Boy, Amazon sure does know how to sell a product.
The company's new Kindle Fire HDX tablets -- announced somewhat oddly at midnight last night -- look amazing on paper. The "wow"-inducing features are there. The prices are right: $229 for a 7-in. model and $379 for an 8.9-in. version. The company even put out a tweet-ready press release to help lazy writers digest and spread the news (yes, seriously).
But there's a side to Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX tablets that doesn't get mentioned much in the buzz -- and it's a side that's important to consider. It gets at the foundation of what the Kindle Fire HDX devices are and, more important, what they're aren't.
Plain and simple, Amazon's new tablets are not Android devices. They're based on Google's open source Android code, but Amazon has taken that core and turned it into something completely different -- something with significant limitations compared to the regular Android environment.
Here are a few things to bear in mind with Amazon's newly named "Fire OS" and how it compares to Android:
1. It has a decidedly Amazon-esque home screen experience.
Amazon has done away with the traditional Android home screen and replaced it with a carefully controlled carousel -- or, as of these new tablets, the option for an iOS-like grid-based alternative -- that puts your purchased multimedia content front and center.
Amazon, remember, wants its tablets to revolve around Amazon stuff -- and so your Amazon-purchased books, music, and movies are always in clear sight. That means no widgets, no custom launchers, no UI-enhancing tools. It's all about Amazon and the content it has to offer.
2. It doesn't have access to the Google Play Store for apps.
As Amazon devices, the Kindle Fire HDX tablets use Amazon's own Appstore -- not the Google Play Store regular Android devices rely on as their primary stop for app downloads.
Amazon's Appstore has grown to include a reasonably decent collection, but it has some meaningful disadvantages compared to the Play Store. The selection is significantly smaller, for one; while you can find most big-name apps there at this point, a lot of commonly used programs are unavailable.
The list of missing apps includes pretty much all Google services -- Gmail, Chrome, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Voice, Google Earth, Google Translate, and so on -- as well as plenty of popular everyday Android titles (don't expect to find Instagram, for instance, or any Tasker-like automation tools).
Amazon's Appstore is also notorious for being slow at delivering app updates; while a developer can push out fixes and new features to users almost instantaneously via Google Play, the same updates often take extra days or even weeks to roll out through Amazon.
And last but not least, the fact that there is no Google Play Store access means any apps you've already purchased through the Google Play Store will have to be purchased again from Amazon if you want to use them on a Kindle Fire HDX (provided, of course, that those apps are available in Amazon's Appstore). Unlike most Android devices, where app purchases are synced and universally accessible, a Kindle Fire HDX tablet is in its own world -- and in that world, what you've bought outside of Amazon is irrelevant.
3. It doesn't have access to core Android services.
In addition to the app limitations, Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX tablets lack core Android services -- things like Google's ever-expanding Voice Search function, which lets you control your device by speaking, and the widely acclaimed Google Now intelligent assistant. Google's turn-by-turn navigation software is also M.I.A.
All things in perspective
Here's what it boils down to, gang: The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX products are Amazon media devices -- not Android tablets. You lose much of the power and versatility of Android but gain the simplicity of Amazon's own Amazon-centric vision. It's a completely different ecosystem and environment -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing, so long as that's what you want.
No question: Amazon's devices excel at providing a dead-simple setup for content consumption. These new models have respectable hardware and improved designs over their predecessors. They integrate seamlessly with Amazon's storefront for streaming and purchasing content and even let you download Amazon Prime Instant Videos for offline viewing (if you opt to pay for an ongoing Prime subscription).
The Kindle Fire HDX devices boast an innovative new help system called Mayday: With the tap of a button, you can get a live support rep in a video box on your screen to guide you through any problem you're having. That's a pretty smart idea for the less tech-savvy crowd, many of whom might naturally shy away from these types of devices.
On paper, at least, Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX tablets offer quite a bit of bang for the buck. But it's a distinctly Amazon-flavored bang that's a far cry from the type of experience most Android users expect.
Just be sure that's the type of experience you want before forking over your cash.