I recently set aside my brand new Retina iPad mini for an entire week and tested using Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 7" as my main (and only) tablet.
I have made it known that Apple's Retina iPad mini was the tablet I've always wanted, and I've been extremely pleased since I got mine. But I don't live in a vacuum, and I know that there are more than a few companies out there who want a piece of this very lucrative market. I bought Amazon's original Kindle Fire years ago to test it out and while I loved the size, it simply didn't have the horsepower to be a real contender for me or most folks.
Fast-forward to 2013, though, and there are a few tablets on the market that, specs-wise, compete very handily with the current Retina iPad mini.
I use my tablet like most folks do: web browsing, email (reading and replying), watching movies, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. I also have one very specific use case where I run the Mackie Master Fader app to control my DL1608 mixer for the various bands I play with. Given that there's no Android app for that mixer I knew this was the one time I would have to break my self-imposed limits and use the iPad. And for an entire week, that's the only time I used it.
The first thing I noticed about the Kindle Fire HDX was the size. My iPad mini is 7.9 inches and I immediatley liked the slightly-smaller form factor of the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. The second thing I noticed was the screen. It has that same, "Retina-like" resolution as the iPad mini, and it's gorgeous.
I even liked Amazon's "Special Offers" – that is, the ads that are shown on the Kindle's lock-screen unless you pay the extra US$15 to make them go away. We also found a few ads that the whole family liked, passing the device around for everyone to see. Even though Amazon gave me a credit to use for apps and such on the device for my review, I was never once tempted to spend their $15 to turn off the ads.
This is just one of Amazon's "Special Offers" that show up on the Kindle's lock screen
My initial impressions were that the Fire HDX was snappy and kept right up with me navigating around, setting up my apps and preferences. I don't play a lot of games, but I tried a few and they, too, felt snappy and never lagged.
Movies and Music
Amazon Prime members have instant access to a huge library of Amazon's TV shows and movies, but it's my own personal collection that I care more about watching. I started building my video library before Apple TV was in the picture, so my movies happily live outside of the Apple ecosystem.
I leave them all on my Synology DiskStation and control most of everything with either Plex or Synology's Video Station apps. These interfaced perfectly with the Kindle, and my experience with the Plex app on Android was exactly the same with that of iOS: it simply works. I was able to sync movies down to the Kindle for offline viewing, or I was able to stream directly to the device.
Similarly I keep my music library synced to my DiskStation and was easily able to play music using Synology's Audio Station and DS-Audio apps directly on the Kindle. Media consumption was smooth and silky on the Kindle with no issues whatsoever.
It's worth noting that Amazon's decision to place the left-and-right-stereo speakers along the wider edge makes for a very impressive stereo field when listening to music or watching movies. I usually watch full-length movies with headphones, but for trailers or little YouTube clips, this made a huge experiential difference.
Of Apps and Marketplaces
My intention in using the Kindle was not to compare it to an iPad but to simply use it and get a feel – as best I could – for how this tablet would stand on its own. Where that began to fall short for me was when I started looking for apps. The Android app marketplace is fragmented. Amazon has their own, highly-curated marketplace, and that is the only (easy) way to get new apps for your Kindle. The much larger Google Play marketplace has plenty of apps that will work fine on the HDX, but even after jumping through several hoops I was unable to get Amazon's unit to connect to it.
One example was web browsing. I used Amazon's built-in "Silk" browser but wanted to also try Google's Chrome. Amazon's store doesn't offer any third-party browsers that I could find, so I was out of luck until I either copied Chrome from a Samsung Android device I had or found a website where someone had (presumably illegally) put up a download link for Chrome. It worked perfectly after installing with either of those methods, but those are not hoops I would expect even an average user to jump through, let alone a first-time tablet user.
To be fair, a first-time tablet user may not care or even know about those options, so initially that might not matter. But it's worth noting that this was a hugely frustrating piece of the puzzle for me.
Typing and Editing
Using this new tablet I expected a few days of adjustment to the user interface, and that's about all it took. Within about three days navigating around the UI, launching apps and accessing settings became second-nature. I really like Android's looser rules that allow apps to have not just notifications in the settings pull-down (akin to iOS's Control Center and Notification Center combined), but apps can also have controls there. Sonos, for example, shows the song I'm playing and allows me to skip, pause or adjust the volume without even launching the app. These are things that us iOS users can only dream of.
Positioning the cursor and editing text on Android is a task too large for me.
One thing I never got used to (and am still unable to do with any degree of success even after weeks and months of using Android devices) is typing and editing text. Yes, the keyboard is different, and yes there are some great third-party alternative keyboards (take that, iOS!), but editing text on any Android device is a never-ending exercise in frustration for me. Every time I try tapping to position the cursor I wind up selecting entire words, and any time I try to select words my keyboard goes away and half the time I can't get it back.
And I'm a geek.
I don't know what Google's doing with Android over there, but I can't believe they haven't licked this particular issue yet. Maybe it's just me (but I don't think it is). Still, if you're not doing much typing on it and just reading, watching movies, and browsing the web, this may not be a deal-killer for you.
Speaking of deals, this is where the Kindle (and other similarly-sized Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3) totally shine. The price for the 7" 16GB Wi-FI Kindle Fire HDX is US$229. Compare that to the $399 pricetag on the 16GB Wi-Fi Retina iPad mini and, despite the typing shortfalls, I have a hard time recommending the iPad mini to anyone looking at the low-end devices.
Sure, if you're looking for a 64GB device with LTE support, the consistent $170 delta becomes a much smaller fraction of the price. But if you just want a tablet to use for routine stuff and don't care about mobile data or lots of storage, that $170 nearly doubles your price.
I need to make special mention about the "Origami" case Amazon included with the unit they sent me. I've used several origami-style, self-folding cases for my various iPads over the years, and every one of them has never lasted more than 4 minutes on the device before I removed it. They've always been flimsy and were never enough to hold the iPad steady.
Amazon's Origami Case for the Kindle Fire HDX is one of the best tablet cases I've ever used
Amazon's Origami case for the Kindle instantly changed my mind about all of that. The Kindle is held in place by magnets in the back of the case making installation a breeze. The front is solid, and the folds are well-defined, making the case extremely sturdy and comfortable to hold. Given that a case can make-or-break a tablet experience, I think Amazon's done quite well with this one.
The Week End(s)
At the end of the week I was happy to get back to my iPad mini. It was nice to finally be able to type again without feeling my blood pressure rise. But if I didn't already have an iPad mini I'm not sure I would jump and get one without seriously considering an Android tablet like this 7" Fire HDX.
And just as I was finishing up my week with this, an 8" Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 arrived for my testing. I haven't spent as much time with that unit yet but I think it, too, will be a real contender (and the Samsung device does have access to the Google Play marketplace right out of the box, solving the aforementioned app-related frustration).
If you're in the market for a tablet, don't overlook Android options like this one. They're worthy contenders these days.