Picture yourself on a couch. Now, across the room is a television. It's just a 48" 720p flatscreen, hooked up to a digital cable box Time Warner sent you like 8 years ago that is slow as molasses and has no remaining DVR space, and beside that is the old Xbox 360 you haven't touched in many a fortnight and is presumably home to a small but happy civilization of dust-eating molds and fungi who are probably as old as the component video cable you have attached to it. Oh, and there's a DVD player.
Your cousin/nephew/niece/sibling/whatever got you one of those Chromecast things, but honestly, you don't even want to try how to learn to use it, so it's still in the box. You read eBooks on your old Kindle DX, and you use your laptop as your TV a lot these days because it has Netflix and Hulu and stuff, but that laptop is definitely getting to be a bit of a laggard. You also order a lot of things on Amazon, because it's a name you trust and you like product reviews and good prices.
You want a tablet. Which one do you get? It's probably a Kindle Fire, be it the 6, 7, HDX 7, or HDX 8.9. They're all basically the same in your mind - it's just a difference of screen size, storage, performance, and price. It's not that you don't care about technology, it's more that you're kind of set in a way of doing things and the prospect of an Android tablet makes you a little apprehensive because there are just so damn many of the things.
Then you see that big, happy banner advertising the Kindle Fires. They all get at least 4 stars - that's encouraging, and there are thousands of reviews. The 7" HDX starts at $179, but you know what, you want something fully-featured. This will be your only tablet, and your laptop is on its last legs. You want a piece of hardware that's going to take over at least some of that workload, even if that just means browsing Buzzfeed and YouTube. So, the 8.9 makes sense - it's powerful, newly-released, gets the best battery life, has two cameras (front and rear!), and it reviews perfectly decently.
$380 puts it below iPad territory, and even if it's not cheap, it comes with a free trial of Kindle Unlimited, Prime Instant Video (with offline videos), and Prime Music. There are some real value-adds to be had there. It does Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and most other video services. It has apps. You can read your Kindle books, shop on Amazon, do Facebook, and browse the web. The same things you use laptop for, distilled into a tablet-y essence.
For this person, the Fire HDX 8.9 is an excellent tablet. The no-frills user interface, extremely quick access to content, and faith in the Amazon name have made the Fires exceptionally popular devices.
This year's Fire HDX 8.9 doesn't change much from 2013's. In fact, the improvements are pretty minor in every way, and really noteworthy in only one: the processor. The Snapdragon 805 chip introduces a quicker GPU, faster Wi-Fi, and some smaller improvements in various areas, but really, that's most of the story here. Versus the 800 in last year's model, the differences aren't huge, they're just incremental. Amazon really had no reason not to update the SoC in the HDX 8.9, and it also used the opportunity to toss some new Dolby firmware in there that adds support for 3D surround sound when using headphones (content must support it). Otherwise, this is basically the same as last year's HDX.
The operating system, though, has changed since last year, with the release of Fire OS 4 "Sangria." 4.0 adds a number of new features, the most advertised of which has been Amazon's Firefly. Essentially, Firefly is Google Goggles but for stuff Amazon sells. Using the camera or microphone, Firefly will identify products, music, movies, and TV shows if Amazon has them in its database (or IMDB). It actually works decently, if you go in with the mindset that it's not magical. Product boxes are pretty regularly identified, as are bar codes, books, and songs. TV and movies are a bit more hit and miss, as is any non-book/CD/DVD product not in a box. If Amazon doesn't have an episode of film in its streaming system, it's probably not going to be able to identify it. Still, if you use Amazon to buy a lot of stuff, I can see how Firefly could be useful, especially if you use something like Amazon Fresh or subscriptions. Still, systems like this all have a long way to go before they're something I'd consider using on a regular basis for actual products, there are just too many limitations.
Multi-user support is baked in, too, now, and I think that's going to be a big hit with parents. You can create accounts especially for children, select the apps and content they can access (Amazon even has a list of "kid friendly" content for apps and games), and set time limits, goals, and other kinds of things (the free time interface really is quite powerful) you won't see on a standard Android tablet, such as locking out the camera. Try and emulate this functionality on a Nexus 9 or an iPad - you just can't. Amazon even has a subscription service you can buy for unlimited access to children's apps, games, and interactive learning experiences, dubbed Free Time Unlimited. Amazon is gunning for the family market here, and I think they have a considerable leg up on both Apple and Google.
Aside from those changes, Fire OS is still not hugely different from what we saw last year. Yes, there are aesthetic alterations and layout changes, but the software takes an extremely iterative approach to visual changes, and my guess is that it's mostly to avoid confusing customers who don't like unsolicited updates to their products.
No, Fire OS does not have any Google apps. No, it doesn't have many of Android's native, built-in features. You can't change the launcher without sideloading an APK (even then, many are buggy or simply incompatible). Or the wallpaper. Or, frankly, almost any visual aspect of the OS. This is, I would again venture, in order to maintain visual and functional consistency for users no matter which annoying in-law's kid gets ahold of their tablet at the next family gathering. Amazon even makes you set a PIN out of the box now on your Fire.
The order of the top-level carousel shortcuts is as follows: shop, games, apps, books, music, videos, newsstand, audiobooks, web, photos, docs. You are an Amazon customer, and according to Amazon, this should roughly mirror your consumption priorities when using your tablet. You cannot change this order - it is the way it is. Your tablet, the launcher, they're just gateways to content, designed to get you into the hub you want as quickly as possible. Amazon was also sure to outfit it with a great screen and some powerful speakers, to ensure that media looks and sounds the best it can on a tablet. There isn't much romance to Amazon's tablet philosophy, I'll say that. But it works - you'll never forget how to get to Kindle or Instant Video, because they're permanent fixtures in the homescreen UI.
In short, this is not the tablet for me, it's probably not the tablet for you, but I can almost guarantee that's the tablet for someone you know, and that's why these things sell. Anyone with an Amazon account can figure out how to work a Fire tablet, and because Amazon so openly saddles it with restrictions against modifications to the UI it's pretty hard to forget how to work one, either. Even the big, labeled power and volume buttons on the back can't be missed.
Are there problems Amazon should be solving, though? Absolutely. The build quality of the HDX isn't fantastic. While it's extremely light and easy to hold, the unnecessarily large bezels (something of an Amazon trademark, it seems) and flimsy plastic frame don't scream "$380 tablet" to me, and I think Amazon's flagship slate is rather desperately due for a design overhaul here, even if it's not an apparent priority for Amazon or its customers.
The rear-mounted power and volume keys are something I was wholly unable to adapt to on last year's model, and that hasn't changed this year. I prefer to use the HDX 8.9 in portrait mode, and so remembering where the buttons are can become a real pain. The rear camera is pretty much a wash in my opinion, the exposure is all kinds of wacky. And while the HDX 8.9 is fast, it isn't by any means incredible in this regard. The browser, Silk, for example, is excruciatingly laggy at times and I simply wouldn't be able to bring myself to use it. And that's not even getting into the crappy page rendering issues. The email client is decent, but without a first-party Gmail app, I'd probably avoid ever using that, either. For the most part app selection on the Appstore is pretty good, but the app itself is still frustratingly limited in terms of exploration and discovery on the device. There are no filters or search options, and that can make finding new and interesting content difficult.
Most embarrassing, perhaps, is that Amazon's own physical goods shopping app doesn't even run that well on the HDX 8.9. It stutters and skips and takes weirdly long to load at times, probably because it's mostly just a glorified web wrapper, but still - using Amazon on my iPad Air 2 or even the Nexus 9 is a much smoother experience. Kind of an issue, guys.
The thing is, none of these problems are going to be terribly pressing for someone actually in the market for a Fire tablet. They could be nuisances, certainly, but the tablet does exactly what it says in the box: it lets you consume stuff. Lots of it. The Fire HDX may have most of the features of a fully-fledged tablet, but it's so strongly rooted in Amazon's ecosystem that comparing it to such tablets on anything but a basic level becomes difficult. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you can't embrace the Amazon world, the Fire HDX is kind of a lump. For some people, though, having that world defined by the product right out of the box is worth the other tradeoffs, tradeoffs they might not even know exist. I like to think of the Fire HDX as a tablet 'starter kit' (an expensive one, albeit) - there's so little to break, content is very exposed for the user to find, and it's largely set up for you right out of the box (Amazon even signs you in).
Amazon also sent along some accessories with the HDX 8.9 - a folding origami case ($70) and a Bluetooth keyboard ($60). The origami case is, as it was last year, ridiculously thick and heavy. The only changes I can note are a switch to leather (there's even a premium leather case) and a little elastic band on the front for a stylus. The kickstand works, but I don't see any logic to the weird folding mechanism. The keyboard is functional, but honestly, who buys a keyboard for a Kindle Fire? That seems weird to me. Like any keyboard this size, it is small, cramped, and the trackpad is essentially useless for anything but prolonged self-torture. Weirdly, while the keyboard does stash away magnetically into the origami case (creating a near inch-thick Kindle in the process), there's no way to use it like a little laptop. Because the keyboard is stored on the actual folding portion of the case, you have to take it out to prop up the tablet. Don't worry, though, because it doesn't really matter since propping the HDX up in your lap using the case is basically impossible - you'll need a flat, non-squishy surface to set it on.