Technologizer

With the New Kindle Fire HDX Tablets, Amazon Stays Ambitious and Goes Upscale

Jeff Bezos shows off better screens, slick TV tricks and built-in help from real people.

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Harry McCracken / TIME

From left, Amazon's 8.9" Kindle Fire HDX, updated 7" Kindle Fire HD and 7" Kindle Fire HDX

I’m sitting in an Amazon conference room in Seattle along with a couple of other tech journalists. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is telling us about the company’s goals with its new Kindle Fire tablets. He begins by scrawling two goals on a whiteboard — and since they were also centerpieces of the Kindle event he presided over in September, 2012, I knew what they were going to be as he began writing them:

1. Premium products at non-premium prices

2. Make money when people use our devices, not when people buy our devices

And then Bezos adds a new goal. It’s in the form of a Venn diagram he says we may find a bit oblique without further explanation. Here’s my crude approximation:

Jeff Bezos Venn diagram

After shading in the overlapping area, he tells us: “Here is where some of the hardest-to-do but also coolest things reside.”

That overlap turns out to be key to Amazon’s new tablets, the 7″ and 8.9″ Kindle Fire HDX and a revised version of last year’s 7″ Kindle Fire HD. What Bezos is saying is that Amazon can make better, more inventive tablets than most companies because it designs its own hardware, writes its own software and controls its own services. Or to put it the way Steve Jobs once did when speaking of Apple products, Amazon makes “the whole widget.”

All three new models go on pre-order today; Amazon says that the updated Fire HD will ship on October 2, the 7″ Fire HDX on October 18 and the 8.9″ HDX on November 7. On Tuesday, I got a walk-through of all three and some hands-on time with the 7″ HDX.

People who think about gadgets primarily in terms of specs are going to fixate on the fact that the new Kindle Fires pack substantially more sophisticated technologies than earlier models. Enough so that even though Amazon foregoes a profit until consumers start to pay it for content — “We add up our bill of materials and are willing to sell this device at break-even,” Bezos says. The two HDX models sell for more than last year’s HD models.

Riffing on Bezos’s point #1, they’re even more premium products at somewhat more premium prices; the 8.9″ model is now more expensive than Apple’s iPad Mini, and will therefore compete with it solely on quality, not cost.

Here are the basics on the new hardware:

  • 7″ Kindle Fire HDX: 2.2-GHz, four-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor with three times the previous performance; Adreno 330 graphics with four times the previous performance; 1920-by-1200 display at 323 pixels-inch; 2GB of RAM; front-facing camera; redesigned case that’s thinner and 20 percent lighter, with power and volume buttons on the back. The starting price is $229, vs. $199 for the 7″ Kindle Fire HD.
  • 8.9″ Kindle Fire HDX: same processor, graphics, and RAM as 7″ model; 2560-by-1600 display at 339 PPI; front-facing camera and new rear-facing 8-megapixel camera with LED flash. It weighs 13.2 ounces — vs. 20 ounces for the 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD — which, Amazon says, makes it the lightest full-size tablet. (It is indeed a featherweight — so easy to pick up that it feels more like a hollow model than something stuffed with electronics.) The starting price is $379 with 16GB of storage, vs. a current price of $269 for the 8.9″ Fire HD, which originally sold for $299.
  • 7″ Kindle Fire HD: This one is an update to last year’s Fire HD, and the big news is the rock-bottom price: $139, or $20 less than the previous version. It has a 1280-by-800 screen, a 1.5-GHz dual-core processor, and a svelte new case similar in looks to those of the HDX models.

Hardware-wise, the HDX models’ biggest news is probably their super-high-resolution screens. Both handily beat the pixel-per-inch count of Apple’s iPad, which introduced the whole idea of super-high-resolution tablet screens with its Retina display just last year. Amazon says that its new displays have perfect 100% sRGB color accuracy¬†and less glare, and a new feature adjusts contrast on the fly for whatever lighting environment you’re in, whether you’re reclining in a dimly-lit bedroom or sitting on a park bench. (I saw the screens only fleetingly, in Amazon’s own conference rooms, but they did look awfully good.) The company also says that it’s dug deeply into Android’s underpinnings to make the touch interface unusually responsive.

Zippy processors and graphics don’t always translate into gizmos that feel faster than theoretically more sluggish ones. But in my limited time with the 7″ HDX, it did seem to be a rocket: On-screen scrolling was super-responsive, and a racing game achieved console-like detail and fluidity.

Amazon also claims that both HDX models can run for up to 11 hours on a charge — up from 10 for the previous generation — and that a new power-efficient mode for reading Kindle e-books can last for up to 17 hours.

Last year’s 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD came in a version with AT&T LTE and a really cheap starter plan: $50 a year for 250MB of data a month. With the new HDX models, Amazon is ditching that offer. (It’s not a great loss, since the amount was pretty darn skimpy.) Instead, it’s offering both AT&T and Verizon versions, in both screen sizes, for $100 more than Wi-Fi-only models. You’ll add them to your carrier’s shared plan and have access to however much data you choose to pay for. Not disruptive in the least, but practical and straightforward.

The new Kindle Fire hardware looks nice, but the more meaningful changes may be in the tablets’ software and services. As before, these are “Android tablets” only in the sense that Amazon started with Android as a software ingredient, and lets you download third-party Android programs from its AppStore. More than ever, though, it’s building its own ambitious, content-centric world. It’s the closest thing the industry has to a third major tablet platform besides Apple’s iOS and Google’s standard-issue version of Android.

Ever since the first Kindle Fire debuted in 2011, every article about Amazon’s tablets has needed to explain that they run the company’s own heavily modified version of Android. Amazon has now made this easier to address by giving its software a name: Fire OS. The version shipping on the new Kindle Fires is Fire OS 3.0, code-named “Mojito.” (If future versions are also named after cocktails, feel free to take it as Amazon hinting that its version of Android is more grown-up than Google’s, which bears code names such as Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean and KitKat.)

Basic new features in Fire OS 3.0 include:

Kindle Fire Grid View

Amazon

A grid view. The primary navigation remains the very Amazon-centric Carousel, which shows sections for books, movies, music, apps and other content, along with Amazon’s own stores for purchasing more of all of the above. But you can swipe up to reveal a grid that looks a lot more like iOS and Android.

An app (and other content) switcher. Swiping in from the side now shows thumbnails for apps and other recent stuff you’ve been consuming, allowing you to quickly go back.

A left-navigation menu. Amazon’s own apps now have menus you can pull down on the side for quick access to a variety of features.

Business features. Kindle Fires may be among the most consumery tablets on the market, but with previous generations,”one of the surprises was how many enterprises were buying them,” Bezos says. “We’ve doubled down on that.” The new software has a number of prosaic-but-important features aimed at worker bees, including Virtual Private Networking and Kerberos authentication.

All of these additions make Fire OS 3.0 feel meatier, and should appeal to advanced types who found the previous versions a tad dumbed-down compared to raw Android. But the features Bezos demonstrated personally were more striking. They’re the ones aiming for that intersection between customer delight and deep integration he diagrammed:

Amazon Kindle Mayday

Amazon

The Mayday Button. The only way I can think of to adequately explain this new customer-service feature is as a Genius Bar that happens to be built into every new Kindle Fire.

“We have many, many tech support representatives for Kindle, and we have had for several years,” Bezos says. “The first thing the customer has to do is describe the state of their device…that actually takes quite a bit of time.” With Mayday, a live rep appears on the Kindle in a tiny video chat window that can sit anywhere on the screen, overlaying any app. The rep can talk with the customer, draw arrows on the screen to call attention to features and even operate the interface to show how to accomplish tasks.

“We’re going to try and completely elevate the experience of doing customer support,” says Bezos, who points out that Mayday is only possible because Amazon has such thorough control over the operating system. It’ll be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for free, and the goal is to respond to requests to initiate a session in under fifteen seconds. Kindle owners are free to use it both for technical issues and what Bezos calls “cup of sugar” requests such as suggestions of apps to try.

“In our beta testing, when we’re showing this to people,” he says, “their jaws hit the table.” Having seen Mayday for myself, I believe it.

Kindle Fire Second Screen

Harry McCracken / TIME

Second-screen TV features. As before, thousands of movies and TV episodes support an Amazon technology called X-Ray, which lets you learn more about what you’re watching. It delves even deeper than before — for instance, it now shows any songs that are played during a program. And if you’ve got a PlayStation 3, a PlayStation 4 or a Samsung Smart TV, you can start watching something on Amazon Video on the tablet, then redirect it to your TV, which will stream it directly from the Internet.

“The tablet processor is completely freed up to do whatever I’d like on my tablet, but it’s completely synchronized,” Bezos told us as he demoed the feature by watching an episode of USA’s Scrubs. “I can do e-mail, play games…I can multitask if I want to.”

Kindle Fire Music X-Ray

Amazon

X-Ray for music. Songs, like other types of content, are now complemented with related material, such as lyrics; as a song plays, the words appear on-screen. You can tap on any lyric to jump around in the audio.

Bezos also showed us a new case available for the updated Fires called the Origami Cover. With its embedded magnets and folding panels, it’s obviously inspired by the iPad’s Smart Cover, but it’s not a slavish knockoff: The panels fold up into a pyramid-like shape, which lets you prop up the tablet in either portrait or landscape orientation. The version for the 8.9″ Fire HDX also lets you slide up the tablet slightly so that you can snap a picture with the rear camera. And when you slide, the Fire automatically launches its camera app.

Kindle Fire Origami Cover

Harry McCracken / TIME

That’s a lot to chew on, and it’s not everything. (Amazon Prime subscribers, for instance, will now be able to download some movies and TV shows so they’re watchable without an Internet connection.) The Kindle Fire line has come a long way from the original 2011 Kindle Fire, which was cheap and small, and otherwise not all that exciting.

Still, with Kindle Fires, even more than most gadgets, I’ve learned to tamp down my enthusiasm until I’ve tried them on my own. I’ve found that the versions Amazon initially ships have been buggy and generally rough around the edges; only with subsequent software updates have the hardware, software and services all blended together into something resembling a seamless whole.

In fact, this time around, Amazon is already saying that it won’t be quite finished when the new devices ship. Some of the features, including certain enterprise capabilities and integration with the Amazon-owned GoodReads social network, will arrive in a Fire OS 3.1 update, due in mid-November. Maybe delaying these items will help the company ship tablets that are more robust in the first place.

I asked Bezos whether the competitive landscape had changed much in the year since he unveiled the Kindle HD models. “The main point I would make,” he told me, “is that it’s so early for the whole tablet marketplace and arena. It’s also very big. There’s room for multiple winners pursuing different strategies, different interfaces and different variants.”

Like Bezos says, Amazon’s own strategy is to sell excellent hardware at low prices with the expectation that happy customers will readily plunk down money for lots of content. That’s pretty much the one it created for the first Kindle e-reader way back in 2007. The concept has never been as fully evolved as it is in the new Fire HDX models — and in just a few weeks, we’ll get to see if they live up to their promise.