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Fire Max 11 Tablet review: So close, Amazon — so, so close to surpassing Apple’s iPad

Here’s a hot take: Apple makes the best tablets; Amazon makes the best cheap tablets. iPads are amazing; Fires can get the job done for less. This has been the status quo for many years, but Amazon’s Fire Max 11 sends a shot across Apple’s bow: The powerhouse tablet represents the company’s first premium iPad alternative, with a large, sharp screen, significant power under the hood, impressive front and rear cameras and two notable accessories — all at a lower price. So if you’re shopping for a tablet that’s not just for entertainment but also for productivity, should you opt for Amazon’s flagship model? Here’s my Fire Max 11 review.

Rick Broida/Yahoo

VERDICT: Amazon’s biggest and best tablet to date offers many of the same features and capabilities as the Apple iPad 10.9, which costs $120 more. With some interface polish and support for more Android apps, it would be even better.

Pros

  • Affordable, and often on sale for less
  • Bright, spacious screen
  • Polished design
  • Expandable storage
  • Optional keyboard case and stylus
Cons

  • Limited app selection, especially for the stylus
  • Interface needs work

$230 at Amazon

The Fire Max 11 dispenses with the rounded edges and plastic backing of the Fire HD 10 in favor of a more squared design and an aluminum casing — closer in aesthetic to the 10th-generation iPad 10.9 ($349) than to the 9th-generation iPad 10.2, but not nearly as stylish as either one. It’s available in just one color, a rather drab gray. So although the new Fire looks a bit fancier than the Fire HD 10, no one will mistake it for an iPad.

That said, looks are arguably the least important aspect of a tablet; what’s inside matters more. Amazon stocked the Max 11 with a powerful octo-core processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of expandable storage and an 11-inch screen running at 2,000 x 1,200 resolution (which is roughly equivalent to the Fire HD 10’s). That resolution falls a bit below the iPad’s Retina display, but it’s hardly noticeable. Indeed, I found Amazon’s screen to be just as vibrant, with similarly good viewing angles.

One huge Fire Max 11 advantage: expandable storage. The base model comes with 64GB, same as the base iPad 10.9, but here you can add up to one terabyte (!) more just by popping in a microSD card. Just for example, something like a 256GB card, which would effectively give you five times more storage, costs all of $25.

The Fire Max 11 features 8-megapixel front and rear cameras, both solidly good enough for things like Zoom calls and basic photography, but nowhere near on par with the cameras found in Apple’s iPad 10.9. Does that matter? If you’re like me, you snap important photos using your phone, not a tablet. But if camera quality and versatility are important to you, an iPad is your better choice.

A close-up of the right edge of the Fire Max 11, showing the power and volume buttons and USB-C port.

Borrowing from the Apple iPad 10.9, the Fire Max 11 has a power button with an embedded fingerprint reader. But the placement can be a little awkward depending on how you hold the tablet. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

The tablet’s power and volume buttons are located on the right edge, a logical placement if you’re right-handed and using it in landscape mode, as everything falls naturally under your right finger. In fact, the power button includes fingerprint-ID capabilities, allowing you to unlock the tablet just by resting your finger on it. That’s a welcome upgrade from previous Fire tablets (and it matches the iPad 10.9), but the button placement is tough for lefties — unless you’re using the tablet in portrait mode, in which case it’s awkward for righties.

Similarly awkward, the optional Stylus Pen can dock magnetically, but only to the left side of the Fire (or bottom if you’re holding it in portrait view). I find it strange reaching for a pen with my left hand. These aren’t insurmountable problems, just minor usability ones that, to be fair, affect iPads as well.

Amazon promises up to 14 hours of operation on a battery charge; the iPad 10.9 is rated for only about 10 hours. Both tablets charge via USB-C; plan on about four hours to fully recharge the Fire Max 11 using the included AC adapter.

Amazon also claims the tablet to be “three times more durable” than the iPad based on its own “tumble tests,” meaning it should better withstand accidental encounters with the floor. Tumbling isn’t part of my testing regimen, but even if it’s only twice as durable, I’ll take it.

To help convince potential iPad buyers to choose the Fire Max 11 instead, Amazon is offering a pair of compelling accessories: A keyboard case and a stylus. I like the former a lot: It combines a multi-angle stand with a detachable keyboard that’s just large enough for comfortable touch-typing. It also has a touchpad, one that makes the tablet feel a lot more like a laptop. (Mouse cursor: check. Multi-finger gestures: check.)

Rick Broida/Yahoo

This is a worthwhile accessory for anyone looking to get some work done with the Fire Max 11. It’s powered by the tablet, spacious enough for comfortable typing and totally plug-and-play: There’s no special pairing required. Plus, it has a row of useful shortcut keys and a multi-gesture touchpad.

$90 at Amazon

I spent some time working on a Microsoft Word document and decided that the Max 11 could indeed fill in for my laptop if needed. It’s certainly a lot lighter: The tablet itself weighs a little over a pound; the keyboard adds a little less than a pound more.

Unfortunately, my palm or thumb repeatedly grazed the touchpad while I was typing, often with less-than-ideal results. Thankfully, a quick function-key toggle temporarily disables and then re-enables it as needed. The keyboard sells for $90, which seems a reasonable price, especially when compared with Apple’s $249 Magic Keyboard Folio.

I’m less enamored with the Amazon Stylus Pen, a chunky, slippery thing that’s good for roughly six months on its single AAAA battery. It has one flat side to prevent it rolling away, but I found it awkward to hold given the placement of its one function button: near the stylus end of the barrel, exactly where your fingers want to grip. It’s virtually impossible to avoid hitting that button by accident. Fortunately (or unfortunately), it doesn’t do much; it’s used to delete individual letters (of text, not handwriting), and in my tests it didn’t always work correctly. I thought that venturing into the settings would let me assign another function to the button — undo, perhaps — but for now it can’t be changed.

Rick Broida/Yahoo

This plastic pen is fine for doodling and taking notes, but not many apps support it. What’s more, the function button (which can’t be reprogrammed) is positioned in the worst possible spot along the barrel.

$35 at Amazon

Although it conveniently auto-pairs to the tablet, the Stylus Pen doesn’t work with many apps. Indeed, the built-in tutorial reveals fairly competent handwriting recognition, but then you’re left without anyplace meaningful to use it. (You can scribble a web address in the browser’s URL bar, but that’s about it.) Thankfully, the tutorial ends by showing roughly half a dozen third-party apps that support the pen, including Microsoft OneNote, note-taking app Squid and art tool Drawing Desk. Alas, iPad heavyweights like Notability and Procreate aren’t available for Fire tablets.

Bottom line: You can draw, doodle and takes notes on the Fire Max 11, but the experience feels fairly half-baked. At least the stylus is a bargain considering the price of Apple’s Pencil ($99).

I have very few quibbles with this tablet’s hardware. It’s a bit annoying that the microSD card slot requires a paper clip to pop open, and I don’t understand why Amazon followed Apple in eliminating the headphone jack (which is still included on the Fire HD 10).

No, my big complaint is with the software. Amazon’s Fire OS relies on a modified version of Android and remains one of the most aggravating aspects of this and other Fire tablets. The user interface spans three main tabs: For You, Home and Library, and good luck trying to understand the differences between them. If I want to read a book, for example, it makes sense to hit the Library tab — but this also contains apps divided into crudely organized sections like “Downloaded apps,” “Your movie & TV apps,” “Apps in the cloud” and “Prime Video.” Everything is just messy and unintuitive.

That extends to certain apps as well. Camera, for example, hides its few controls (including the toggle between front and rear cameras) inside a tiny toolbar with cryptic icons. Meanwhile, I tried to install the Libby app so I could read e-books checked out from my local library, but the Fire Max 11 returned a strange error message about “unauthorized APK” and “performance benchmark” (the latter having nothing to do with an e-book app).

A close-up of the navigation icons on the Fire Max 11.

I know this is common on Android devices, but how do these navigation icons make sense? Couldn’t Amazon help users by labeling them Back, Home and Recents? (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

I’ll allow that I’m more accustomed to using an iPad, and that Fire OS isn’t hard, per se. It’s just that Amazon could do a much better job with the user experience. The core navigation menu at the bottom, for example, still consists of a triangle, circle and square — familiar to some Android users but rather incomprehensible to the rest of us. Is there any good reason those icons couldn’t be labeled Back, Home and Recent?

The bigger issue is that Fire tablets still don’t support the Google Play Store, meaning you’re limited to the apps available in Amazon’s store — which has some notable omissions. For example, you won’t find password managers 1Password or Dashlane or messaging apps Slack and Whatsapp. Google Meet is a no-show for organizations using that in place of Zoom. Baseball fans, no MLB At-Bat for you. There’s a superb family-calendar app called Cozi that I’ve used for years; it’s not available for Fire tablets. And if you have smart-home devices outside of Amazon’s ecosystem (from, say, Eufy or Govee), you won’t always find apps for those, either.

There are users for whom these missing apps won’t matter at all, but if Amazon really wants to challenge Apple, it needs to open up access to the Google Play Store. Save for Microsoft 365 (for which a 3-month free trial is included), there are precious few productivity apps available here, and not many for the creative-minded, either.

Fire tablets have always excelled at entertainment, and the Max 11 is no different. Some would argue that it’s hobbled without an Amazon Prime subscription, but I disagree: Without one, you can still read Kindle e-books, play games, listen to music, stream all manner of video (from the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Max and so on), join Zoom calls — pretty much everything you can do with any tablet. A Prime subscription merely adds more media to the mix.

Meanwhile, onboard Alexa opens the door to all the usual voice-powered tools and activities, especially if you invoke Show Mode — which allows your tablet to double as an Echo Show smart speaker (albeit with much smaller speakers).

Let’s not overlook the remarkable price, either: $229 feels like a steal for a tablet as capable as this one, its software shortcomings notwithstanding. And like other Amazon-branded devices, it regularly goes on sale. Every month or so, you can buy the Fire Max 11 for around $180 — less during tentpole events like Amazon Prime Day.

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