Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch review: Third time's the charm

Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch review: Third time's the charm

Considerable hardware and software improvements make Amazon's third attempt one of the best content-consumption tablets around.

The Kindle Fire HDX comes in 7-inch and 8.9-inch models.

The Kindle Fire HDX comes in 7-inch and 8.9-inch models.

The Kindle Fire HDX is magnificently focused on content. When critics describe other tablets as "content focused," the term is intended to be slightly demeaning, as though the device were good for little more than turning pages and watching videos. When applied to the HDX, however, the term is indicative of a design that targets a specific kind of tablet user and is eager to make them very, very happy.

Available in big (8.9-inch) and little (7-inch) editions, Amazon's tablet runs a world-class mobile operating system based on Android 4.2.2. Okay, technically, Amazon calls the OS "FireOS 3.0" and the canonical source of Android apps for the Fire is Amazon's own app store, not Google Play. But unlike the mobile operating systems of certain other Seattle-area tech giants I could name, Amazon's has a good, if not epic, collection of games and productivity apps.

The company has also beefed up the Fire's enterprise-sturdiness with immediate or imminent support for remote device management, Kerberos authentication, native VPN, and other goodies of extreme interest to IT departments. The Silk Web browser is certainly adequate, and the mail client (derived from Android's) is as good as anything you'll find on any other tablet.

Duly noted. But all that stuff misses the point of the Fire HDX, which is to provide the best tablet for consuming books, music, and video.

Improvements everywhere you look

The HDX is the third generation of the Fire. The chunkiness of the original is gone, gone, gone, replaced with angled lines that echo the edges of the original Kindle. It's thin, but it's substantial enough that you can easily maintain a grip on its slightly textured plastic body. And it's comfortably light. The 8.9-inch model in particular feels more like a pad of paper than a tablet computer. Neither version feels cheap in any way.

Thankfully, Amazon has corrected the worst element of last year's design. The power and volume buttons that were recessed and hard to find are now embossed on the back of the device and easy to locate by feel.

A new origami-style case adds to the bulk, but it's a terrific design. Magnets inside the folding cover allow you to fold it back around for reading, or to click it into landscape or portrait tabletop mode, with your choice of two angles. And unlike the iPad's Smart Cover, it won't pop off when it shouldn't: The Fire clicks into a stub and remains held in place by more magnets.

The 8.9-inch Fire wasn't available for review, but I've had the 7-inch edition for nearly a week now. I'm pleased to see major improvements to the device's screen. Overall, it's brighter and easier to read outside. I'll take Amazon at its word when it says the screen is 100 percent sRGB accurate; all I can say is that the result is a noticeable improvement over last year's Fire HD.

The screen of the 7-inch HDX is a super-detailed 1920 by 1200 at 323 ppi; the 8.9-inch version is 2560 by 1600, 339 ppi. Watching movies on the 7-inch HDX is a pleasure, once you get past the distraction of seeing every flyaway strand of hair on the head of every actress in close-ups.

A major complaint of mine remains: inconsistency in the display's illumination. The iPad's screen is the same paper-white in every dimension. The 7-inch Fire HDX dims a bit at the very edges of the display. The effect is barely noticeable, and it's evident only when the screen is full white. But "white screens" are not by any means an unusual circumstance on a device that works so well as a book reader, you know?

The bass and the stereo separation of the speakers inside this 7-inch tablet are impressive. In casual desk use next to my laptop, the audio was loud and clear enough that getting out of my chair and fetching a Bluetooth speaker didn't seem worth the bother.

Faster, smoother, and longer battery life

Inside, both the 8.9-inch and 7-inch Fire HDX have a new Snapdragon 800 CPU running at 2.2GHz, plus 2GB of RAM (double the previous edition). Those components, in addition to the FireOS development team's aggressive work to improve the device's graphics pipeline, have virtually eliminated the latency issues that plagued the UI of previous Fires. Scrolling is smooth, controls respond immediately, and even when the Fire HDX is playing 1080p HD video with graphical overlays, the device feels snappy.

Battery life is excellent. In mixed use, it took me about 6 hours to run the battery down to 50 percent. The book-reader app is optimized for CPU power consumption and RAM access. I made 2 hours of progress into Infinite Jest, and if my math is right, the Fire HDX consumed about 35 percent less power in doing so than last year's model.

The 7-inch HDX has a front-facing 720p HD camera for video chat and stills. The 8.9-inch model also has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that takes "smartphone-quality" pictures, given the understanding that the "smartphone" isn't a Lumia 1020 or even an iPhone 5s.

These are all features that can be compared against the iPad, the Galaxy Note, or the Nexus 7. But it's the HDX's relationship with its content that truly sets it apart from the competition.

Content at the center of everything

After spending several days with the Fire HDX, I have to say that it no longer makes any sense that the iPad forces you to launch an app before letting you read a book. Why doesn't it present me with a carousel of all of the books, movies, music, documents, and photos I've been using, in chronological order, as the Fire does? I tap a book cover, and I neither know nor care what app is launching; I just start reading, which was the intent behind my tap.

Acquiring content is as easy as you would imagine it to be on a device made by a store and sold at only slightly above cost. FireOS offers blessedly clear organization of content on your device, content you own in Amazon's cloud, and content that you can discover and buy either through a search or because it's related to something you already have.

The advantages of consuming content on the Fire HDX go beyond "buying and then playing/reading." Amazon has come up with an answer to the question "How can we improve the user's enjoyment of books, music, and video?" and the answer is far more impressive than adding storage or throwing in a sharper screen. It's a feature called X-Ray.

A deeper look at your books, movies, and music

In a sense, X-Ray is an attempt to anticipate every question you might have about the content you're enjoying and to answer it on your device, without making you open a Web browser.

X-Ray makes the HDX an ideal medium for watching a movie. Say you're watching the musical 1776 and a familiar face and voice make their first appearance. You wonder if maybe that's Phil Hartman. Tap the screen, and a sidebar opens with thumbnail portraits of every person in that scene, the character names, and the names of the actors. (Nope, that's Donald Madden playing John Dickinson).

If you don't choose to dismiss the sidebar, it will update, scene by scene, as actors enter and leave. They're singing a song? Here's the title (and why, yes, it's available for purchase from you-know-where). What other movies has Donald Madden been in...?

Thousands of movies and TV shows have been marked up with real-time information from IMDb. You can even pull up real-time trivia and goofs, which is probably the only way to get yourself through another viewing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with your kids.

Yes, in irresponsible hands, this arrangement could lead to a hideously distracted viewing experience. But I'm often dipping into the Internet to look for exactly this sort of information when I watch movies--including "What song is that, and where can I buy it?"--so I love this feature. I wish it were built into my cable box, provided that I could turn the feature off as easily as I can on the HDX.

When you're reading an X-Ray-enhanced book, the Fire will rebrief you on a character who suddenly turns up again after 11 chapters, and it will also explain that in this particular context "The War of the Roses" refers to the civil wars of Medieval England and not the Michael Douglas--Kathleen Turner movie. Music tracks are embellished with song lyrics; you can follow along as the song plays, search for keywords, and cue to specific lines.

If you have Amazon Instant Video on a compatible TV or game console, you can "flick" the movie to the TV, and then the two devices will work together. The TV will take up the streaming duties from that point in the movie, and the screen of the HDX will become dedicated to displaying X-Ray content.

The list of compatible hardware is sparse at this writing (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and certain Samsung sets), but as Amazon surely planned, X-Ray-enhanced video encourages me to buy more movies from the Amazon store.

Next-generation support at the touch of a button

The HDX has another cool trick: a Genius Bar in every device. If you need some coaching on the use of your Fire HDX or if you can't get something to work, just tap the Mayday button in the Fire HDX's systemwide status bar. Within 14 seconds (Amazon's target), a floating window pops up and connects you to live one-way video chat with an Amazon advisor.

You can see and hear the representative. They can hear you and see your screen. Ask any question, and they'll walk you through the answer, either by "telestrating" your screen or by taking over your device and doing the job directly.

This is an exceptional feature, once you get past certain instinctive "ick" privacy concerns. The advisor can't see you. The feature can be initiated only by you, and you can terminate the connection at any time.

But what if you need help attaching a photo to an email message? Must the advisor see those bathtime photos of your kids? No; you can ask the representative to cut the video and then wait for acknowledgment inside the chat window. Okay, but why should the user have to ask? The chat window ought to have a button that shutters the screencast portion of the chat instantly, on demand.

Mayday seems to work well, though obviously I'm using the system before it's available to millions of consumers worldwide. Amazon already has an international support network in place (if you don't speak English, they've got you covered), and it already has huge network capacity.

Amazon's unique value proposition

As an abstract piece of hardware, the Kindle Fire HDX is impressive, particularly at the prices Amazon is charging. The version I used is just $229 for a 7-inch screen and 16GB of storage. The 8.9-inch version is a tasty $379 in the same configuration. Adding storage (up to 64GB) and LTE (through AT&T or Verizon in the United States) costs extra, of course. Both are available for preorder today; the 7-inch will ship October 18 and the 8.9-inch on November 7.

They become more interesting when you look at X-Ray and their other unique content-driven features. Then you go and reread the added benefits of your $79-a-year Amazon Prime membership. It gives you free two-day shipping on your orders, but it's also a subscription content service. You get streaming access to 41,000 movies and TV shows. A Fire device can download many of these titles for offline playback. You also have a "lending library" of 350,000 Kindle books, also available offline.

The iPad has a huge content library of its own, but it also suffers from lock-in problems. The digital movies and books you purchase from Amazon are DRM-protected just like the stuff from the iTunes Store, but Amazon doesn't limit you to playing them only on Amazon-brand hardware.

The Fire HDX has two weaknesses. First, it's not a truly international product like the iPad (the Coca-Cola of tablets). Second, although you'll find plenty of games and productivity apps in Amazon's Android app store, the exclusion of Google Play makes it a second-class citizen in the world's second-best mobile app marketplace.

Bottom line

The 7-inch HDX is better competition to like-sized iOS and Android counterparts than the 8.9-inch model is to its own. Consumers shopping for a smaller tablet are more likely to be buying it as a content device, which plays straight into the Kindle Fire HDX's considerable strengths.

There's another shoe waiting to drop: a likely iPad refresh. I don't expect to see Apple lower the price of the 16GB iPad mini below its current $329. For the life of me, I don't know what Apple could do to enhance the iPad mini to make me recommend it over the Fire HDX, provided that the person asking my advice had little interest in productivity or gaming. A 7-inch Fire HDX will give you a superior content experience and leave $100 in your pocket--which you can spend on books, music, and movies.

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