Amazon has built a killer budget media tablet in the new Kindle Fire HD 8.9. With a solid design, top-notch media store, affordable data plan, and robust parental controls, this tablet is a great choice for families on a budget. Nope, it's no iPad. But at this price, more than $200 less (for the base Wi-Fi model) than Apple's competing tablet, it doesn't have to be.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is available in several models. Without cellular, the 16GB model costs $299 and the 32GB model costs $369. With cellular, a 32GB model costs $499 and a 64GB unit costs $599. Getting rid of ads on the lock screen runs an extra $15. We tested the $499, 32GB cellular model, but we'll discuss all of the various models in this review.
The Kindle Fire HD doesn't look at all cheap, which is impressive considering its low price. At 9.45 by 6.50 by .35 inches (HWD) and 1.29 pounds, it's smaller and slightly lighter than the Nexus 10, the iPad, and other 10-inch tablets, which makes sense; after all, its screen is a bit smaller. Like most larger tablets, it naturally orients itself in landscape mode, with the 1-megapixel camera at the top and the power and HDMI ports at the bottom. The headphone jack and very flat Power and Volume buttons are on the right side. The back panel is covered in a soft-touch material, which feels great, but shows fingerprints. There's also a shiny black stripe running the width of the tablet. The stereo speakers show at either end of this strip.
The 8.9-inch screen is a good-looking 1,920-by-1,200 IPS LCD panel with relatively deep colors. It's outmatched by the competition; the Nexus 10, iPad 4, and even the Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ all have even tighter screens that pop more. It's not a bad display by any means, and the pixels are small enough to be barely perceptible. Because it's smaller than the iPad, at 8.9 inches and 254 pixels per inch, it's just behind the iPad's 263 ppi.
AT&T Service and Plans
The cellular Kindle Fire HD runs on AT&T's EDGE, 3G, and LTE networks. AT&T now has 4G LTE in 103 cities nationwide, and where you can find it, it's often the fastest network available as we found in our 30-city tests earlier this year.
The device can work with standard AT&T data plans, but it also offers one unique option: $49.99 gets you 250MB of data per month for a year, averaging $4.16 a month. Amazon throws in a $10 credit for its app store with that. That's by far the least-expensive 4G plan available on any tablet. You can't extend it past a year, though, and if you hit your 250MB limit you're just cut off until the next month starts.
In my experience, 250MB isn't enough data to use without worrying; remember, an HD movie generally runs between one and two gigabytes. Most smartphone users consume between 400MB and about 2 GB in a month if they stay away from streaming too much video. 250MB is just enough that you start enjoying your mobile data by the time it gets taken away. It's a tease.
So that puts you back on AT&T's more traditional tablet plan: 3GB for $30/month plus $10 for each additional gigabyte. You can also include the tablet on an existing AT&T shared data plan for a $10-per-month fee.
AT&T 4G LTE performance on this tablet was solid in my tests, with download speeds averaging about 13.5Mbps and uploads clocking in around 6Mbps. The tablet really benefits from the dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi. While connected to a fast corporate network on the crowded 2.4Ghz band, the Fire averaged 11Mbps down, but kicked up to 31Mbps when I switched over to the 5GHz band. That means you can transfer a 1.4GB movie in six minutes as opposed to 16.?
One more thing about that excellent Wi-Fi: My advice is to save your two benjamins and stick with the Wi-Fi-only Fire. If you want to connect your tablet on the road, get a hotspot option on your cell phone.
"Amdroid" and Apps
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 runs a thoroughly forked version of Android 4.0 that I've been calling "Amdroid." For a detailed rundown of "Amdroid" and Amazon's available content selection, take a look at our 7-inch Kindle Fire HD review. This tablet works just like that one.
The interface looks nothing like standard Android; it's a carousel of content and shopping options. It's extremely simple to use for Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand, Audiobooks, Web, Photos, and Docs, as the text menu running across the top says. It's nowhere near as configurable as true Android, but for some people, that's a plus.?
Amdroid is designed to make it really easy to buy things from Amazon. Keep that in mind. Those things can include apps, of course, and Amazon has more than 10,000 of them in its Appstore. That's far fewer than Google has in Google Play, but it's a much more targeted selection, and when I downloaded apps I was happy to see that unlike many apps in Google Play, the dozen or so I grabbed here didn't look awful on this tablet. You also don't have to buy everything from Amazon. The Kindle Fire lets you sideload apps and content via USB cable, and I had no problem loading a bunch of Android apps and videos that way.
The tablet's "FreeTime" feature will be a big benefit for the families who make up a major part of the Kindle Fire's audience. FreeTime lets you set up several child profiles, each with its own content library and separate daily time limits for books, videos, and apps. Because of the time limits, it's the best system any tablet has for pure parental controls. Both the Nexus and Nook tablets have more flexible multi-user setups for multiple adults handling a tablet, though.?
The Kindle Fire 8.9" packs a dual-core TI OMAP 4470 processor that delivers adequate, but not stellar performance. If this tablet wasn't so darn inexpensive I'd complain, but performance is acceptable given the price. As we've been seeing on these high-res tablets recently, game frame rates suffer as the dense screen strains the tablet's GPU: I got 33 frames per second on the simple Nenamark2 graphics benchmark and only 9.2 frames per second on the more complex Taiji benchmark, which means Need for Speed: Most Wanted isn't quite as smooth as it is on the iPad.
The tablet's overall scores on the Basemark OS system benchmark was roughly in line with other popular devices like the Google Nexus 7 and the Samsung Galaxy S III?, so you'll be neither amazed nor appalled here. Amazon's complicated, extremely graphical shopping menus tend to introduce some lag, though, as the tablet downloads big pictures and icons. Sometimes those menus take ten seconds to load; it's a buzz kill.
Amazon's special Silk browser also continues to be a damp squib. Silk was supposed to accelerate browsing by pre-caching pages on Amazon's servers, but it continues to be slower than the browsers on Apple and Google tablets. The Kindle HD 8.9 loaded our basket of pages in 11.4 seconds on average, as compared with 5.8 seconds on the Nexus 10 and 5.4 seconds on the iPad 4.
It's possible to get some productive work done on the Kindle Fire, but if you're really looking for a productivity tablet, go for an iPad with an add-on keyboard or a Microsoft Surface instead. You can download the Microsoft Office-compatible OfficeSuite Professional 6, Pocket Informant for calendars and tasks, and a range of email programs, but there's still the sense that you're pounding a square peg into a round hole.
So general performance won't win any awards here, but it's perfectly good given the price. For battery life, on the other hand, the Fire beat out both the iPad 4 and the Nexus 10 in our test, which loops a video with the screen set to full brightness and Wi-Fi switched on. We got 7 hours, 14 minutes with the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, as compared with 5 hours, 36 minutes with the iPad and just over five hours with the Nexus 10.
(Next Page: Multimedia and Conclusions)