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firehdx1When the Kindle Fire HDX was first released, I read reviews that raved how this Kindle finally added business-friendly features, enough to garner it the blessing of corporate IT departments.

Apparently, none of the reviewers had actually tried to use those features.

Sure, the HDX is beautiful and easily the most functional Kindle Fire yet. I purchased a 7-inch WiFi model to replace both an ancient second-generation e-Ink Kindle that I used for airplane reading and an aging original Fire that I occasionally used for web browsing.

By comparison, the HDX is stunning: a 323ppi display (downloaded 1080p video looks remarkable). It’s speedy with a quad-core processor, 2GB RAM and improved Silk browser. And, it’s light. At 10.7 ounces, it’s virtually indistinguishable in my hand from the 10.2 ounce second-gen Kindle. Plus, it’s slightly smaller.

HDX is work-app friendly
HDX is work-app friendly

At a recent professional conference, an attendee seated next to me watched as I took notes, browsed and tweeted on the HDX for a few minutes before asking if I, like her, had an iPad Mini. A flight attendant on the return trip from Atlanta peppered me with questions before concluding it had all the functions she needed. It’s that much of an improvement for Amazon’s Fire line – and a lot less money than buying Apple.

But the hard-core business features? In a word so far: Meh.

As a road warrior, I’m more likely to relegate this Fire to a table nearer the executive assistant than the corner office. With that qualification, there is plenty of general productivity goodness:

  • Email and calendar. The integrated email and calendar apps were unexpectedly fast and painless when it came to setting up my personal Gmail and my business Google Apps account. (This is even more surprising when you realize that no Google applications are available from Amazon’s arch-rival in the Appstore.) Amazon says it also smoothly supports Microsoft Exchange through ActiveSync on the HDX, a connection I haven’t yet tried.
  • Video conferencing. The Skype app is readily available and, with a Fire-first front-facing 720p camera, works smoothly and well for remotely attending meetings.
  • Battery life. Amazon touts 11 hours “mixed use.” Thanks to the relaxed FAA personal electronics rules (I bought my HDX during Amazon’s one-day “Thank You FAA” sale), I used the HDX gate-to-gate on a two-hour and then connecting six-hour flight, watching a movie (Amelie, a free Prime Instant Video download – itself a new HDX feature), reading a Daniel Silva novel, connecting to Gogo Internet, and doing an absurd amount of tweeting and emailing. I still had 30% battery life left after all that.
  • Apps. There appear to be more available apps in Amazon’s carefully walled garden of an app store for the HDX than for the original Fire, including those I consider business and travel essentials: Evernote (notes), Remember the Milk (tasks), Lookout (antivirus), HP Print Plugin (remote printing), UberSocial (Twitter), AccuWeather (weather), Alaska Airlines (travel) and Words With Friends (networking). I was able to replicate my usual Android smartphone business app contingent without any trouble.
  • WiFi. The WiFi settings make it extremely straightforward to setup or quickly re-connect to a familiar network. It’s what you’d expect from Android (the HDX’s Fire OS 3 is based on Android 4.2.2), but the HDX is dual-band, has dual WiFi antennae and supports 802.11 protocols from a through n, easing connections.
Coming Soon, but don't blink: these changed almost overnight
Coming Soon, but don’t blink: these changed almost overnight

Then, there are the business disappointments, all of which looked good on the spec sheet but in real life, deserved an asterisk or two:

  • OfficeSuite. Amazon’s claim: “view Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations.” Reality: That’s it – view. OfficeSuite is embedded into the HDX; it doesn’t show up with other apps on the main screen and the only way to determine it’s even there is to go deep into Fire’s settings. OfficeSuite’s File Browser function (oddly listed in its linked help file) is disabled, and forget creating a document since you can’t launch OfficeSuite directly. The single method I could find to open a Microsoft Office file was to click on it when, say, it was attached to an email. And should you then click Edit? You’re prompted to “Install OfficeSuite Pro: Create and edit documents on the go.” For $14.99, discounted when I tried it to $4.99.
  • Keyboard. Amazon claims, and the HDX indeed has, a touch keyboard. But it is of the most vanilla variety. What business person doesn’t need a % key? Even my standard Android smartphone keyboard has one. So does the original Fire. But just try to find % on the HDX. I couldn’t. I pressed and held keys at random until the % popped up as one of several options for the # key. It’s the same with some other special characters. (Perhaps Amazon decided having accounting symbols handy wasn’t helping its P&L calculations, so why bother?) And the Amazon Appstore offers no alternative keyboards that I could find. I gave up looking and purchased one of many external Bluetooth keyboards that work well with the HDX.
  • VPN. Amazon’s claim: “a native VPN client to connect remotely to your corporate network using the IPSec, L2TP or PPTP protocols.” Reality: When I first tried to determine how to use it to connect via the popular VPN service WiTopia (which I did on my much-older Android phone), there was no way to access VPN settings on the HDX itself. David and Travis at WiTopia support and I exchanged several emails, and they noted that it looked like the HDX only directly would “support corporate ‘enterprise’ VPNs” that issue security certificates. Then, literally as I was writing this, Amazon pushed out Fire OS 3.1. It now allows VPN profiles to be directly added. Great, but no points for the earlier wasted time and confusion.
Dueling work feature pages confuse, for now
Dueling work feature pages confuse, for now

Clearly, as the VPN back-and-forth shows, some of Amazon’s asterisks are self-inflicted. Features are promoted online but only vaguely described or labeled as “Coming Soon” (and not always consistently, across two web pages extolling the Fire’s work friendliness). Either still to come or already implemented for the enterprise are device encryption, single sign-on and certificate enrollment.

The unevenness reminds me of the frustration educators initially encountered when they wanted to buy Kindles for classrooms. Schools had no easy way to manage apps or content across all devices, and there was a mystifying five-device-per-purchase limit (not quite workable in 30-student classrooms). Amazon has since overcome both obstacles, so there is hope as the rollout of Fire OS 3.1 and its work features portends.

Would I recommend an HDX to the individual business road warrior?

Based on the price – for in-transit email, calendar management and entertainment – it’s not yes, it’s hell yes. (Just make sure you buy the $269 32GB model; the $229 16GB base version doesn’t have quite enough usable storage to download more than about three movies at 1080p for offline viewing, and a continuing Fire drawback is the lack of an SD card slot or other expandable storage.) I’m easily getting my money’s worth without popping an eye-popping amount for an equivalent iPad Mini, or moving to the less mature or integrated content ecosystem of a similarly priced Google Nexus 7.

But for everyday productive business use or for the enterprise, it’s still a hopeful, qualified maybe. Amazon’s Fire HDX in the workplace, overall, deserves the digital label, “Coming (Fingers Crossed) Soon.”

Editor’s note: GeekWire’s Todd Bishop has been testing the Kindle Fire HDX as a family tablet for the past few weeks, and will be sharing his perspective in the coming days.

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