Amazon's new flagship tablet is an affordable business slate with plenty of power, but it has a few major limitations. The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 is the follow-up to last year's Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, and features a faster processor, a sharper 8.9-inch display, longer battery life and a slew of new productivity-boosting software upgrades. Amazon dropped the "Kindle" name from its tablet line this year, instead reserving the brand for its line of e-book readers. But the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 is otherwise a relatively straightforward update to last year's model.
That means it retains the limitations of its predecessor as well. It still runs on Amazon's Fire OS, a modified version of Android that supports far fewer apps than other versions. And it's missing key apps, including Google apps such as Maps, Gmail and Drive. But the Fire HDX 8.9 still has a healthy and growing app library, and its low $379 price make it one of the better bargains in mobile tech this holiday season. But is it good for work?
The Fire HDX 8.9 may lack the premium appeal of a tablet like the iPad Air 2, but it's still an attractive device. The back of the tablet angles in around the edges, which helps set it apart from the legions of boxy Android slates it's competing against. Meanwhile, the soft-touch nylon finish feels good and makes the device easy to grip.
Amazon's tablet is relatively light and compact, which is a plus for business users who plan to carry it on a daily commute. With an 8.9-inch display, it falls on the smaller end of the spectrum for full-size tablets. It's slightly shorter and lighter than the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2, but about 0.06 inches thicker. Meanwhile, Samsung's 10.5-inch Galaxy Tab S is also slightly thinner than the Fire HDX 8.9, though it's larger and heavier overall.
The HDX packs a supersharp 8.9-inch, 2560 x 1600-pixel display with a density of 339 pixels per inch. In comparison, the iPad Air 2's 9.7-inch display is larger but has a lower resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels with 264 ppi. Microsoft's 10-inch Surface Pro 2 also has a lower-res panel, at 1920 x 1080 pixels and 208 ppi. A panel this sharp is a big plus for business users, since it lets you view more content on-screen at once, and the high pixel count helps make up for some — but not all — of the extra real estate afforded on larger tablets.
The screen size strikes a good compromise between productivity and portability. Screen-intensive tasks like editing a spreadsheet feel reasonably comfortable, and I could easily reach across the screen to type with two thumbs while holding the device in portrait mode.
The Fire HDX 8.9 runs on Fire OS, which is based on Google's Android platform, but has a unique layout. In other words, don't expect the Fire HDX 8.9 to feel like every other Android tablet you've used.
The most obvious difference is the "carousel," a persistent content rotator that dominates the home screen, giving you quick access to recently viewed apps and files. It's a handy feature, even if it feels a bit like training wheels for tablet newbies. If you'd prefer to not use the carousel, just swipe up from the bottom of the screen to view your apps in a more familiar grid layout.
Meanwhile, you can access alerts and notifications as you would on any other tablet, by swiping down from the top of the screen. Finally, swiping up from the bottom of the screen opens the recently used app drawer, letting you quickly jump between applications with a few taps.
Business users with families will really appreciate the ability to set up multiple user profiles, complete with their own set of apps. That way, you can share your tablet with your kids or other family members, without worrying about your business files being tampered with or accidentally altered. You can switch among profiles with a few taps from the lock screen.
App selection is where Amazon's tablet really falters. Like all Fire devices, the Fire HDX 8.9 isn't compatible with Google Play, the main Android app store, so you're limited to the relatively sparse selection in the Amazon Appstore. In fact, Google Play has more than five times as many apps available to download than Amazon's store.
Still, with more than 240,000 applications to choose from, most users will find software to suit their needs. Many of the best productivity apps are present, such as Evernote for taking notes and Splashtop for remote desktop access. The device comes preloaded with Docs to Go, which is a decent alternative to Google Docs for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations. It's unknown if Office for Android, an upcoming part of Microsoft's desktop productivity software, will be available for Amazon's tablet when it launches sometime in the coming months, though I think it's a good bet.
But don't expect to run Google apps such as Maps, Docs or Drive on your Fire HDX 8.9, since those apps aren't likely to ever be available through Amazon's store. Personally, I missed the powerful spam filtering in Google's email app. In comparison, Amazon's app just lumps everything together, placing important messages right alongside annoying promotions. It's relatively easy to bookmark the Web versions of those apps inside the browser and access them that way, but that workaround is more than a little clunky.
Amazon's tablet is no slouch when it comes to performance. The Fire HDX 8.9 packs a snappy quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM, and it delivers fast performance and smooth multitasking. Apps opened and closed quickly, and switching between apps was equally smooth. It's not as powerful as flagship slates like the iPad Air 2 or Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, but it's more than speedy enough for everyday productivity tasks.
The Fire HDX 8.9 is one of the longest-lasting tablets around, enduring an epic 13 hours and 42 minutes in a test that involved continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi. That's nearly double the average score for full-size tablets (7:16), and it even beats the long-lasting iPad Air 2 (9:20). The Fire HDX 8.9's superior longevity is one of its biggest advantages as a work tablet, especially for business users who need a device that can last until dinnertime and beyond.
Amazon also packed in a few new enterprise-friendly features to make it easier to use the Fire HDX 8.9 in a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) work environment. The best addition is that the tablet now features native virtual private networking capabilities, so you can securely connect to your company's Wi-Fi network and access sensitive data on your tablet, whether you're at work or at home.
If you use your tablet for work, you probably do a lot of typing on it. That's why Amazon's feature-packed touch-screen keyboard is so notable. For example, I appreciate the ability to long-press on letters to quickly input numbers and symbols — a function that is totally absent on an iPad. Amazon's keyboard also has built-in support for "swipe" gestures, so you can drag your finger from one letter to the next to type out words, instead of tapping each key individually. I like swipe typing because it's faster and more accurate than tapping if you're typing with one hand. The feature is also available out of the box on other Android tablets, but not on the iPad.
One feature that's unique to the Fire HDX 8.9 is the ability to split the keyboard in two, with half the keys on each side of the screen, by holding the "/" key. The thumb-friendly format is great for typing when you're holding the device horizontally, and it really makes a difference if you want to draft emails or documents without a physical Bluetooth keyboard.
Speaking of keyboards, Amazon has finally introduced a physical Bluetooth keyboard for the Fire HDX 8.9. The $60 Fire Keyboard sports a full QWERTY layout and a 3.1-inch touchpad. You can still reach up to the screen to tap items, but the touchpad offers more precise pointing for tasks such as editing a document. The keys themselves are shallow but reasonably responsive for a portable keyboard. I also liked the tablet-specific keys, which let you quickly go back one screen, return to the home screen or access the multitasking menu.
You can still pick up the $45 Origami cover to keep your Fire HDX 8.9 safe from drops and dings. The case sports a handsome leather face, and it folds so that you can prop your tablet up on a table or desk. It's practically a necessity if you plan to pair your tablet with a physical keyboard, since the tablet itself lacks a kickstand.
If your business is too small to have its own IT department, the Mayday feature could really come in handy. Mayday is a free service for all Fire HDX 8.9 owners that lets you instantly access 24/7 live video tech support from Amazon with the push of a button. After initiating Mayday, you'll be greeted by an Amazon representative, who will appear in a video-chat window right on your screen. The expert can help walk you through any technical issues you're experiencing with your tablet. You can use Mayday whenever you want, as many times as you want, without paying a dime.
It's not the biggest, fastest business tablet on the market, and it doesn't have the best set of software features. But the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 is an extremely well-rounded device at a highly competitive price, so budget-minded business users should give it a look. It has a slick, durable design; an easy-to-use interface; and exceptional battery life. But before you buy it, make sure the Amazon Appstore's relatively limited app selection can meet your needs.