Review: Amazon Fire HDX 8.9

Put the new Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 next to its predecessor, and good luck telling them apart. They’re identical: The same size, the same weight, the same screen, the same industrial design, the same nice $380 base price for the 16GB Wi-Fi version with lock-screen ads.

But the emperor is wearing new underwear. The changes may be invisible, but there wasn’t much (externally) that needed changing anyway. Just like the last one, this HDX’s 8.9-inch screen and 13.2-ounce weight feel just about right. And the 2014 HDX’s new components and features move the chains forward for Amazon’s flagship tablet, albeit in a subtle manner. It’s the poster child for our age of iterative upgrades.

Fresh off the flop that was the Fire Phone, it’s also a strong reminder that Amazon still makes very good devices. Book-sized devices—tablets and e-readers—are right in the company’s wheelhouse, and it makes sense because they match up with Amazon’s best digital content offerings. Amazon does books well, and they do video well, and they make hardware that delivers great experiences for both of them.

So other than the fact that Amazon dropped “Kindle” from the name, what’s new in the HDX 8.9? Well, it’s one of the first devices packing Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 805 system-on-a-chip. It offers swift and smooth performance thanks to its 2.5GHz quad-core CPU, 2GB RAM, and the Adreno 420 graphics processor. The 805 is a chip designed with 4K video in mind, so it’s surprising that the HDX doesn’t have a 4K screen or video capabilities. But the HDX is fast and fluid, and I never ran into an issue. It’s a great tablet for videos, games, and browsing the Web.

You might be disappointed that there’s no change in the screen. Upgrading the display is a no-brainer move from one tablet generation to the next, especially for the highest-end model in a company’s lineup. But once you feast your eyes on the screen, you’ll find nothing to complain about. Even with last year’s specs, the 2560 x 1600 (339ppi) LCD display is among the brightest, sharpest, and most-vivid in the tablet realm. Its pixel density still trumps that of the iPad Air 2 (264ppi), iPad Mini 3 (324ppi), and Nexus 9 (287ppi).

Coupled with that lovely display, Amazon Instant Video shines on the HDX, with fast-loading videos and the “X-Ray” feature showing IMDB info right there in the player. And the visuals are only half the story. The HDX also offers standout audio features—some that carry over from the previous HDX (top-notch stereo speakers) and some that are brand new (Dolby Atmos). The back-facing speakers are still among the best in the game; they’re crisp, nuanced, and loud. Even though they face backward, they’re never muffled. The speakers are positioned on a slight slant, keeping them firing upward even when they’re covered by the optional Origami case ($55 to $70).

The Dolby Atmos feature is new, and I had doubts about it. I was wrong. It sounds amazing. The logistics were what made me skeptical: In theaters, Atmos requires a grid of speakers above and around the audience, pumping audio from above, behind, and in front of the crowd to sync directional sounds with movie action. And while the HDX’s Atmos feature doesn’t match that theater experience, it’s still incredible. The tablet adds real depth and richness to sound, sharp highs, thundering lows, and a traveling effect. It’s like you’re listening to a 7.1 setup in a rich guy’s TV room, even when you’re using $20 earbuds.

It only works on headphones, and it does have limits. Dolby Atmos only works with movies that were mixed for Atmos, and there’s no “Mixed For Atmos” Amazon Instant Video section to help you find them. I searched for “Dolby Atmos” on Instant Video and found two short demo clips, but no full movies tagged as “Atmos.” That makes finding content for one of the HDX’s best features a pain; here’s hoping Amazon makes it easy to find Atmos-mixed movies.

Battery life and power management are excellent. In standby with the cover on, the HDX seemingly lasts forever—I left it alone for a week and the battery meter barely budged. There’s a new “Smart Suspend” feature that toggles Wi-Fi on and off based on your predicted usage times, connecting periodically to fetch email and other updates. Over the course of five days, using it for an hour or two every night, I only had to recharge it once. Amazon’s battery life quote of “12 hours mixed use” sounds conservative after using the HDX. If you’re binge-watching video, you should still get 9 to 10 hours of juice.

Along with Mayday, the 24/7 video-help service available on the tablet, the device offers the richest rewards for those who use Amazon’s array of services. It lets Amazon Prime members download many Amazon Instant Video movies to the tablet. Kindle e-reader owners can sync their book collection across devices. It’s also very easy to set your new tablet up with all the apps you had on your old one, as the ecosystem creates a cloud mirror of apps you’ve installed on other Amazon devices. There’s no-limit cloud storage for any photos you take with the HDX or any other Amazon device, but if you want to store pics taken with other devices, you get a free 5 gigs.

With the new KitKat-based Fire OS (“Sangria”), a few more incentives exist for those who dwell in the kingdom of Bezos. Some new features are available for users of the older HDX—version 4.1.1 of Fire OS was pushed out to the 2013 tablet, while version 4.5.1 now runs on the new HDX—while some are exclusive to the newer hardware. Everybody gets a sleeker look for the system fonts and icons and the Smart Suspend feature. And all the Fire OS 4 updates are supposed to add private browsing on the proprietary Silk browser, but strangely, I only found that option on the previous HDX running 4.1.1.

This presented a perfect opportunity to test Mayday, so I fired it up and relinquished control of my screen to my remote helper. I explained the issue: I could only find private browsing on my old tablet, not my new one. The polite assistant did a bit of digging, paused the chat to check on some particulars, and then rejoined the video chat to confirm that OS 4.5.1 didn’t have private browsing. I asked whether that was being added in a future update (she couldn’t say), added a follow-up question about Dolby Atmos, and we bid adieu. Mayday is a nice service, even if it can’t solve everything.

Despite the missing private mode, the new hardware has a few exclusive features. There’s a Family Library feature, which lets you share your purchased apps and content with another person. You’ll need to trust said person (and vice versa), because they’ll have access to your payment info. The HDX also supports multiple user profiles for the same tablet so that everyone gets their own apps and preferences. You can set up profiles for both adults and children, and parental control features can be activated if you’re sharing it with the kids.

The Firefly app, which debuted in the Fire Phone, is also part of the new HDX’s arsenal. You launch the app, point the HDX’s back-facing 8-megapixel camera at a product package, book cover, bar code, or logo, and Firefly sometimes recognizes it. It’ll add known objects to a running queue of things you can buy on Amazon, and it can use the tablet’s microphone to identify songs, movies, and TV shows. In my hands-on tests, it didn’t work perfectly, but it was magical when it worked. Sometimes it identified an older version of a product—the Parrot Zik 2.0 box was identified as the first-gen Ziks, and the Kindle Voyage was identified as the Kindle Paperwhite. Sometimes it registered a bar code without associating it with any product. My tests with TV shows and music worked much better, but a clip from Mr. Show repeatedly made Firefly crash.

There is a weak spot with the new HDX, and it’s a predictable one. While the tablet is an excellent piece of hardware for watching movies, surfing the Web, and playing games, you won’t find all your favorite iOS or Android apps in the cordoned-off halls of Amazon’s Appstore. Still, many major offerings are there (Netflix, Spotify, Pinterest, Pandora, Facebook, Twitter, HBO Go, Evernote, and plenty of games). But the most painful gaps are all the Google services: There’s no Gmail, no Google Maps, no Chrome, no Google Drive, no official YouTube app. You’re basically stuck with the HDX’s proprietary browser (Silk), maps, and email client. They’re fine, but Google’s options are better.

Add everything up, and you get an excellent, reasonably priced tablet for your lean-back multimedia horseplay. The HDX 8.9 looks great, feels great, sounds great, and performs great, even if it won’t bowl you over with bold new flavors.

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