23 November 2014

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) review

Key Features: Wi-Fi and 4G versions; 8.9-inch 2560 x 1600 resolution display; Quad-core Snapdragon 805 CPU; Family Sharing and Firefly support; Stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos Manufacturer: Amazon

What is the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014)?

2014's Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is an Android tablet that, on the surface, looks identical to the third-generation Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. The changes actually lie beneath the magnesium alloy surface.
Amazon's added a more powerful processor, Dolby Atmos-optimised speakers, faster Wi-Fi and the new Fire OS 4 operating system, which now includes the new Firefly software first introduced with the Amazon Fire phone.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) review

Priced at £329 for the 16GB model, it’s up against the likes of the Nexus 9 (£319), the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.4 (£319) and the first-generation iPad Air, which you can now pick up for around the same price. We were fans of the first HDX 8.9, but some of the software quirks still haven't been resolved in the 2014 model, meaning it's still a great device for video but not quite the premier Android tablet.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) – Design

If you sat last year’s Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and this year’s model side by side, like we did, you’d be hard pressed to find any changes. That’s because the two tablets are identical. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because Amazon was on the money the first time, especially with how comfortable it is to use for a larger tablet.

There’s the same black magnesium finish that’s now beginning to find its way onto Amazon’s range of e-readers like the Kindle Voyage. Amazon keeps things light without compromising on the impressive build quality. Staying at the same 374g for the Wi-Fi-only model, it’s still lighter than the iPad Air 2 (437g), and whether you use it in one hand or two hands, you're not going to find it a strain to hold for long periods.

Up front you'll find the same black bezel, while the back is still soft-touch plastic with a glossy black trim that has a habit of picking up greasy fingerprints. This is where you'll find three slightly concave buttons, which put the tablet in standby or adjust volume, sitting within easy reach when you're holding it landscape-wise. Cameras on both the front and rear sit up top, which again promotes more landscape use with the 8.9.

Around the trim, you’ll find the micro-USB charging port that's still a tight squeeze when fitting in the charging cable. The headphones socket's on the right and, for those hoping for HDMI and microSD card support, sadly you're out of luck again. It’s no real surprise here, though. If you want more storage then you're relying on Amazon's cloud storage service, and for mirroring content there's Miracast support plus the ability to throw content to the Amazon Fire TV streaming box, so it's not all bad.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) – Screen and Speakers

There’s no change to screen quality, either. It’s still an 8.9-inch IPS LCD panel with a 2560 x 1600 resolution and impressive 339ppi pixel density. That’s the same resolution as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 tablet, and while the Fire HDX 8.9 might lack the exceptional black levels and punchier colours you associate with an AMOLED display, this is still a gorgeous screen.

Testing it out with the steadily improving Amazon Instant Prime Video streaming service, video looks sharp, contrast performance really impresses and the colour accuracy, especially the trickier natural tones in faces, really impresses. The screen's also brighter than its predecessor's and viewing angles are strong as well. Crucially, there's no sign of the same blue tint that last year's 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX 7 tablet suffered from. This is largely down to Amazon’s decision to use blue LEDs instead of white LEDS in its displays to create what it claims is "100% sRGB colour accuracy."

Another feature that’s been added to the 8.9 is the inclusion of Dynamic Light Control. This was first seen on the HDX 7 and is a feature squarely aimed at making it more comfortable to tuck into your favourite Kindle ebooks, whatever the lighting conditions. It essentially adjusts the tone and colour of the pixels according to the ambient lighting. It’s something that’s difficult to notice, but we’d say that as a tablet for reading, it does a fine job – although it still struggles a little with glare outdoors.

Joining the pretty impressive display are arguably the best speakers on any tablet. If you're after depth, warmth and the audio qualities you’d want for watching films and flicking through YouTube videos, these will sate your aural appetite.

To increase its film-friendly credentials, Amazon's now added Dolby Atmos support. This won't make much difference when you're simply listening through the speakers, but when you plug in a pair of headphones you'll be able to appreciate the benefit of Atmos. It's a relatively recent phenomenon in surround sound technology that you can find in your local cinema. The aim is to create a better, more immersive sense of directional sound. So if a car's driving past in a scene or there's a sudden downpour of rain, it sounds like it's going past you or dropping from above.

Dolby Atmos is still not massively widespread and the films to use it in recent years include Godzilla, The Expendables 3 and Taken 2, which is currently available on Amazon Instant Prime video. We watched Liam Neeson's second outing as retired CIA agent Bryan Mills on the older third-generation Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and then on the fourth-gen 8.9, and we didn't really find any truly distinguishing differences in directional sound. There's surely going to be films that make better use of Atmos, so it's maybe nice to have as a future-proofing measure.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) – Software

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 runs on Amazon’s own Fire OS which is such a heavily skinned version of the Android operating system that it's barely recognisable from something like the Nexus 9. While Google goes for dessert-based names for its updates, Amazon is opting for a drinks theme instead – after Mojito we now have Sangria.

Again, it’s one of those operating systems that’s going to divide a lot of people. It’s becoming easier to use, even if you're not already locked into the Amazon ecosystem, but it certainly helps if you are. You do still have to make some compromises with elements of the software, such as a native web browser that's certainly not as slick as something like Chrome, and dealing with some high-profile omissions in the Amazon Appstore.

The new Fire OS 4 is built on top of Android 4.4.3 KitKat, and at a glance the UI hasn't been drastically overhauled. There’s still the main navigation bar at the top to take you into the different content sections, a stream of recently viewed content at the centre of the screen, and a line of apps at the bottom of the screen which, when swiped down, reveals the app tray.

Key features introduced with the last tablet, like Mayday, X-ray for movies and music and Freetime, are all still there. There's also Goodreads integration, the ASAP queuing feature taken from Fire TV and closer PS4 support so you can send content such as movies to Sony's next-gen console.

Icons and text appear smaller, but the biggest, most notable changes can be found inside the settings menu. You can now adjust font sizes and there’s new power-management features, so you can turn off wireless connectivity when you're not using the tablet or even schedule times to switch it off.

There’s bigger changes on the sharing front, too, with the new Family Library feature. This means you can now share books and other content bought through Amazon apart from music, film and TV programmes. Up to six people can take advantage of the Family Library, and it will work with other Kindle tablets and the Kindle Fire phone, as well as third-party tablets and phones that have the Amazon app installed.

If you're planning to do some work on the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, it's not really something it excels at in the same way that an iPad or something like the Surface Pro 3 does. What you do now get within the Docs section is the ability to create and edit documents and spreadsheets through its WPS Office software.

Doing that is made easier if you invest in the additional Bluetooth keyboard. It costs around the £20 mark from Amazon and is roughly the same size as the 8.9, with a similar soft-touch finish on the back. It’s very basic, with nice big keys and a rough-feeling trackpad. It offers decent travel and we managed to make notes for this review without any frustration of hitting the wrong keys. You'd need Amazon's origami case or a tablet stand to get the best typing experience, which does mean spending more money, of course.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) – Apps and Firefly

One of the most contentious aspects of Amazon’s Fire OS is the app support. The HDX 8.9, like the rest of Amazon’s tablet range, supports Android apps which are all accessed from Amazon’s own Appstore. What that means is you're not getting the same catalogue of content you can find in Google Play. It's getting better, but it's unbelievable to think there's still not an official YouTube app.

Comparing the top 10 best sellers in the Google Play store and the Amazon Appstore, most were present aside from Worms 3 and a slightly more expensive version of Goat Simulator. It’s £3.07 on the AppStore, in case you were wondering.

On the native application front, Amazon doesn't pack in a lot of bloatware. There's a pretty standard email app, along with one for the weather and a calendar. Then there's Firefly. First seen on the Amazon Fire phone, this is a feature where you can scan items using the tablet's rear camera to find out product information or additional details. It also works with music and TV programmes and will help you to purchase them through the Amazon shopping portal.

It sounds like a fun feature, if not something entirely new, but at the moment it simply doesn't work. While it managed to identify an episode of The Big Bang Theory and lead us to more information about the episode on IMDb, it failed to recognise an episode of Family Guy and actually thought a Tefal iron was a kettle.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) – Performance

Powering the Fire HDX 8.9 is a new 2.5GHz Snapdragon 805 processor with an Adreno 430 GPU to ramp up its gaming prowess, although it has the same 2GB of RAM as its predecessor. That gives it roughly the same specs as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The first HDX 8.9 was by no means slow, and while there's some slight improvements for gaming, it's much the same everywhere else.

Running it side by side with last year's Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, there’s not a discernible difference in the way it handles everyday tasks. Apps launch swiftly and there’s no lag when you're swiping through homescreens or rifling through settings from the notification bar.

The benchmark suggests there’s a greater gap between this year’s and last year’s tablet. In a Geekbench 3 multi-core test, the 2014 edition scores a 3169, while the last generation manages a still impressive 2771. In reality and away from the numbers, this is up there with the best for overall performance.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) – Camera

If you have to be that person who takes photos with a tablet, then the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is well equipped. The front-facing camera shoots 720p HD, while the 8-megapixel main camera has an LED flash and is capable of Full HD 1080p video recording. For a tablet camera, it actually performs reasonably well.

Whether indoors or outdoors, you do still get some image noise in the background, but colours are decent even it lacks the kind of sharpness or detail you get with top-end smartphone cameras. It has the same camera modes as the third-generation 8.9, so you'll get an HDR mode and the ability to take panoramic photos.

Overall image quality is more than suitable for sharing over Facebook and Twitter, if that's what you're mostly going to use it for.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) – Battery Life

With all the changes underneath the magnesium alloy surface, Amazon claims around the same 11 hours as the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX, and 18 hours if you're only planning to read ebooks on it.

In general use it more than meets that target. As long as you're not delving too much into video streaming and don't have that screen on full blast continually, you can get up towards that mark. You can get more if you tap into the power-management settings, which aren't as comprehensive as you’ll find on, for instance, Sony’s tablets, but they will still help push things a little further.

In more intensive testing, running Dark Knight Rises downloaded from the Amazon Prime Instant Video at 50 per cent brightness, you can get to around the 10-hour mark, which might not be best in class, but it still makes a good showing.

Disappointingly, despite having a Snapdragon 805 processor, which supports quick-charge technology, it’s clearly not included here. You do have the option of investing in Amazon’s 9W PowerFast Adapter but that still takes around five hours to get up to a full charge.

Should I buy the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014)?

The 2014 Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, much like last year’s model, is a great tablet for entertainment. That's really where it excels. It ticks those all-important boxes you want in a larger tablet as well: it’s light and comfortable to use, has fantastic speakers and a gorgeous screen.

Is it the best 9-inch tablet available? We’d be inclined to say no. That’s largely down to some of the quirks with an improving operating system that’s primary intention is to sell you things. First-time tablet users will find it a more daunting place than an iPad or a tablet running pure Android.

If you want a tablet that’s made for movies and ebooks, then this is a good fit. For something that offers a good balance of productivity and entertainment features, you're better off aiming for last year's now similarly priced first-generation iPad Air or the slightly cheaper Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 (£319).


The new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 sticks with much of the same great hardware but with a few improvements that make it a fantastic tablet for video and reading. Its only downfall is an operating system that still needs some fine-tuning.

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