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Kindle Fire HDX: Hands-on preview

HardwareFeatures
by Sascha Segan, 26 Sep 2013Features
Kindle Fire HDX: Hands-on preview

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is looking for "the intersection of customer delight and deep integration throughout the entire stack."

That's what he told me as he showed off the new Mayday feature in this year's Kindle Fire HDX tablet line-up. Press the Mayday button, and within 15 seconds, a live Amazon operator appears in a video chat window on your screen to answer all of your Kindle Fire questions. He or she will even tell you what apps to download. I've never seen anything else like it on a tablet.

Where Android zigs, Amazon zags. Amazon's Kindle Fire line-up has always been the easy-living, hand-holding alternative to the DIY Android tablet software experience, and Mayday takes that cuddliness to the next level: Your tablet now contains not merely an artificial helper like Siri, but an actual human assistant.

The two new Kindle Fire HDX tablets, at $229 (£143) for the 7in model, and $379 (£237) for 8.9in – the latter is pictured below – deliver the most intense specs you'll find at that price point.

On the small tablet, Amazon is matching the US price and 1,920 x 1,200 screen resolution of Google's Nexus 7, but bumping up the processor a notch from the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro to the even faster 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800. The body, meanwhile, no longer feels cheap at all; the new Fires are slim, with a mostly soft-touch back that has some interesting angles.

It's safe to say that the Nexus 7 buyer isn't the Kindle Fire buyer. You'll know it as soon as you pick one of the tablets up. The Kindle Fire still starts up to its big, colourful carousel of books, movies and games, with clear labels across the top showing what Amazon wants you to do here: Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, and Docs.

You can now flip away from the carousel and look at a more traditional grid of apps, and the new tablets have a range of improved enterprise features. The email app supports threading. Amazon sped up the Silk browser, moving it to the latest version of Chromium and showing me how certain optimised websites like the New York Times can be loaded within two seconds thanks to network-level pre-fetching. There's VPN support, and various kinds of enterprise security and manageability.

But ultimately these tablets still sing entertainment. Amazon added lyrics to the music player, and a ton of IMDb data to TV and movie files; you can practically play "Pop-Up Video" now with the IMDb trivia data, jumping to the spot in a TV show where the editors found a goof or a reference.

Each tablet comes with $5 (£3) worth of third-party app credits, and Amazon now has more than 100,000 apps in its store. Amazon's Peter Larsen seemed to be on the right track when it comes to ensuring quality apps are available: Amazon looks at the top iPad app list weekly with the aim of making sure that the most popular tablet apps are in its store, he said.

"We've increased our percentage of the top apps found on iOS year over year," he said.

Android but not Android

One of the biggest philosophical changes with the new Kindle Fires is how the nameless Android fork I once dubbed "Amdroid" now has a name: It's the Fire OS 3.0 "Mojito."

By naming it, Bezos is emphasising how Amazon controls the "whole stack" – and specifically how Amazon redesigned Android's graphics pipeline and touch event handler to improve responsiveness. Dealing with touch events has always been an Android failing; it's why there's more lag when you try to draw with a stylus on most Android tablet screens as compared to an iPad. It'll be very interesting to see if Amazon solves that problem.

Amazon still has to keep its OS compatible with Android, though, to keep third-party developers (and users who expect third-party apps) happy. Fire OS 3.0 is based on Android 4.2.2, Larsen said, and power users will still be able to sideload APKs to run on the devices.

Still the easy tablet

The new Kindle Fires (the 7in model is pictured above, incidentally) have sharp screens and snappy performance. I got to see how the screens automatically react to ambient light by changing their contrast, a neat trick. HD movies and games looked great and played smoothly thanks to the fast processor. The tablets no longer feel thick or cheap.

Amazon has found success by making its tablets the ultimate media consumption devices. It's not trying to build all-purpose laptop PCs like Apple is with the iPad, or to focus on productivity like Samsung is. These are tablets to kick back with and read, watch or play.

With that in mind, the 7in Kindle Fire HDX looks pretty hard to beat. With this Kindle Fire HDX, the new Nexus 7 and Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 covering the casual, geek and productivity markets, Apple's iPad mini is looking pretty threatened right now.

The new Kindle Fire tablets will arrive over the next two months in the US, with the 7in tablet scheduled to ship on 18 October, and the 8.9in model due on 7 November. Amazon hasn’t revealed when they’re due to come to the UK, but hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer. Keep your eyes peeled on ITProPortal for updates, and for now, you can check out the video above, which shows how the Mayday feature works.

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