Amazon's latest tablet, the all new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, has nearly all the ingredients to make it the best tablet on the market.
It's super thin and light. It's has a beautiful high-resolution screen and some compelling new features. And it's relatively inexpensive to boot.
But it also has one big drawback: Its close ties to Amazon's own services limit its abilities as a general purpose device.
The HDX 8.9, is a marked improvement over last year's model. It's 30 percent lighter and 11 percent thinner. Its screen resolution is a whopping 339 pixels per inch, 33 percent more than last year's big-screened Kindle Fire. It also has a quad-core processor instead of a dual-core one.
Yet despite having a faster processor, a higher-resolution screen and a thinner case, it has a longer battery life. Amazon says it will last up to 12 hours of mixed use compared with 10 hours for last year's model. I didn't specifically test that claim, but I was able to use the HDX 8.9 off and on over the course of three days without needing to recharge it.
In terms of pure specifications, the HDX 8.9 gives Apple's (AAPL) new iPad Air a run for its money. Amazon's tablet, which can cost hundreds of dollars less than Apple's, is lighter and nearly as thin as the svelte Air. Although its screen is slightly smaller than the Air's, it has far more pixels. The HDX 8.9 also has a higher resolution camera. The Air's processor was faster in my battery of tests, but on a day-to-day basis, you likely won't notice the difference.
Beyond the pure specs, the HDX 8.9 is a joy to hold. Because it's so light, you could easily hold it while watching a full movie without worrying about straining your arm.
The new device works much the same way as previous Kindle Fires. On a menu bar near the top of the screen, you'll find a list of categories of content, including games, apps and books. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see two rows of recently used apps. In between, you'll find a virtual carousel of large icons representing the apps, books, magazines or other content you've used recently.
While the interface remains largely the same, Amazon has added a few tweaks. If you swipe up from the bottom of the home screen, you'll see a more extensive list of apps you have on the device without having to go to the full "apps" category. And if you are within an app, you can call up a list of recently used programs by swiping from the bottom or side of the screen, depending on how you are holding the tablet. To switch to another program, just tap its icon.
One great addition is a customer support feature Amazon calls Mayday. If you launch the Mayday app and click "connect," the device will connect you for free with an Amazon support person via a video call. The support person can view your screen to see what you may be having problems with or to show you how to solve a problem.
When I tested the service, it connected me to a representative within a minute and the person was able to answer all my questions easily. It was like the help you'd expect at the Genius Bar in one of Apple's stores, but delivered in a much quicker, more convenient fashion.
But for all its great specs and new features, the HDX is still, like its predecessors, a device that's limited by its links to Amazon.
That's most apparent when you look at Amazon's Appstore. If you have e-books you've bought from Barnes & Noble or Apple or just about anywhere besides Amazon, you're out of luck, because you won't find their e-reader apps in Amazon's store.
You also won't find any of Google's (GOOG) popular apps -- not Gmail, YouTube or even Google Maps -- or any of Apple's suite of creative and productivity apps, such as Pages or iMovie, which are only available for the iPad. While you can find knockoffs of both sets of programs, many appear to be poor substitutes.
Overall, you'll find fewer choices and a narrower range of apps for the HDX 8.9 than you'll find for the iPad or for tablets running a more standard version of Android. Of the top 25 free apps in the Google Play store, only 14 are available in Amazon's Appstore. Of the top 25 paid apps in Apple's App Store, just 11 are available through Amazon.
The HDX 8.9 has other shortcomings. Unlike Apple or Google, Amazon doesn't offer its own video-calling or messaging service, so the new tablet doesn't come with one. Unlike tablets running standard Android, it doesn't support widgets. It also can't take dictation and doesn't offer a personal assistant feature like Apple's Siri or Google Now.
If all you're looking for in a tablet is something with which to surf the Web, play a few games, watch some movies and read some books, the HDX is a great choice. But if you'd like to use your tablet for more than that, I'd choose a different device. While the HDX 8.9 is more compelling and capable than its predecessors, it's much better at serving up content from Amazon than doing other things.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or email@example.com. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.
Likes: Inexpensive; beautiful super-high-resolution screen; ultra-lightweight and thin design; Mayday feature quickly connects users with Amazon support; new, high-resolution rear camera; long battery life; excellent selection of e-books, digital videos and songs.
Dislikes: Poor app selection; lacks support for widgets; lacks text to speech capability, personal assistant feature and native video calling or messaging services.
Specs: 2.2GHz quad-core processor; 8.9-inch, 2560 x 1600 pixel screen; high definition front and 8-megapixel rear cameras.
Price: With lock-screen advertisements, $380 for 16GB, $430 for 32GB and $480 for 64GB Wi-Fi-only models. Each model available without such ads for $15 extra. Add $100 for LTE-enabled versions of each model