By most measures, Amazon Kindle Fires are the most successful Android tablets on the market. Now, with the introduction of three new models, it’s quite likely the company will only tighten its grip on the lead. At its Seattle, Wash., headquarters Tuesday, Amazon revealed the latest generation of Kindle Fires: the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9-inch, the Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch and the latest Kindle Fire HD.
Of the three, the two HDX models certainly raise the bar for pure power and screen resolution.
Both are the first tablets to run Qualcomm’s powerful Snapdragon 800 processor, and they’re doing so at 2.2 GHZ, which is essentially desktop speed in a hand-held device. For those of you who saw Qualcomm’s CES 2013 keynote, you may remember that this is the chip that can power 4K (Ultra HD) video from a mobile device.
The Kindle HDX tablets also have screen resolutions that are starting to make “Retina Display” look quaint. Under the Fire HDX 8.9-inch’s Gorilla Glass screen is a 2560 x 1600 display with 339 pixels per inch. In comparison, the iPad Retina, which also has a larger, 9.7-inch screen, offers 264 ppi.
Even the tinier Fire HDX 7-inch has a whopping 323 ppi in its 1920 x 1200 display. The iPad Miniwith standard display only has 163 ppi.
Along with the quad-core Snapdragon, Amazon is supporting those HD-plus screens with 2 GB of RAM.
Overall, the company is promising three times better performance than its previous generation of HD devices, and four times the graphics processing power.
To go along with those powerful specs, Amazon has once again redesigned the tablet’s magnesium bodies, although they remain black. Both Fire HDX devices feature sharper edges and noticeable chamfers (or bezels) that actually change in size as you move along the base of the tablets, giving them both an edgier, more futuristic look.
The back of the tablets still have that soft, almost rubberized feel, but now boldly feature a large Amazon logo. These are Fire devices, but nothing is more important to Amazon than its relationship with consumers.
What’s more, Amazon made the right decision to move both the power/sleep button and volume fully to the back, along the chamfers. The controls are also somewhat raised from the body and in white type; this is a welcome change, considering how hard it was to find the power and volume buttons on previous models.
Despite the new components and redesign, each Kindle Fire HDX is thinner and lighter than its predecessor. The 8.9-inch tablet is 13.2 ounces — that’s a significant weight reduction from the roughly 22 ounces of Amazon’s first, large-format tablet. In comparison, the 9.7-inch iPad weighs approximately 20 ounces.
While the Fire HDX 7-inch has a front-facing camera, the HDX 8.9-inch adds an 8-megapixel forward-facing camera capable of 1080p video, as well as burst and panoramic photography.
Amazon rarely talks about Android when unveiling new Fire devices and, true to form, it didn’t go into detail about the exact OS version that consumers will find on the new Kindle Fire HDX tablets. The company did confirm, however, that the devices provide a snapshot of Jelly Bean, which would lead me to guess that they’re running 4.3.
Still, Amazon was much more interested in talking about Fire OS, which is the customized version of Android running on the tablets. It features rewrites of Android’s graphics pipeline and the Amazon-centric and cloud-based services found on the Kindle Fire HDX devices.
Fire OS 3.0 brings with it “hundreds” of other enhancements, but the most noticeable ones include a new task switcher (which you drag in from the side of the screen), an app and content grid that you can choose to default to instead of the carousel, a redesigned Silk browser (based on Google’s Chromium) that features improved server-side caching and a new rendering engine, and a rewritten email client that now includes threaded conversations.
The Fire HDX tablets will also include second-screen support. Unlike the iPad and Apple TV, the content is not coming from your tablet. Instead, this second screen works more like Google’sChromecast, streaming content from the cloud directly to your HDTV or tablet, while the Fire HDX tablet remains a control screen that features in-sync X-Ray info. I saw this in action, and it looked pretty smooth; however, it will only support Samsung Smart TVs and PlayStation 3 upon launch (PlayStation 4 support will arrive later this year).
May Day Button
What will likely become one of Amazon’s most talked-about new features is May Day under quick settings. The soft button launches Amazon’s free, 24-7, 365-days-a-year tech-support system, which includes live one-way video chat help. Assistance can draw on your screen, and even change settings for you.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who demonstrated May Day for press, said, “We’re setting an internal goal of responding to most May Day requests in 15 seconds or less.” He added, “This marriage of high-tech and heavy-lifting is something that Amazon is particularly accustomed to.”
You can read more about it, here. And read my in-depth interview with Jeff Bezos, here.
New Content Options
X-Ray gets an upgrade. Driven by data from the Amazon-owned Internet Movie Database, X-Ray gives you details about any television or film actor in real-time, simply by clicking on them. With Fire OS 3.0, X-Ray introduces Trivia, an already popular part of IMDB.
X-Ray for music is also new, and helps customers get the title for any song playing in a show or movie and, naturally, buy that music directly from Amazon. What’s more, for every song you purchase from Amazon, you can view licensed lyrics (“We went ahead and did it legally,” Bezos quipped). The lyrics are synchronized with the song, so if you scrub through them, the song will scrub forward and back to stay in sync.
In the Office
According to a Forrester report, Amazon’s Kindles tie with Samsung Galaxy devices for second place as the tablet of choice for U.S. information workers. Now, the company’s tablets are making an even bigger play for the corporate market.
The new OS and HDX hardware components add features such as component-level encryption, secure Wi-Fi support, corporate VPN compatibility and wireless printing.
Despite the increased power, Amazon promised that both HDX tablets would get you roughly 11 hours of battery life per charge. What’s even more interesting, however, is if the HDX tablet detects that you’re reading, it switches to a low-powered processing mode to get you 17 hours of battery life, according to Amazon. This mode does not apply to magazine reading, though.
Speaking of magazines, those new issues will look great on the HDX devices, but the higher-resolution screens will eventually mean larger file sizes. Amazon said customers can ameliorate this by using unlimited cloud storage (for purchased content) and progressive downloads.
If you ever admired the Versacover for iPad, you’re in luck. Amazon has a similar design for its own Origami Kindle Fire HD case. It comes in six colors, and houses the new HDX tablet bodies while covering their Gorilla Class screens. The case also folds up much like how the Versacover does.
What’s more, it allows both Fire HDX tablets to stand in either portrait or landscape mode. Its origami shape is held together by magnets. The case also has a neat trick reserved for the 8.9-inch model. If you slide it down roughly an inch on the tablet’s body, it reveals the camera and automatically launches the camera app.
Options and Availability
Amazon is now offering LTE versions for both the 7-inch and 8.9-inch HDX models, and it’s expanded the number of mobile broadband provider options: The Kindle Fire HDX is now on AT&T and Verizon.
Along with the two HDX devices, Amazon also revealed a new Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7-inch device that looks a lot like the 7-inch HDX, but is actually heavier. It features an HD screen — although it’s lower resolution than the HDX — and last year’s processor. The HD 7-inch starts at $139 for the base 8 GB model (with Offers).
The Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch 16 GB model starts at $229 (with Offers), and is available for pre-order now, but won’t ship until Oct. 18. The 4 GB version is listed at $329, and ships on Nov. 14.
The 8.9-inch model starts at $379 for 16 GB (with Offers), and is also avaialble for pre-order now, but won’t ship until Nov. 14. A $479 LTE edition is also on pre-order now, and ships in mid-December.
For those turned off by the Offers advertising program, which consists of prestitial product offers and ads that appear when the Kindle is in sleep mode, Amazon has sweetened the deal. The company will offer exclusive, time- and quantity-limited offers for Kindle owners only, starting with a $5 deal for Madden NFL 25. While these are limited, Amazon said you can still find available deals –- for as long as they’re live — in the Offers tab.
While I didn’t get a lot of time to play with the new tablets, I did hold them quite a bit, and got to go through some of the screens. I saw many of the OS updates, but could still recognize it as a Kindle Fire interface (this is no iOS 7-level redesign). At one point, I played a console-style racing game; the screen looked as sharp as you would imagine, and the game’s graphics and responsiveness were impressive.
Both Kindle Fire HDX devices felt great to hold — they’re light, yet don’t feel cheap or breakable. The new 7-inch HD looks mostly the same as the HDX 7-inch, but as soon as I held the more powerful tablet, the weight difference was noticeable.