A new holiday shopping season is upon us and that means a long parade of new consumer electronics, including, what else: tablets. With personal computers (laptops and desktops) starting to fade into the background, tablets remain must-have gizmos. Wall Street might focus a lot of its energies on Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone, but in reality the iPad is going to define Apple’s future.
For now, Apple is in a league of its own. Google (s goog) is pushing hard to catch up with its Nexus range of devices. Samsung and Sony have turned to Android to compete with Apple in this fast growing and very lucrative market. Tablets also play an important role in Amazon’s (s AMZN) future. It is one of the reasons why the company continues to pour both money and resources into its tablet efforts. If Apple’s tablet is an iPad, and Google’s tablet is known as Nexus, Amazon’s tablet is a Kindle Fire.
In September 2011, Amazon introduced its first generation tablets in the market. Amazon released two updated and newer versions of the Kindle Fire(s) in September 2013, the Kindle Fire HDX in 7-inch and 8.9-inch sizes. These devices have faster processors, brighter and better screens and are powered by what seems to be a much improved operating system: the Fire OS 3.0, which is essentially Amazon’s forked Android operating system.
Some early impressions
For past few days, I have had a chance to try out the new device and here are my very early and basic impressions. I say basic and early impressions, mostly because I believe that the true mettle of a device is realized after one has spent a considerable amount of time using it. (For instance, if I went with my first impression of iOS 7, I would have thrown the phone against the wall.) The total time I have spent on Kindle Fire HDX is a shade under 15 hours — or roughly 3 hours for everyday I have had it in my possession.
The look: When it comes to looks, the new 7 inch Kindle Fire HDX isn’t that different from many similar (Android) tablets, but it is slimmer, sleeker and thinner the 2012 version of Kindle Fire. It is about 23 percent lighter than the older version. The overall build quality (including the way it can be gripped in one’s hand) is fantastically improved compared to previous versions.
The power-on button is easier to access and the volume toggles are easily accessible, even when using one hand. When used as a simple web browsing device or as a book reader, I found it not too heavy (though heavier than the iPad Mini) and it didn’t strain my hands, especially when holding it in the palm of my hand. It has to do with some ergonomic design changes. The older model’s thickness made them less easy to hold for a longer period of time. Needless to say, all these are welcome cosmetic changes.
Under the hood: However, the real changes in Kindle Fire are actually under the hood. The new HDX display is one of the most gorgeous screens I have seen in a long time. I normally watch a TV show episode before going to sleep on my iPad Mini and a side-by-side comparison shows that the iPad Mini display is a generation behind. In low light conditions, the HDX display has much richer colors. I asked the folks from Amazon about how the HDX display compares with the Retina display and they shared the following:
At 2560 x 1600 pixels, Kindle HDX 8.9 has 30% more pixels than a comparable 9.7″ QXGA display. HDX 8.9’s 339 ppi is the highest resolution of any tablet display, exceeding the 264 ppi of a 9.7″ “Retina” tablet, and even the 326 ppi of a 4″ “Retina” phone. Kindle HDX 7″ is 323 ppi, the highest-resolution 7″ tablet display on the market.
As far as I am concerned, I am going to go with my very unscientific test: how my eyes react to the displays. The iPad Retina Display on the larger iPad still feels richer and is easier on the eyes, especially when watching movies and television shows. Being older, I find both the Retina and the regular iPad Mini screens a little difficult to use for reading after an hour of usage. The book reading experience, however, is better on the Amazon Kindle Fire’s HDX display.
Big boy processor: Another place where the new Kindle Fire HDX has improved is in the underlying processing technology. The device uses a 2.2 GHz processor that results in about three times the processing power vs. last year’s device. Similarly, it has twice has as much RAM compared to last year’s device and it has four times the graphics performance over the 2012 model. As a result, content loads faster, websites are loading faster and just the overall experience of flipping through a carousel is silky smooth.
What this means is that the visual interactions with the device are fluid and fast, and feel more natural than any other Android device I have used so far. I still find iPad Mini (from 2012) is a smoother experience, but the HDX is pretty nifty. Amazon said the battery is supposed to last about 11 hours of mixed use — I got about 5 hours of video, books and web browsing usage. (Amazon said that if we are in reading mode, the processor goes into low-power mode and as a result the battery can last for 17 hours.)
Shopper’s delight: From its inception, the Kindle Fire was designed to boost usage of Amazon’s services: whether it was buying content such as music, books and movies from them or simply using their ecommerce store for ordering toilet paper, towels or turmeric. The Kindle Fire HDX is probably the best tablet-based shopping experience. The use of lush colors and simple layouts as well as the ability to easily sift through hundreds of items makes you realize the limitations of the Amazon store in a web browser. Amazon’s iOS apps — ecommerce, Kindle and Prime Video — that are available on iPad look positively old fashioned and archaic compared to the Amazon Fire HDX. I would say this is a device that would make me buy more digital content from Amazon. (It helps that all of that content is available on other platforms including Apple, making it more useful.)
Software, etc.: The Kindle Fire HDX comes with a lot of software and has tons of new features including enterprise compatibility and the availability of a Mayday button that allows you to access live human support. I have not had to use it, so to be honest I have no idea how good it really is. There is X-Ray for Music and there is X-Ray for Movies & TV, which are pretty clever ways to give you context and color to what you are watching. I think they are cute, but I can live without it.
However, there’s one feature I do love: Prime Instant Video downloads (in addition to streaming) for offline viewing. I found both Facebook and Twitter accounts easy to set up and use on the HDX. There are subtle improvements in the Fire OS which has helped non-Amazon “apps” such as Pandora better.
The Kindle Fire keyboard is far easier to use than the standard Android keyboard. That said, email and other productivity related apps that are available in the app store are nothing to write home about; and frankly, I wouldn’t use this device for content creation. Shopping, positively yes; searching, maybe; but working on documents and emails, probably not.
What’s missing: This tablet doesn’t have LTE and for me, without LTE tablets are a non-starter. I love the ability to use my iPad Mini anywhere, anytime and not look for a Wi-Fi network. The Fire HDX needs that and the good news is that we can get one of these with LTE connection in early November and at present can pre-order the LTE version. There is a new Fire OS 3.1 coming which will have even more robust features, but that’s a topic for another day.
Great as it might be, the Kindle Fire HDX isn’t going to be my primary tablet. I am going to stick with iPad Mini — it feels lighter, it has a better ecosystem of applications (that make sense to me) and more importantly, I find it easier to use for emails and lightweight document creation in addition to some photo editing. And if Apple does introduce a higher-end retina display version, even better.
That said, I am actively and seriously considering making the $229 16 GB version of Kindle Fire HDX as my auxiliary tablet and ebook reader. Yes, it is not cheap, but given how much of my life resides on Amazon’s servers — books, movies and music — and how often I order stuff for my home from Amazon, it will be a worthwhile investment. Maybe Amazon should offer this at a discount to its Amazon Prime customers!