Inside Amazon's new Kindle Fire HDX with Jeff BezosSeptember 25, 2013: 12:00 AM ET
Jeff Bezos shows Fortune the lighter, faster future of the company's Kindle tablet line and its new way to help users befuddled by their new devices.
FORTUNE -- Inside a small conference room at Amazon headquarters, Jeff Bezos is briskly writing on a dry erase board in black marker. The 49-year-old CEO is spelling out the three parts of his device strategy, which is behind a new line of tablets Amazon (AMZN) is announcing this week: the 7- and 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX and a redesigned 7-inch Kindle Fire HD. When preorders start this week via Amazon.com, all three will be competitively priced. The 7-inch HDX will sell for $229, an 8.9-inch version for $379, and the HD will go for $139.
"A third leg of our vision and strategy for the device business is going to come into focus today, especially when I show you one particular feature," says Bezos with a gleam in his eye.
These new Kindles obey the first two laws of the Bezos philosophy -- that premium products should be sold at non-premium prices and that Amazon should make money when people use its devices, not when people buy them. Pricing of the Fire HDX matches that of Google's (GOOG) Nexus 7 and 10, but neither Android tablet quite sports the industrial design of Amazon's. They're also edged out when it comes to features, thanks to the HDX models' faster quad-core 2.2 GHz Snapdragon 800 processor and dual-core Adreno 330 graphics chip.
The 7-inch HDX has a 720p front-facing camera, but no rear camera, and a pixel resolution of 1,920 by 1,200; the 8.9-incher adds an 8-megapixel rear camera with flash and a pixel resolution of 2,560 by 1,600. Both include 16 gigabytes of built-in storage to start and come sheathed in a jet-black magnesium unibody chassis that's up to 34% lighter and 14% thinner than last year's models. Amazon claims the tablets will run for 11 hours between charges and as long as 17 hours if users only read e-books. That's thanks to a new, low-power mode that cuts down on chip usage during light tasks. 4G models running on AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) will also become available by December.
When I grip both of the HDX models, I'm surprised at how light they are. The 8.9-inch HDX weighs 0.8 lbs, less than the 10-inch iPad, which weighs significantly more at 1.44 lbs. Frankly, it's the first tablet over 7 inches I could imagine comfortably holding for long stints.
The revamped Fire HD also warrants attention. Just as Apple (AAPL) took many of the iPhone 5's components and wrapped them up in the 5c's "unapologetically plastic," candy-colored body, the Fire HD takes the same 1.5 GHz dual-core processor and 1,280 by 800 resolution display in last year's high-end model, repackages them in a soft-coated, plastic chassis resembling this year's HDX, and sells it for $139. (To compare, this year's Kindle Paperwhite e-reader is being sold for just $20 less.)
Yes, it's last year's technology all gussied up for another pass but at an even lower price point few competitors dare go. It's a play for the lower end of the price range, where Bezos says people are more inclined to buy both an affordably priced tablet and an e-reader. "What we've found is we take heavy e-book buyers who are also tablet users, not just Kindle Fire tablet users ... and we show them the Kindle Paperwhite for the first time, we can't get it back from their hands," he explains.
This brings Bezos to his third principle, a venn diagram where "customer delight" and "deep integration" overlap. He is keen to show off the improved software operating system-- dubbed Fire OS 3.0 "Mojito," using Google Android 4.2.2 Jelly bean as the underpinnings -- and how the latest Kindle Fire experience marries hardware and software services.
Enter Mayday, a new, free 24/7 tech support service available over Wi-Fi for HDX owners. Bezos gets excited as he taps a virtual button on his demo unit, and voila: In seconds, a tech support employee named Dylan pops up in a small video chat window. Not only can employees offer virtual face-to-face advice on how to use a certain tablet feature, they can actually control the tablet, too, drawing arrows to menu options, even doing things like upping or dimming brightness at the users' request. "It's both the hardest to do and coolest you can do," Bezos says from a technological standpoint. He expects Mayday to be particularly popular initially as users show it off to their friends.
When the Kindle Fire first launched, its software was criticized for being limited and occasionally sluggish. It essentially was a mono-tasking device. That's less so the case this year. Fire OS 3.0 includes a new multitasking feature called Quickswitch. Users pull up the pane by swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen. A row of open apps, publications, and books appear. They can then scroll through and select what they want. The transition is instant.
Other software tweaks include a beefed-up version of X-Ray. Once limited to books, the feature now takes advantage of Amazon's ownership of the movie database IMDB and lets Kindle owners discover say, which actors are in a particular movie they've rented or purchased, or which song is playing in the background of a particular scene. The other, called "second screen," basically leverages a device like a PlayStation 3 loaded with Amazon Instant Video software attached to a TV, and turns the tablet into a similar console. Users can check out additional information about what they're watching and control video playback.
A Fire OS update due later this year, dubbed 3.1, seems aimed at the enterprise, including compatibility with IT protocols and a more mature email app with features like threaded messaging. "People want one device that allows them to do their job and is their entertainment device," says Bezos. "They don't want to carry one for their job and entertainment consumption."
Clearly, Bezos hopes his company's bolder design, ever-aggressive pricing, and new features like Mayday will be enough to entice customers into making the HDX their tablet of choice.