery life
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 6.8

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.

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