AMAZON HAS ADDED to its tablet family with the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″. The tablet is a larger version of the 7in model introduced by Amazon last year, and aims to please those users looking for a high-quality screen in the more traditional larger form factor. This review first appeared on sister title V3.co.uk
The Kindle Fire HD has improved on its smaller sibling with a larger and higher-quality display, but the issues around performance and usability remain.
Low cost, screen quality, carousel interface
Sluggish performance, battery life
Overall Rating: four out of five
Price: £229 for 16GB; £259 for 32GB
Design and build
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 measures 239x163x9mm, putting it at about the same height at the 241mm tall iPad, but significantly narrower in width for both the device itself and the screen, losing around one inch of width from the display.
The Fire HD 8.9 weighs 567g, which will feel a little lighter if you’re used to the full-size iPad at 652g, but you lose the high-end aluminium Apple casing and gain a plastic one.
Amazon is pretty coy about the materials used for the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, but it seems to be toughened plastic surrounding the Gorilla Glass screen, so again this should stand up pretty well to any bumps and scrapes. However, we did notice it picking up fingerprints more than other touch screen devices we’re used to.
On the outside, the Fire HD 8.9 has a headphone jack, volume up/down and power buttons on the top, and micro HDMI and micro USB ports along the right-hand side.
The Fire HD features an 8.9in HD display with 1920×1200 resolution at 254ppi. As with the 7in model, we often found we needed to press the touchscreen twice to get it to perform the desired action, as it requires a hard push down.
The use of In-Plane Switching (IPS) and an advanced polarising filter have also been included, designed to improve colours while viewing the screen from any angle.
We found that watching video, viewing photos and browsing the web is a pleasant experience, and this seems to be an improvement on the 7in model, with text much crisper when zooming in. Image and video playback was generally sharp and clear, with good colour detail.
Next: Performance, operating system
We were keen to see whether the larger Fire HD model would have sped things up a bit, as this was an area where we really weren’t impressed with the smaller Kindle Fire HD. Running a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 1.5Ghz dual-core processor, and with an Imagination SGX544 graphics engine capable of over 12 billion floating point operations per second, double that of the previous model, we expected fast and fluid performance.
As with the original Fire HD, video playback and games did ran smoothly, and the addition of Dolby Digital Plus for audio gives clear sound from the tablet, and can be cranked up to a loud volume when watching films or TV programmes, or listening to music.
However, the 8.9 model is let down by the same sluggish performance for web browsing which its smaller sibling suffered from. Apps and websites were slow to open and load, taking four or five seconds each time, and text takes a few seconds to render properly when zooming in or out on web pages. The tablet is also slow to rotate between landscape and portrait, taking a couple of seconds between each rotation.
Once you’ve got through the eight welcome screens, you’ll find that the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 runs a heavily modified version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich. This was acceptable on the previous Amazon tablet out in 2012, but is feeling a bit outdated for a new model launching into the UK in April 2013. While it was really quick and easy to set up the device from the box, we didn’t find the OS very intuitive to use.
The home screen is separated into two main sections, with a carousel taking up the most prominent space on the screen which will scroll through your recent content, and a row of 12 sections listed at the top of the screen, including search, books, music and web.
You can easily add or remove any of the items from the carousel by pressing on them – again, make sure you give a hard press for this – or add them to the favourites section, which you can access via the star icon in the right-hand corner. You can then access your favourites from any page you happen to be on in your tablet, and we also like the Android feature that gives each app its own settings menu.
The main issue we have with the OS is navigation. There’s no settings button on the home screen, for example. Instead this is accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen to access notifications, and then click the +More button on the right. And being left-handed, we didn’t find the right-hand positioning of the task bar very helpful when using the tablet in landscape mode, and couldn’t find a way to change this via settings.
We weren’t greatly impressed with the Silk browser running Bing search. We didn’t find web searches were quick to run, and pages took a while to load. When you hit the + symbol in the top right hand corner, you can visit your bookmarks, history or a starter section, which offers your most visited sites, along with trending pages and selected sites. However, as with the previous model, the trending pages were often days-old news stories.
Next: Apps, business support
Amazon ships the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” with a small selection of apps pre-installed. These include Skype, IMDB and OfficeSuite, along with standard fodder like email, contacts and calendar. The email and calendar apps were easy and quick to sync with our Gmail account and Google Calendar.
Amazon is very coy on the actual number of apps available via its app store. As of September 2012, Amazon reportedly offered 50,000 apps, paling in comparison to the 688,000 on the Google Play store for Android users as of this April, and the more than 775,000 in the Apple App Store as of this January, with 300,000 of those native to the iPad.
We didn’t come across many missing apps when searching for our favourites. Twitter and Facebook are there, while we also found Spotify, Sonos and Rightmove. But we couldn’t get some popular apps like the Sky Sports app, along with some more niche faves of ours that are available through Android and iOS like the Sky+ recording app and the Westfield shopping centre app.
There are some glitches with Amazon’s overlay of the Android platform regarding apps, for example if you visit Google Drive, you’ll get a pop-up sending you to the app store to download the Drive app – which isn’t actually available in the Amazon market.
Another failing from our viewpoint is the lack of an alternative browser. There are no Chrome or Firefox apps in the Amazon app store, only paid sync tools allowing you to get your bookmarks or history, so you’re stuck with the Silk browser. However, the browser app on the Fire HD 8.9″ is fairly intuitive, and it’s easy to open new tabs, save favourite pages and fairly speedy to load up web content.
One thing to note is that fans of the BBC will need to download the additional Media Player app if they wish to view iPlayer content, while other Flash-based sites also won’t work. This is because the Fire HD 8.9” is running a version of Android that doesn’t support Flash, and Amazon hasn’t added its own support.
When we reviewed the 7in Kindle in November 2012, the main complaint about the device from V3 readers was the lack of Flash support, and the fact this has been carried over to the larger screen model will no doubt annoy some users. However, Flash is also barred on the iPhone and iPad, and all the latest smartphones and tablets running Android, so this isn’t a criticism that can be levelled at Amazon alone.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9” has a few features that may make it attractive as a business device. Through the security settings, you can set a lock-screen password or set up your tablet to access the company VPN by downloading an available compatible VPN app from the likes of Cisco or F5.
The process of hooking up the tablet to our company Exchange server proved tricky, and we ended up having to tweak the mail server name, removing the word ‘mailbox’, to finally get access, after several attempts.
Once this process is completed successfully, you can then get your work email in a separate folder, as well as a combined view with any web-based mail services like Gmail and Hotmail, along with your Outlook calendar and contacts.
However, on the plus side, Amazon has pre-loaded the OfficeSuite app, which lets you store and view documents such as spreadsheets and PDFs. We were also given a Kindle email address to send any work documents to, and these appeared within seconds in the cloud area of Docs. We were then able to easily open and view the Word of PDF files, and save notes about the text – although you can’t edit the original text itself.
Next: Amazon eco-system, camera, battery
One of the key selling points for the Kindle Fire HD is giving an integrated experience for those already using a Kindle e-reader and Amazon’s music store. The Books feature is a replica of your Kindle, with the familiar buttons and options, along with all the books and documents from your Amazon e-reader.
You can read part of a book on your Kindle e-reader, which will then sync with the Fire HD so you can pick up the book again at the most recent page on your tablet. As has often been said, tablet screens aren’t ideal book-reading devices due to screen glare; we found the sepia colour mode the best option for reading books on the Fire HD.
We also liked how easy it is to sync and share other content on the Kindle, for example the Photos feature automatically pulls through all your Facebook albums.
For music, you can download from the 20 million songs on Amazon MP3, or download music from your PC onto your Fire HD via USB. Amazon has done a deal with Lovefilm for movie and TV streaming, accessed via the Videos tab. You’re supposed to get a free month’s trial to this service when you buy a Fire HD but we didn’t get offered this and were instead asked to sign up for £4.99 per month.
The Fire HD 8.9” doesn’t include a standard camera, unlike many other tablets. While you can’t take pictures using the tablet, it does support video calling via a front-facing camera. This can only be launched through the pre-loaded Skype app or other apps that support video calling such as Facebook; there’s no way to open up the front-facing camera via the desktop. Video calling through these apps worked fine, with a clear picture and no more lag than would be expected using video chat on any device over Wi-Fi.
Amazon quotes more than 10 hours’ worth of reading, web surfing over Wi-Fi, video watching or music playback for the Kindle HD 8.9”, but qualifies this by saying that battery life will vary based on device settings and usage.
We managed to get 90 minutes of web browsing and three hours of video playback, switching between Netflix and the iPlayer out of the Kindle. Even though we had the screen set at full brightness for the whole time, we’d still have expected the Kindle to manage at least half of its quoted battery life.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9” boasts 16GB or 32GB of storage space, with 12.7GB and 27.1GB available to the user respectively, plus free unlimited cloud storage for all of your Amazon content such as books via the Kindle store and music via Amazon MP3.
This should be enough for plenty of books and music, as long as you’re happy to be tied into the Amazon eco-system, although it could run out quickly if you like to store lots of HD media on your tablet. As Amazon highlights, one HD movie will take up around 2GB of space, and you can’t use the cloud facility for content that has been loaded onto the device from your PC or elsewhere.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9” costs £229 for the 16GB version, and for 32GB it’s £259.
However, we’d advise splashing out the extra £10 at purchase point, or after registering the device, in order not to endure the annoying adverts every time you open the lock screen on your tablet. As we mentioned when reviewing the 7in version, we don’t think it’s on that Amazon charges you to not have its adverts on a piece of hardware you’re laying out more than £200 for.
The Kindle Fire HD has improved on its smaller sibling with a larger and higher-quality display, and the carousel has certainly grown on us since first use with the 7in model, but the issues around performance and usability remain. The tablet is a good buy for anyone already tied into the Amazon eco-system, and has some business-friendly features, but it’s not as slick a user experience as other models out there, even in its low-cost price bracket.
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