Amazon isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of Android devices, and that’s understandable – the internet giant took Android and stripped it down to a basic operating system that is geared primarily to consuming Amazon content.
If you live in Amazon’s walled garden, that’s perfectly fine, but how good are the Kindle Fires for a regular Android user? Sure, the price tag is enticing, but is that enough to balance the limited ecosystem and incompatibility with Google’s apps?
We’ll try to answer these questions, and some more, in our Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 review.
Design and build quality
The days when Kindle was synonymous with monochrome displays that were great for reading and not much else are long gone. The third generation Kindle Fire is a fully-fledged tablet that can go toe to toe with just about any competitor. And this shows in the HDX 7’s design and build quality: while its appearance is subdued for the most part, the device has a nice feel and a few design traits that set it apart from the competition.
On the front, the massive bezels stand out a bit, especially if you compare the HDX 7 with competing Android and iOS offerings. Chunky as they are, the bezels do have a big benefit – they make it really easy to hold the tablet, giving you a nice spot to rest your thumbs in portrait or in landscape mode. At 311 grams, the Fire HDX is just a bit heavier than the Nexus 7, but it’s lighter than the iPad Mini 2. The soft touch of the rubbery back cover further improves grip.
The sides of the Kindle Fire HDX are slanted outwards, but you may not notice it until you see that the USB cable or the headphones plug in at a slight angle. This doesn’t take away from the experience, it’s just something we rarely see these days. The angle motif continues on the back, which is a combination of rubbery and glossy materials, reminding us of the design of Google’s Nexus 7. The power and volume buttons on the chamfered sides are round and concave, another design choice that sets the Kindle Fire apart from most devices out there. You may not find them very elegant, but they are easy to spot and press, without having to move your fingers from the holding position.
The orientation of the glossy Amazon logo and buttons clearly indicate that the Kindle Fire HDX 7 is made to be used in landscape mode, ideal for watching movies rented from, where else, Amazon. In this position, the dual stereo speakers are on the top, on the glossy plastic band, so they won’t suffer much from muffling.
Overall, the Kindle Fire HDX 7 feels utilitarian, rather than elegant, with its rubbery cover and conspicuous buttons. It doesn’t look premium, for sure, but that was probably on purpose.
The Kindle Fire HDX is a media consumption machine, through and through. So it’s great that Amazon equipped it with an excellent IPS LCD of Full HD resolution, on par with any other 7-inch tablet out there. In terms of crispness, the 322ppi Fire HDX 7 is on the same level with the Nexus 7 (2013) and iPad Mini 2, making reading small text a pleasure.
Brightness is excellent, so reading in daylight won’t be a problem, though it’s obviously no match for the perfect legibility of E-ink Kindle readers. Watching movies is a joy, thanks to the vivid colors and good contrast levels, and the fine details of video are crystal clear in Full HD.
Amazon didn’t skimp here: the Kindle Fire HDX 7’s screen is as good as they get.
Performance and hardware
Another area where, thankfully, Amazon didn’t skimp is the processing package. You get a Snapdragon 800 processor, coupling four Krait 400 CPU cores running at up to 2.3GHz with an Adreno 330 GPU, along with 2GB of RAM. At least until next year’s generation comes along, this is the best configuration you can get on an Android tablet. Not only is hardware up to snuff, but the simplistic Android-based Fire OS won’t put much strain on it, so the user interface is buttery smooth.
In terms of storage, there are 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB options available, though we can’t really recommend the base version, which has less than 10GB of storage space. Downloading high definition content will quickly fill it up, and there’s no expandable storage to fall back to. Sure, Amazon has a vast collection of cloud offerings, but even so, 32GB or 64GB are just better.
You get a modicum of camera functionality thanks to the front facing 1.3MP webcam, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and that’s about it. You can acquire the Kindle Fired HDX 7 with LTE connectivity, though the version that we tested was WiFi only.
Complementing the great display, the stereo speakers do a surprisingly good job. Not only they are loud enough that you will rarely have to pump up the volume to the max, but they also have a sense of dimension to them, probably thanks to the Dolby enhancements.
Another solid component is the 4550 mAh battery that Amazon rates at 11 hours of usage, a claim backed by our own unscientific test based on binge video watching.
While the Kindle Fire HDX lacks bells and whistles like NFC, rear camera, or microSD, all the essentials are present and of good quality.
Software and ecosystem
This is the department where Amazon’s Kindle Fire strays away from what we’re generally used to in the world of Android.
Amazon tore down Google’s free operating system and rebuilt it in its own image. That means most of the elements you associate with Android are gone, replaced by a minimalist interface centered on a carousel that displays the most recently used apps and media. Swipe up from the carousel and you are shown all the installed apps, in giant, cheerful icons. Above the carousel, there’s a menu that directs you to Amazon’s various offerings, such as Books, Apps, Music, Video, and of course an app for browsing through the retail giant’s catalog.
As an Android fork, Amazon’s Fire OS, which is now on version 3, codenamed Mojito, doesn’t have Google’s blessing, and more importantly, Google’s apps. Staples like Gmail, Google Maps, or YouTube are nowhere to be found, leaving users to do with alternative services or to use the web version of Google’s services. The good news is that, while you’ll miss the power and speed of a native app, you should do pretty well with the web apps alone. And, if you must have your apps, Amazon does offer some basic, yet functional ones, for stuff like email and calendars.
Many of the top apps in the Play Store are available on the Kindle through Amazon’s Appstore, including big names like Facebook or Evernote. As a last resort, you can even sideload applications designed for Android to the Fire HDX 7, which is fairly easy and quick. Not all sideloaded apps work well, and not everyone has the time or skill to do it, but it’s an option.
The sole reason for the Kindle Fire to exist is the huge catalog of, well, everything that Amazon peddles through it. From diapers to laptops, from ebooks to TV series, you can buy anything on the Fire HDX, quickly and without hassle, especially if you subscribe to Prime, Amazon’s premium service that gives you free shipping and free access to Instant Video.
For parents, the Kindle Fire HDX 7 has a nifty little feature called FreeTime, that allows them to set a time limit on activities that kids can do on the device, such as web browsing, watching video, using apps, or reading.
The most striking feature of Fire OS 3, though, is Mayday, the video-based customer support channel that’s built right into the OS. Just drop down the notification shade, press the Mayday button, and in 15 seconds at most (so Amazon claims) you will be in contact with a support representative, ready to walk you through the OS, help you troubleshoot, or simply answer your questions. The support reps can see your screen and even draw on it, but they can’t see you. Mayday may not be a compelling feature if you’re a techie, but for so many less savvy users, it’s a godsend. And, regardless if you need it or not, it impresses through its speed and simplicity.
Depending on the configuration you choose, the Kindle Fire HDX 7 can set you back between $229 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi Only version with Special Offers, and $424, for the 64GB, LTE model with no Special Offers. Special Offers is basically an ad subsidy – you get to buy the device for $15 less and in exchange Amazon gets to display ads on the lockscreen of the device. It’s not as obtrusive as it sounds, because you only see the ads when you unlock the screen.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 is a great little tablet. It has high-end specs, a beautiful, crisp display, nice speakers, and solid battery life. In terms of hardware, it’s exactly what you need from a tablet geared for entertainment and consuming media. Games are speedy, watching movies is a joy, as it is reading and shopping for content.
If you’re perfectly happy with the Amazon ecosystem, you don’t really need more than the Kindle Fire HDX. However, know that you will be missing out Google’s entire set of apps, as well as on many Android apps that you won’t be able to run on your Kindle. Also, Fire OS is far less flexible than Android, though again, that might not matter unless you’re a power user.