March 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 3

Product Evaluations and Guides

Accessibility of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″

I was thrilled when the iOS Kindle app finally became VoiceOver accessible last year. There are so many books to buy and read. Later, the Android app was made Talkback friendly, and now, Amazon's tablet lineup, the Kindle Fire HD, Kindle HDX, and Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ are also speech accessible. Recently, I was given the opportunity to put the top-of-the-line Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ through its paces.

Physical Description and Specifications

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ measures approximately 9 by 6 by one-third inches thick and weighs 13 ounces. The corners are rounded, and the back surface is beveled at the edges, making it feel even thinner than it is. Gripping the device in landscape mode, the top and bottom edges are smooth. The left edge contains a micro-USB power port, and the right edge has a 3.5mm headphone jack. A USB cable and wall adapter are included.

Holding the Fire HDX in landscape orientation, the up and down volume buttons are on the back surface, under your right fingers; the power button is on the back surface under your left fingers. The back also houses stereo speakers and an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash for taking pictures and videos and a 720-pixel front-facing camera for Skype video chat.

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ display boasts 2560 by 1600 resolution. The tablet is powered by a 2.2 gigahertz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor and has 2GB of RAM. The version I tested came with 16GB of internal storage; 32GB and 64GB models are also available. There are also 4G LTE Wireless versions that will connect using data plans from either Verizon or AT&T. The internal battery is not replaceable by the user, but I found battery life to be good to excellent.

The machined-magnesium exterior feels extremely durable, and I found it comfortable to hold in one hand in both landscape and portrait modes. The recessed rear buttons were also a refreshing change of pace. They were easy to access, and their absence from the edges made the device feel much sleeker in my hands.

The Kindle Screen Reader

The Kindle Fire HD and HDX models are voice accessible using a modified version of Android called Fire OS 3.0: Mojito, which includes built-in versions of the Android accessibility suite prosaically renamed Screen Reader, Explore by Touch, and Screen Magnifier.

Turn on Screen Reader by pressing and holding the Power button until you hear a beep. Then place two fingers slightly apart on the screen for about five seconds. The Kindle will start speaking, prompting you to continue pressing your fingers against the screen to complete the installation of both Screen Reader and Explore by Touch, which is enabled automatically along with Screen Reader.

A brief tutorial follows, in which you are given the opportunity to learn and practice several of the gestures you will need to navigate Kindle with speech. The commands mirror the standard Android Talkback command set, including swiping left or right to advance forward or backward by screen element, double tapping to activate an item, sliding one finger down and left to go back and up and to the left to go to the device's Home screen. A two-finger slide left unlocks the Fire HDX screen, and a two-finger slide down from the top of the screen opens the Notifications Bar, where you can set screen brightness, check notifications, open the Settings menu, and activate the "Mayday" button, which we will describe below.

A complete list of Screen Reader commands can be found on the device's Settings/Accessibility/Help menu, or on the Amazon Accessibility Basics page.

By default, the Fire screen reader uses a female Ivona voice, which I found extremely pleasant and easy to understand. A male US English voice is also available for free download via the Settings/Language and Keyboard menus, along with both male and female Australian and British English voices. Text-to-speech is also available for French, Italian, German, Russian, and other languages, but you can't use any of these with Screen Reader--when I tried installing one as the default voice, the check box was activated, but the Screen Reader voice was not changed. For now, at least, Kindle Fire voice accessibility is limited to English.

Screen Reader offers five voice speeds, but no pitch controls. Nor can you set the volume to a different level than the system volume you use to listen to music or videos.

There are two ways to turn off Screen Reader and Explore by Touch. You can access the Settings menu and use the Accessibility menu to turn them off (turn them back on either by returning to the Settings menu or by holding down the Power button until you hear the beep, then holding two fingers on the screen). You can also use the continuous down and then right gesture to summon the Device Menu, where you will find the Pause Feedback option to turn off Screen Reader and Explore by Touch temporarily. To turn Screen Reader back on, simply press the Power button twice to toggle the device off and then back on. I found this latter option more useful when passing the device to my wife for her perusal, although not nearly as convenient as the iOS triple-click home command to toggle VoiceOver off and back on.

Basically, Screen Reader and Explore by Touch are slightly modified versions of Talkback and Explore by Touch for Android. You cannot upgrade either through Amazon, however--you will need to wait for a Fire OS upgrade, which may or may not include new screen access features and bug fixes.

I didn't test Screen Magnifier for this review, but invoking it is similar to invoking Screen Reader. Power on the Fire, wait for the beep, and then hold three fingers instead of two against the screen. Braille users can also install BrailleBack (Kindle Tablet Edition) from the Amazon Appstore for Android, which offers the same Bluetooth braille display support as the version offered at Google Play.

Getting Help

One of the marquee features of the Kindle Fire HDX and HDX 8.9″ is the "Mayday" button. A tap of this button summons live video help, with the representative's image on your screen. Don't worry, the video feed is one-way--the rep can only hear your voice. He or she can, with your permission, take control of your Kindle to troubleshoot problems or walk you through a quick how-to. I tried this feature a number of times while putting the Fire HDX 8.9″ through its paces. The response was usually quick. Only once did I wait more than 30 seconds for a call to be answered, no matter what time of day or night. The representatives were friendly without exception. They were also knowledgeable about the device.

I used the "Mayday" button to help find a video I had transferred into the device's Movie folder via USB. I was able to leave Screen Reader turned on during my support session, and follow along while the rep led me to the file. Strangely, when you add a video via USB it does not appear in the Home screen Videos list, but rather in your photo/video gallery, where it shows up with a thumbnail preview but stripped of its file name.

Every rep I spoke with had a basic understanding of what Screen Reader does, how to turn it off and on, and how to navigate and activate items. And though none mentioned it, when I broached the subject with one rep she confirmed my suspicions and told me that if a customer uses Mayday with Screen Reader enabled, they, the reps, must also use Screen Reader as much as possible throughout the help session, double tapping to activate items, etc. I award Amazon extreme kudos for this.

Reporting Screen Reader bugs was a different matter. During my testing period I experienced two major Screen Reader problems. First, no matter how often I tried, with Screen Reader enabled the Voice Input button on the onscreen keyboard consistently hung up with the message "Processing." Second, while shopping at the Amazon store, when I swiped to the "Proceed to Checkout" button, if I then performed a double tap the app did not call up the payment screen. It chose instead to remove the last item in my shopping cart. In both cases, the rep escalated my call, and in the end I was told a ticket would be sent to the developers and that I would receive a telephone call back in two days. I never received either call.

Granted, reporting accessibility bugs in either iOS or Android can also feel like you are tossing your concerns into a vast, empty void. Still, this does not excuse offering callbacks and then not making them.

Note: The Kindle Fire HD does not have a microphone, so on devices where Mayday is not available, you can still seek help via the device. An Amazon rep will call you, usually within five minutes of your request.

The Amazon Experience

Many have opined that the Kindle Fire is a content consumption device, with a strong emphasis on Amazon content, and I have to agree. Swiping from the top, the very first icon you encounter is the "Shop Amazon" button. The "Music," "Games," "Videos," "Apps," and "Books" buttons also include options to search, purchase, and download Amazon content. If you have too much content to fit on your device, Amazon offers to remove it from your device and store it for you in the cloud, where it is available for re-download anytime and anywhere you have a data connection. Even the "Unified Search" button augments your device and Web search results with Amazon content you can purchase. For example, a search for "Baker" turned up a few e-mails, appropriate Web searches, a Baker Games app from the Amazon Appstore, Bakery Boss from the video store, and a baker's rack from the main Amazon store.

Shopping Amazon on the Kindle Fire was a bit confusing at times. When I searched for vitamin D, for example, I got a list of different brands and sizes. Double tapping one of these called up a product summary along with reviews, but this information only took up a portion of the screen. The rest of the product list was still onscreen, along with related items I might like and items I had supposedly saved for later viewing. Consequently, Explore by Touch was a bit problematic at times, and a lot of swiping was required to get the item I wanted into the cart and to find the "Proceed to Checkout" button.

I was finally able to figure out how to activate this button, with a double-tap-and-hold instead of a simple double tap. But even this did not always work. I experienced any number of focus issues in the various stores. In the Music store the samples would sometimes play with a swipe to and then double tap, other times they needed a double-tap-and-hold. When I tried purchasing a single music track the "Confirm Purchase" button would not work with either gesture. Nor could I explore by touch and then double tap successfully. I had to double-tap-and-hold just above the "Confirm Purchase" button, swipe down, and then double tap the button to get it to work. I never could get the "Play Now" button to activate. I had to return to the main Music Menu, find the track on the cloud and then double tap to begin playback and download it to my device.

I experienced similar focus issues in both the Video and Book stores. Also, if I chose to browse categories and scrolled down more than a few dozen items, double tapping on a title would cause speech to lock up and the only way I could get it back would be to turn the device off and back on.

All that said, I was eventually able to find, purchase, and download content with Screen Reader access. I also experienced no focus issues when shopping and purchasing from the Appstore.

The Onscreen Keyboard

The onscreen keyboard had its own focus issue. The Kindle keyboard is a standard touch keyboard. You slide a finger to the letter or symbol you want, and when you lift your finger the character is typed. The character is re-voiced, accompanied by a confirmation beep. This beep is necessary, in my opinion, since sometimes a character different than the one that was voiced before raising my finger would be entered. I found typing a bit frustrating at first, but as is the case with most onscreen keyboards, the more you use it, the more relaxed you become, and the more relaxed you become, the more accurately you type.

The Fire onscreen keyboard offers predictive text, and it is quite useable with Screen Reader. Type a few letters, then slide your finger up above the onscreen keyboard. A chirp sounds whenever you cross the onscreen keyboard's virtual edge in any direction, which is extremely helpful. You then slide your finger left or right until you find the word you want, then lift your finger and the word is completed for you.

Autocorrect works the same way. After misspelling a word and tapping the spacebar, a row of correctly spelled words appears above the keyboard. There is no audible cue that you have misspelled a word, so unless you know you have erred you are not likely to seek the correction. Hopefully an audible alert is something Amazon will add to a future update of Screen Reader.

Media Play

The Kindle Fire HDX shines when it comes to playing music and videos. Video is sharp and bright, and the sound is the best I have heard to date from any portable device. Playing video was especially enjoyable. The stereo speakers are located a half inch or so in from the left and right rear edges, but when playing a high resolution movie the sound expanded beyond both edges so the soundtrack played wider than the device, creating a 3d experience I found delightfully immersive.

Amazon Prime members get to enjoy a sizeable selection of instant videos for free. Many TV series also offer their first episode gratis to all comers. I was also able to install the Netflix app, which I found among the most accessible Netflix portable interfaces I have used.

The Kindle app was equally accessible, with a voice announcement of basic commands when you first enter the app. You can read continuously with auto page turning, or read by page, with a two-finger swipe left or right to flip pages back and forth. You can also use Android's swipe-up-and-then-right gesture to change reading granularity to paragraph, word, character, etc. Double-tap-and-hold on a word to call up dictionary lookup, bookmarking, highlighting, and other options. It was sometimes difficult to find the exact word I wanted using Explore by Touch, however, and too often the focus would change to a different word after the first tap of a double-tap-and-hold gesture.

Prime members can also borrow books from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, but you can only download and read them on a Kindle or Kindle Fire. Android and iOS devices are not eligible. The Lending Library features over 350,000 titles, and there is no due date. Audible account holders will also find their purchased content automatically synched onto their Kindle. Double tap any title to begin playback. You do not need to install and run a separate Audible app.

Productivity Apps

The Kindle Fire HDX comes with the usual suite of productivity apps for Web browsing, reading and sending e-mail, and managing your contacts and calendar. Basically, these are slightly modified versions of stock Android apps, and for the most part, I found them accessible.

You can transfer documents to the Kindle Fire via either a USB connection or a special e-mail address exclusive to your device. You can't edit these documents without purchasing an additional app, however. You can only read them in Web view. The Amazon Silk browser is similar to the stock Android browser. I found it useable, though more than a little cumbersome, mostly because of all the multi-part gestures I had to perform every time I wanted to change navigation elements or do a read-from-top. I much prefer iOS browsing to Android, but this is a personal choice. You may prefer the Android way of doing things.

During initial setup, I was asked for my Facebook and Twitter credentials. There is no native Kindle app for either social network, so I downloaded the official versions of each from the Amazon Appstore. The Facebook app worked fine with speech, though there were times when certain controls would not activate unless I swung the Fire into portrait mode. The Twitter app did not work at all. The only control I could activate was an advertising link, and if I explored the app for any length of time it usually crashed. The Echofon Twitter app also performed poorly.


With its new and improved line of Kindle Fire tablets Amazon has taken a welcome step toward universal accessibility. Sure, there are bugs that need to be worked out, but this is a first release, and I won't judge them too harshly until they have a few patches and Fire OS updates under their belt.

If you are familiar with using Talkback on an Android device, you already know nearly everything you need to know to operate a Kindle Fire. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you will be rewarded with a significant library of free content, a deal not available to you on either iOS or Android.

Myself, I found reading books on the Fire's Kindle app not as frictionless as it is on my iPhone 5, but I did enjoy purchasing books on the same device I use to read them, and accessing books for free. I also found the Fire HDX 8.9″ music and video experience among the best I have ever enjoyed on a portable device.

If your tablet is your laptop replacement, the Kindle Fire is probably not right for you. But if you enjoy curling up with a good book or video, or if you are a budding shopaholic, check out the feature sets on the various Fire HD and HDX devices. Be sure to factor in the price of an Amazon Prime membership. The free books and videos make it a must have for most Kindle Fire owners.

Product Information

Product: Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″
Available from: Amazon

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