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Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 review: A must-have tablet for Amazon Prime members

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The Good The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is a performance monster that speeds through Web sites and UI navigation at a frantic pace. Its screen is impressively sharp and its body amazingly light for a larger tablet. The Mayday feature gives personal and near-instant customer service. Some small but smart UI additions lead to a simple, welcoming experience.

The Bad The remote video viewing feature won't be ready at launch, and ad-free versions still cost an extra $15. The 16GB of space runs out quickly when storing HD movies, and there's no built-in storage expansion. Lack of Google Play access means many apps still aren't available. The buttons on the back are sometimes hard to find.

The Bottom Line With everything that was great about the HDX 7 and more, the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 isn't just a great value, it sets the standard for a media consumption tablet.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Editor's note (September 18, 2014): Amazon refreshed the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 with a 2014 version. Check out our hands-on review and back to CNET soon for a more in-depth look at the upgrade.

Like its smaller brother, the HDX 7, the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 shoots toward the top of the tablet hierarchy thanks to three notable features: excellent pricing that's competitive with -- or lower than -- the best large 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.

The HDX 8.9 offers all of that and improves on the 7-incher by including an 8-megapixel back camera and a sharper, more color-accurate screen. It's also the lightest large tablet currently on the market.

Unfortunately, not ready at launch are the video sling feature -- you can "kick" videos from your HDX to a compatible device or Smart TV -- nor 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, as a pure media consumption device there is none better. While the iPad Air is home to the most and best apps of any tablet, the HDX 8.9 starts at $379; that's $120 less than the starting price for the iPad Air and even undercuts the upcoming -- and smaller -- iPad Mini Retina by about $20.

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 ecoverse 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 8.9 is much more thoughtfully designed. It weighs just 0.82 pounds, which is incredibly light for something I consider a large tablet. It feels well-balanced and is easy to hold in one hand. It's light without feeling too airy.

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 8.9, 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 8.9 Apple iPad Air Asus Transformer Pad TF701 Microsoft Surface 2
Weight in pounds 0.82 1 1.28 1.44
Width in inches (landscape) 9.1 9.4 10.3 10.8
Height in inches 6.2 6.6 7.1 6.8
Depth in inches 0.31 0.29 0.34 0.35
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.7 0.8 0.8 0.7

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 Fires has been excised 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 and there's an 8-megapixel back camera.

Mojito
The new version of the Kindle Fire OS -- dubbed Mojito -- is based on Android Jelly Bean and is more of a refinement of last year's OS 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.

Swiping down from 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 touch screen, 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.

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Every option you'd ever want from a Kindle Fire tablet is only a tap away from the home screen. James Martin/CNET

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 few issues, which, compared with previous Fire tablets, I guess maybe is pretty special.

Amazon also cast a critical eye on other native apps like e-mail and calenda,r 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 of 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.

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At only 0.82 pound, the Fire HDX 8.9 is a fairly comfy e-reader. James Martin/CNET

Calendar includes a number of sensible improvements that for the most part make 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.

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 in 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.

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Buttons on the back take a lot of getting used to. James Martin/CNET

It's difficult to talk about how great the new OS is without mentioning the Snapdragon 800 processor, the inclusion of which makes it clear that Amazon has 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 less stressful and frustrating experience.

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.

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The 8-megapixel back camera is a nice addition. James Martin/CNET

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 in 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
The Mayday feature provides near-instant personal customer service. Pull down the shortcut menu, tap the Mayday button, then tap Connect. 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.

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

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Amazon Mayday reps are polite and helpful during interactions. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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. They answered every 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.

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.

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

The Fire HDX launched a couple of weeks ago and thus far Amazon is -- according to my anecdotal testing -- continuing to reach its goal of a 15-second maximum response time. Hopefully this will continue through the HDX 8.9's launch.

Hardware features
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 houses 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 MIMO Wi-Fi, a gyroscope, and an accelerometer.

Performance
The Fire HDX 8.9 is one of the most pixel-dense tablets around. It has an 8.9-inch, 2,560x1,600-pixel-resolution screen, equaling an impressively high 339 pixels-per-inch. The screen is crisp and menu text and icons are sharp and perfectly legible.

The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (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 8.9 is much less severe and can only be seen in the corners when the screen displays a dark image -- like during startup. Also, the HDX 8.9 displayed none of the yellow tint problems I saw on the HDX 7.

Tested spec Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Apple iPad Air Asus Transformer Pad TF701T Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition
Maximum brightness 472 cd/m2 421 cd/m2 383 cd/m2 326 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.40 cd/m2 0.39 cd/m2 0.35 cd/m2 0.33 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,180:1 1,079:1 1,094:1 987:1

Navigation performance is much zippier than last year and 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 again, 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 8.9 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Adreno 330 2GB Amazon Android Mojito 3.0
Apple iPad Air 1.4GHz dual-core Apple A7 Unconfirmed 1GB iOS 7.0.3
Asus Transformer Pad TF701T 1.9GHz Tegra 4 72-core GPU 2GB Android 4.2.2

Speaking of which, polygonal gaming performance was excellent as tablets go, delivering performance better than the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. Comparing it with the iPad Air is a little tougher however since many apps simply have more effects going on in the iPad version. However, the iPad Air came out on top in 3DMark, which I'll talk more about below.

The game Asphalt 8 runs smoothly, but not quite as smoothly as it does on the HDX 7. This is likely due to the HDX 8.9's higher resolution, which requires the Snapdragon 800 to work harder to fill the screen with pixels.

Riptide GP 2 ran at a silky-smooth frame rate with all graphical features turned to max, but does chug slightly when things get 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.

3DMark delivered results in keeping with my expectations. The results below are from 3DMark Unlimited, which runs at each tablet's native resolution. The HDX 8.9 has a higher resolution than either the iPad Air or the HDX 7, which may be one reason it's outpaced by both.

3DMark (Unlimited)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
12,858

Graphics test 1 (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics test 2 (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Physics test (CPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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.

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.

The rear camera captures an a good amount of light, but not quite as much as the iPad Air's rear camera. It does have a fast focus though, capturing sharp pictures and videos.

Conclusion
If you're trying to choose between the HDX 7 or HDX 8.9, let me break it down for you. Get the 8.9 if you want a larger, better screen or desire a back camera. Get the 7-inch if you're looking for a smaller tablet or if price is a concern -- the HDX 7 starts at $229 versus $379 for the 8.9.

If you remove price from the equation, I'd go with the HDX 8.9 for reasons mentioned above; but at the end of the day, either will serve you well.

In the current pantheon of high-end tablets, I'd put the 8.9 right up there with the iPad Air. While it lacks the premium feel of Apple's latest large tablet, they're pretty much a match performance-wise. Also, Amazon's tablet starts at $120 cheaper, and increases its value as storage configurations increase -- you can get a 64GB Wi-Fi-only HDX 8.9 for $479 versus $699 for a 64GB iPad Air. As for software features, if you consider apps alone, Apple has that on lockdown with the most and best apps of any tablet OS. However, taking into account the entire media ecosystem, Amazon is second to none.

If you're an active Amazon Prime member, 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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