Amazon has become a pioneer of low-cost tablets with the company's Kindle Fire range standing alongside the Google Nexus 7 in re-defining what we can expect from a cheap tablet – just so long as you live in the USA, that is.
Here in the UK we haven’t done quite so well with Amazon’s tablets. They’ve taken an age to reach our shores, however the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is now finally available from Amazon UK, for the more-than-reasonable sum of £230. The same issues that niggled us about the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD still apply, but this is the best Kindle Fire tablet yet.
Like the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD before it, one of the first things to strike you about the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is quite how heavy it is. At 567g it’s around 80 per cent heavier than an iPad mini. Although its screen is significantly smaller than a 10-inch tablet’s, it’s roughly the same weight as one of those larger tabs.
In the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, we found this quite a turn-off, but it’s less of an annoyance here because the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 shines as a lounge-bound tablet rather than one to take around with you. And the weight is offset by sturdy build.
The rear of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is finished in soft-touch plastic for a finger-friendly feel, and the body feels dense and strong, rather than just heavy. If you’re after something that’s more portable than a standard 10.1-inch tablet you’re in the wrong place, though. The chunky screen bezel ensures that this isn’t a particularly small tablet.
It’s also practical rather than pretty. Amazon hasn’t tried to hide the seam that circles the tablet’s edge, bordering the rear and side of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9. In addition, the on-body buttons are graceless while the glossy strip of plastic on the rear that holds the speaker grilles is quirky rather than elegant.
However, this approach to styling works better here than it did in the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD.
Just like the Google Nexus 7, one of the few real hardware disappointments about the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is that it does not offer expandable memory. Amazon offers a 16GB edition for £229 or a 32GB version for £259. Make the decision carefully, because aside from internal memory, you’re reliant on cloud storage.
The lack of expandable memory loses the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 a few flexibility points, but it wins some back with its use of a standard microUSB charging socket, rather than a proprietary one. Next to this you'll also find a microHDMI video output. This mirrors what’s on-screen on a TV, making it simple to turn the Kindle into a media centre for your living room. You don’t get an HDMI cable in the box, though.
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is entirely geared towards landscape use, so both of these ports sit on the bottom edge of the tablet, which keeps the edges that your hands rest on clear of sockets. Its software does auto-rotate when the device is flipped around, though.
Although the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 offers the video output missing on most tablets, its wireless connectivity is basic. You get Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but miss out on their more nuanced applications, and all other forms of wireless connectivity. There’s no 3G, no GPS, no NFC and no Wi-Fi Direct. The most glaring of these omissions is GPS – you can’t use the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 as a navigation tool, as you can with a Google Nexus 7.
The other missing connectivity types are annoying, but are the sorts of things that many people would simply never use. NFC is a short-distance wireless communication standard that is best-known as a way to pay for small items on the high street, like cups of coffee. Would you really want to pull out a 9-inch tablet at the Starbucks cash register? We sure wouldn’t.
These connections are left out for several reasons. The biggest of these is cost, but also because the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 isn’t really designed for advanced tablet users in the first place. Amazon has picked its battles carefully, and wireless connectivity is one it has decided to bow out of.
Screen quality is not something the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 scrimps on however. In fact, the tablet's touch-sensitive display is excellent for the price. It uses an 8.9-inch IPS screen of 1080p resolution. Larger and more expensive tablets continue to use lower-quality, less pixel-packed screens, and this is the Fire HD 8.9’s strongest element. With a pixel density of 254ppi, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9's display is around as sharp as the iPad with Retina display, which boasts 263ppi.
Colour saturation, contrast and black level are all impressive too. The Kindle Fire HD 8.9’s interface actually uses a slightly greyish background that serves as an admission that its black levels aren’t quite perfect. However, this screen is seriously impressive and most importantly – given that its a Kindle device – is able to render pin-sharp text for eBook reading. With a lower-resolution tablet, text can look pixelated, making it far more tiring to read for long periods. There’s just one sore spot, which is that the maximum screen brightness isn’t that dazzling.