Amazon Kindle Fire HDX review
The latest update to Amazon's home-grown tablet range brings the HDX. It comes in two sizes - there's an 8.9-inch model and a 7-inch model - and we've been nestling down with the smaller model to review.
It's priced to compete with Google's own Nexus 7, costing the same £199 for the 16GB model, but only if you opt in for "special offers" which essentially means you accept adverts on the lock screen. It costs an extra £10, so £209, to buy it without these ads.
This isn't just about pricing, however. Amazon is pouring everything it can into the Kindle Fire HDX, competing on all fronts, looking to offer a compelling package that will draw you away from the best of Android and Apple. Should you be considering the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX over its rivals?
From the front the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX looks very much the successor to the Kindle Fire HD it supplants. A sombre, no-nonsense finish sees the 7-inch display framed in a tactile border.
But where soft curves lay before, now we have angles. Flip the Fire HDX over and there's an angular design around the back. It adds some detail, with the majority of the rear covered in the same tactile soft-touch plastic as before.
Where previously there was a metal strip running across the back a third of the way up from the bottom, housing the speaker grilles, there's now a glossy plastic strip across the top instead.
Again, it houses the speaker grilles, but where the metal strip of the Fire HD added a touch of the premium, the plastic bar on the HDX cheapens the overall look. The glossy black matches the Amazon logo, but it's a fingerprint magnet and we found ourselves constantly wiping it clean.
We're torn on the design. Sometimes we think it looks futuristic, like the aggressive angles of the Lamborghini Aventador, at other times we think it looks like a squashed box.
Either way, it's nice enough to hold. That tactile material provides grip for your fingers and at 303g, it's fairly light too. It's a touch heavier than the rival Nexus 7, which the Kindle Fire HDX most closely goes up against. It measures 186 x 128 x 9mm, so will slip into a larger pocket easily.
READ: Nexus 7 (2013) review
On the rear edges are the device's buttons, the volume rocker and the standby button. They're positioned to be easy to use when gripping the tablet and we can't say we had a problem with them, except when using the Origami Leather Cover that Amazon offers: open the cover and you can't get to the buttons.
Show me fire
The tablet race is dominated by resolution at the moment, with more and more tablets coming to market offering sharper and sharper displays. That's no bad thing in our eyes - literally - because you spend your time with a tablet staring at its screen and higher resolutions and advancing display technologies are banishing the grainy or off-coloured devices of the past.
This is one of the areas where the Kindle Fire HDX sets out its stall. The name is inspired by the racked-up resolution, with 1920 x 1200 pixels on this 7-inch display. That results in 323ppi, matching that of the Nexus 7, close to that of the new iPad mini with Retina display.
It's a welcome sight too. The display is nice and bright and the viewing angles are very good too. The display is a touch warmer than some, which gives a nice punch and vibrancy to colours and we're happy with the whites too, even if there are some brighter whites available elsewhere. At times we noticed a blue tinge around the edges of the display, only really noticeable when reading or viewing things with a white background, but that's about all we have to complain about.
There's plenty of brightness on offer for outdoor viewing, most likely to combat reflections when sitting next to a window where natural light can stream in and potentially cause reflections. Amazon's choice of a mostly black or grey user interface is more prone to reflections than lighter shades, but we're picking here.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX has a great display: it's sharp, it's packed full of detail and offers wonderfully vibrant colours, which is exactly what you want on a device of this size.
Dolby strikes back
Last year, we were blown away with the sound quality of the Kindle Fire HD, thanks to its twin Dolby speakers. The Kindle Fire HDX repeats the performance, delivering some impressive quality audio, some of the best you'll find on a tablet.
We'd say that the HTC's BoomSound speakers - found on the HTC One and HTC One max - will give it a run for it's money, but there's plenty of volume and sufficient detail to mean that listening to music or watching a movie without headphones is perfectly enjoyable.
The speakers don't suffer from their positioning on the rear of the tablet, but if you're holding it in portrait orientation on that edge, it's easy enough to muffle one of the pair with a stray finger. In the Origami Leather Cover we tested the Kindle Fire HDX with, there's a sufficient gap behind the speakers to deflect the sound back towards you, so it still sounds good when mounted.
One of the other neat features is that the HDX's video and music players offer on-screen volume controls, so you don't have to reach around the back to use the volume rocker - instead you can just tweak the level by touch.
Slip on a pair of quality headphones and you'll find it's equally impressive. The rich audio may be a little on the bassy side for some, but we suspect that most will appreciate the sound of the Kindle Fire HDX. It will put a smile on your face.
A little firecracker
Aside from the impressive display and the great audio, there's plenty of power packed into the Kindle Fire HDX. There's a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset, with 2GB of RAM. It's a powerful loadout, rivalling the latest smartphones and devices like the Sony Xperia Z Ultra.
That stands the Kindle Fire HDX in good stead for the future, but it also means that things are slick and fast. Everything is very smooth, apps are quick to open and the HDX handles everything you'll throw at it.
Like other Snapdragon 800 devices, throw intensive tasks at it and you'll feel the tablet heat up around the back as it starts working hard, but it doesn't seem such a problem as it is on some smartphones we've tested, like the Sony Xperia Z1 for example.
There are options for 16, 32 or 64GB of storage, priced at £199, £239 and £269 respectively, but there's no option for microSD card expansion, so - and as is always the case - you pay over the odds for getting that additional internal storage. A 32GB UHS-1 card on Amazon is about £17, but sadly you can't benefit from that.
You also lose a chunk of storage to the OS: on the 16GB model, you only have 10.9GB of storage available straight out of the box.
Connectivity is good, with the option for 4G LTE if you choose, and a 3G offer from Vodafone giving you 5GB of data for 90 days, 20GB of Amazon Cloud Storage and a £5 Amazon Appstore credit - although we suspect most will suffice with the Wi-Fi version of the HDX.
The battery will give you 11 hours of play time, with a low-power mode that will give you 17 hours of music playback. We found these figures to be pretty accurate too. Of course, fire up something demanding and it will cut through the battery faster, but on the whole, this is typical performance for a tablet. Good stuff.
User interface and apps
So far, so impressive. The HDX offers a lot of hardware for your money. It's in the user interface, however, where Amazon really sets itself apart from other Android devices out there. Some might see this as good, some might not.
Amazon's choice of interface puts content first, with a timeline running across the home screen that takes you to the content you've most recently engaged with - be that a game, music, movie, book or magazine.
It's convenient for picking up and getting back to what you were doing, but there's no customisation to be done here. You can remove things from the "carousel", perhaps to hide the fact you've been reading Nuts Magazine, but that's about it.
There's also a grid view, so you can now flick up on the screen to access a more conventional grip of apps, rather than using the large-iconed carousel view. It's a welcome addition, as it means you get much more on one screen for quick access.
Before we deal with the main content areas, it's worth mentioning that there's a lot of nice features in the Kindle user interface. You can elect VIPs in email, the browser is fast and you can easily get to things like photos and documents that you sync with Amazon Cloud drive.
Amazon leverages the cloud well and there are Amazon apps for most other platforms so getting files into your Kindle is always pretty easy, as is accessing content you've purchased from Amazon, like books and music.
In addition to the services that the Kindle Fire HDX launches with, there's more to come from the latest Mojito software, including enhanced accessibility features and a new FreeTime system designed to make it easier to hand your tablet over to your kids and let them enjoy their content.
There's also a MayDay service that will give you support on your device, live, if you're having a problem. A quick swipe down and you can hit the MayDay button when you'll be connected to live support to solve your problem. You get a video connection to an assistant so you get to see a real human being, but they can't see you, only hear your voice. The MayDay assistant will be able to view your device's display, draw helpful arrows and stuff and solve your problem.
Although the HDX is an Android device, it sits on a customised version of Google's mobile OS. As such, you don't get access to Google Play and that's a fairly significant point, especially for existing Android smartphone users who will be used to one way of running things. Therefore this isn't the Android you'll get on the Nexus 7. You don't get that native Google Android experience.
In some cases that doesn't matter, because the Kindle's OS will happily sync with Google accounts to deliver you Gmail messages and Google calendar, but for those interested in apps, it makes quite a difference.
Android's proliferation means it offers a first-rate app experience in many cases, but the Amazon Appstore is slightly different. It's a curated experience, so although there are a lot of apps - and a lot of good apps we must say - you don't get everything and you don't always get the latest versions of apps either.
The danger for those who want lots of apps or want parity with their smartphone is that might not happen here. For example, the Facebook app will give you a little reminder to update your app for the best experience: click the link and the browser will take you through to the Google Play website, which doesn't help.
Elsewhere, although you have games, they're not always as up-to-date as regular Android. When we came to try and restore our cloud-saved Real Racing 3 game, we hit an error, because the Kindle app is out of date.
You can sideload apps, which is a work around for some apps you might find you can't live without, but by the time you start doing that, you probably have to ask yourself whether the Kindle Fire HDX is the right device for you.
If you're more into gaming then the Vega Tegra Note 7, complete with stylus, is available for £180 and is a decent Android alternative to even the Nexus 7. But it's not got the Kindle's content-centric OS.
Focusing on content, however, and you get strong offerings for books, with the familiar synchronisation with any other Kindle devices or apps you might have. The same applies to Amazon MP3 music: if you've spent money in the Amazon ecosystem, then you'll get a great experience from your Kindle Fire, all fully integrated.
When it comes to video, the Kindle Fire devices in the UK are equipped with Lovefilm. You get a free month's subscription, after that you'll have to pay for access to Lovefilm's streaming solution at £5.99 a month. There's a selection of movies and TV, but you don't get the option to download, so you'll need an internet connection to watch them. If you've got Wi-Fi only then that's no good for on the go, while if you're a long haul flight kind of watcher then you'll be unable to stream anything at all given current restrictions.
If you don't want to buy into Lovefilm, then you can download the Netflix app for a similar subscription offering, but what's really missing is something like Play Movies. Google's own service offers movie rentals or purchases of new films, with the option to download locally, which is really handy, especially for those travelling.
You can sideload movie files if you have them on your PC, we tested a number of file types and found plenty are supported, so it's not a huge barrier if you're happy to do that. Straight-up Android competitors, including the Kobo Arc 7HD, offer a straighter, simpler solution for keeping hold of your own content.
READ: Kobo Arc 7HD review
There is only one camera on the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX and it's forward facing. It's ideally placed for Skype calls and the like, or taking selfies. It will give you stills or videos, but it's a fairly basic offering.
There is no rear camera, but that's not the end of the world on a tablet, as we maintain that you're more likely to use your phone if you need to take a quick snap.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX does a lot to make itself a competitive offering. The detail in the display and the power on offer, for the price, make the Fire HDX a compelling choice of 7-inch tablet. It also offers excellent speaker performance.
But the Kindle Fire HDX finds itself in the same position as last year. It's fighting incredibly hard, but stuck to the Amazon track. There's a lot that's nice about the software that's on offer, there's plenty of refinement and it's lovely to use. Amazon has introduced new features, like MayDay to assist, and the offering for kids that will add to the appeal to parents, but still faces an Android world that's racing along, fuelled not only by Google, but by app developers and device manufacturers.
The result is that, when it comes to content, you can get everything in competition Android land - aside from Lovefilm. But on those other devices you get more freedom and you're part of the bigger system, with more choices.
If you're after a good quality tablet that performs well, with a great display, plenty of power, at a good price and you're more interested Amazon's content than having the latest apps, then the Kindle Fire HDX may well make you very happy. If you're looking for an experience that brings the familiarity of your Android smartphone, you may want to consider a straight Android tablet instead.