The purpose of Amazon’s original Kindle Fire was very simple, and very direct. Through a carefully crafted—albeit, imperfect—software experience, the company’s unassuming black slab existed solely to herd users directly into the company’s growing online ecosystem. With direct access to thousands of apps, books, movies and music—in impulse buy territory, no less—the online retailer swiftly embedded its Fire brand into millions of consumer homes. All the while, the company essentially spurned a new tablet revolution at a time when Apple’s iPad was The One.

Amazon’s latest effort, the Kindle Fire HDX, is without a doubt its best device yet, merging beautiful hardware, an evolved OS, and a truly impressive customer service feature called Mayday. Last year, the online retailer’s Fire HD was easily one of the top Android tablets. This time around, Amazon has created an experience that’s right on the heels of its closest rival, the Nexus 7; in some respects, it’s even better. As an experience designed purely to devour content, the Fire HDX is a wonderful piece of technology with some truly incredible specs. Especially more rewarding if you pair the Fire HDX with an Amazon Prime membership.

Of course, in keeping on Amazon’s linear path to content, the Fire HDX has its limitations, making it a device designed for a very specific user. If you accept those limitations, however, the overall experience is one of the best around.

Experience Taking Precedence

Past Amazon tablets have never been about hardware, and that was no more apparent than with the very first Kindle Fire, which came out back in 2011. It was about guiding users down a narrow path, one that ended at the online retailer’s ginormous ecosystem. And at $200, the Fire started an all out small tablet price war, gaining a respectable following in the process. But the one thing that held the Fire back was it meager hardware, which was never attractive nor very cutting edge.

Skip forward to the Kindle Fire HD, and all that changed. Suddenly, Amazon was putting a premium on the relationship between hardware and software, in the process creating a duo of devices that were among the best on the market. The hardware was suddenly beautiful and fast while the software continued to evolve and take shape into something you actually looked forward to using. Best of all, Amazon kept to the Fire’s original purpose, which was to usher people directly to its online empire. For the most part, the company accomplished its goal. But with other small tablets beginning to flood the market—the Nexus 7 being one of them—it needed to do more.

Now we’re on to iteration number three, which is easily the best tablet Amazon has ever made—it might even be the best small Android tablet this holiday season. That’s because the Fire HDX is less of a device and more of a perfect ideal. Where many tablets today are trying very hard to do everything—maybe too much—Amazon’s device is made very specifically to make consuming as much content as possible very simple. And even more so if you hold an Amazon Prime membership, with plenty of video content and access to free kindle books with each membership. That’s the way it has always been, and I’m very much in favor of that approach. It’s no fuss, little effort, with plenty of reward. You might say it’s the People’s Tablet.

Amazon is on to Fire OS 3.0 this round, and it’s more or less the same. It’s as inflexible as ever, about as far away from pure Android as you can get—but that’s exactly how Amazon likes it. You won’t find widgets, customization options, or features like Google Now. The home screen itself looks nothing like what you’d see on a Nexus 7; for that matter, it’s unlike anything you’d find on any competing device. But it’s exactly right for Amazon’s carefully curated experience. You’re presented with only so many ways to get around; the familiar Carousel is still in full effect, dominating most of your screen real estate—your most recently viewed content will show up there, with suggestions to related content under each item. None of this can be organized, unfortunately, nor can it be tweaked much at all, though it is possible to remove apps and other content to make the Carousel more compact.

Kindle Fire HDX, Volume
Kindle Fire HDX, Power

At the top, you’ll find a navigation bar, with direct access to all your content, including games, apps, books, videos and more. There’s a search icon, too, at the top left corner, and right beside that is the HDX’s lifeblood, what drives the whole experience: the Shop button. Tapping it will immediately ignite a landing page where you can find every type of digital product Amazon has to offer: Apps, Audiobooks, Music, Amazon Prime and more. Of course, you can hop right into Amazon’s entire catalog of products, too, allowing you to purchase any conceivable thing available through the online retailer.

Incidentally, Amazon offers its own catalog of built-in apps, including an improved email app, Silk browser, calendar, contacts, Kindle FreeTime and a shortcut to help topics. For users that need to actually be productive, these stock experiences get the job done just fine; email in particular is now much more pleasant, with support for conversations, labeling and archiving. While the Kindle Fire HDX is particularly suited for power tasks, it offers up just enough to get work done, whether it’s sending off messages, organizing calendar events or browsing your favorite website. Mind you, these are supplemental to the main experience—but the improved apps make the HDX a more powerful machine.

Even though there are apps for productivity, the Kindle Fire HDX emphasizes content first, and there’s plenty of it, especially if you’re a Prime member. Amazon Prime has its benefits across the entire Amazon ecosystem, but Amazon Prime is particularly great for a device like the HDX because it gives you seemingly endless access to books, TV shows and movies. The reading experience I found most enjoyable—I love books—with enough features and functionality to make it my device of choice over something like the Kindle Paperwhite, which is an e-reader I love. Though you can download the Kindle app on other platforms, only Kindle owners that are Amazon Prime members get access to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.  The Lending Library grants access to over 350,000 books you can borrow in addition to 2-day Amazon shipping and video content available. Content-wise, Amazon now gives you the option to download movies and shows with your Amazon Prime membership, making the HDX a terrific travel companion.

The only knock on Amazon’s ecosystem is that its selection of apps doesn’t match Google’s, and doesn’t stand a chance next to Apple’s App Store. Since Amazon employs such a heavily forked version of Android, users can’t access Google Play. Most people might not even notice, especially if they’re buying the Kindle Fire HDX to watch movies and read books, but that’s the price people pay for buddying up to the online retailer’s content emporium. Most glaring of absences is the lack of Google-made apps, which some people might find to be a dealbreaker. When you consider a device like the Nexus 7, which goes for the same price, has access to a larger app ecosystem—and every single Google app available—it becomes apparent just how different each are. But you knew that, and some users might not even care.

Amazon does mitigate this slightly by adding some cool software flare, such as a cool app for parents, X-Ray features, and an incredible new tech support service called Mayday. The first, Kindle FreeTime, allows parents to designate what content—books, TV, movies, etc.—can be viewed, and how long the tablet can be used when signed into a certain profile. Amazon’s cool X-Ray feature is also available, providing granular information about the content being watched, including character names, actors, what songs are played, and movie/TV show summaries. The small features are great, and go a long way to making the experience much more immersive—it also provides peace of mind for parents that don’t want their kids glued to the tablet all day.

Mayday for Everyone

Have you ever run into an issue, either yourself or with a family member or friend, where you didn’t know how to do something on your device? You now those moments when you neede emergency tech support. Maybe you can’t figure out how to turn a feature off, or just want to know how to bookmark a Web page. Not everyone is fluent in technology, which is why Amazon has introduced a remarkable new tech support tool called Mayday. Basically, Mayday is like Apple’s version of making a Genius Bar appointment, except you never have to wait in line or leave your house. Everything is done right through your Fire HDX and FREE.

Mayday is easily accessible right from the HDX’s notification tray; press it, and a short explanation of the service will pop up, along with a button for you to connect. Devices are accessed remotely by Amazon representatives—Amazon Tech Advisors, they’re called—who can then take you through whatever problem it is you need solved. You can see them, but they can’t see you, just your screen. Once your credentials are authorized, Tech Advisors can change settings, download apps and do pretty much any tech support related issues you need done, step-by-step, like your own tech support personal assistant.

I never ran into an issue Amazon’s Mayday couldn’t fix, and found that representatives were incredibly helpful and explained situations very thoroughly. Because Amazon allows them to take control of your screen, you can see exactly what they’re doing—complete with onscreen cues—helping you learn exactly how to use your device. The scale and ease of use of Amazon’s Mayday is absolutely incredible, and is a godsend for those aunts and uncles who have never used a tablet in their life. Instead of you frequently being asked by relatives and friends how to perform a specific task, you can simply just direct them to Mayday, and let Amazon do the rest.

Kindle Fire HDX – Mayday Demo Video

Designing A Better Tablet

One of the most stunning parts of the Kindle Fire HDX is its screen, which measures in at seven inches and sports a ridiculous resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels. Colors are deep, viewing angles are terrific and everything is extremely crisp. Anything you can possibly hope to watch, read and view looks wonderful—better to my eyes than any other small tablet screen on the market, including the Nexus 7 and iPad mini with Retina. It creates a more immersive experience, helping to emphasize what’s actually on the display while the device itself (mostly) fades away. Bezels are kept to a minimum, which only further emphasizes this effect.

The previous Kindle Fire HD design was quite nice, and I actually prefer it to this year’s HDX. I’m of two minds: the angular sides of the HDX feel good in the hand, and the device itself is nice and compact. But I’m just not a fan of the flush buttons, which are located on the rear of the device on either side of the Amazon logo when held in landscape. I constantly found myself sliding my finger over the HDX’s rubberized back, searching for the power button to wake the display from sleep, or to turn the volume up or down when watching a movie. Often times I had to turn the device completely over—not a huge deal at all, just an annoyance—when I wanted to do something simple like put the device to sleep.

Another odd design quirk is Amazon’s decision to angle the microUSB connection, which sits at the HDX’s slim edge, on the same side as the power button. Plugging the device in to charge is more difficult than it sounds, and is much more awkward than it should be. I’m stumped as to why these decisions were made, though your experience can certainly vary. Still, they don’t detract drastically from the overall experience, and the device as a whole is still handsomely designed.

If you’re into specs (this isn’t about that), the device features a 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM, Adreno 330 GPU, which Amazon says makes the HDX four times as powerful as the previous iteration, and a forked version of Android 4.2. The tablet is quite fast, as expected in a flagship product in 2013; apps open up quickly, and there’s virtually no lag (every device lags at some point or another). The carousel was always a sore spot, slow and stuttery, but it’s now smooth as silk, and getting from point to point in Kindle Fire OS 3.0 is very, very quick. I had no issues running Netflix, Fruit Ninja or other popular apps. You won’t find the Kindle Fire HDX to be slow, even with Fire HD content beaming into your eyeballs. As far as battery life goes, the Fire HDX lasts forever. Like, forever. I was consistently shocked at how much battery life it had after a day’s use—I mostly read books and watch movies—and actually found it lasted more like two to three days without needing a charge. I had to try and run the battery down, rather than worry about if I needed a charge. That’s peace of mind.

Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon logo
Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon

Wrap-up

Rating

9.0
Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX sports great specs, a beautiful display, and an incredible customer service experience that truly sets it apart.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX

For what it’s designed to do, the Kindle Fire HDX is a superstar. Amazon has always used its products to shuttle consumers to its online ecosystem, and the HDX is no different—but that’s not a bad thing at all. If you’re familiar with Amazon products, you’ll find the company’s latest tablet to be immensely enjoyable thanks to its sharp display and handsome design. It doesn’t hit all the right notes, and the device is by no means perfect, but it offers a wonderful no-fuss experience that’s perfect for the everyday consumer. The fact that is has Mayday, an incredible flagship customer service experience that’s perfect for the less tech savvy, is a device seller. At $229 for the 16GB model (with Amazon’s Special Offer ads), the HDX is an affordable tablet that should be right at the top of your wishlist.

Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo purchased the Kindle Fire HDX with company funds. Brandon used the device for seven days before beginning his review.