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Looking for more design in Amazon devices

Amazon introduces new gadgets the way a guerrilla army prepares for attack: unsteadily at first, and then with unexpected ferocity.

The company usually begins by putting out feelers to test the market. In 2007, it started selling its first e-reader, the Kindle, a device that went for $399 and was as ugly as a naked mole rat. But Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, is known for patience and a willingness to experiment.

Yet its strategy appears puzzling, with a lineup of tablets and other devices that sound fantastic in theory, but often fall short of greatness in real-world use.

Amazon now makes four kinds of devices. There are dedicated e-readers, multipurpose tablets and, starting this year, a TV streaming device and a smartphone, the Fire Phone. Last month, Amazon introduced another streaming machine, the Fire Stick TV, a $39 gadget that is the size of a USB stick and promises to turn your television into an Amazon-powered video service. When you count each variation of each device, you find that Amazon, the ostensible retailer, makes more hardware products than Google does, and almost as much stuff as Apple.

Spending time with its devices, as I did recently, offers a peek into Amazon’s otherwise opaque soul. The hardware shows off Amazon’s strengths in the continuing tech war between it and Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Among these strengths: Like a true retailer, Amazon appreciates the attractiveness of clever pricing strategies, and of giving customers devices that feel expensive but aren’t.

Amazon, more than most rivals, also understands the value of packaging customer service with its hardware. Its high-end tablets include Mayday, a system that instantly summons a live video call with an agent who can answer most of your how-to questions – one of the best features on any device.

But Amazon’s devices also highlight its deep weaknesses. The company seems congenitally blind to the charms of hardware and software design, and it has not yet managed to attract enough partners, including app developers, to expand the utility of its devices. It was the lack of apps, among other flaws, that doomed the Fire Phone, the device Amazon began selling with tremendous fanfare in July. Amazon disclosed last month that it was sitting on $83 million in unsold Fire Phones and would be taking a $170 million write-down on that program.

These shortcomings strain the case for Amazon’s devices. If you are mostly interested in entertainment, and if you are looking for a good deal, it could be a good idea to take a chance on Amazon’s ecosystem, especially its tablets. Amazon remains the best place online to buy books, movies, music and other media, because content from Amazon works seamlessly across different kinds of devices. Amazon’s tablets are also attractive if you are in the market for low-priced devices for your children.

But if you are looking for more – more flexibility and utility in your gadgets, better design and primarily assurance that your device will work with whatever great new hardware or software that comes along next – look elsewhere.

Consider the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, the svelte machine that sits atop Amazon’s tablet lineup. The HDX has three main strengths: It’s very thin, it’s 2 ounces lighter than Apple’s new iPad Air 2 and it has a brilliant screen. This year Amazon blessed the HDX 8.9 with a faster processor than was available in last year’s model, better graphics capabilities and a surround-sound system made by Dolby. At $379, the HDX is also $120 cheaper than Apple’s latest large-screen iPad. Amazon also makes a 7-inch HDX that it sells for $179, but that device remains unchanged from last year’s model.

On paper, the HDX 8.9 sounds like a great deal. But using it is kind of meh. The HDX sure is thin and light, but because it is made out of a plasticky magnesium alloy – rather than the brushed aluminum of the iPad – it feels a bit rubbery and cheap. But the biggest problem is what to do with this device, especially on a tablet like the HDX, which does not have a great bank of the latest apps to give it extra utility. In this way, the HDX 8.9 compares unfavorably with last year’s Apple iPad Air, which is now on sale for $399 — $20 more than the HDX but worth the price in access to a great deal more apps.