Kindle Fire HD was and is a very good tablet, a viable option against strong competition from Google, Apple and others, and an excellent value, especially now at $139. But the best at any price? Sorry, can't go there.
Amazon wisely cooled things down with the introduction of the brand-new Kindle Fire HDX tablets. That's so even as the HDX raises the bar with more robust specs and new features, most prominently a live tech-support innovation called Mayday.
As with the Fire HD, HDX models come in 8.9-inch and 7-inch screen sizes (the latter being the one I reviewed). They boast outstanding stereo speakers and a scrolling carousel-type interface that intermingles icons for movies, apps, books and other content. Android is buried underneath.
These tablets provide a smooth passageway to Amazon's vast digital treasure trove of eBooks, movies, music and other content, especially for customers who prefer Amazon's ecosystem to say Google's or Apple's. And as before you can tap into the flicks and TV shows made available to subscribers of Amazon's $79-a-year Prime service.
Here are three new or expanded features that Amazon hopes will fire up interest in its new tablet line, while dousing the competition:
You used to have to stream the Prime content, but with the latest HD and HDX models you now have the choice to download tens of thousands of movies and TV shows as well. That's a big plus for anyone stuck on an airplane for hours without Wi-Fi.
The Prime Instant Video downloads feature is one of the key ways Amazon hopes to make its tablet stand out against rivals, especially since Amazon makes its content available (through free apps) to competitors. It's funny that way in tech: how companies are partners and rivals at the same time.AN EVEN MORE DETAILED X-RAY
Amazon is also expanding the X-Ray features that were available on prior models. With X-Ray when an actor wanders into a movie scene you can pull up biographical data on him or her (supplied by Amazon-owned IMDb ) as you're watching. New this time around is trivia. For example, I learned while streaming Flashdance that Kevin Costner was runner-up for the role given to Michael Nouri. Also new: X-Ray identifies any music playing in a scene. You can jump right to the store to buy a song and jump to scenes featuring other titles from the soundtrack.
Yet another new X-Ray feature lets you follow line-by-line lyrics on certain songs.MAYDAY PERSONALIZED HELP
To me the real killer differentiator in the Fire HDX tablets (but not Fire HD) is Mayday. When you're not sure how to do or discover something - finding out if your tablet has the latest software update, adding bookmarks to a Web page, learning how to use Kindle FreeTime to establish time limits and choose material your kids can safely access - you hit Mayday.
Within 15 seconds, a small window pops open on the screen with a live tech support rep who you can see but who cannot see you. But the rep can see precisely what's on your screen and share control. He or she can draw circles or arrows to demonstrate what needs to be done and, if you wish, do things for you. Amazon says the rep cannot see your password, should you have to enter it at any point. The rep can pull up your account info if need be.
Amazon is staffing up so that people will be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos insisting during a recent interview that the company will be Mayday-ready Christmas day. Mayday staffers appeared quickly and politely responded to my questions at all hours of the day and night, but the true test comes once all users have access to the Mayday feature.
Amazon is promising another fresh feature for its latest Fire devices called Second Screen that will let you fling shows and movies from your tablet to a big-screen TV. Second Screen (which I couldn't test) hasn't launched yet and will only work initially on Sony PS3s and PS4s and Samsung TVs. A related feature will let you wirelessly "mirror" or display on the TV what is on your tablet if you attach a special Miracast dongle. We've seen similar mirroring on other tablets.OTHER NOTES ON THE NEW HARDWARE
Amazon has moved power and volume controls to the back. It was sometimes a minor nuisance to get at them when I had on the new magnetic "Origami" cover accessory that folds into a stand for the tablet.
The 7-inch and 8.9-inch models have front-facing HD cameras; only the larger tablet has a rear-facing one as well.
Amazon says you can get up to 11 hours of battery life in mixed use and up to 17 hours for reading in between charges. But I got less than five hours, a disappointing result, even considering my very harsh testing conditions (streaming a movie over Wi-Fi, brightness cranked up to the max).
Amazon now claims more than 80,000 third-party apps in its app store, but that's a fraction compared with what Android and iOS have available.
That's one of the reasons why it's still hard to declare the Kindle Fire HDX as the best tablet at any price. But I like it a lot. And it's very good for people seeking an affordable and solid tablet. I expect lots of folks to be gleefully shouting Mayday.E-mail: email@example.com; Follow @edbaig on Twitter.
--BOTTOM LINE ON AMAZON KINDLE FIRE HDX
Pro. Mayday live tech-support feature. X-Ray for movies, music. Vast amount of available Amazon content. Great reading features.
Con. Battery disappointed in test. Relatively few third-party apps compared with major competitors. 7-inch model lacks rear camera.
* 7-inch model (unit tested) ships Oct. 18 with Wi-Fi only and starts at $229 with 16GB and rises to $269 for 32GB and $309 for 64GB. A $329 (on up) version that adds a 4G cellular option ships Nov. 14.
* The $379 Wi-Fi-only 8.9-inch model ships Nov. 14, with a $479 4G version coming Dec. 10.
(Prices mentioned here factor in what Amazon refers to as, "special offers," meaning ads. You can do away with the ads if you pay more.)