Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Review: Good News and Bad News

Comfort. That's what the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 has over everything else. It's by far the most comfortable tablet to hold, and to read and watch movies on. But to be the full-fledged iPad and Nexus competitor we're hoping for, it needs to be more than just another pretty face.

Why It Matters

It costs $300. That makes the 8.9-inch Fire HD the cheapest full-size tablet, and therefore at the top of a lot of shopping lists for the holidays. Many, many people will own this by the end of the year whether it's any good or not. They're hoping for good.

Design

This is the perfect size for a full-size tablet. It's just more comfortable to hold than the 10-inch slates it's up against. Holding it one-handed in portrait mode, especially, is more comfortable than it is with the Nexus 10 or iPad, thanks of the smaller size and lighter weight combined with the same spacious bezel. It's got a rubberized back that will be familiar if you've used a 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, twin speakers placed on either side of the tablet while in landscape mode, which is how you'd want them for watching movies.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Review: Good News and Bad News

It doesn't quite have the industrial polish of the iPad or the Nexus 10, but it's still a handsome tablet. Its optional case, though, while identical to the 7-inch Fire HD's—which we liked—just seems too bulky for a larger tablet. You'll prefer to keep it undressed.

Using It

For a tablet as drop-dead identical to the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD as this 8.9-inch version is, using it can feel remarkably different. And it's not just the physical size; it's the change in expectations between using a cheap little tablet and something bigger—and pricier.

The 8.9-inch Fire HD runs on the same Kindle OS as its little brother, but apps load much faster here thanks to the former's zippier OMAP 4470 processor. The Mail app is a little less cramped, too. But that's about all the improvement you'll see from the Kindle OS here. (For a full rundown on all the Kindle OS qualities and quirks, check the review for the 7-inch model.)

Otherwise, the larger screen just exaggerates Amazon's Android skin flaws. Its version of multitasking is still just a mishmash of a Favorites button and the rotating content carousel home screen. There are still no notifications for incoming email (strange, but tested with multiple accounts)—not even badges or notification center alerts—despite the gigantic Mail app icon sitting on the home screen. And the limited selection of Android apps is still a gigantic pain, as is their lagginess compared to their base Android counterparts.

Those are flaws you can forgive a cheap 7-inch tablet if you're just using it as a reader or movie viewer. But it's harder to accept them in a larger, more expensive, more capable tablet. It's the same software, sure. But when you stretch it out, you start to pull apart the seams.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Review: Good News and Bad News

Like

The size and build are pretty close to ideal. It doesn't reach the high points of an iPad or Nexus 10, but it's a solid piece of gear at a super low (starting) price. There's also a noticeable speed boost from the Fire HD 7; the 7-inch regularly took 5+ seconds to open large HD movies, while the 8.9-inch does it in about 2 seconds flat. That's impressive. Sound is just as strong on the 8.9-inch Fire HD as it is on the 7-inch, which is to say the best on a tablet, and better than most laptops. And of course, Amazon still has the biggest and best ecosystem this side of Apple.

Then there's the screen. The 8.9's 1920x1200 254ppi IPS display sits just behind the iPad's 264ppi, and well back of the Nexus 10's 300ppi. But you'd probably only notice a large difference if you shove your nose up against the glass, especially since a lot of Android apps aren't updated for the super HD resolutions just yet. What you do notice is that it's not quite as bright as the Nexus 10, but its contrast is a little less eyeball-meltingly white. That might make it sound like color accuracy is inferior on the Fire, but it's actually much easier to stare at for extended periods of time.

You'll appreciate the display especially if you're a magazine subscriber or comic book reader. You can read comics in full screen here—even notoriously oversized and difficult-to-fit-on-a-screen volumes like Alan Moore's From Hell or Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum—in totally reasonable clarity. The drop down to 8.9 inches doesn't cramp your reading space in any meaningful way. This might be the perfect comic book reader.

And for what it's worth, the Fire HD beat out the Nexus 10 on Wi-Fi speed tests by a little under 5Mbit/s over five tests on the same network.

No Like

It's still the software. The entire Kindle OS feels like a longwinded workaround. Yes, it is noticeably faster here than it was on the Fire HD 7. But its sore spots are a whole lot sorer, too.

Then there are the little things that add up. Text is displayed a little smaller by default than on the iPad or Nexus 10. That's not a huge deal, since the screen is very good and can take it, but it's a noticeable difference that might leave you squinting. Like the 7-inch Fire HD, the volume and power buttons are too flush with the side of the tablet, making them a giant pain to find. The 8.9 also gets just as warm as an iPad 3 when playing games or, sometimes, streaming movies, which isn't a huge deal, but something to consider if you plan to use it for long stretches.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Review: Good News and Bad News

Should You Buy This

It's not that the 8.9-inch Fire HD isn't a bargain. It is. But at $300, you're halfway from a $200 7-inch tablet to the $400 Jellybean 4.2 Nexus 10. And if you're looking for a full sized tablet that can multitask and run any Androidy thing you want, that's probably a better deal for you. It's not quite cheap enough to take a flier on, and not quite good enough to win on merits.

But! If you're specifically looking for something to read comic books or magazines, and that's more or less it, then holy crap, this is an amazing deal and you should get one immediately. All three of you.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch Specs

Processor: Dual-core 1.5GHz OMAP4470
Storage: 16GB/32GB for Wi-Fi-only; 32GB/64GB for LTE
Display: 8.9-inch IPS 1920x1200
Audio: Dolby Audio, dual stereo speakers
Network: 4G LTE (AT&T), dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi