Name: Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Type: Android tablet
Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price: £229 for 16GB model, £259 for 32GB model, direct from Amazon. These models come with advertising lockscreens – those without cost an additional £10, pushing the prices to £239 and £269 respectively.
Better late than never seems to be Amazon’s tablet motto; landing in the UK a fair few months after its US launch, we’ve now got the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9, Amazon’s biggest tablet device to date. Is this Amazon’s iPad killer, or does its Amazon-centric content make such comparisons moot? Read our full review to find out.
Design and Hardware
Despite being priced low enough to be considered a “budget” tablet, there’s nothing cheap about the Kindle Fire HD 8.9’s construction. Measuring 239mm x 163mm x 9mm, and weighing 567g, it houses a gorgeous 8.9-inch HD display. Being slightly smaller than the Retina-packing iPad and Nexus 10 devices, it’s slightly lighter, though those looking for Kindle tablet they can comfortable hold in one hand at length should turn their attentions to the 7-inch, 395g Kindle Fire HD.Keeping the standard slate-like design of pretty much every tablet, the HD 8.9 is essentially the Kindle Fire HD super-sized. It’s back still has a dark grey, slightly rubberised, curved finish, making it easy to grip, with a solid black strip around the back housing the speaker grills. These speakers boast Dolby Digital Plus certification, and offer good clarity and superb stereo separation, keeping their definition even when turned up to their relatively loud max. Around the edge of the screen is a reasonably thick black bezel, and with the HD 8.9’s focus on video and entertainment apps, that’s a good thing, giving you something to hold without obscuring the onscreen action.And what a gorgeous screen it is. Running at a resolution of 1920×1200, it’s packing a 254ppi. That’s a little less than what’s offered by the Retina iPad and considerably less than the Nexus 10, but in practice it’s still fantastically sharp and detailed. As an IPS display, viewing angles are wide and colours are bold, while Amazon attempted to reduce glare over previous models too. Though its backlighting means it’s not as comfortable as Amazon’s own E Ink Kindle dedicated eReaders for long reading sessions, it’s just as comfortable as rival tablets, and a joy to browse the web or watch video on.
In terms of ports and buttons, they’re all housed around the edge of the tablet. They include a 3.5mm headphone jack, a microUSB charging port, a microHDMI port, a volume rocker and a standby button. Sitting flush in the chassis, it can be annoyingly difficult to find the volume and power buttons however.Under the hood there’s a 1.5GHz Texas Instruments OMAP4470 dual-core chipset backed by 770MB of RAM. Though navigation of the tablet UI is swift and responsive, as the majority of in-app experiences, it’s not quite as smooth as the latest iPad or quad-core Android slates. In isolation you wont notice the marginally slower load times, or the odd 3D gaming stutter, but against the competition the HD 8.9 is just a step behind the pack. However, given the tablet’s focus is on books and videos, not creation tools or gaming, and given the relatively cheap price tag, its performance is fair and on the whole enjoyable.
16GB or 32GB versions of the tablet are available, and neither offer microSD storage expansion. This shouldn’t be too much of concern however as the tablet focuses predominately on cloud-based content. Likewise, there’s no 3G version of the tablet, let alone 4G, meaning you’re going to have to be near a Wi-Fi connection to access the tablet’s many online features.
Interface and Apps
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is an 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich tablet. Except it’s not. Amazon have completely overhauled the stock Android interface to suit their needs, leading to an experience that’s quite unique to their Kindle Fire line of tablets.
As such, the centre of the display is dominated by a large horizontally scrolling carousel of your most recently used apps, videos and books. It’s handy if you only use the tablet for a handful of specific purposes, keeping the most frequently used items at the front, but can be a bit more troublesome if you’re juggling a large content and app library. At the top of the screen is a search bar, which helps alleviate that problem slightly.Directly above the carousel is a smaller scrolling strip of categories, which give you access to the Amazon shop, a Games portal that tracks achievements as well as linking to the App Store, an Apps tab for Amazon’s own closed app store, a Books tab for tomes bought from Amazon, a Music tab (also naturally tied to Amazon’s MP3 store), a Videos tab which links in to the Amazon-owned LoveFilm streaming service, a Newsstand for magazines (again, sold by Amazon), a web browser tab, a cloud-based Photo’s tab and a cloud-based Docs tab. Depending what is shown in the main carousel, you’ll also find a smaller strip advertising similar items below that again.
As you can see, it’s very much an Amazon experience, and one that’s constantly encouraging you to spend money in the Amazon-owned stores. For the most part this is great; Amazon have access to millions of movies, books, songs, TV shows and audiobooks, and you’ll rarely come across media that you can’t grab in some form or other through the tablet.What’s missing though is any form of customisation whatsoever and as wide an array of apps as is offered by the Google Play store. Amazon’s own App Store has grown impressively, but its array of applications still pales in comparison to Google’s. For instance, all the stock Android apps provided by Google, such as the superb Maps and Gmail apps are missing. Though many apps can be side-loaded onto the tablet, bypassing the store altogether, it’s a clumsy process, and one that’s potentially confusing for tech newbies.Some navigational controls are a little clunky too – though it’s easy enough to swipe from the top of the screen to access settings, multitasking is a chore; to get to another app or piece of content, you have to tap the centre of the screen and hit the Home button that appears along the bottom each time, forcing you to regularly return to the carousel.
Content: Books and Video
Where the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 comes into its own then is with books and videos. The Kindle name has been synonymous with a great digital reading experience for many years now, and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is no different. There are over 1.5 million Kindle books that can be downloaded to the device, many of which are free and 800,000 that cost no more than £3.99. If you’ve bought an eBook from the Kindle Store before on another device, logging into your Amazon account on the HD 8.9 during the setup process will see all your book purchases loaded onto the tablet, ready to be downloaded from the cloud.
It’s a comprehensive reading experience on the tablet. Not only do you have control over font options including size, style, colour, line and margin spacing, there are plenty of Kindle-specific features on offer too. For instance, as well as making your own notes and highlights, you can turn on the most popular highlighted passages from the Amazon community of readers. There’s text-to-speech for those with poor eye-sight, while the Kindle’s X-Ray feature is a fantastic unique feature of the company’s eReaders, offering themes, character sheets and regularly used terms, pulling in information from Wikipedia.
It’s a similar experience with movies. If you’re a LoveFilm customer, logging into your Amazon account on the tablet will unlock streaming from the Amazon-owned video provider, set as the main Video hub on the device. A wide range of TV movie content is on offer (with LoveFilm’s film catalogue particularly good), with scrolling, categorised lists of recommendations.Videos get the same X-Ray treatment as books do, with information on cast, crew and other trivia provided by IMDB and popping up over the paused video. It’s a great way of tracking down a tidbit of information without having to jump out of the movie-viewing experience.
X-Ray features for both books and films aren’t universal however, with many books and movies still lacking the feature. It’s a list that’s expanding all the time though, and is a worthy unique selling point of the Kindle tablets.
Going back to the actual viewing experience once more, the HD 8.9 is a real joy to watch video content on. That screen is sharp and vibrant, and the speakers really are miles ahead of what’s on offer from similarly-sized tablets.You can of course also sideload your own content onto the device from a computer over USB; this works fine for videos (which are stored in the Personal Videos app) but is a little more difficult for books. The easiest way is to check out Amazon’s “Sending Personal Documents to Kindle” FAQ, or by downloading a library management app like the excellent and free Calibre.
Amazon also offer 30-days free access to their premium Amazon Prime service with the tablet, which not only offers next-day shipping on physical items bought from the Amazon store, but also access to the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. This lets you borrow one book per month (with no due dates) from a list of 300,000. In terms of the quality of the books on offer, that’s up to debate based on your taste (those with a love of Mills & Boon style stuff will be overjoyed, for instance) but anyone how regularly shops on Amazon will benefit from the next-day deliveries. Once the month is over, Amazon Prime membership costs £49 a year.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 packs in a 1.3MP front facing camera, and no rear camera. It’s tucked into the horizontal landscape edge of the bezel, and is best used with the pre-loaded Skype video calling app, as it’s not really up to much professional shooting.
If you’re looking to get photos onto the tablet then, your best bet is to use the Photos tab on the homescreen, which offers to import any photos you’ve uploaded to Facebook. You’ve got no choice over which ones get uploaded though – it’s an “all or nothing” approach.
Amazon quote battery life of 10 hours for the HD 8.9, which, based on a mixture of web browsing, video streaming, a little eBook reading and a fair few runs through JetPack Joyride, seems a fair estimate.
However, it’s worth noting that the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 does not come with a wall charger, only a USB charging cable that you can hook up to a computer. It’s incredibly slow to charge this way, and (if you’re perhaps considering buying the tablet for someone who isn’t all that tech-savvy) means it’s going to require a computer to even charge up. Amazon offer a sold-separately “PowerFast charger” for £12.99, and you’d do well to budget that into the overall cost of the tablet unless you plan on twiddling your thumbs whilst the tablet charges over USB.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is a great tablet, every bit as good as its Kindle Fire predecessors, and at a bargain price. It is however a unique tablet experience that’s keenly focussed on the Amazon ecosystem, specialising in books and videos, something that must be taken into consideration before picking it up. If they’re all the functions you want a tablet mostly for anyway, than the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is a steal. If you want a little more control over the way your tablet works however, maybe look at the more open Android alternatives on the market, and if you’re after a well-stocked app store, check out any Android tablet complete with the Google Play Store or one of Apple’s iPads.
By Gerald Lynch | March 28th, 2013