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Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 review: A high watermark in tablet performance and value

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The Good Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 7 is a performance monster that speeds through Web sites and UI pages at a frantic pace. The screen is impressively sharp and the small light design is comfy for reading books. Mayday is personal and near-instant customer service. Some small but smart UI changes lead to an overall more pleasant experience.

The Bad The remote video viewing feature isn't ready at launch and ad removal still costs an extra $15. 16GB is too small for 1080p movies and there's no built-in storage expansion. The screen is tarnished by a yellowish tint and the buttons on the back are sometimes hard to find. No Google Play access means many apps still aren't available.

The Bottom Line Armed with a powerful processor and Amazon's exhaustive content library, the Kindle Fire HDX delivers incredible value for its price, especially for Amazon Prime members.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

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.

Design
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.

There's an obviously higher degree of specificity to the HDX's design compared with last year's Fires. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

While the power button is now much more tactile compared with last year's Fire HDs, it's also now located on the back, which presents its own set of issues. Josh Miller/CNET

Mojito
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.

Both the carousel and the app array are now accessible from the same page. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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.

Silk is finally a fast competent browser and the Fire HDX's pinpoint-accurate screen makes the whole experience far more pleasurable than ever before. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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.

16GB is fast becoming too small for storing HD content. Thankfully, managing your storage on the Kindle Fire has never been easier. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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.

Sing along with your favorite songs or just listen to them. You know, whatever you prefer. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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
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.

So far, Amazon reps have been polite and helpful during interactions. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

The rep can both draw on your screen or remotely control your interface, but you can take back control at any point simply by using the tablet. The window with the rep can moved around the screen, their voice can be muted, and the call can be ended by tapping End.

In my experience, the service reps were helpful, polite, and knowledgeable. Not only about the Kindle Fire and its software intricacies, but they also had knowledge pertaining to how the Mayday service works as well. They answered any question I had without missing a beat.

Of course I conducted my testing before the release of the new Kindle Fires. It's a pretty cool feature, but we'll have to see how well that 15-second response time holds up when thousands are tapping the button daily.

Mayday reps can draw on the screen or control your tablet remotely. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

It's incredibly ambitious. Not only in concept, but I would imagine logistically speaking as well. It also takes the real-time customer service rep one step further by making it nearly instant and self-contained on the product you're troubleshooting. Something that immediate and intimate likely has potential way beyond its current use.

I'll be monitoring Mayday once it launches, so check back here in a few weeks to see how it holds up under heavy load.

Hardware features
The Kindle Fire HDX 7 leapfrogs pretty much every current tablet in performance by housing a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 system-on-chip, with a Krait 400 CPU. That's the fastest version of the SoC we've seen so far. There's a powerful Adreno 330 GPU, dual-band Wi-Fi, gyroscope, and an accelerometer.

The screen doesn't get as bright as the Nexus 7's, but your eyes will probably be relieved when you're trying to read in the dark. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance
The Fire HDX is the second 7-inch tablet to feature a pixel-dense, 1,920x1,200 resolution screen. The screen is crisp and menu text and icons are sharp and perfectly legible.

The Kindle Fire HD (2012) had a bright vibrant screen, but backlight bleeding or "clouding" was apparent when looking at a black or dark screen. Clouding on the HDX 7 is much less severe and can only be seen in the corners when the screen displays a dark image -- like during startup.

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 Amazon Kindle Fire HD Google Nexus 7 (2013) Apple iPad Mini
Maximum brightness 430 cd/m2 394 cd/m2 570 cd/m2 399 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.37 cd/m2 0.41 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,162:1 960:1 1,295:1 814:1

Unfortunately, while Amazon claims 100 percent sRGB compliance, there's a yellowish quality to the white and it doesn't look as pure as it does on the Nexus 7. Also, the screen isn't as bright as the Nexus 7's, but that fact actually works in the HDX's favor, as it's a lot less harsh on the eyes when reading in the dark.

Navigation performance is much zippier than last year, even compared with that of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9. Everything feels more immediate and a lot less frustrating, making for an overall much more enjoyable experience.

This newfound pep is in part thanks to the optimizations to the Fire OS, but credit can also be given to the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 system-on-chip. It delivers the necessary push so you're not waiting around to access menus that should have been up seconds ago.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 Adreno 330 2GB Amazon Android Mojito 3.0
Google Nexus 7 (2013) 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro Adreno 320 (single-core) 2GB Android 4.3
Apple iPad Mini 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 PowerVR SGX543MP2 (dual-core) 512MB iOS 7.0.1

Speaking of which, polygonal gaming performance was excellent as tablets go, delivering performance about on par with the Nvidia Shield and clearly ahead of the new Nexus 7.

Asphalt 8 runs as smoothly as you're likely to see currently on an Android tablet at this resolution. It's not as smooth as on the Nvidia Shield, but Nvidia's handheld has the advantage of running at a lower 1,280x800-pixel resolution.

Riptide GP 2 ran at a silky-smooth frame rate with all graphical features turned to max and didn't chug when things got busy onscreen. I haven't yet had an opportunity to test games like N.O.V.A. 3; the Kindle Fire version of the game was unavailable from the HDX's interface.

GFXBench

Nvidia Shield
39
24
Kindle Fire HDX 7
22
23
Apple iPad 4
12
17
Google Nexus 7 (2013)
15
16
Apple iPad Mini
7
4

Legend:

GFXBench (native resolution, T-Rex HD, C24Z16)
GFXBench (1080p, T-Rex HD, C24Z16)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark isn't yet available for the Kindle Fire, so I used GFXBench instead. It's a similar benchmark that tests the tablet at both 1080p and its native resolution. Here the HDX about matched both the Nvidia's Tegra 4-toting Shield and Asus' PadFone, which houses a 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800.

The HDX's speakers aren't quite as loud as the HD's, but sound is a lot cleaner and in comparison, the older speakers sound distorted and tinny.

As front cameras on tablets go, this one isn't too bad. Eric Franklin/CNET

The front camera delivers relatively clear colorful images for a tablet camera. It's not necessarily something you'll want to use to capture special moments -- there's definitely visible grain -- but as tablet front cameras go, it's not bad. Especially if all you're doing is video chatting.

Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video Battery life (in hours)
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 9.8

Conclusion
If you're an active Amazon Prime member, you'd almost be doing yourself a disservice not to buy the Kindle Fire HDX 7. Its deep integration of Prime features like streaming video, video downloads, and the ability to borrow books makes the HDX feel like a required Prime member companion device.

If you're not a Prime member and have no plans to become one, then the alternative 7-inch tablet options like the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini become a bit more appealing.

The Nexus 7 starts at the same price, gives you access to a much more open platform with an incredibly bright screen, a rear camera, and the promise of frequent Android OS updates. The iPad Mini is $100 more expensive, features a larger but lower-resolution screen, unimpressive gaming performance, but still has the best app ecosystem of any tablet OS. However, that tablet's due for a refresh soon, so it'd be best to wait a few more weeks to see what new Apple has in store for the Mini.

In a few weeks Amazon will release an 8.9-inch version of the HDX with an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution screen starting at $379. If you're sold on the HDX, but desire a larger screen and don't mind paying the higher premium, you should wait for the 8.9.

Also, if you're excited about the Fire's new video fling feature, it may be best to wait until it's actually been implemented. In the same vein, Mayday is an excellent and innovative customer service feature, but Amazon may have trouble reaching that 15-second response time goal once it's actually in the wild.

All that said, if you're a Prime member looking for a small tablet, the HDX is a no-brainer. If you're not a Prime member and don't mind a closed -- but vast -- ecosystem, the HDX is an excellent reason to sign up for Prime.

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