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Originally published October 6, 2013 at 8:05 PM | Page modified October 7, 2013 at 6:46 AM

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New Kindle not too proud for a ‘help’ button

The new Kindle HDX’s “help” feature, which initiates a videoconference with a customer-support rep, is just a sign of how far such PC-like devices have come since the first simple e-readers.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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It’s a little odd when a company selling a new gadget says one of the most exciting features is its “help” button.

How many carmakers talk up their new models’ emergency brakes? Do airplane makers call out state-of-the-art oxygen masks?

But Amazon.com tries to think differently about the Kindle tablets it began selling five years ago. It may be on to something with the “Mayday” button that’s a highlight of its new Kindle HDX tablets.

Amazon’s Kindle line has grown from a single, quirky black-and-white e-reader to an array of eight tablets, including the faster and lighter HDX color tablets, which begin shipping Oct. 18.

Founder Jeff Bezos is especially enthusiastic about Mayday, which initiates a videoconference with a customer-support representative when you press a life-ring-shaped icon in the settings menu.

Mayday is a twist on the virtual assistants available on Apple and Google devices, voicing answers and advice in response to spoken queries.

They're all descended from Microsoft’s infamous Clippy, an animated assistant that appeared in late-1990s versions of Office.

I wonder if Mayday is also the first step toward an online version of Nordstrom’s personal shopping advisers.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be snarky. The presence of Mayday will be reassuring to some Kindle buyers, similar to the way Apple customers take comfort in knowing there’s a live person available to help at the nearest Apple store.

Tablets were supposed to be dead-simple and easier than PCs, but with Mayday, Amazon is acknowledging they’re still computers that need extra attention now and then.

Higher-end Kindles in particular have become more complicated. Where the original was a basic e-reader that automatically connected to wireless networks, the HDX is a more full-featured tablet with PC-like capabilities and complications.

You can connect to Amazon’s digital mall via Wi-Fi or 4G cell networks, if you buy a service plan from AT&T or Verizon.

The HDX is also designed to connect wirelessly to “smart” TVs, game consoles and other set-top gear. This feature is coming in November, but the HDX can already mirror its display through a “Miracast” certified wireless TV adapter, if you can find one.

Amazon also is adding more business features, so you’ll be able to connect the HDX to a secure corporate network and use it for light work, as well as reading, browsing, playing games and watching videos.

Clearly there will be demand for tech support, especially among the older book-lovers who were the original Kindles’ core audience and may now be considering an upgrade to a color model.

The Kindle HDX is a decent option for those already invested in the Kindle platform who don’t yet own an iPad or other tablet. It’s slightly thinner and lighter than last year’s Kindle HD, and the HDX has better, recessed power and volume buttons. But the HD is still a nice tablet and a good deal at $139.

A faster, quad-core processor makes the HDX feel snappier, and its higher-resolution screen is noticeable, particularly when viewing photos. I don’t think it matters much with books or even videos on the little screen.

Going back and forth from an iPad to the HDX, I preferred the iPad’s physical home button to the sometimes elusive “home” icon on the HDX touch screen. I was also disappointed that Yahoo’s fantasy-football app isn’t available on the Fire because that’s primarily what I use tablets for in the fall.

The base 7-inch HDX that displays ads costs $229, or $244 without ads. Adding 4G LTE capability adds $100 to the price. Preorders are being taken now for the shipping that begins Oct. 18. An 8.9-inch HDX will be available Nov. 7 starting at $329.

The HDX is about 7.25 by 5 inches and weighs 10.7 ounces. If I started with a full charge in the morning, the battery would peter out about the time I settled in to read before going to bed.

Amazon’s HDX matches the price of Google’s Nexus 7 tablet and undercuts Apple’s 7.9-inch iPad Mini, which starts at $329. But they’re all facing competition from decent Android tablets now on sale for well under $200.

Having a friendly assistant available to help may also justify the HDX price.

Hewlett-Packard, for instance, is selling 7-inch “Slate” Android tablets for $140 to $170. But its “SmartFriend” tech support costs $15 per month for a subscription, or $100 for one-time help.

I’m not sure that people shopping for tablets this holiday season will think through the potential service costs. They should, because what they’re mostly buying is a console to access a suite of online services with varying charges.

Amazon isn’t giving it all away. Fire tablets prompt users to upload their photos and media files to Amazon’s cloud system, where you get 5 gigabytes of space before monthly storage fees kick in. The average household is expected to generate 3.3 terabytes of digital content a year by 2016, according to Gartner research.

The Fire is also oriented toward the Amazon Prime service’s offering of an online library of second-run videos, similar to Netflix. Prime costs $79 per year.

But it may all be a small price to pay if you’re a lonely Kindle user and would like to chat with one of the friendly Mayday reps.

I was curious about which wireless adapter would work best to “fling” videos playing on the HDX to a TV set, mirroring the tablet display on the larger screen, so I called Mayday.

Less than 10 seconds later I was videoconferencing with a woman named “Stephanie” at an Amazon call center in the Tri-Cities area.

Stephanie said the “fling” feature is coming later and promised to email more details within 24 hours. I was hoping she’d slip up and confirm rumors that Amazon is developing its own wireless TV adapter, but she was too careful.

When a Mayday session begins, Amazon turns off the Kindle’s front-facing camera so Stephanie and her co-workers can’t see who they are chatting with. Stephanie insisted that she couldn’t see me, and she didn’t react when I made silly faces at the device as we talked.

When the conversation moved from tech support to the topic of what she could see from her vantage point, she informed me that she was authorized to terminate our session if it strayed.

After the Mayday call ended, a questionnaire popped up on the HDX, asking if my question was answered. Then a similar questionnaire appeared in my email inbox.

Fortunately, I was empowered to terminate the session and go back to watching videos, reading books and playing around on the HDX.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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