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Tech Lab

New Kindle Fire a cozy option for book lovers

Later this month, Apple Inc. is expected to unveil a new version of its iPad tablet computer. It better be good. Three-and-a-half years after the stunning success of the original, the iPad’s share of the tablet market has plunged, as a horde of sleek, smart rivals have crowded in.

The latest is Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire HDX, which goes on sale next week.

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Amazon has enhanced an already good product, making it an attractive option for book lovers and avid online shoppers.

Amazon uses a proprietary version of Google Inc.’s Android operating system which prevents the Fire HDX from running a bunch of my favorite apps. For the full Android experience, the Google Nexus 7, manufactured by Asustek Computer Inc. of Taiwan, is the way to go. But for casual users, the HDX’s walled garden of carefully chosen apps and services will feel warm and cozy, like Downton Abbey at Christmas.

The basic HDX sells for $229. For this, you get 16 gigabytes of flash memory storage. You must also put up with on-screen advertisements that appear only when the tablet is idle; the ad-free version costs $15 more. Versions with 32 and 64 gigs of flash memory are available at higher prices.

You can also pay $329 and up for an HDX with 4G LTE cellular data service through AT&T Inc. or Verizon Wireless. Also, if you pay an extra $79 a year to join the Amazon Prime shopper’s club, you can read one free e-book per month and get unlimited viewing of thousands of movies and TV shows. Amazon also carries an HDX with an 8.9-inch screen and a base price of $379.

The original Kindle Fire’s lackluster video screen was a dealbreaker for me. The new edition generally gets it right, delivering much higher resolution. On my test unit, the screen suffered from an odd yellowish tinge when I used it to read e-books. I suspect it’s a one-off manufacturing defect and in any case it didn’t interfere with my reading. But image quality for games and streaming videos was quite good.

However, movie viewing hammers the HDX’s battery. I did my favorite test — streaming the four-hour-long film “Cleopatra” via Netflix, starting with a full battery. At movie’s end, the battery was down to 16 percent.

One appealing feature that I couldn’t test is called Second Screen. It transmits videos wirelessly from the HDX to a Sony Corp. PlayStation 3 gaming console or Samsung Corp. TV. Amazon won’t activate it until later this month.

I did get a taste of the HDX’s smartest feature, Mayday, which delivers instant tech support. Pull down the top-of-screen menu, and tap the life preserver icon. If you’re connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, the HDX transmits a cry for help to an Amazon tech support office. Soon, you’re talking to a flesh-and-blood human being; you can tell because Mayday displays the person’s live video image in a small window. Don’t worry; the techie can’t see you on the HDX’s front-facing camera. But he or she can take control of your HDX, or teach you to use its features by drawing on the screen, like a football announcer explaining why Tom Brady got sacked. You can even understand what the service rep is saying, because Mayday uses only US-based techies.

When I first tried it, a company tech was online within a minute. He delivered quick, clear answers to my “how do I do this?” questions, and sent me on my way. Amazon aims to connect users to a support technician in 15 seconds. Mayday is so simple and painless, Apple should have thought of it. And Apple probably will — next year.

There are many Android apps that won’t run on a Kindle Fire. Amazon uses a customized version of Google Inc.’s Android software, and offers its own handpicked app collection. There are major gaps in the inventory. You can’t use any Google apps, such as Google Drive for cloud storage of files or Google Earth for high-resolution images of the planet. Neither can you install Google’s Chrome Web browser, or Mozilla Firefox for that matter.

I’d still pick the Nexus 7 as the best minitablet. It’s a bit lighter and thinner than the HDX, has both front- and rear-facing cameras — the HDX has just one, facing front — and contains a built-in GPS chip to keep users on the right track. And of course it delivers full access to all things Android.

Still, the Kindle Fire HDX is an excellent choice, and more bad news for the iPad.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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