Amazon crowned itself the king of tiny tablets two years ago with the launch of its original Kindle Fire. It marked the first time you could buy a decent tablet for hundreds less than Apple's iPad. It wasn't a home run, but it's rock-bottom price appealed to enough people to make the "Fire" brand just as recognizable as "iPad".
This year, Amazon is getting ready to release its third generation of Kindle Fire tablets, the Kindle Fire HDX. It has a slightly redesigned operating system based on Google's Android, plus a special feature called Mayday that will connect you with a customer service representative live on your screen at the push of a button. For free.
As far as capabilities go, not much has changed with the third-generation Kindle Fire. The software is based on Google's Android system, but Amazon has stripped out all of Google's apps and services in favor of its own. That means you have to download apps from Amazon's app store, which has a tiny selection of about 85,000 apps when compared to the nearly 1 million apps you'll find on "regular" Android tablets. It also means there's a lot missing, especially when it comes to popular Google services like Google Maps, Gmail, and YouTube.
The biggest problem with previous Kindle Fire models has been buggy software, but this new version, which Amazon calls Fire OS 3.0, is much smoother and less glitchy than before. The design is a bit different than your typical tablet with a group of app icons. Instead, you get a "carousel" view of apps, movies, books, etc. that you've recently used or viewed. (You can access your entire collection of content by using the navigation bar at the top of your screen.)
But like its predecessors, the Kindle Fire HDX is a pitchman that tries to entice you to buy more stuff from Amazon at every turn. Whenever you hover over a recent app, book, video, etc. on your home screen, the tablet provides suggestions of similar stuff you may like to buy.
Are you reading the Steve Jobs biography? Maybe you'd like to buy the one about Einstein next. Angry Birds fan? There are about a dozen different versions of that for you to buy.And of course, there' easy access to Amazon.com, where you can buy anything from paper towels to iPhone cases.The tablet is constantly encouraging you to dip into the bank and buy more stuff from Amazon. Some might find it annoying. Others might find it helpful. But those recommendations and the ads you see on the lock screen (which can be removed if you pay an extra $15) are part of the reason why you can get the Kindle Fire HDX for just $229.
The biggest new feature in the Kindle Fire HDX is a built-in customer service tool called Mayday. Tapping the Mayday button connects you directly to an Amazon customer service representative via video chat. He or she appears in a tiny window at the bottom of your screen and can take control over your tablet if need be. The Amazon rep can't see you, but he or she will ask for your name, email address tied to your Amazon account, and billing address to make sure you are who you say you are.
(And they're very strict about this. When I told the Amazon rep my name was "Steve", she did her best to get me to "perhaps give her another name similar to 'Steve'" since I'm listed in Amazon's system as "Steven".)
Mayday did work as advertised. After pressing the call button, I was connected with an Amazon customer service rep named Tara within a few seconds. Tara was super polite and helpful, and she showed me how she can doodle on my screen just like NFL announcers do when they're drawing over an instant replay. I asked Tara some basics like how to check if my apps were up to date and how to find content stored on my device. I couldn't stump her, and she walked me through everything, drawing on my screen and showing me what she was about to do before doing it.
Of course, the irony here is that tablets are supposed to be intuitive, user friendly, and simple. You shouldn't need a helper on your screen to tell you how everything works if the device was designed properly in the first place. But hey, technology is scary for a lot of people! And it's pretty cool that Amazon has invested so heavily in customer service that it has real humans waiting to help you out 24/7 at the push of a button. That's much better than running down to the Apple Store and waiting forever for a Genius to help you.
The Kindle Fire HDX is a great tablet if all you want to do is consume content from Amazon, but it's still pretty weak beyond that. Without the Google services you find on other Android tablets, you're stuck with Amazon's apps for email, calendar, and Web browsing. Those apps are satisfactory, but not nearly as robust as what you can get from Google. For example, the Amazon email app can sync with your Gmail account, but search and other functions are still pretty limited.
The tablet's hardware is still top notch though. The HDX's 7-inch screen is sharper than the relatively weak display on Apple's iPad Mini, so videos, games, and text look much better. From the front, the HDX looks nearly identical to last year's version, but Amazon has changed up the design on the back, giving the tablet an angular design that fits comfortably in your hands. The power and volume buttons have also been moved to the back, which I found pretty cumbersome to use. Even after a week of using the HDX, I still found myself accidentally pressing the power button instead of one of the volume buttons and vice versa. It's a poor design choice. Battery life was pretty good at about six or seven hours per charge, but still much less than the 10 or so hours you get with the iPad Mini.
The Kindle Fire HDX is Amazon's best tablet yet. But I don't think it's the best you can buy if you're looking for something smaller and cheaper. It's great if all you want to do is consume stuff directly from Amazon, but it doesn't have the same app selection and capabilities rival tablets like Google's Nexus 7 (which costs the same at $229) and Apple's iPad Mini do.