Monday, May 20, 2024
Tablets

Amazon Fire Max 11 review: not the productivity tablet you’re looking for


What does it take to make a tablet more than just a content consumption machine? We’ve seen Apple’s evolving ideas for a productivity tablet for over half a decade; Microsoft directly leaned into productivity from the start.

Amazon, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a clue. The company has been selling “Productivity Bundles” for its Fire tablets for years, but aside from a cursory acknowledgment that typing on a keyboard is better productivity than typing on a glass screen, it doesn’t go much further than a name.

I was hoping that the new Fire Max 11 would show me that Amazon has finally cottoned on to what makes a good productivity tablet, something more than just a large screen you use to watch movies on the couch or entertain a toddler on an airplane. Maybe this would be the Amazon tablet that I could recommend for those who want to get work done on a budget — it’s $329.99 all in with keyboard and stylus, after all. (You can also buy it for $229.99 without the accessories.)

Unfortunately, this is just a continuation of the same old story with Amazon Fire tablets: the Fire Max 11 is a fine device for watching movies you bought on Prime Video (or most any other streaming service of your choice), though it’s not markedly better than Amazon’s even cheaper options. But it’s certainly not something I can really recommend for work. And yes, you guessed it, it’s because of the software.

The Fire Max 11 certainly looks the part of a productivity tablet, especially when you get it with the keyboard case and stylus. It’s got a metal chassis, an eight-megapixel camera in the bezel on the long edge of the screen (i.e., the correct spot), a keyboard with integrated trackpad that snaps to the bottom edge via magnets, and a stylus that clings to the side of the tablet, also using magnets. There’s even a fingerprint scanner built into the power button, a first for a Fire tablet. 

The point is the Max 11 doesn’t look like a typical Fire tablet, with their plastic backs and generally awkward cases. Amazon made an effort to justify the Max 11’s higher cost with a nicer design, and in that respect, it succeeded. Squint hard enough, and you could mistake it for a much more expensive iPad Pro or Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3.

Stop squinting, though, and it’s easy to see where Amazon didn’t go far enough. The 11-inch LCD screen has a 2000 x 1200 resolution, with punchy colors and wide viewing angles. It’s bright enough for most any indoor environment and, in a pinch, might even work outdoors in the shade. But its 5:3 aspect ratio is cramped when browsing the web or working in documents, and trying to use the Max 11 in portrait orientation is clumsy and awkward. Put it side by side with Apple’s entry-level ninth-gen iPad, and you can see how much bigger the iPad’s screen is thanks to its 4:3 aspect ratio.

The keyboard magnetically attaches to the bottom of the Max 11 and is powered by the tablet, so there’s no Bluetooth pairing or separate charging to worry about with it. The keys are spaced well enough apart and have decent travel, plus there’s a row of function keys for media and system controls.

The Max 11’s keyboard isn’t terrible, but the trackpad is awful.

The Max 11 is the only tablet in Amazon’s lineup that has an aluminum chassis.

But the trackpad frankly sucks: it’s cramped and sticky, which makes two-finger scrolling and gestures hard to perform. It also only supports inverted scrolling (“natural scrolling,” in Apple parlance), with no option to change it to a more conventional scrolling direction.

Like other tablets that use this kind of keyboard case (the 10th-gen iPad and already mentioned Chromebook Duet 3 are but two examples), the Max 11 is floppy and wobbly when trying to use it on my lap. You really have to be parked at a desk or table to use the keyboard with the tablet.

One bright spot here is the stylus. It is a USI 2.0 pointer, complete with a button on the side, and writes smoothly with no perceptible lag. It feels very similar to using an Apple Pencil on an iPad. Samsung’s out-of-the-box writing experience is better with its S Pen, but in terms of hardware, there’s little to complain about with Amazon’s pen.

The eight-core MediaTek processor Amazon’s using in the Max 11 is more powerful than the ones it uses in its lower-tier tablets, and it shows: the Max 11 is snappier and quicker to respond than the others. I can even stream 4K video in the browser, which wasn’t possible on the Fire HD 10 Plus I tested two years ago. The Max 11 won’t hang with Apple’s chips in terms of raw horsepower, but it’s thankfully not a total dog, either.

The Max 11’s skinny aspect ratio means it has much less usable screen space than a ninth-gen iPad, especially in portrait orientation.

As much as Amazon appeared to put effort into the Max 11’s hardware, it seems like it completely forgot about the software. The Max 11 runs the same Fire OS found across Amazon’s lineup, with no improvements or changes to make it more useful for productivity work aside from ensuring support for the stylus and keyboard. It even has ads on the lock screen unless you cough up another $15 to remove them.

The latest version of Fire OS (8.3.1.9) is based on Android 11, a platform that’s nearly three generations out of date. It lacks gestures for navigating the interface, relying instead on three virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen for back, home, and recent apps. It’s capable of split-screening between two apps, but there are no other tweaks or concessions for productivity or multitasking like you’ll find on Android tablets with more modern software. No app dock, no quick launch tray, no pop-up windows.

The homescreen remains a place for Amazon to push you into buying content and products from its various stores, which quickly gets tiresome and spammy-feeling. There are no configurable widgets, no news feeds, nothing beyond basic folders.

The Fire Max 11’s homescreen is basically just a place for Amazon to advertise stuff it wants you to buy.

Two apps side by side is the extent of the Max 11’s multitasking capability.

If you know anything about Amazon’s tablets, you probably know that they don’t have Google’s apps and services available on them, and the Max 11 is no different. That’s not a huge problem when you’re just using a tablet to watch video (unless that video is on YouTube or YouTube TV), but it’s a complete nonstarter for many when it comes to productivity.

In addition to lacking Chrome, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Meet, etc., the Max 11’s app store is missing countless other apps used for getting work done. Outside of Microsoft’s Office suite and Zoom, it’s a ghost town.

The most frustrating part of this is this is the exact same problem I encountered two years ago. I’ll save myself the trouble of writing and just copy and paste what I wrote about the Fire HD 10 Plus in 2021:

Here’s a list of productivity apps I use daily for work that are nowhere to be found on the Fire HD 10 Plus (or any other Amazon tablet):

• Slack

• Asana

• Google Meet

• Feedly (the poorly rated third-party app I tried crashed on login)

• Todoist

• SwiftKey

NY Times (the app in the Amazon store is just a bookmark to the website)

• Bitwarden (Also missing are LastPass, 1Password, and Dashlane. Logging in to apps with my passwords requires juggling my phone and the tablet, and it’s a huge pain.)

• Two-factor authentication apps

• Pocket (Pocket used to be in the Amazon Appstore, but the company has removed it and now instructs Fire tablet owners to sideload the app from its website.)

I’ll add Airtable, Instapaper, Evernote, and Apple Music to that list today. Beyond the fact that there’s been zero progress on available apps in two years, Amazon didn’t even bother to develop a notes or drawing app to be used with its stylus on the Max 11 like it did for the Kindle Scribe. Both Apple and Samsung have built very competent note-taking apps that take advantage of the features of their respective styluses, but Amazon didn’t even try — it expects you to find something in its decrepit app store.

If you’re hoping to use the Max 11 for drawing or artwork, you won’t find many popular art apps in Amazon’s store. There’s no Sketchbook, Clip Studio Paint, or Infinite Painter. (There is an app called Infinite Painter in Amazon’s store, but it is definitely not the one available on other Android devices.) 

Here’s another paragraph from my two-year-old review that’s just as applicable today:

You can get around this problem by sideloading the Google Play Store and its related services onto the Fire HD, but that requires disabling security features, downloading software from sites that don’t have authorization to distribute it, and installing it in a specific order. Frankly, it’s not something most people are going to do, and if Amazon wants to market something called a “Productivity Bundle,” it needs to do a much better job at making its tablet more useful for work tasks.

I was able to draft this article in Google Docs via the Max 11’s rudimentary browser, and I managed my inbox using Microsoft’s Outlook app. (Amazon’s built-in Mail and Calendar apps are so bare-bones, I couldn’t even get them to work with my Google Workspace account.) But when it came time to complete this piece, input it into our CMS, edit and arrange the photos, and publish it, I had to leave the Max 11 behind. Those are things I can do pretty easily on an iPad or even Samsung’s tablets.

If my workflows were more dependent on Microsoft’s apps, such as Word and Teams, I could perhaps use the Max 11 for more things. But even then, the screen is cramped, the trackpad sucks, and I’d just have a much better time on another tablet or even a laptop.

The Fire Max 11 is a cheap tablet for watching video and not much else.

Ultimately, the Max 11 doesn’t change anything about Amazon’s Fire tablets. Its draw is that it’s cheap: the bundle with the stylus and keyboard and six months of Microsoft 365 is the same price as just the ninth-gen iPad alone. That argument is fine for a tablet you’re only going to use for watching video or maybe hand to a kid to keep them entertained on a flight or at a restaurant. Even still, if that’s your planned use cases, Amazon has even cheaper options that work just as well for those things.

But when it comes time to get work done, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to spend a little more money and get something that actually works.

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge



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