Of all the iPad rivals over the last few years, we’d suspect Amazon’s Kindle Fire series has given Apple the most reason for concern. Sure, Asus and Google have done well with the Nexus 7 (opens in new tab), while Samsung’s tablets have sold in decent numbers, but the Kindle Fire (opens in new tab) has sold – albeit seasonally – in big numbers, and Amazon’s combination of strong services and extremely aggressive pricing is pretty compelling. It remains to be seen whether Samsung or Google know how to sell content as well as technology, but Amazon definitely does.
The problem with the 7in Kindle Fires (opens in new tab) has been that they would not be most people’s first choice of tablet. They’re compact, well-designed and well-built, and the Fire HD has an excellent screen, but there are compromises you have to make when taking the Kindle Fire route, and the presence of the Nexus 7 at a similar price point means stiff competition, even without the added pressure from the more expensive iPad mini (opens in new tab).
With the introduction of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 into the UK, however, Amazon has its most compelling tablet yet. You get a very solid, well-specified tablet with an excellent 8.9in HD screen at a price that undercuts the Nexus 10 (opens in new tab) and iPad mini. There are still compromises, but for under £250 they might well be worth making.
Design, construction and connectivity
As with previous Kindle Fires, there’s nothing about the Fire HD 8.9 that screams cheap. It’s a bit of a no-frills design with a simple all-glass, black-framed front and a rubberised black back cover, punctuated by a metallic bar inlay with stereo speaker grills on either side. However, it’s still good-looking and extremely solid, with not an inch of give anywhere in the construction.
The 8.9in screen puts it somewhere between 7in and 10.1in tablets, and we’d say that it’s a bit of a sweet spot; compact and light enough to take just about anywhere, but big enough for some serious web browsing, magazine-reading and movie-watching on the move or in the home. At 567g, it’s slightly lighter than most 10.1in models, and while that’s still a bit too heavy for single-handled use – that’s where the 7in models win - it’s a very comfortable tablet when held two-handed or propped up on an armrest or stomach while lying back (my preferred position for long Netflix (opens in new tab) sessions).
Screen and sound
The screen is undoubtedly the star of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 show. With a 1,920 x 1,200 resolution spread over an 8.9in screen it has a pixel density of 254ppi. That’s not enough to put it ahead of the Google Nexus 10, at 300ppi, or the current Retina iPad (opens in new tab) at 264ppi, but at this level we’re really splitting hairs. It’s beautifully crisp, text looks razor-sharp and the IPS technology means great viewing angles and brilliant colour. Meanwhile, by laminating the touch sensor and the screen into a single layer of glass, Amazon has done a great job of reducing glare, optimising the screen’s levels of contrast.
The upshot of all this is that the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 has a wonderful screen for browsing well-designed web pages, reading digital magazines and watching HD video. You simply won’t find a better screen on any tablet at this price.
And for once we can be equally complimentary about the sound. Just about every tablet manufacturer promises that their device emits cinema-quality audio, but most are telling big porky pies: weedy tones and thin output are the norm. Not the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 with its Dolby Digital Plus audio. You might still want to wear headphones to listen to music or watch movies, but I’ve been perfectly happy watching films and playing games using nothing more than the built-in speakers. They’re not incredibly loud, but they have a depth and sense of space that no other tablet I’ve looked at has matched.
Specifications and performance
The Fire HD 8.9 uses a 1.5GHz TI OMAP 4470 dual-core processor incorporating a PowerVR SGX544 graphics core along with 1GB of RAM. In use, it helps the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 feel pretty slick, smoothly animating the UI’s high-resolution cover images and keeping everything flowing smoothly.
The Sunspider score of 1392.6ms puts the 8.9in tablet above its 7in sibling and the Google Nexus 7, not to mention the similarly specified (but slower clocked) Kobo Arc (opens in new tab).
It’s not all gravy. While the Fire HD 8.9 works fluidly most of the time, we’ve noticed moments where the software seems to freeze up momentarily, or where the virtual keyboard takes an age to appear and seems unresponsive when it does.
We also have minor doubts about the Fire HD as a games machine. For instance, Real Racing 3 will run, but not all that smoothly, possibly because the OMAP 4470 is struggling to push all the pixels on the higher resolution screen. Bear in mind, however, that this is the most demanding game on current mobile systems, and less cutting-edge titles like Rayman: Jungle Run and Need for Speed: Most Wanted run perfectly well.
One other specification worth mentioning is that the Fire HD 8.9 has dual Wi-Fi antennas and the option to move to the less congested 5GHz 802.11n band if your router supports it. This, Amazon claims, will mean improved media streaming and fewer dropped connections, and I’d have to say that Wi-Fi performance around the house was better than on many Android and Windows 8 tablets I’ve tested, with the Fire HD 8.9 connecting even in the tricky rooms furthest from our non-5GHz router.
On the plus side, Amazon’s app store is more carefully curated than Google’s Play store, making it easier to find good apps and avoid all the junk, and most major categories are fairly well covered. Surprisingly, it even offers Netflix for TV and film consumption, though not Kobo’s bookstore app. On the minus side, you are tied into Amazon for mostly everything, which might be an issue if you dislike Amazon’s email client or its Silk browser. Both are very usable and functional, though Silk has a few annoying foibles, but you might find it frustrating that you can’t use Chrome or Firefox instead. You’ll also find some apps and services missing or unsupported; there’s no Dropbox app, for example.
If, however, you mainly want to consume content – to watch movies, read books and magazines, play the odd game – and maybe check your mail and social networks on the move, then the Fire HD 8.9 is a great device.
The UI makes it easier to get to the content, and if you use Amazon as your main source of books, magazines and music, then the seamless integration with Amazon Cloud Storage is especially handy. It’s also worth mentioning that it has excellent and easy to use parental controls, if you’re after a tablet for the kids.
One final thing to think about is adverts. The cheapest Kindle Fire HD 8.9 configurations come with 'special offers' promotions on the lock screen, but save you £10 on the purchase price. Personally, this doesn’t bother me, but if it bothers you then add an extra tenner to the price and you won’t have to worry.
Amazon quotes 10 hours from the Fire HD 8.9, and that matches well with my experience. I’ve had just over nine hours of mixed browsing, video playback and gaming on average, though playing Real Racing 3 seems to cane those poor cells a little harder. That’s competitive with smaller tablets like the Nexus 7, and an improvement on most 10.1in tablets. Just be aware that no charger is included. You can either use a standard micro-USB charger, or Amazon will sell you its 4-hour charger for approximately £14.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 isn’t everyone’s perfect tablet. Larger screens still lend themselves better to productivity and business applications, and there are better choices for gaming. However, if you mostly want to consume content and you’re happy for that content to come from Amazon, then there isn’t really a tablet to touch it at this price. The screen and sound are superior to anything else you’ll find for under £250, and the user experience is very good – less technically adept users might even prefer it.
If you want the most versatile tablet, then this isn’t it, but in producing such a great device at such a knockout price, Amazon has delivered its most enticing Kindle Fire yet.
Manufacturer and model
Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9
1.5GHz TI OMAP 4470
8.9in 1,920 x 1,200
micro-USB, micro HDMI, headphone
802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth with A2DP
Size and weight
163 x 239 x 9mm, 567g