The new Kindle Fires are here. And they're pretty damn impressive. The Kindle Fire HDX, in 7- and 8.9-inch models, has improved the screen, processor, RAM, software, and body of last year's Fire HD. And that's before you get to the insane new tech support feature Amazon dreamed up. But is that enough for the Fire to shake its rep as the "cheap" tablet? Maybe.
After a little hands-on time, they're fast (so much faster than last year's), light, well-made, and come close to reaching the ideal Amazon set out in front of itself last year: Premium products at non-premium prices. They are still, however, somewhat of an acquired taste.
The first thing to notice about the Fire HDX line is the price. The entry level 7-inch model is $230. The 8.9-inch is $380. They go to $330 and $480 with LTE. That's a lot, but tempered by the fact that a remodel of last year's Fire HD is available at $140—basically the price of a regular Kindle Paperwhite.
At times, last year's Fire felt like it was a mix of boutique and bargain bin parts. Not this time. This time around, there's very little by way of hardware to knock the Fire HDX on.
Before we get into the under-the-hood improvements, though, let's take a minute to appreciate the sitting-on-the-hood-wearing-a-speedo remodel of the tablets themselves. They're, erm, trapezoidal. It's probably a stretch to call them beautiful, but they are pleasant enough to look at, and feel absolutely solid.
And they are—they're made from a molded magnesium body, which Amazon tweaked this year to get rid of the midframe, which makes the HDX (especially the 13.2-ounce 8.9-inch version) feel incredibly light. For reference, a 9.7-inch iPad 4 weighs 23.04oz—almost twice as much. The 8.9-inch HDX might be the most surprisingly lightweight tablet I've ever held (non-junk-plastic division). In fact, "light" might be wrong—the weight was shaved to the point that it feels balanced. Meaning, holding it, you don't feel really any uncomfortable pressure on your fingers as the tablet's weight groans on them. It's something you'll enjoy holding one-handed, and that's enough, sort of, to shrug off the ugly shock of plastic along the top of the rear panel.
The biggest weak point of the HD was probably the TI OMAP processors found in both models. They were just too slow. So for the HDX went with a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800. It (and the move to Jelly Bean 4.2.2) has Fire OS positively flying compared to the at-times sluggish performance from a year ago. It needed the boost, especially since the deceptively graphics-intensive carousel UI is still in place, only now with a bunch more pixels to push. To that end, it's also upgraded to 2GB of RAM, up from 1GB.
The other massive, massive improvement is the buttons. You can actually find them now. Instead of the completely-flush buttons of the Fire HD, the HDX now has a circular power button on the left, and a volume rocker on the right They're still recessed, but not in a way that makes them impossible to find in the dark, or even in the light if you don't know where to look.
The screens are both improved as well. The 7-inch version got a boost from 1280x800 to 1920x1200, and the 8.9-inch edition went all the way to 2560x1600. That's 323 and 339 pixels per inch, respectively, up from 216 and 254 PPI last year. (The iPad is 264, and the Nexus 10 300). They're bright, too—both have 400-nit light sources, which is good since some pixel-dense screens can be dimmer than you'd like. The viewing angles on the tablet seemed impressive at a glance, but the color performance was the standout. Amazon claims it's 100 percent color accurate (based on sRGB), and it's kind of easy to believe. We really liked the colors on last year's HD, but this year's screens seem geniunely great.
For battery life, Amazon's claiming 11 hours (up from 10 last year). That's interesting given the upgraded screen resolutions and the accompanying brighter, 400-nit light (brighter light, more battery drain). Amazon says the efficiency comes from the efficient new panel it's using—not unlike Sharp's Igzo displays—that lets more light through the pixels, even at high densities. Reading mode uses even less power, and Amazon claims 17-hours of reading time thanks to optimized power states for the processor and memory.
OK, here's the crazy part. Besides the improved hardware, the biggest addition to the Kindle Fire line is the new Mayday button. Mayday is, simply, a button that appears in the drag-down settings panel at the top of the Fire's screen. You press on the button, and a small square pops up in your screen indicating you're in the Mayday queue. A few seconds later, a human head is saying hello, and asking how he or she can help you. It's maybe the most convenient and impressive and potentially creepy and certainly audacious thing in recent memory.
The technician can then speak with you (your mic is active, but the camera isn't, so they can't see you) and guide you around the screen. They can see everything on the screen that you can, and draw lines or arrows, circle things, or even interact with the menus themselves if you authorize them to. So a technician could go in and raise or lower volume, pop into your audio library to show you where to find something, or literally anything else.
Security details were a bit vague—we saw that the video feed is paused while passwords are entered—but it's unclear if you can restrict the content that a Mayday operative can see, like work emails or Shades of Grey or hardcore bondage selfies inspired by Shades of Grey.
To be clear, this is incredibly ambitious, and CEO Jeff Bezos said that Amazon expects to be inundated with calls when the HDX comes out (and almost definitely around the holidays), but overall is hoping to answer each call within 15 seconds. 15 seconds and you get a real human is talking to you, about anything you want—no convincing a computerized phone line or an unhelpful FAQ page that you really do need help. And certainly no scheduling a Genius Bar session. As goofy as this seems (and in person, it's tremendously goofy, especially if you don't know what to expect), this could totally change how customer service works.
Last year, the consensus was that the Fire HD was a good media consumption device, but if you wanted to do anything else, good luck. Amazon wants to change that this year. It's made some significant (or, less generously, insanely tardy) additions to Fire OS (we're officially calling it that now), if not quite enough to really punch weight with iOS and Android and even Windows Phone for pure productivity.
Fire OS 3.0 was almost totally rewritten from last year, and is now running on Jelly Bean 4.2.2. That's a huuuuuge upgrade from 2.0, which was running on Ice Cream Sandwich, and combined with the hardware bump makes the HDX feel far smoother than the HD did last year. Games looked good, and rendered well on the screen, but we didn't get to put it through the paces quite as much as we'd like, loading heavy movies or just popping in and out of apps quickly, so we'll let you know how that looks when we get a little more time with it.
You can also swipe up from the main "Carousel" screen and come to a familiar Grid. Instead of being nothing but apps and folders, like iOS, you can pin books, movies, shows, documents, or anything else you want there, almost like Windows Phone, just less information-dense.
Other improvements include threaded email, at last, starring and tagging in Gmail, and additional syncing options for the calendar. There are also a load of new Enterprise security features.
And it wouldn't be an Amazon software update without some stuff that's very cool on paper, but won't use all that much. Here, it's X-Ray for Music, which shows you all the lyrics in a song you're listening to, and lets you skip to certain sections. X-Ray for movies also got improved, with trivia from IMDB, and the songs playing on-screen (or in the entire movie) added to the overlay. X-Ray is, as always, very cool, very useful, and something a lot of us will forget exists most of the time, but use for five hours in a row when we remember.
Fire OS 3.0 also adds multitasking, which, it's about time! You get at that by swiping from the right side of the screen (or the bottom in portrait mode, which seems overly confusing) and you can see recent items. Unlike other multitasking, though, it's content-level, not app-level. That means you'll see several different books, or several movies, instead of just "Books" and "Movies" there. It's a smart tweak for something used to read and watch stuff as much as a Kindle Fire.
Oh, and there's a new case! A new case that is actually good. In the past, Kindle Fire cases have been nice, for what they were, but hugely clunky compared to a Smart Cover, and total hell if you wanted to take the tablet out. The new ones, called Origami Cases, snap in with magnets. That's actually extremely convenient if you use the tablet without a case at home, but don't want to toss it in a bag unprotected.
They also fold up onto themselves so that you can use them as either a landscape or portrait mode stand.
Odds and Ends
The ambient light sensor (usually used to just dim brightness in dark rooms or amp it up in sunlight) now also controls the contrast of the screen when it senses sunlight. In the demo we saw (with an artificial sunlight flashlight because Seattle gets less sun than Rapture) it shaded naturally with increased light. It seems like it'll be a nice addition in super sunny conditions, but still probably not enough to make using a tablet in those cases a smart thing to do.
There's also now a rear-facing camera. It's 8MP and "mediocre" is probably generous. The quick photos I shot in the play pen Amazon set up for the press looked quite grainy. Even Amazon seems a little puzzled about why anyone wants rear cameras on tablets (though there are some good reasons!).
So, Is This For Real Now?
The Fire HDX is absolutely a top tier piece of hardware. But the software isn't quite what a lot of people are used to with mobile devices. It's content-first, as Amazon calls it, but also less efficient in some regards. We'll have to wait and see if the improvements there—and in the software performance in general—are enough to move the HDX above the station the HD occupied for everyday use. But for now, what was good has become great, and what was a pain has become less of a pain.