You might be thinking about picking up your pumpkins right now, but companies are already gearing up some fierce competition for your holiday gift dollars. With the new Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon is refreshing its play in the tablet world, with an eye toward smaller, reading-focused tablets such as the iPad mini and Nexus 7.
Amazon loaned The Washington Post a review unit of its most basic model: a 7-inch, 16 GB Kindle Fire with WiFi connectivity. Here’s how it stacks up:
Hardware: Physically, the Kindle Fire HDX is a major improvement over previous models. Amazon apparently took heed of earlier feedback about hardware, cutting a good deal of bulk from the tablet and making such changes as moving the volume and power buttons to more logical spots on the device. The Fire HDX also has angled edges that make it easier to hold the tablet with one hand or two hands.
Internally, the tablet has a faster processor that mostly eliminates the lag that affected older models, though I found its keyboard is still not as responsive as its competitors’. It’s still not a tablet I would choose for work — though Amazon is marketing the Fire HDX and its security features to businesses.
The screen is bright and crisp for video, and users get a 30-day free trial of Amazon’s Prime Service, which includes access to Prime Instant Video. The Fire is slightly easier to read in bright light (there’s been little direct sunlight to test in D.C. lately) than other tablets, such as the iPad mini. Those who want a dedicated reading device are still best off with an e-ink reader.
Software: Amazon has made some revamps to the tablet’s appearance (it looks a little more Apple, with the shape of its icons). But ,looks aside, the navigation here is designed to make it smoother to get from your most recent apps, to all your apps — and back. The effect, overall, is that it is easier to get from place to place on the tablet.
The firm’s Silk browser has also been improved, though it’s still not as smooth as Apple’s Safari or Google’s Chrome. But the redesign makes it easier to juggle multiple sites and move more quickly to most-used sites.
There’s also a new interface for Amazon shopping on the tablet, allowing consumers to save items they’re interested in buying without having to put them straight into their cars. Make no mistake, this tablet is designed to help Amazon sell its own goods.
Where the Fire continues to falls down, however, is in its app selection. Because Amazon uses its own version of Android, only a limited number of programs run on the Kindle. That’s fine if you’re using the tablet mostly to read, shop and watch video on Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime. But if you want to use the tablet for much more, you won’t have nearly as many choices as you would on other tablets.
Usability: There’s clearly been a lot of attention paid to making the Fire more intuitive. But if you still haven’t quite caught on, you can get help with in-device access to a customer service line by swiping down from the top of the screen and hitting the “Mayday” button. That will call up a customer service representative, live, on the screen.
The battery life projection from Amazon puts the tablet at over 11 hours of mixed use, with 17 hours of just reading. In the course of testing, the battery came in a under that — about nine hours of battery life with mixed use, while putting the tablet through its paces.
Other: The Fire HDX also hooks into the Amazon ecosystem. Users can link the books they read on the Kindle with other Amazon properties such as Goodreads or Audible. And, Amazon promises, Kindle Fire HDX owners will soon be able to shoot the video they’re watching on their tablets to their televisions, via partnerships with set-top box and console makers.
In terms of gripes, the smaller version of the tablet doesn’t have a rear-facing camera — though the larger version does — which means that video conferencing isn’t super-easy. The front-facing camera works fine for basic video and photos, but this is hardly going to become your primary shooter.
But the newest Fire has at least one real plus that’s not even part of the tablet — the Origami cover. Sold separately for $50 and up, the magnetic cover folds so that a user can pop a Kindle on it and rotate the Kindle in any direction without having to rearrange the fold. The cover also wakes up the tablet when it’s opened and pulled back and puts it to sleep when it’s placed back down over the screen. It would have been good to have the cover included with the tablet, of course, but it’s a nice addition if you have the $50 to spare.
Bottom line: The newest Kindle Fire HDX is Amazon’s strongest tablet to date, but is still best suited to Amazon’s most loyal customers — or those who want to become loyal Amazon customers. The tablet still doesn’t have the breadth of apps to compete with Apple, Google or Samsung offerings. If that doesn’t bother you, the price is a plus for the quality of hardware you get.
The base, 16 GB, WiFi tablet starts at $229. It also comes in 32 GB and 64 GB versions, and users have the option of adding LTE service with either AT&T or Verizon. Users can also choose to add $15 to the price of any of the tablets to opt out of Amazon’s “special offers” program, which displays certain discounts and ads on the device’s screen savers.
Amazon has given the tablet an Oct. 18 release date. According to Amazon’s Web site, however, orders placed now are expected to ship the week of Oct. 28.
(Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
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