Amazon Kindle Fire HDX Review: Size Matters

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Amazon's (AMZN) new Kindle Fire HDX tablet is a vast improvement over last year's model. Nonetheless, it's not an iPad mini killer as it has more than a few flaws.

Amazon was kind enough to send me the 7-inch version of the recently announced to review.

When the device was announced, my reaction to it was muted, perhaps even negative. But after using it for a few days, my impressions are more positive, and it's likely to sell better than the previous versions as the online retailing giant continues to refine its hardware offerings and push sales.

The first thing you'll notice about the new Kindle Fire is the glossiness of the screen. Amazon packed the screen with 323 pixels per inch (ppi), one area where the Kindle outshines Apple's (AAPL) iPad mini, which has 163 ppi. It should be noted, however, that Apple may improve that facet of the iPad mini later this month.

The operating system, Fire OS 3.0, is much smoother than it was on last year's tablet, and browsing and navigating through the tablet is a definitely breeze. Fire OS 3.0 is built on Google's (GOOG) Android 4.2 operating system, codenamed Jelly Bean, but it looks nothing like a stock Android operating system, and that's more than good enough for me. The Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 800 2.2 GHz processor really allows the tablet to perform at a capacity and a level one would expect for $229 (users can pay an additional $15 to get rid of the advertising supported home page), perhaps even exceeding it a touch.

An Amazon spokeswoman said Fire OS will be updated in mid-November as the company continues "to sand the edges of the software a little bit ahead of shipping to customers."

Watching movies on the device is a pleasure, as it was last year. This year, the HD is true HD, and while it still requires a bit of time for the HD to "load," it's a vast improvement. I found myself using X-Ray, the feature using Amazon's IMDB website to look at actors names, and tidbits and trivia about World War Z, and felt that it added to the experience. There's still no 16:9 aspect ratio on the device, so watching movies in the letter-box format is still somewhat unpleasant.

X-Ray for Music is also cool as it actually shows you the lyrics to the song you're playing that you've purchased from Amazon. I'm happy to report that I now know all the lyrics to Blurred Lines (though that's knowledge I probably could do without).

The Kindle Fire HDX continues to have terrific sound, using Dolby (DLB) Digital Plus audio and 5.1 multi-channel surround sound. Watching an action movie such as World War Z, where sound quality is important, this is one area where the Fire HDX continues to surpass the iPad mini and Google's Nexus 7.

An additional feature (of course for an additional price), is Amazon's unique Origami cover. The cover folds into a stand to make video watching and Web browsing much easier than with last year's case. The iPad already offers a fold-able case to allow for this, but this shows that Amazon is continuing to catch up to the competition and refine its efforts, even if it is taking longer than it should.

Buying apps, videos, books, magazines, and shopping on Amazon's website are a breeze. Amazon has made the integration seamless, and given that it's Amazon primary motive for selling the device, it should be.

One innovative feature which I did like was the Mayday button, Amazon's feature to help users who have troubles with their tablets. An Amazon Tech Advsor will access your device remotely, within 15 seconds or less, and help you with your queries. It's still not fully staffed, since the device doesn't start shipping yet, but it is a nice feature which I initially questioned.

Despite the tablet being much improved over last year's version, it has more than enough drawbacks to call into question whether Amazon spent the year properly thinking about how to upgrade it.

The Fire HDX does not have a rear-facing camera, something that's become incredibly popular on tablet. While the front-facing HD camera is nice, it feels incomplete without a back-facing one.

The battery life is better, but still not as good as it could be. After watching a movie, several TV shows, doing some web browsing and some video watching, I had a battery life of a little more than 8 hours. Amazon claims 11 hours of mixed use, so it fell short of that.

Where Amazon really falls short of both Apple and Google is the app ecosystem. It has around 85,000 apps, compared to roughly 1 million for Apple and Google, respectively. That lack of additional functionality is what keeps Amazon from really competing with the aforementioned tech titans as it pertains to selling hardware.

HBO GO is there, but YouTube and Netflix aren't. Amazon says a Netflix app is coming in the next few months, but given the popularity of shows such as Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and others, this seems like such a missed opportunity for Amazon. Of course, you can get those shows on Amazon Prime, but you have to pay per episode or season.

Popular social networking apps such as Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter are there, but for Twitter especially, there's few apps to access the powerful micro-blogging social network.

Web browsing is improved over last year's version, but it's still nothing great. Amazon's Silk browser is okay at best, using Bing for its search engine, despite having its OS built off Google's Android.

Starting at $229 (with an advertising-supported screen) for the 7-inch model and $379 for the 8.9-inch model, Amazon has done a lot to improve over last year's Kindle Fire. While it certainly won't overtake the iPad behemoth, Amazon has done a nice job of continuing to refine its hardware offering and I suspect that Amazon will sell more of these than the previous model.

However, it all comes down to the size of the app ecosystem, and this is where Apple and Google continue to remain supreme.

Final Grade: 7.5/10

--Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York

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