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Kindle Fire HDX Review: Evolution is Good

By Guest Blogger(view all posts by Rick.Broida)
at 12:01PM Monday October 7, 2013
under Product Review

To look at the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon's third-generation tablet to bear the Fire moniker, you wouldn't know much has changed.

Yes, it's a little thinner, a little lighter, and a little easier to grip than its predecessor, the Fire HD, but physically they're almost dead ringers.

Look a little closer, though, both inside and out, and you'll find lots of small improvements that add up to a great overall tablet.

DESIGN
For starters, the HDX (which Amazon sent me for review) solves several embarrassing design flaws that still annoy me about the HD. First, the volume and power buttons are no longer side-by-side and flush-mounted into one edge of the tablet, where they were almost impossible to find just by touch and annoyingly difficult to press.

Now, they're larger and located at the rear, though unfortunately at opposite ends. And although you can find them by touch, that's still a little harder than it should be.

Another welcome fix: no more side-by-side ports. On the Fire HD, you could barely distinguish between the microUSB port used for power and the nearly identical microHDMI port used for connecting the tablet to a TV. On the HDX, the latter port is gone (though you can still sling content to your TV thanks to Amazon's new wireless Second Screen technology, which is coming soon). Problem solved.

FEATURES
With the HDX, Amazon can (for the moment) tout a much faster processor and higher screen resolution than the iPad Mini, which costs $100 more. The former's 2.2GHz quad-core processor makes everything silky-smooth, while the 1,920 x 1,200-pixel screen produces razor-sharp images.

That said, I consider all this overkill in a 7-inch tablet. In everyday use, the HDX seems no faster than the HD, books and movies no sharper. I don't think those features alone are worth buying the tablet, and certainly don't make the case for upgrading.

However, Amazon has baked in so much other good stuff that you'll find yourself coveting this model even if you do already own an HD. I'm not going to cover everything, which would take forever, but I will tell you which extras really stand out.

First, the HDX promises better battery life: 11 hours of "mixed" use and up to 17 if all you're doing is reading (in which case the tablet switches off various power-consuming features).

Second, your Amazon Prime subscription (still $79 annually) now lets you download some movies and TV shows for offline viewing, a great perk for frequent travelers. The only rub: Not all movies and TV shows can be downloaded. Indeed, the first few I tried (including "The Natural" and "Duck Dynasty") were not. But lots of good stuff is, including "Downton Abbey" and "The Good Wife."

Finally, I'm thoroughly intrigued by Mayday, the free tech-support service that works on the device. When you tap the Mayday icon, you're quickly connected to a live remote tech who can see your screen and whose visage appears in a small window. (They don't see you, however, though it's hard to wrap your brain around that fact.)

I tested this by asking where I could find the apps I'd just downloaded, and the friendly, helpful tech walked me through the (very simple) steps of finding them, complete with little onscreen arrows and circles that popped up (and then disappeared) to illustrate where I was supposed to tap.

This is nothing short of genius. If Microsoft adopted a similar system for Windows 8, it would change the face of computing. And the fact that this amazing support is included with the price of the tablet makes it all the more incredible. I feel like I could buy one of these for my parents and not have to worry about non-stop tech-support calls. I'd simply tell them, "If you run into trouble, tap Mayday."

CONNECTIVITY
The Fire HDX includes dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi, which promises faster downloading and streaming, fewer interruptions, and better range. What's more, for $100 extra you can get the HDX with built-in 4G LTE courtesy of AT&T or Verizon, an option typically reserved for larger tablets. You won't get stuck with a service contract, but you will have to pay for a data plan at regular prices.

THE ULTIMATE ACCESSORY
My favorite new feature of all is Amazon's Origami case, which uses magnets not only to hold its cover closed, but also to keep the Kindle itself secured inside. Plus, the cover can fold (Origami-style) to serve as a stand for both landscape and portrait viewing, the latter my preference for reading. Even at a rather pricey $44.99, it's a must-have accessory. 

CONCLUSION
Amazon has also made a number of tweaks to the Kindle operating system (now known as Fire OS 3.0), though I maintain it's nowhere near as intuitive as, say, Apple's iOS. For example, there's an option in the pull-down settings bar called Quiet Time, but toggling it has no immediate effect. (Turns out it disables all notifications, a nice little perk for uninterrupted reading.)

But, hey, if you get stuck, there's always Mayday.

The Kindle Fire HDX is without a doubt Amazon's best tablet to date, and a fierce competitor to other 7-inch models--especially for users who like to consume a lot of books, movies, TV shows, games, photos, and other media.

Next month, Apple will almost certainly fire back with a faster, higher-resolution iPad Mini. But it won't offer anywhere near the Kindle's level of extras, and it'll almost certainly still cost more. Save for a few minor annoyances, the HDX is the best 7-inch tablet you can buy right now.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and Savings.com, and also writes for PC World and Wired.

(Source: Savings.com)