The first step when deciding which tablet to buy, as with any device, is to ask yourself how you’ll use it. If your primary purpose is to consume media — books, movies, television, magazines, newspapers, etc. — it’s becoming increasingly difficult to overlook Amazon’s Kindle Fire lineup.
The joke about the Kindle Fire is that it’s the “fruitcake of tablets” — very popular as a relatively inexpensive gift during the holidays, but not in high demand among people buying a device for themselves the rest of the year. Reflecting this tendency, Amazon’s tablets have experienced more extreme seasonality than other devices.
But increasingly, that status isn’t deserved. In fact, it would be a shame not to consider the Kindle Fire for yourself.
That’s my conclusion after spending the past few weeks with the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″, which starts at $379 for a 16GB version. Longtime readers will remember my efforts to incorporate the Microsoft Surface into my life, and I took a similar approach with this Kindle Fire review unit, on loan from Amazon — not only using the device myself but also giving it to members of my family for extended periods of time, to get a sense for their real-world experiences with the device.
GeekWire columnist Frank Catalano gave the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX a mixed review as a business device. (He did find a lot to like with the new “Mayday” help feature.) But for the most part, the HDX is a hit with my family. In fact, the Kindle Fire has taken the place of the iPad mini as the leading contender to succeed the Surface as the next tablet we buy for ourselves.
Books, newspapers, shows and apps
Especially if you’re a regular Amazon customer, the content and delivery infrastructure on the Kindle Fire are hard to beat. For example, if I buy The New York Times on my Kindle Paperwhite, the same copy of the newspaper is waiting in the carousel for me to download on the Kindle Fire, to read in color. Same with books, of course.
Content subscriptions are easy to set up, manage and cancel not only from the tablet but also from Amazon.com. I was able to effectively sample a wide range of magazines for free in this way, using 30-day trials with the confidence that I would be able to easily cancel. (You can get a sense for my content preferences in the image at top.)
And then there’s Kindle FreeTime. For parents of young children, this is a fantastic service, which lets you set up password-protected profiles for your kids, with time limits for different types of content and — best of all — a large library of books, apps and videos available for unlimited access with a monthly subscription fee.
The subscription starts at $4.99/month, or $2.99/month for people with existing $79/year Amazon Prime accounts. Yes, it’s an extra charge, but the selection of books and apps makes it worth it, at least in our experience. For example, the interactive Sandra Boynton apps that my daughter loves cost $3.99 each on the iPad, but they are all available as part of the Kindle FreeTime subscription package.
Multiplied across the wide variety of books and apps available through FreeTime, that’s a pretty sweet deal.
One bummer for me: I wasn’t able to play videos on Hulu in the Kindle Fire’s Silk browser in the same way as I can in Internet Explorer on Microsoft’s Surface 2. That’s because Hulu treats the Kindle Fire as a mobile device, serving up a limited sampling of videos and directing users to the premium Hulu Plus app for the full experience.
This is similar to the iPad experience. The Surface (yes, even the ARM-based version) is an exception in this regard, letting you play Hulu videos on the Microsoft tablet just as you would on a desktop or notebook computer.
Hardware and UI hits and misses
The Kindle Fire HDX, with an 8.9-inch display, is easy to hold in either portrait or landscape mode. It feels solid but light — 13.2 ounces compared with 16 ounces for the iPad Air, which has larger a 9.7-inch display. The screen of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ is in a nice sweet spot, not too big and not too small.
Amazon’s tablet has a quad-core 2.2 GHz processor, and other reviewers have praised its speed, but the device I’ve been testing has disappointed me at times with sporadic sluggishness. This shows up primarily when tapping a button or an icon: every once in a while the tablet takes a few beats longer than it should to respond, and sometimes it requires pressing a button or icon a second time.
I also have noticed this, for example, in some of the aforementioned Boynton apps, which can get jittery when trying to play music and read a story aloud. Skype calls (such as the one above) also seemed sluggish, although it’s difficult to know how much of this is a function of the apps vs. the hardware.
I do like how Amazon has placed the volume buttons and power switch on the back of the device. Holding the tablet in landscape mode, it’s quick and easy to reach back with your left index finger to turn the power off, or your right index finger to turn the volume up or down.
My biggest hardware feature request would be a physical home button in the bottom bezel of the tablet, similar to the one on the iPad or the Microsoft Surface. First, this would eliminate a step in the user interface. When reading a book or watching a movie, for example, you need to tap the screen, or slide a finger in from the edge, to bring up the menu that includes a virtual home button, which you can then tap.
Apart from requiring an extra step, this can cause additional confusion and misfires. In a book, for example, there is a fine invisible line between paging forward and bringing up the menu, making it easy to inadvertently turn a page when you’re intending to activate the menu.
A physical hardware button would also provide a better visual cue for the orientation of the tablet in your hands — i.e., whether you’re holding it upside down or rightside up. As with most phones and tablets, the screen flips and adjusts to how you’re holding it, so that’s not an issue, but of course the hardware buttons on the back of the device don’t change position.
Oftentimes, especially in low light when I can’t see the front-facing camera for a visual cue, I’ll reach to the back of the tablet with my finger, thinking I’m adjusting the volume on the right side, but instead I turn the tablet off because I’ve got it upside down, and the button I’m pressing is actually the power switch.
Other elements of the user interface are better. For example, the company has enhanced the experience by putting individual pieces of content — movies, magazines, newspapers, shows, etc. — in the home page carousel, letting users go quickly to specifically the content they want, without opening an app first.
This is further enhanced by a “Quick Switch” feature that brings up a slide-out mini carousel from essentially anywhere in the interface, letting users jump from a movie to a specific magazine, for example, without first going to the home screen.
If your tablet experience is primarily about consuming content, you should take a serious look at the Kindle Fire HDX.
My toddler may be the ultimate benchmark here. After getting accustomed to watching videos on the Surface over the past year, and even learning the Microsoft’s tablet’s name, she has made a quick transition to the Kindle Fire and the larger library of digital books and children’s apps on the Amazon tablet.
The first question she asks me at night now is whether she can use “the Kindle.”