HD gear
Highly Recommended
4 stars
Overall Grade
4 stars
Bottom Line
Highly Recommended

Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 Tablet - 16 GB

Reviewed by:
Review Date:1
November 14th, 2014
Manufacturer:
Amazon

Since first blazing onto the scene with their debut tablet model back in 2011, Amazon's Fire line of products has evolved and branched out into many different avenues. With the Fire TV, Fire TV Stick, and Fire Phone, the company now covers streaming players, dongles, and smartphones in an all-encompassing attempt to rule our living rooms and mobile lives (to varying degrees of success). But the core of the Fire brand still remains tablets, and on that front the online retail giant has mostly been… well, on fire.

With the release of their latest generation premium Fire HDX 8.9 tablet, the company hopes to offer customers the same great quality that they've come to expect, along with a few new features and convenient upgrades. So, just how well does the newest Fire tablet perform? Are the specs and features actually worth the price, or has Amazon's flame finally been doused?   

Design and Display:

As its name implies, the Fire HDX 8.9 features an 8.9-inch display, providing a sizeable amount of screen real estate without sacrificing portability. The IPS panel has a resolution of 2560x1600 with 339ppi and 100% sRGB color accuracy. In practice, this leads to a wonderfully sharp, vivid, bright, and downright beautiful picture that ranks among the best that the tablet market has to offer. And while the device still uses LCD technology, black levels, contrast, and uniformity are relatively strong. With that said, I did detect some minor backlight bleeding toward the edges of the display, especially when the brightness was kicked up in a dark room. Off-angle viewing is also very good, though the picture does wash out and exhibit a slightly purple cast at extreme angles.

The tablet measures 9.1" x 6.2" x 0.3" and weighs just 13.2 ounces giving it a light but still sturdy feel. A micro-USB port is located on the left side and a 3.5mm stereo jack is located on the right side. Likewise, two stereo speakers are integrated on the back, along with a dedicated volume control and power button. This back button placement is simple and to the point, but I did find myself occasionally fumbling to feel out their location.

A 720p front-facing camera is included for Skype calls and taking all those fancy "selfies" that kids seem so crazy about these days. Likewise, an 8MP rear camera with LED flash, Electronic Image Stabilization, and a wide-aperture 5P f/2.2 lens is integrated as well, giving users a nice option for quick pictures and 1080p video. The camera app also includes an HDR (high dynamic range), Panorama, and Lenticular feature. The latter allows users to capture multiple pictures to create an image that shifts perspectives as you tilt the tablet screen.  Both cameras offer solid capture performance that should be more than adequate for casual picture taking.  

Multimedia Performance:

Under the hood, the Fire HDX features a powerful 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 805 processor and an Adreno 420 GPU @450 MHz. 2GB of RAM and 16GB of built-in storage are integrated as well (32GB and 64GB models are available too) along with a battery rated for about 12 hours of mixed use (which proved to be fairly accurate). The tablet runs Amazon's new Fire OS 4 "Sangria," which is a modified version of Android 4.4.2, giving users seamless access to all of the company's multimedia options and Silk browser for web use. And while Amazon of course places a heavy emphasis on its own Prime services, there's a decent collection of additional apps in the Amazon app store as well. With that said, the collection is not anywhere near as robust as it is on iOS devices or traditional Android tablets with full Google Play Store access. Still, even millions of apps at your disposal can be meaningless if the hardware and OS can't run them properly. So, just how well do all of these apps actually perform? Well, I'm glad you asked…

On the video front, I sampled selections from Amazon's own Prime Instant Video service and a few other popular video streaming apps, including HBO Go. As one might expect, playback was smooth and painless, offering great HD quality streams without any performance snags. To be perfectly honest, I'm usually the kind of home theater purist that scoffs at the very idea of watching movies or TV shows on a mobile device -- but with its high-res IPS screen, the Fire HDX 8.9 softened even my stone cold heart. HD videos look simply gorgeous on the display, and when paired with a decent pair of headphones, the tablet offers a surprisingly immersive experience. But please, don't tell any of my former film school professors that I said that.  

Music playback was also similarly efficient, and again, while Amazon pushes its own Prime Music service for playback, the app store does offer other music options like Pandora and Spotify. Likewise, users can import mp3s and other supported music files from their computers through the included USB cable.

For many, tablets have also become a very popular venue for games, and the Fire HDX does not disappoint in this regard. With some strong horsepower under its belt, the tablet performed very well, rendering games of all shapes and sizes with only a few hiccups here and there. To test out the device, I played everything from more graphically intense games like 'Injustice: Gods Among Us' and 'The Wolf Among Us,' to decidedly less taxing titles like 'Hill Climb Racing' and 'Daddy Long Legs.' For the most part, the HDX performed great with smooth playback and, much like the videos, the games looked rather stunning. Unfortunately, I did run into some occasional slowdown and stuttering on 'Injustice,' especially the first time I loaded it up. Thankfully, subsequent sessions were a lot smoother with no major issues.

Believe it or not, before they started churning out mildly unnerving talking speakers, there was a time when Amazon was primarily known as a bookseller, and the company still honors those roots here with strong e-book support and e-reader features. To test out the Fire HDX's reading prowess, I sampled pages from Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods,' Gillian Flynn's 'Gone Girl,' and our very own editor-in-chief, Mike Attebery's 'Seattle On Ice.' Once again, the IPS display really shined here, resulting in crisp, easy to read text presented with user friendly navigation. With that said, despite a solid anti-glare filter, the glossy screen still results in reflections, especially in outdoor settings. If reading really is your primary focus, you're still better off with a dedicated e-ink reader like the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite. Of course, the high-res color display does lend itself perfectly to magazines and comic books, and it's hard to compete with a backlog of Batman graphic novels in HD.

Dolby Atmos:

One of the main new features on the 2nd Generation Fire HDX 8.9, is the addition of Dolby's mobile Atmos technology for select movies, making it the world's first media tablet to offer such support. Similar to the company's Atmos tech for the home and theater, the mobile version of Atmos aims to deliver a true multi-dimensional audio experience with any pair of headphones, offering sound from all directions -- even from above. To achieve this, Atmos uses object-based mixing and binaural headphone rendering with head-related transfer functions. For more details on how the mobile version of Atmos works, check out Dolby's explanation here.

To demo Atmos on the Fire HDX, Dolby kindly included four sample videos. The first clip, titled "Audiosphere," features musical tones playing from different locations with on-screen graphics that light up to signify their spots in the virtual room. The sense of aural space was very impressive, and individual cues definitely sounded like they were coming from distinct areas. With that said, while some notes did give the impression of sounding like they were coming from above other notes, I never really got a sense that any effect was actually resonating from overhead.

The second clip, called "Amaze," features images of a rainforest along with various nature sounds. This was by far the most impressive of the clips and did the best job of highlighting Atmos' multidimensional sound. The audio was very immersive and it really felt like I was surrounded by crickets, even from behind. A specific moment when a bird flies overhead proved to be particularly noteworthy, and was one of the key instances when it really sounded like the effect was coming from above my head. Falling rain also had a general but much more disperse overhead sense.

For an example of a traditional music track recorded in Atmos, Dolby included a clip featuring a song by Trifonic. As the music track plays, a picture of a head appears on screen with floating graphics all around representing vocals, guitar, synth, and drums that shift as they move around the soundstage. This sounded quite good, with distinct and immersive musical elements, but I can't really say that the audio sounded that much different from a traditional mix.

Finally, no Atmos demo could be complete without an actual movie sample, and filling that role was 'Transformers: Age of Extinction.' The scene in question featured cars and boats falling out of a spaceship and lots of crashes and explosions (this is a Michael Bay movie, after all). Again, I found the mix to be very impressive overall, with distinct directional sounds coming from all angles, but I rarely got a true sense that effects were coming from above.

With its mobile debut, Atmos shows a lot of promise and the object-based mixing translates very well to headphone use. As the 'Amaze' clip demonstrates, the technology really is capable of creating a 360 degree soundfield and the simulated overhead effects can be convincing with the right material.

While you'll need headphones to take advantage of the Atmos experience, the integrated stereo speakers are decent for what they are, getting the job done just fine with fairly clear audio. With that said, they do offer a comparatively thin quality.  The volume can reach pretty high levels, but especially noisy environments will still be tricky to hear without headphones (though I could make due pretty well while watching YouTube clips in a loud laundromat). On the downside, I did notice some slight distortion on some material with the volume completely maxed out, and I ran into a glitch where the speakers had no audio after unplugging my headphones. Thankfully, simply plugging the headphones back in and taking them out again solved the problem.

Additional Features:

In addition to its seamless Prime integration, Amazon also offers a few extra perks and features here and there for its Fire users. First up, is the company's Mayday 24x7 help option. With the press of a button, this feature connects users to a tech advisor who can assist with any technical issues and even take control of your tablet for you. A little video window pops up on the bottom of the screen displaying the customer service rep (but don't worry, they can only hear you, not see you). Though Amazon tries to have an advisor up and running for you within 15 seconds of initiating Mayday, my first attempt took a little longer to connect (subsequent tries were speedier). Still, within 30 seconds I had my own personal IT advisor at my disposal... likely ready to simply tell me to turn the tablet off and then on again (kidding, of course). 

Beyond Mayday, Amazon has carried over a new feature dubbed Firefly from its Fire Phone. With Firefly, customers can use the tablet's camera and microphone to scan, listen for, and identify over 100 million images, logos, bar codes, movies, TV shows, and songs. In practice, this turns out to be a fairly reliable and amusing feature. With the camera I was able to successfully identify various Blu-ray titles in my collection and even the can of soda sitting on my desk. Likewise, the microphone picked up most of the songs I played and was even able to detect the exact scenes playing on several movies and TV shows I tested. Of course, once identified, Firefly gives users the option to buy whatever product it's honed in on through Amazon. While this might just be a novelty feature for some, I can see the app really coming in handy every now and then. I should point out, however, that the tablet did lock up once when using this feature. At first I received a message that said the camera could not connect, and eventually the the device simply crashed. Thankfully, this did not happen on repeated uses.

For those not satisfied with the tablet's 8.9-inch screen, the device also includes a Second Screen function that can sling Amazon Instant Video playback to compatible TVs or devices, freeing up the tablet to display X-Ray trivia and credits related to your content. Likewise, with the right cable, users can connect the tablet directly to a TV or monitor, and those with Miracast-enabled devices can even mirror the tablet wirelessly to a larger display.

Finally, Amazon also provides free unlimited cloud storage for all Amazon content, including photos that you take on the tablet. In addition, users get 5GB of free storage for any photos and files that they upload from their phone or computer. This is a pretty nice feature considering that the model's included 16GB can go pretty fast when downloading various multimedia files, and it could potentially alleviate a lot of the anxiety and pressure that can come from deciding what to download when your space is filling up.

Conclusion:

With their latest Fire HDX 8.9, Amazon has released one of their best tablets to date, offering a beautiful display, great multimedia performance, and some cool new features like Dolby Atmos and Firefly. While the Fire OS doesn't provide as many apps as Apple's iOS offerings or the Google Play Store, the essentials are all here -- and the tablet's seamless integration with Amazon's Prime suite of services is second to none. This isn't a tablet geared toward users looking for a complete laptop or desktop replacement, but as a portable multimedia device it's a very impressive product. Though the starting price of $379 isn't exactly cheap, this is the company's premium model and considering its specs and performance, it remains one of the top contenders in its class. Despite a few glitches here and there, the Fire HDX 8.9 comes highly recommended for all tablet buyers and is a perfect mobile companion for Amazon Prime users.

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