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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.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Review Sections

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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