Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

We loved the Kindle Fire HDX. It's faux-Android wrapped up in a budget body so beautiful you'll learn to stop worrying and love the forked OS. Now its big brother, the HDX 8.9, is here with the same flavor of lovely in a stretched-out package.

Update: In October 2014, Amazon released a new version of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 with an updated processor and a few other small tweaks. The differences are subtle enough that our review of the 2013 version (which originally ran on 11/06/13) still stands, so what follows is that initial review with clearly marked additions where it matters. After all, it's not like you can get the old Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 anymore.

What Is It

A $380, 8.9-inch tablet grafted directly to Amazon's vast collection of books and movies. A beautiful screen on (roughly) the same body we loved so much on the Kindle Fire HDX. A monster movie machine. Light as hell.

Who Is It For

People who are into watching movies, reading comics and magazines and books, but who also want to send some email and look at Twitter now and then. Folks who aren't content with a puny 7-inch screen and want something a bit bigger. Anyone who wants a good, solid, living-room second screen.

Design

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is, at a glance, just a bigger version of the 7-inch HDX. And that's great, because we love that thing. There are a couple of subtle design differences worth noting though. Where the HDX's angles were sharp and its body a bit thick, the HDX 8.9 is considerably slimmer and the slanted rear angles curve into the flat back without the same kind of definition. The edges are better when they are sharper (i.e on the 7-inch) but this is fine too.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

At barely more than three quarters of a pound (13.2 ounces), the HDX 8.9 is light. Absurdly light. Dumb light. It makes the already featherweight one-pound iPad Air feel like it's made out of lead by comparison. Yes, the HDX 8.9 is smaller and has a smaller display than the iPad Air or other real 10-inch tabs, which gives it a weight advantage, but it's easily the most surprisingly light tablet I've laid hands on.

Update: But I haven't laid hands on the iPad Air 2.

The Kindle Fire HDX 7's 1920x1200 323 PPI screen was terrific, but the 8.9's 2560x1600 339 PPI screen is better. Demonstrably better than anything other large tablet out there. The guts powering it are the same as on the HDX though; a quadcore 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 with a bonus Adreno 330 GPU to back it up.

Update: Since 2013 the landscape has changed a little bit. The iPad Air 2 has a killer new display, but also Samsung's Galaxy Tab S showed up to snag the "best in class" award. The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9's screen is still great, but the competition has grown up. At least the new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 rocks a Snapdragon 805, and is still damn peppy.

Other than those mostly minor differences, the design is virtually identical to the 7-inch HDX. That includes things we love (the inspired placement of the fantastic speakers) and things we like a little less (the weirdly recessed buttons). There's also an 8MP 1080p camera with an LED flash on the back now, but I urge caution in using tablets to take pictures because it makes you look stupid. Nice to have the option though.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

Using It

From a software standpoint, using the HDX 8.9 is functionally identical to using the HDX. The subtle changes to Fire OS that made the HDX way more of a "real" tablet are present and welcome in the 8.9 version. As is Amazon's new "Mayday" video-chat call line.

What's most surprising about the step up in size is just how little it changes the experience. Considering the 8.9 is like, full-sized tablet big, you'd expect it to be hard to one-hand in landscape mode, but thanks to this thing's incredible (lack of) weight, it's actually almost kinda-sorta reasonable! And gripping it in portrait mode for reading on the go (dangerous but fun!) is an absolute cinch. All the joy of a bigger screen, but without (much) extra bulk.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

When it comes to screen quality, it's worth reiterating that the HDX 8.9 has the best one out there. But while it's got the highest pixel density of any tablet so far [Update: No longer true!], at a certain point a retina screen is a retina screen; you're not going to notice that much of a difference with the naked eye. That said, movies and TV are still utterly fantastic on the HDX 8.9, especially if you have Amazon Prime at your disposal. It helps that the sound from the speakers is, as on the 7-inch HDX, some of the best we've ever heard on a tablet.

Update: The new Kindle Fire 8.9 HDX ups its speaker game even further, with the addition of Dolby Atmos sound. Right off the bat the new HDX sounds great, but I couldn't hear what the Atmos was really supposed to add over the blaring sound of tablet speakers that were already above and beyond pretty much anything else out there. Basically the new HDX sounds freaking great, but any improvement over the previous version seems subtle at best; it was already great.

Even with the bigger screen, the HDX 8.9 still zips along like a hero. The app carousel and all its swipey glory is still present and lovely. And when it comes to games, the 8.9 could handle Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, Temple Run, and everything else we threw at it just fine. The Snapdragon 800 in this sucker is not weighed down by the excess pixels. Scrolling, gaming, swiping through your library, everything is a pleasure on this bad boy. And you can do it for a while too. With our standard Nyan Cat battery test, we pushed the 8.9 to just under the 12 hours of advertised life. And like the 7-inch, the 8.9 also boasts battery-saving extra low power states, which means that if you stay in reading mode, you can squeeze some 18 hours of life out of this thing.

Oh and that camera on the back? It takes nice photographs, if you insist on using your giant tablet as a camera. And the built-in camera app even has some neat and dumb features to let you play with your stupid pictures. Here's a photo of my phone as a badass pirate king who is cooler than the both of us.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

Thanks, Kindle!

Update: It's not included, but the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 now has an optional Bluetooth keyboard, ostensibly so you can use the tab to get some work done. Unfortunately, it sucks. Its short, short, short-thow keys are near impossible to touch type on, and while it's very thin, it also feels very fragile, like it might snap in half. It's like the crummy first version of the Surface Type keyboard, without even the felt to give it a little charm. It can magnetically attach to the back of Amazon's folding Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 origami case, but that's not worth much. You'd be much better off throwing a standard Amazon Basics bluetooth keyboard in your bag.

Software

Like the 7-inch HDX before it, the 8.9 comes with Amazon's brand new version of forked Android, Fire OS 3.0. Historically the Kindle Fire UI has centered around a carousel. An album-flow of books, movies, apps, and whatever else you've got. It still does, but with Fire UI 3.0 you can swipe up and get at a more traditional app drawer.

Update: The new HDX comes hand-in-hand with a new version of Amazon's Android fork, Fire OS. This version—Fire OS 4 aka "Sangria"—is built on Android 4.4 KitKat, and comes complete with handy upgrades like better performance, multi-account support for family tablets with a bevy of users, the Firefly app (from Amazon's Fire Phone), and free unlimited cloud storage for photos. Everything we liked about Fire OS 3 (below) still holds true, but the new version is definitely better, if mostly in subtle ways.

The one big addition comes in the form of WPS Office (formerly known as Kingsoft Office). This offers some pretty basic word processing and spreadsheet functionality that I've found to be roughly on par with something like Google Docs. Nothing exciting, but considering Fire OS is Google App-less, it's a necessary addition. On top of that, you've got some little tweaks like private browsing in Amazon's Silk browser, and the "ASAP" tech found in Fire TV that attempts to predict the stuff you'll want to stream and caches it for you.

Everything I said about Fire OS 3 still holds true though.

Here's a GIF from our 7-inch HDX review that is still very indicative:

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

Previously, the Kindle Fire UI had sort of buckled under a heavy load of apps. Not in a processing power way (though sometimes also that), but organizationally. It's been like a backpack as opposed to a desktop; the more you put in the harder it is to get something out.

But with this new app drawer option, apps get much, much easier to access on a whim. Before your apps drawer was accessible mainly by tapping "Apps" on the top ribbon of categories, where it lived on equal footing with things like "Audiobooks" and "Newsstand." Now, apps are getting a dedicated place to shine right on the home screen, where they belong.

And, like a grown-up OS, Fire 3.0 has multitasking that lets you switch not only between apps, but also books! It's content-level, so multiple books don't all get shoved under the same "books" app, which is smart. This isn't quite as game-changing as the app drawer thing, but still, it's a step towards feeling more like a grown-up tablet.

Fire UI still has some deficiencies of its own, though. Notifications from any and all apps accumulate as a mere number in the top notification bar, with no sort of more informative pop-up. You'll just see a "1" or a "2" or whatever, and have no idea what they are until you pull down. It's minor, but annoying. And not something you want in your main tablet if you are a Busy Person with Lots of Things to Attend To. Features like threaded email have made it to Fire UI 3.0, but in a way that makes them seem like they are a second priority. Most likely because they are.

Also just like on the 7-inch HDX, Mayday—the new Kindle Fire video chat support line—works exactly as advertised. Just like last time, I clicked the button and within maybe five seconds I was talking to a lovely fellow, who—after confirming my email for security reasons—began to draw on my screen for me and move his avatar around. It was kind of magical. But even though Mayday doesn't activate your camera, there's something about it that's unnerving. They can't see you, but you'll still feel watched.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Review: Bigger Is Still Beautiful (Updated)

The arrow was him. The pixellation was me; it just seemed polite.

This time around, with the Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch already out in the wild, Mayday is probably under more stress than it was the last time we tested it. Still, my experience was—again—nothing but pleasant, and hopefully yours will be too (if you ever have to use it in the first place).

And that's the thing; Mayday isn't necessary for gadget freaks, or even anyone who's literate in modern-day touch UI. But it's nice to know that the luddites in your life have someone else to call, someone more convenient and ostensibly more helpful than you are.

Xray for music is another welcome addition on the software side, if not an utterly crucial one. You probably don't need to be able to scan through the entire lyrics of a song, scrubbing back and forth in the audio by clicking the words, but it sure is fun. And unlike Xray for movies, which is a valuable source of trivia, and Xray for books, which can be a life-saver for difficult literature, Xray for music is just sort of a toy. Nice when you remember that it's there, but you'll often forget.

Like

Movie and TV-watching on the HDX 8.9 is a revelatory as it is on the 7-inch. Between the beautiful screen (if it's playing high-quality content, e.g. Prime or anything hi-res and native) and the booming sound, you'll find yourself wondering why you bother with a TV. Especially now that the screen is even prettier and larger than the 7-inch.

The overall scrolling, swiping, selecting, and browsing experience on the HDX 8.9 is just as fantastic as it was on the smaller version. Of course part of that is thanks to the 2.2 GHz processor new 2.7 GHz Processor but Fire UI's new Jellybean 4.2.2 KitKat 4.4 skeleton also helps. Unlike 2.0, Fire UI 3.0 is post-Project Butter, Google's big initiative to make stock Android fast, smooth, and then more fast, and more smooth. It shows. Fire UI is by its very nature heavy on swipes and bounces, and they all feel good. That consistent ability to do stuff smoothly and without stutters translates to the world of apps too; the Kindle Fire HDX can run just about anything app you can throw at it and run it well.

Update: Like I mentioned above, the new HDX runs Fire OS 4, which generally improves on everything we liked about 3. Also the new Snapdragon 805 means the performance is still silky smooth, but frankly there wasn't much room for improvement. This is just keeping it up there for another year.

Like the 7-inch before it, the 8.9 is one solid tablet. And goddamn is it light. Did we mention it's light. It's light.

No Like

One of our main beefs with the 7-inch HDX (which still persists in the 8.9 version) is the lack of Google apps. Admittedly that's not so much a flaw as it is a choice we're not exactly fond of. But it's a choice that comes with a lot of consequences. The Amazon App Store has better selection than it used too—most big players are there—but it's still cut off from the greater Android world in some meaningful ways. Apps you've already purchased through the Play Store (if any), do not transfer over to a Kindle Fire HDX. App updates pushed out over the Play Store have to come through Amazon before a Kindle gets ahold of them.

It's probably easiest not to think of the Kindle Fire as an Android tablet at all; Fire OS is forked so strongly, it's an entirely different experience, with its own rules and, yes, its own apps. The fact that it shares anything with Android at all is more just a bonus than an integral part of what the Fire UI aims to be.

On top of that, you don't get access to increasingly killer Google services like Google Now, or Voice Search, and there's no account-syncing between devices like there is when you're strapped into pure Google. It's the price you pay for choosing Amazon.

Should You Buy It

Probably not, or at least not yet. At $380 (16GB, special offers) the 8.9 is a steal versus the comparable $500 iPad Air; the 8.9 is cheaper, lighter, has a better screen, and is almost as big. But hold on. Hooooold on.

The 8.9 is not a slam dunk against the upcoming $400 retina iPad mini, a tablet that will offer roughly similarish screen quality, a barely smaller screen, premium hardware, and a way more robust ecosystem for just $20 more than the comparable HDX 8.9. For just $6 more than the comparable HDX 8.9 if you pay the extra $14 it costs to remove special offers. And the iPad mini is right around the corner. You can hold your breath for the reviews, but from everything we know so far, it's going to be the better deal by a fair margin.

The Kindle Fire HDX is a wonderful device. It has a great screen, a good processor; it's light as a feather, it's a pleasure to hold. This is a good tablet and worth its price tag. But there are almost certainly better deals on the horizon.

Update: Not only is the retina iPad Mini great, it's now cheaper because the iPad mini 3 came out (also the iPad mini 3 is a bad deal and you should not buy it). The extra knife in the HDX 8.9's side is that the Nexus 9, a 8.9-inch stock Android tablet is on the way too, complete with a $400 price-point and a keyboard case of its own. Front-facing speakers even!

Wait for the reviews, but I can't imagine this little Fire OS tablet, nice as it is, can stand up to the competition of a stock Android one at the same(ish) price. The Nexus 9 is almost sure to be the better bet if you like Android at all, or even if you just like Google services. Or even if you just like apps. If not, then the original retina iPad mini is your tablet. The new HDX 8.9 is nice, but it brings very little new to the table and it's outclassed on all sides.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Specs (Updated)

Processor: 2.2 2.7 GHz Quad-core Snapdragon 800 805
Display: 8.9-inch IPS LCD
Resolution: 2560x1600 (339 PPI)
Memory: 2GB
Storage: 16GB/32GB/64GB
OS: Fire OS 3, based on Android 4.2.2 Fire OS 4, based on Android 4.4
Camera: 720p Front Cam, 8MP 1080p Rear Cam
Networking: WiFi (5GHz MIMO)
Weight: 13.2 ounces
Dimensions: 9.1" X 6.2" X 0.31"
Price: $380/$430/$480 + $100 for 4G LTE + $15 to remove ads