Good technical support
Let’s start with the good stuff. One fantastic wheeze is a feature Amazon calls Mayday. This starts a video chat with an Amazon technical support technician — you talk to them straight down the tablet and they can see a copy of your display on your screen to make it easier to tell them what to do.
I tried it out a couple of times and was impressed — once for a very simple task the agent knew the answer straight away, the second time they didn’t, but I wasn’t kept waiting long before they found it out. It’s hard to know what this will be like once more people are using it, but it seems like a great idea. If you have technophobic relatives that just want a colour e-reader, and you don’t want to take the support calls yourself, then this is probably the best tablet around.
Hardware-wise, the Kindle Fire HDX is good. The screen is excellent — better than the one on the iPad mini or the Nexus 7, and unlike the precios generation models I reviewed, the menus positively glide, thanks in part to the fast processor inside. Ebook text is very sharp, and unlike the black and white Kindles, you get to see the pictures in colour. One thing worth noting in case it bothers you is that there’s no rear camera, although the front one works fine for video calls or selfies.
Also good is the sound from the stereo speakers. Put the tablet on a desk while watching a video and you can really hear the stereo effect — they go pretty loud for built-in speakers.
The underlying Kindle Fire HDX software is Android, but Amazon has customised it so much it’s almost impossible to recognise. In some ways that’s good, as it’s a bit easier to use than normal Android. There are lots of clear labels at the top of the screen telling you what to expect, and a carousel on the home screen with your most recent book, app, photo or whatever you last looked at sitting at the front.
What you gain in ease of use, however, you lose in flexibility. Amazon doesn’t use the normal Google Play store for apps, instead it has its own app store. Unfortunately that means some apps you can get on a normal Android tablet, you can’t get on the Kindle Fire. Of the six games we use in the office to test tablets, for example, only two were available on the Kindle.
Amazon has its own Web browser, email client and contacts apps, all of which seemed to work fine in my time with the device, although not being able to use the standard Chrome browser that comes on the Nexus 7 was a pain for me as I have everything synced on that.
Music comes courtesy of Amazon’s Cloud Player, which will contain digital copies of most CDs you’ve bought directly from the company over the years. You can also upload 250 songs for free to Amazon’s servers, then listen to them on the Kindle and other devices. Paying £22 a year increases that to 250,000 songs. Or you can simply transfer them across from a computer using a USB cable.
Newsstand lets you buy digital magazines, complete with patronising labels like ‘Magazines for her’ (Glamour, All About Soap, Look) and ‘Magazines for him’ (Nuts, Top Gear, Hornby, F1). It’s just like being in WHSmith.
No downloadable video
Where things really go wrong, however, is when you try to buy video to watch on the device. You can’t — simple as that. The Kindle Fire uses Lovefilm for all the movie and TV things, and unless you have an Internet connection, that doesn’t work. It’s streaming only, so if you’re hoping to buy a tablet to watch video on the train, or somewhere else without a decent Internet connection, don’t buy this. If you already have the video file, you can transfer it over to the Kindle via USB. You can also install the Netflix app, but that’s streaming-only too, so doesn’t help much.
In the US, subscribers to Amazon Prime get to download some video for free, but that service isn’t available here. Contrast this with the iPad or most tablets that use Android, such as the Nexus 7, where you can simply buy the video you want, download and watch wherever.
That points to the essential flaw with the Kindle Fire HDX in the UK. Almost all the really cool things it does, with the exception of the Mayday feature, can be done on a rival tablet using Amazon’s own apps. Want a colour e-reader? Buy another tablet and install the Kindle app on it. Like the idea of Amazon Music? Just install the app on your phone. And so on.
This isn’t a bad product by any means, it’s just not as good as the competition, which shows just how competitive the sector has become, and how much you get for your money now.
It costs £10 more than Google’s equivalent, the Nexus 7, and that’s for the version that shoehorns irritating ads onto the lock screen. With a better video service, it would be worth a look, but unless you really need the Mayday feature, you’re basically buying a fancy colour e-reader.