Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ (AT&T) review

The 8.9-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HD is the top low-cost large-screen tablet you can buy, but to get the best bang for your buck, go for the Wi-Fi-only version.
Photo of Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ (AT&T)

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.

Physical Features
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. 

Performance
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)

Multimedia
The 32GB model I tested had 27.1GB free for media. If you’re buying things from Amazon, you can swap them in and out of Amazon’s cloud to save space. If not, you can sync files over using a USB cable and standard Android file transfer software.

The Kindle Fire played all of our audio files, and the two Dolby-enhanced speakers on the sides are the richest and clearest I’ve heard on a tablet yet. Music also sounded very good through wired and Bluetooth headphones.

Amazon’s streaming and downloadable video store is the best in the industry. If you want it, it’s here, with rental prices ranging from $1.99 to $4.99 and purchase prices up to $19.99. Amazon Prime members can stream a steadily expanding list of high-quality movies and TV shows including current hits like Parks & Recreation and Fringe. Netflix, Hulu+, and HBO GO are all available in Amazon’s Appstore for additional video-streaming options.

If you’re playing videos you acquired from elsewhere, they don’t appear in the main video library; they pop up in an app called “Personal Videos.” That’s all well and good, though, and the tablet has no problem playing 1080p H.264 and MPEG4 videos. Xvid playback requires a third-party player, but the options listed in Amazon’s store didn’t work on my Kindle Fire 8.9. Hopefully upgrades are on the way to address this.

Plug the tablet into a TV via the HDMI port for smooth video on the big screen. There’s a catch, though. While downloaded HD movies are 720p or better, streamed videos showed some artifacts. I’d download first if I’m streaming to a TV.

The 1-megapixel camera on the front of the Kindle Fire is designed for video chat. As such, it captures smooth 30-frame-per-second 720p video in even dim lighting conditions, and noisy but reasonably sharp 1-megapixel still images. There’s a basic camera app on board, but the real use here is in Skype for video calls, which is available in Amazon’s Appstore.

Comparisons and Conclusions
The Kindle Fire 8.9 is very inexpensive given its specs, and the question here isn’t really if this is the best large tablet. The question is if the Kindle Fire 8.9 is worth the price. And there, the answer is absolutely yes.

With the Editors’ Choice fourth-gen Apple iPad, you get more, but you spend more, too. The iPad 4 is faster, with an even better screen, no lag, and many more apps. It’s the best large tablet on the market. At $499-$829, though, it’s a lot more expensive. The $329-$659 iPad mini gets you those apps for less cash, but at the cost of a significantly smaller and lower-quality screen. The $399-$529 iPad 2 also has the apps and a larger screen, but the screen is low-res, it’s more expensive than the Kindle Fire, and you can’t get it with more than 16GB of storage.

The Kindle Fire’s most immediate competition is the 9-inch Barnes & Noble Nook HD+, which we’re reviewing soon. The HD+ costs even less than the KF HD, at $269 for 16GB and $299 for 32GB. It has the same processor, an even-better screen, and a memory card slot to increase storage further. We’ve found the Nook to be superior to the Kindle when it comes to reading childrens’ books, and past Nooks have been more hackable. But Barnes & Noble offers only about a third of the apps that Amazon does, and the company’s store is short on movies and TV.

The Kindle Fire also competes with a slew of Android tablets, including the $399-$499 Nexus 10, the $499-$599 Asus TF700 and the $499-$549 Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. The simplified Amazon interface makes the Kindle Fire easier to use than any of them, although the other Android tablets have a wider range of apps and media stores. The Nexus 10 has the best specs, but the unit I tested was slow and buggy. The Galaxy Note 10.1 comes with a lower-resolution screen and is the top pick for productivity. The TF700 is the best direct comparison to the Kindle Fire, with a somewhat faster processor, the same screen resolution, an even more premium-feeling body and a rear camera, but it costs $200 more.

Ultimately that’s where the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 triumphs. If you’re counting your dollars, the Kindle Fire offers the most bang per buck so far. Watch this space soon to see how the Nook HD+ compares.

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Specifications
Wi-Fi (802.11x) Compatibility 2.4GHZ/5GHz
Service Provider AT&T
Screen Resolution 1920 x 1200 pixels
Operating System Google Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
Dimensions 9.4 x 6.4 x 0.35 inches
Weight 1.25 lb
Graphics Card IMG PowerVR SGX544
GPS Yes
RAM 1 GB
Screen Size Type Widescreen
Storage Capacity (as Tested) 32 GB
Cellular Technology HSPA+, LTE
Tablet Type Slate
Graphics Manufacturer Imagination Technologies
Processor Speed 1.5 GHz
Bluetooth Yes
Screen Size 8.9 inches
CPU Texas Instruments OMAP4470 Dual-Core
Ports micro HDMI, micro USB
Storage Type SSD

Verdict
The 8.9-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HD is the top low-cost large-screen tablet you can buy, but to get the best bang for your buck, go for the Wi-Fi-only version.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc