New Kindles add help with a human face

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Email Print Inc.'s Kindle Fire HDX is unapologetically aimed at a mainstream audience of users for whom the content is far more important than the gadget it's being consumed on. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Here's the most important feature of Amazon (AMZN)'s new Kindle Fire HDX color tablets: Operators are standing by.

Actually, they're technical-support people, summonable from the Fire's new Mayday button. It's an instant video link to a real live help specialist, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it's the standout feature on the capable HDX.

Tech snobs may sneer that Amazon has created the ultimate walled garden, its Kindle Fires less full-featured multi-purpose tablets than dumbed-down dispensing machines for the company's e-books, videos and music.

But Amazon understands its customers. The Kindle Fire HDXis unapologetically aimed at a mainstream audience of users for whom the content is far more important than the gadget it's being consumed on.

That's why the Mayday feature is so important. When you need help, you aren't just calling an 800 number or tapping in text messages to an anonymous support person. You actually see the person you're talking to, live, in a small video window on the Kindle's screen.

Don't worry, says Amazon, they can't see you. But they can see what's happening on your tablet, and even take control of it remotely to fix problems. Assuming the company keeps up as demand for the service increases, it certainly beats trying to dragoon a friend or family member into providing tech support.

Seeking Solutions

I used the button to ask questions about Wi-Fi settings and a problem with how Amazon's Silk browser was displaying some Web pages. In each case, a support person came on screen within the promised 15 seconds. The answers weren't always edifying -- on the Wi-Fi problem, the advice was to talk to my company's IT department -- but the support people were patient, polite and eager to please.

While Mayday is the HDX's most visible innovation, Amazon has come a long way since the chunky, clunky original Kindle Fire of two years ago.

The HDX comes in two basic models, with a range of options for each. The seven-inch version, the one I tested, starts at $229 with 16 gigabytes of storage, ads (it costs an extra $15 to get rid of them) and a Wi-Fi connection, ranging up to $424 for one that has 64 gigabytes of storage, no ads and LTE service from AT&T (T) or Verizon. (VZ) It's available for order now on the Amazon website, with initial deliveries scheduled for mid-October.

Slashed prices

There's also an 8.9-inch model, scheduled for early November release, ranging in price from $379 to $594. Meanwhile, Amazon has slashed starting prices on updated versions of last year's Fires to $139 for the smaller one, $229 for the larger.

The Kindles run a new version of Amazon's Fire Operating System, actually a modified and disguised version of Google (GOOG)'s Android. Unlike other Android devices, though, there's no access to the Google Play store for movies, music, books and apps. Amazon doesn't want you going anyplace else for content.

The operating system remains easy to use, with excellent parental controls and fast access to your purchased content as well as services like Instant Video, free for Amazon Prime members. At the same time, the company has expanded features like X-Ray, which gives you more information about the content you're consuming -- the cast and crew of a movie, for instance, or scrolling lyrics to a song.

While the HDX models are more expensive than their predecessors, they are also considerably improved.

Thinner, lighter

The model I tested was thinner and, at 10.7 ounces, lighter, and had a more powerful Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon processor. Its screen, with 323 pixels per inch, would easily qualify as having a so-called Retina display if it were made by Apple (AAPL) instead of Amazon, though I was distracted by a faint bluish tinge around the edge.

Compared to its closest competition in the seven-inch tablet space, the Asus-manufactured Google Nexus 7, the HDX has identical screen resolution and slightly more processing and graphics power. The Nexus 7 has a better front-facing camera for video-chatting and, unlike the HDX, a rear-facing camera as well. (Apple's entry in the compact category, the iPad Mini, is due for a refresh shortly; it has a larger screen -- 7.9 inches -- and will assuredly have a larger price tag.)

Amazon claims a battery life for the HDX of 11 hours. I couldn't verify that, in part because the company was pushing software updates during my test period that it said could affect battery performance. I'd guess there are more updates to come; I encountered several software bugs besides the Silk rendering issue, including buffering glitches when streaming videos and difficulties updating some online games.

But, of course, I always had access to a person I could see to soothe and reassure me that Amazon was there to help. Someday, perhaps, our mobile devices will be as intuitive and easy to use as a toaster. Until then, having a knowledgeable human being accessible at the touch of a button is the next best thing.

Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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