Amazon.com is unveiling its latest batch of Kindle Fire tablets Wednesday, offering sharper than ever pictures, snappier graphics, and an on-demand, on-device tech support feature that has its chief executive particularly giddy.
The company is taking preorders for three new models, with plenty of variation in hard-drive size and wireless connectivity. At $579, the priciest version will be the new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 with an 8.9-inch screen, a 64 gigabyte hard drive and 4G wireless connectivity.
But Amazon is really targeting the lower end of the market. To compete against Apple’s iPad and the variety of tablets that run Google’s Android operating system, it’s offering a new 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX with a 16-gigabyte hard drive for $229 (with advertising on the home screen). By comparison, Apple’s 7.9-inch iPad mini with a 16-gigabyte hard drive runs $329.
Amazon continues to push hard on pricing, choosing to get its profits from the sales of media and services that run on the device rather than on the hardware itself.
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“We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices,” Bezos said in an interview with The Seattle Times. “That’s why we sell our devices at roughly break-even on the hardware. And then, when people use the devices, buying books or music or videos and so on, that’s where we have an opportunity to make money.”
The company is also launching a new 8-gigabyte Kindle Fire HD for $139. The device, though, runs on a slower processor than the HDX models and does not include a camera.
Amazon is also launching a case for the new models. Called Origami, it folds at various angles to create a stand for the devices in either portrait or landscape modes. The cases, which come in seven colors, attach magnetically. And the Origami case for the 8.9-inch Fire HDX includes a feature that automatically launches a rear-facing camera when the device is slid out to expose the camera.
“It’s important that it be one quick motion, so that you can actually get the picture,” Bezos said.
The feature that has Bezos most excited, though, is the Mayday button, a new tech support service that lets flummoxed Fire HDX users contact an Amazon representative from the device to get help. Tap the button — any day, any time — and a postage-stamp-sized video box will appear with an Amazon tech-support representative ready to help. The service will be free, and Bezos said Amazon’s goal is to have representatives respond in 15 seconds or less.
“One of the most complicated things about doing tech support over the phone is that you have to ask the user to describe the current state of their device, which is very difficult,” Bezos said. “The beta users who have played around with the Mayday button, their jaws hit the table.”
Tech-support representatives will be able to guide users to fix problems, circling icons they need to touch and drawing arrows in the direction they need to swipe. Or they can simply fix the problem for customers themselves, without guiding the customer to the solution.
And while a live video feed of the representative will be on the customers’ screens, their camera gets automatically turned off when they tap the Mayday button so tech representatives will not be able to see them.
The company is positioning Mayday as something of an iPhone Siri-like feature, an iconic offering that will set it apart from rivals. And Bezos expects Fire HDX customers to mess around with Mayday when it debuts, even if they don’t need tech help.
“I think people are going to use it just to show it off to their friends. People are going to call just to say hi. All of which is OK with us,” he said. “This is a ‘wow’ feature and we want people to use it.”
And Mayday, which will be available when the devices ship, isn’t just about guiding customers through tricky tech challenges. They can also tap Mayday to get advice on the latest games to buy or movies to watch, recommendations that Amazon will cull from its best-selling lists, but not the personalized suggestions that appear for customers when they shop the website.
“This is the intersection of ridiculously deep integration and, hopefully, customer delight,” Bezos said.
Bezos has said that customer-support calls to Amazon’s e-commence site reflect a defect in operations, something the company works to reduce. But tech-support calls are another matter.
“There are some activities, especially when you get to configurations and settings and so on, that are irreducibly difficult,” Bezos said. “And that’s where tech support can be very, very useful.”
He wouldn’t say if Amazon will need to hire more representatives for the service. But he said the company is working on training its “many thousands” of tech-support staff to manage the new service.
Amazon has also updated the software that powers the Fire tablets. The new Fire OS 3.0 enables a raft of new features, including an updated version X-Ray for Movies and TV. Introduced last year, X-Ray displays the names of actors that appear in programs as they enter a scene on the tablet screen.
Using data from Amazon’s IMDb.com movie and TV database, X-Ray also shows each actor’s film and TV credits, as well as back stories about their characters and trivia about the program.
Bezos demonstrated the service, showing a scene from the USA Networks series “Suits,” where IMDb noted a factual error on a dinner receipt. The receipt includes a 4.5 percent tax at a New York restaurant, when the rate should have been 8.85 percent.
“This is just this wonderful kind of richness that IMDb has,” Bezos said. “This isn’t even some famous movie. This is just a goof in a particular episode of ‘Suits.’ ”
The newest version of X-Ray can turn the Fire HDX models into a second screen for customers watching programming on Amazon’s Prime Instant Video, the subscription streaming service that offers video on-demand and is included with the $79 a year Amazon Prime membership. And the Fire HDX devices can also serve as remote controls for the Prime Instant Video programming on the television.
Viewers can also switch the programing from their TVs to their tablets, picking up right where they left off, if they want to, for example, watch on a smaller screen when they go to bed.
X-Ray also now names songs as they play during a program. Of course, Amazon then lets users tap on the device to purchase the song from its website.
Amazon is also launching X-Ray for Music, a service that streams the lyrics of a song as it’s playing on the HDX devices. And customers can tap on specific lyrics to jump to that section of the song. The service will work for songs purchased from Amazon and songs purchased elsewhere that customers upload to their Amazon Cloud Player, the company’s music storage service.
The new Fires will also enable offline viewing of “tens of thousands” of Prime Instant Video programs, giving subscribers the ability to download and watch movies and TV shows for a limited period on a plane, at the beach or anywhere else they don’t have Wi-Fi connectivity.
While Amazon is challenging Apple and Android devices on price and services, it’s also dialing up the tech specs for the new Kindle Fires.
Amazon has boosted the processing power and increased the memory, making apps open faster than the previous models. The pixel density has also been goosed, with the 8.9-inch model sporting a screen resolution of 339 pixels per inch, which Amazon says will offer perfect color accuracy.
The new HDX models are both thinner and lighter than their predecessors. The 8.9-inch model is noticeably more svelte, weighing 13.2 ounces, 34 percent less than last year’s model.
The specs are generally better than Apple’s latest iPad. But it’s a game of digital leapfrog, and Apple’s next iPad, likely to debut next year, will almost certainly top the specs in the new Fire HDX models again.
Amazon also has added several features that reviewers and users criticized the company for excluding from earlier versions.
The 8.9-inch model, for example, has both front- and rear-facing cameras. The models that include 4G LTE wireless connectivity will now have GPS navigation. And speech-to-text dictation will be available with the Fire OS 3.1 update in mid-November.
Amazon also sells Kindles that are dedicated e-readers. On Sept. 3, Amazon announced the latest version of its Kindle Paperwhite, which include a brighter screen and faster processor than last year’s model. A Wi-Fi version of the e-reader costs $119 with ads on the home screen, and $139 without. A version with 3G connectivity costs $189. No word yet on whether Amazon will update the basic Kindle, which runs $69.
Jay Greene: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com. Twitter: iamjaygreene