“This is the iPad with Retina Display,” begins the ad. “And this is the new Kindle Fire HD with an 8.9-inch display.” We then see two “stunning HD” screens, with the narrator telling us that we may not be able to tell the difference. Then he drops the bomb: “ ... but your wallet can.” See, the iPad starts at US$500, and this Kindle Fire starts at $270. But is it really the great deal that Amazon says it is? Let’s find out, as we review Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9” tablet.

Sweet spot

Tablet makers are always eyeing the competition, trying to top what the other guy is doing. So we have a slew of big 10-inch iPad competitors, and a gaggle of small 7- or 8-inchers like the iPad mini or Nexus 7. But we haven’t seen too many medium-sized tablets like the Kindle Fire HD 8.9”.

That’s too bad, because it hits a really great sweet spot. It feels almost as portable as a smaller tablet, with almost the screen size of a bigger tablet. Yet it doesn’t feel like much of a compromise in either respect.

It feels great in hand, with its 567 grams (20 oz.) of heft and grippy plastic build. It’s pretty thin: over 6 percent thinner than the iPad 4.

In portrait mode, I could comfortably hold it with one hand. I leaned more towards using it in landscape, though, with its longer 16:10 aspect ratio. It’s at least as nice to hold that way.

Your mileage, naturally, may vary. But I tip my hat to Amazon for hitting a really nice sweet spot in between big and small.

Kindle Fire with Retina Display

“Retina Display” is just an Apple marketing term. But it’s become almost synonymous with razor-sharp resolution. You know, the kind where your retinas can’t differentiate individual pixels.

That’s what we have here. The Fire 8.9 is almost as sharp as the iPad’s Retina Display. The difference? A mere 10 fewer pixels per inch (254 PPI, to the iPad’s 264 PPI). My eyes were plenty happy.

Text is razor-sharp, making it a pleasure to read on (appropriate, considering the Kindle's eReader roots). Images look terrific too. It plays 1080p videos in their native resolution.

Like the iPad, the Fire’s screen uses in-plane switching (IPS) tech. Viewing angles are great. Colors pop, without being oversaturated. It’ll pick up some glare in direct sunlight, but that’s par for the course.

The tech world is waiting for a new wave of “Retina” 7- and 8-inch tablets. But the Fire 8.9 is already here, with an outstanding 8.9-inch display.

The Amazon carousel

The most important question to ask yourself about the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” is whether you're comfortable with its software. That’s not to say it’s bad.

... but it isn’t for everyone. It’s very different from using an iPad. And though it’s technically Android, this isn’t the same Android you’d find on a Nexus 7 or Galaxy Note 10.1. It’s Amazon’s “forked” version of the open-source OS, sans Google apps.

If you’ve used any Kindle Fire, you know what to expect here. The home screen is a revolving carousel of recent apps and other content. Instead of the familiar grid of apps, it’s a conveyor belt with giant-sized icons.

One of the first things you’ll want to do is fill up the Favorites section with your most-used apps. Once you put all your top apps in there, you can get a nice workflow going. The Favorites trigger lives in the ever-present navigation bar, so you’re never more than a few taps away from where you want to be.

Amazon content is front-and-center. And for good reason. Amazon sells its tablets dirt cheap because it makes little or no profit from the devices themselves. Jeff Bezos and company are banking that you’ll buy enough apps, Kindle books, magazines, MP3s, movies, and TV shows to make it worth their while.

So above the giant-sized recent app icons, you have categories for Shop, Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Newsstand ... you get the idea. They all connect to Amazon’s digital and retail services. Welcome to the handheld Amazon shopping mall – now in HD.

Like millions of other people, I often shop at Amazon and use several Amazon services, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you do too, then the Kindle Fire can be a great deal on a quality piece of hardware.

... but just be sure you know what you're getting on the software end, and are comfortable with that.

Special offers

Before getting my hands on this review unit, I thought for sure I'd pay to turn off the tablet's "Special Offers." As someone who usually tunes out ads, it seemed like the only logical outcome.

But I was surprised. Not only did I not feel the need to turn the ads off, I almost liked them. The key is that the "special offers" are tailored to you. It's like the "you might also like" suggestions Amazon throws your way when you visit its site.

The offers only live in one place: the lockscreen. No ads on your homescreen, in apps, or anywhere else. It's the equivalent of the author portraits you see on sleeping e-ink Kindles.

So, one way or the other, I wouldn't worry too much about the special offers. If you want to turn them off, just pay US$15 (at checkout or anytime after).

Battery life

The Fire 8.9 has impressive battery life. My use included lots of reading in Flipboard and Pocket, messaging, web browsing, and some video streaming. Brightness stayed at between 75 and 90 percent. There were also a few brief periods of downtime.

Under these heavier-than-average conditions, it easily lasted a full day – with plenty of juice left in the tank. Under those conditions, you’re looking at 8-9 consecutive hours of uptime. With a lighter workflow (reading, light browsing, lower brightness), it should last ten hours or more. There’s little to worry about in this department.

Camera

The Fire 8.9 doesn’t have a rear camera. I rarely take pictures with tablets, so it didn’t bother me. But if that's a priority for you, then you'll want to look elsewhere.

The front-facing camera is more important, and the Fire does have one of those. Hit up the Amazon Appstore, install Skype, and enjoy HD video chat with its 1.3 MP front camera and terrific screen. It's like video chat on any other platform, and a nice upgrade over the (camera-less) original Kindle Fire.

Performance

On a technical level, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” has a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor. It’s dual core, maxing out at 1.5 GHz. It’s a solid chip, and – for the most part – performance is good. I’d say 90-95 percent of the time, the Fire 8.9 zipped through whatever I was trying to do.

It did hit the occasional snag. Things like the built-in Swype keyboard tracing in choppy slow motion while browser tabs loaded. Flipping a page in Flipboard, and the touch not registering on the first swipe. Smaller targets on web pages not responding to touch until zooming in.

These things were the exception rather than the rule. In fact, the tablet’s overall performance – much better than the O.G. Kindle Fire's – was what made these issues annoying when they did pop up.

For most of the time – and for most uses – the Fire 8.9 is zippy and responsive. Is its performance as seamless and smooth as the iPad 4’s? Not quite. But guess what? As the Amazon commercial so eloquently reminded us, the iPad costs nearly twice as much as this Kindle Fire.

Bang for your buck

What the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” gives you is value. We can pick at little details that don’t quite measure up to the iPad. But if you're going to do that, you have to remember that the Fire undercuts it by US$230. Hell, it’s even $60 cheaper than the iPad mini – despite having a much larger, much sharper screen.

Here at Gizmag, we test a wide variety of devices. We put their details under a microscope, and sweat little differences – many of which a “regular” customer wouldn’t care about.

... yet even from that perspective, I’d say the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” is one of the better tablets you can buy. If you don't like Amazon, this isn't the tablet for you. But if you do, the Fire 8.9 just might be, dollar-for-dollar, the best tablet you can buy.

For more on the subject, check out our comparisons of the Fire 8.9 to the iPad, iPad mini, and Nexus 7.