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Tech  |  Reviews

Kindle Fire HDX Review

December 11, 2013  |  11:00am
Kindle Fire HDX Review

The Kindle Fire brand of Amazon tablets has always forged its own place in the market. The tablets have always provided a unique, portal into the unbeatable Amazon retail store, but they’ve also consistently delivered some of the most affordable, high quality tablets on the market.

Those strong positives don’t change with the Kindle HDX—in fact, the successor to the Kindle Fire HD looks nearly like a standard copy of its predecessor at first glance. But the HDX comes with a few notable bells and whistles, as well as a significant spec boost that puts it far ahead of Amazon’s previous attempts. But in the age of the $229 Nexus 7, is it enough?

Hardware: Some glaring omissions hold up back this very capable tablet

Right away you’ll notice that the HDX is extremely light. In fact, it’s the lightest tablet of the entire Kindle Fire line, weighing in at 10.2 ounces. Not much has changed dimension-wise since the HD: the screen size is the same (about 7 × 5 inches). The HDX is sporting a slightly thinner body though, which is impressive considering all of the new hardware features that have been added since the HD: a quad-core processor, a microphone, and a front-facing HD camera. The high-definition display in the HDX, now with 323 ppi, features over a 100 more pixels per inch than its predecessor which results in stunningly beautiful graphics when paired with the Adreno 330 graphics processor. The tablet itself seems to run apps and load webpages seemingly instantly and that’s no doubt due to the fact that Amazon swapped out its old dual-core processor for a 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor.

While it is nice that the HDX finally gives us a camera, this part of the tablet is the source of our first disappointment. The HDX 7” that we were given to do our review on only offers one type of camera, and unless you’re only into snapping (grainy) selfies of yourself and/or Skyping your life away with a possible catfish you’re not going to use the camera very much. The good news is that front-facing camera that it does have isn’t all bad: it does offer 1080p video recording.

However, the absence of a rear-facing camera is frustrating coming from a tablet that has so far been pretty intuitive with customers’ needs. And it just seems silly to give the HDX the capacity to store and edit photos when you can’t really take any decent ones with just the 720p front-facing camera the HDX offers. Why would anyone want to transfer their old photos to a new tablet if the photos are already stored on a laptop, smartphone or cloud service? You can get a Kindle Fire HDX with a front-facing camera, but you’d have to upgrade to the 8.9 inch version of it, in which case you’d be spending $150 more for an 8 MP camera (which is ridiculous considering you can get a Canon point and shoot with double the MPs for about $150.)

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Amazon boasts that the Kindle Fire HDX features dual stereo speakers, Dolby Digital Plus audio and 5.1 multi-channel surround sound—and Amazon is right to brag about it. The sound quality through the speakers is vivid and crystal clear, whether you’re listening to music or watching a movie or television show.

However, while the HDX’s sound system lives up to the hype, the same can’t be said for its battery life. Amazon says that when used for mixed purposes (like reading, tv and music) the battery should last you about 11 hours, and longer if you all you did was use the kindle to read ebooks. But in our experience, that doesn’t seem to be the case as watching “The Heat” in HD took up nearly 50 percent of the HDX’s battery life from full charge. You’ll definitely be able to get a full day or two out of it, but it’s nothing beyond average compared to its competitors.

Our review device came with an Origami case/stand for the HDX. If you buy an HDX, this case will need to be bought separately as it doesn’t come with the tablet. As a case, it’s very lightweight and protective of the HDX. It’s also easy-to-use as the case is magnetic and allows for easy attachment to the HDX. This case is unique primarily for two reasons: the opening and closing of it automatically signals the HDX to wake itself up or put itself to sleep respectively and with a few easy folds the case can convert the front half of itself into a stable stand that can prop up and support the HDX in either landscape or portrait positions. While it certainly made using and caring for the HDX easier, we’re still unsure that we’d pay the fifty bucks for this Smart Case lookalike.

However, one reason you might want to grab a case is that the HDX isn’t the prettiest piece of hardware we’ve ever seen. It’s full of peculiar jagged edges on the back and some pretty thick bezels on the front. Fortunately, the soft touch plastic feels pretty good in the hand, filling in that mid-tier space between the slick plastic of the Samsung tablets to the premium aluminum of the iPads.

Software: Fire OS is still all about Amazon’s content

We could talk all day about the the HDX and the fact that it’s running the newest Fire OS, but the big story here when it comes to the HDX’s software is the Mayday button. You’ve seen it in the commercials. You’re having issues with your Kindle and then with just a tap of the screen, of the Mayday button, you’ve summoned an Amazon Tech Advisor in a matter of seconds, ready to help you navigate/fix your Kindle. So does all of that really happen? Can you really get a live Tech Advisor to help you with your Kindle whenever you want? We’re happy to report that it does and you can. Here’s what happened when I tried it out:

My Kindle kept falling asleep every few minutes while I was reading an ebook and I didn’t know how to set the sleep timer to a different time, so I called up an advisor by simply dragging open a menu from the top of the screen and tapping the Mayday button. Within seconds, an advisor named Corey answered my question thoroughly by guiding me step-by-step to the settings page to change the sleep timer setting. Corey showed up in a small, unobtrusive video chat window and clearly explained to me how to set the timer using detailed verbal directions and used a Telestrator-like feature to highlight the features of the Kindle I’d need to change the timer and how to use them. Corey answered my call quickly, within seconds of me pressing the button and it seems that yes, Amazon’s Mayday service is offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week: I was able to get ahold of an Advisor at 8:30 at night on a Tuesday.

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Other than the Mayday button, the HDX also includes the following software features: newest Fire OS: Fire OS 3.0, a generally super-fast browser called Silk, built-in productivity apps and access to popular social media apps, games, and music streaming services. Exclusive access to Goodreads was just added to the HDX as well, which is a great addition. If you’re willing to shell out the money, you can also download a wide variety of music, books, magazines, movies, television shows, audiobooks, games and apps—a virtually unparalleled marketplace compared to the App Store or the Play Store. And if you’re a Prime member, you’ve also got Netflix-like access to a ton of Instant watch content and original programming. Watching movies or television shows is a happily bug-free high definition experience. But if for some reason you have stop and resume such content later, it is worth noting that it make take a few minutes for the content to revert back to its high quality playback. It might look fuzzy at first but usually after a few frames or minutes, it will correct itself.

There’s a feature called X-Ray for both the music and video sections of the HDX, which is a cool way of giving users additional information about the content they’re consuming. For music, certain songs will offer up a scrolling panel with the lyrics that flash on the screen like you’re doing karaoke. For the video section, if you’re interested in knowing which actors are playing which roles in a movie, simply tap anywhere on the screen once and an X-Ray panel on the right side will open up and tell you that information. Now you don’t have to look up those burning questions on IMDB in the middle of your movie.

Reading on an HDX is what you’d expect from a Kindle. It’s as user friendly as ever—and there are even some new features such as text to speech, Immersion Reading, and a vast collection of audiobooks from Audible. Of the three, Immersion Reading is the most interesting as it allows you to combine an ebook with its corresponding audiobook. For those who seem to have trouble focusing on what they’re reading, the Immersion Reading feature can help with that as you’re having to both listen and look at the words of each ebook.

All of that is fantastic—the movies, the books—it’s what Amazon does best. However, you’ll discover fairly quickly that Fire OS is a bit limited as a full-featured operating system. It’s got the bare bones in terms of productivity and work apps, but don’t expect to spend much time accessing heavy-duty word processing or work of any kind here. Even though Fire OS is technically an Android skin, there’s very little in appearance or function that would indicate so—and because of that, I can’t help but feel the Fire OS feels almost too simplistic. What’s worse is that the HDX does not include the Google Play Store, which means it lacks a lot of apps that might round out its ecosystem or make it a bit more useful for productivity.

At $229.00, a tablet like the HDX is a bit of a steal, even without a rear-facing camera or the premium design of some other tablets. It doesn’t do it all—but the HDX knows what kind of product it is and what its intended use is. When it comes to tablets, it all comes to down to what ecosystem you want to buy into.

If you want incredible app support, look to your iPad. If you want incredible services, look to your Nexus. But if you’re looking for a portal to the best entertainment and content to consume, look no further than the Kindle Fire HDX.

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