Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 review

The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 swells Amazon's UK tablet offering to three devices, with the 8.9 sitting at the top of the pile, at least, in terms of size.

It matches the design of the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, and in many cases offers the same specs and functionality, with both devices surpassing the original Kindle Fire, which still exists as the cheapest member of the family.

It's designed as an entertainment tablet, taking some of the established experience from Amazon's Kindle eBook readers and pushing it into an LCD device with wider content choices.

It's an Android-based tablet, but it's the Amazon angle that's important, as Amazon's services are deeply integrated into the experience. But does that mean you miss out on the excitement of a more flexible Android tablet, or will the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 meet all your needs?

Design

There's only so much you can do with tablet design and not much of that brings differentiation, not while you keep a conventional approach to things - unlike the Sony Xperia Tablet S for example.

The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 shares the same design as the smaller Fire HD: both are well made with a solid construction, so feel like good-quality devices, even at their competitive prices.

Finished with a tactile back cover, the Kindle Fire HD is a nice tablet to hold, with soft curves and enough bezel to ensure your fingers aren't obscuring the display. Around the back it's just black with a metal dividing back that carries the Kindle name and stereo speaker grills.

It measures 240 x 164 x 8.8mm and weighs 567g. It feels pretty weighty in the hand, a touch lighter than both the Nexus 10 and the iPad with Retina display, although both those devices have slightly larger displays. You'll feel that weight if you're holding the tablet watching a video in bed, for example, which is where the smaller 7-inch, at 395g, has the advantage.

The physical controls and connections are set into the band around the edge. There's the 3.5mm headphone socket, as well as Micro-USB and micro HDMI for connecting to a bigger screen, for example watching those Lovefilm movies.

READ: Amazon Kindle Fire HD (7-inch) review

There's also a volume rocker and standby button which both sit flush with the edge. If you're planning to rest your tablet on one end while you're reading a book or magazine, then the "other" end is clear of all buttons and connections, so you won't turn it off as soon as you plonk it on the table.

Display

One of the highlights of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is the display. It has a 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution, which gives you 254ppi. That's lower than the likes of the Nexus 10, but sits pretty close to the iPad with Retina display. Visually, it's a lovely sharp display to look at and HD content looks stunning on it, be that from games, or streamed content from somewhere like Netflix or Lovefilm.

It's an IPS display too with great viewing angles and plenty of punch to colour. It has been designed to reduce glare, using the common lamination technique of reducing the gap between the actual display surface and the touch surface.

Kindle Fire HD (front), Nexus 10 (rear). Note the rear display isn't in focus, hence the softness.

The approach works, and setting the Kindle Fire HD next to the Nexus 10, we found the reflections were reduced. However, in the same comparison, it's obvious that the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 doesn't produce the brightest whites, with a slightly yellow hue. In isolation, you might not notice it, but alongside a better display, you will.

We also find it interesting that Amazon is talking about reducing reflection on the Kindle Fire HD, but the user interface predominantly uses a black background, which always emphasise reflections, something that a white or coloured background doesn't.

Hardware and performance

Amazon doesn't flag up the internals of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 in the same way that other Android manufacturers do. There's a 1.5GHz Texas Instruments OMAP4470 dual-core chipset in the 8.9 and although Amazon doesn't advertise the RAM, it is reported as 770MB from the device.

In reality, it's slower to set about tasks than the Nexus 10 we have on the desk. Opening apps takes longer and even things like returning to the home screen takes longer than it needs to. We noticed a similar situation with the smaller device, as though the Kindle Fire has been designed for a slightly slower pace of life.

But opening up a slow to load app, like Real Racing 3 for example, there's a noticeable difference of about 15 seconds before you get to do anything compared to the Nexus 10. Once in the game, it plays well enough, however navigation of the graphically rich main menu see a lag between finger movement and response, suggesting there might not be enough power, or it's not optimised well enough.

That said, it's far from a poor experience, it's not the fastest tablet out there, but then you have to consider affordability and application. When it comes to something like reading your Kindle books it is slick and smooth. Although the web browser is slower to launch than it could be, it's fast enough to return results.

That's really the important point to consider: it might not be the best choice for gaming or power users, but for many other apps and online activities, it may well fit your needs at a price that's right and at £229 (or £259 for the 32GB model), it's certainly affordable.

READ: Nexus 10 review

There is 16GB of internal storage but there's no expansion slot for your own card. Amazon gives you access to your Amazon Cloud with unlimited online storage, meaning you can backup and restore content from the cloud as you need it, and with the company’s run of Android and iOS apps, that might fit conveniently into your cross-device plans.

The battery in the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 will give you about 10 hours of entertainment. That’s about typical for this size of tablet and obviously, performance will vary depending on what you do with it. It’s worth noting that in the box you only get a USB cable, so you’ll need a charger: Amazon’s special PowerFast charger will cost you £12.99 and promises faster charging, but you can use any Micro-USB charger.

The Amazonian ecosystem

We've mentioned a couple of times that this is an Android tablet, but that’s not the end of the story, as it is a skew on Android completely taken over by Amazon's user interface. That means you get the Amazon way of doing things from the home screen to the settings menu, with barely a hint at Google's platform.

That also means that what you get on the Kindle Fire HD is different from your Android phone or tablet. Although you'll easily find your way around if you're familiar with Android, and many of the apps are the same, the two things effectively exist in different worlds.

That means you don't get Google's apps: there's no native Google Maps or Gmail app. Instead you access apps through Amazon's own curated Amazon Appstore, so it's different from Google Play you might have on an Android smartphone.

However, if you're really keen on getting regular Android apps onto the Kindle Fire HD, you can sideload them and many will run fine. For example, Dropbox isn’t in the Appstore, but head to the Dropbox website and there are detailed instructions about how to get the app running on your Kindle Fire.

Instead Amazon offers an experience that's unique to the Kindle Fire. The homepage is a simple timeline of things you've been doing, with large thumbnails. That means, rather than shortcuts or widgets, you can pick up your tablet, scroll back and tap that book you were reading or that website you were on.

It's simple and although it doesn't provide you with much in the way of personalisation, it does bring current content to the fore. Navigation around the device is governed by shortcuts across the top of the display into major content areas, like books, movies and apps. There's a right-hand navigation controller that appears when needed offering search, menu and home, as well as other context-sensitive options.

Swiping down from the top of the display gives you access to the notifications area as well as toggles for the hardware controls - Wi-Fi, brightness and so on - as well as the settings. Overall, it's easy enough to find your way around.

Do you feel entertained?

Out of the box, this is an Amazon experience. Rather than signing in to your Google accounts (which you can do later for email, calendars and contacts), you sign into your Amazon account. Just like the Kindle reading devices, this is linked to your account, so anything you buy will be charged via your Amazon payment options. 

Linking into your Amazon account also means that anything "Amazon" you already have, like Kindle books or AmazonMP3 music, is then available to you. Rather than syncing to the device, those content assets sit in the cloud until you draw them down. In the music section, for example, you have a tab for local and a tab for cloud music. You can stream that music or download it for offline play.

We said it of smaller Kindle Fire HD, and the same applies here: the speakers are good for a tablet device. They boast Dolby Digital Plus certification and there’s plenty of definition right through the volume range. We’d say they offer the best speaker performance of a tablet and although they are bettered by headphones, the Kindle Fire HD is a great audio performer.

Plugging in headphones gives you a nice balanced delivery for your music, with nice rich bass and plenty of detail (assuming you’re using good-quality headphones). There’s little in the way of sound control however, and you have to return to the settings menu to toggle Dolby on and off.

With books you get the clever syncing that persists across Amazon devices and apps, meaning you can move between devices and it will sync to the last read point, so long as those devices are connected to the internet.

The reading experience gets some unique extras that you don’t get on the Kindle for Android app, and that’s the time left to finish the chapter you’re reading, derived from your average reading speed, and X-Ray. X-Ray lets you see more about the characters involved in the part of the book you’re in.

 

It’s almost useful, not as useful as the equivalent service in videos, that will draw out information from IMDb so you can pull-up details about the actors in the scene.

Videos come courtesy of Lovefilm. There's a reasonable range on offer through Lovefilm Instant, although you need a subscription to the service if you plan to use it beyond the 30-day free trial. However, if you decide not to, there's nothing to can do to change the tab, so you can't have it link to Netflix, for example.

You can also sideload your own files, but they don’t get added to the Videos tab. Instead you have to use the "personal videos" app. File format support is limited, but you at least get the option to add your own content from a PC as you wish.

Finally on video, there’s no offline option from Lovefilm. That means you’ll need a connection to be able to watch the films you’re paying for (the same applies to Netflix), so if you want to watch movies on the plane, you’ll have to buy them elsewhere and load them on yourself.

Any photos you have in Cloud Drive will also appear on the Kindle Fire HD, ready to view. Using the Cloud Drive app on your smartphone, you can easily have photos you take on your phone appear on your tablet for showing off on the big screen.

Verdict

There’s a lot to like about the Kindle Fire HD 8.9. As a tablet it looks good, both in terms of that display and the simple design. The build is good quality too and the speakers offer really impressive performance, as does the dual Wi-Fi antenna.

As for the experience, it’s also easy enough to use, with content being at the forefront. If you’re a fan of Kindle, or of Amazon, then the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 might be just the tablet for you. It does just about everything you could want and is competitively priced.

However, if you’re an experienced Android user, then you might find yourself better served by a straight Android tablet. Amazon has done a good job of enabling its ecosystem to support other devices, so much of what you find on the Kindle Fire 8.9 you can get elsewhere: Kindle for Android, Amazon Cloud Drive, Amazon MP3. All these apps bring the Kindle to any Android device.

READ: Kindle for Android review

That means that the seemingly unique features of the Kindle Fire HD are reduced to a handful: Lovefilm streaming movies and the X-Ray features. Outside of those, you can get the Amazon experience and all the best of Google from any number of tablets.

We like the Kindle Fire HD, but we still think it sits in the shadow of the better, more flexible tablets out there, but it's hard to argue with the price.