Known for its affordability, Amazon’s Fire HD line of tablets got quite the refresh in 2015 with the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 tablets. Much like the relatively diminutive Fire HD 6 and Fire HD 7 of last year, Amazon’s new pair of tablets are designed to push its ecosystem to the millions who shop on its online marketplace.
Starting at $150 and $230, respectively, the new Fire HD duo certainly fit the bill for affordability, but did Amazon cut too many corners to get there?
A splash of color, a dash of monochrome
Amazon is known for building solid, albeit unexciting, hardware, and the Fire HD is no exception. The glossy rear panel might prompt the fear that these tablets will constantly fall out of your hands, but the seamless transition to a matte plastic that surrounds the front, helps with drop prevention. While the Fire HD 8 provides just enough surface area that you can hold it in one hand and still keep your mind at ease, the Fire HD 10 is a tablet that demands to be held with two hands.
Of course, the landscape-friendly 16:10 aspect ratio of these tablets definitely plays a role in the ergonomics, since button and speaker placement is either awkward or makes sense, depending on how you hold them. For example, when in landscape, two Dolby Atmos speakers sit on either top edge, with the power button and volume rocker, along with the microphone, headphone jack, and Micro USB port, on the right. In portrait, however, the speakers now sit on the left edge and the assortment of buttons and ports sits on top. Admittedly, this isn’t a huge issue on the Fire HD 8, but it does make using the Fire HD 10 in portrait mode even more awkward than it already is.
The main area in which the Fire HD 8 differentiates itself from its bigger sibling is in the colors available for purchase. Whereas the Fire HD 10 is only offered in white and black (ours was the latter), the Fire HD 8 is available in black, blue, tangerine, and the striking magenta that we received. If you’re picking up either tablet, we’d recommend staying away from black, mainly because the rear panel is a fingerprint magnet that seems to attract materials from the corners of our galaxy.
My ears were satisfied, but my eyes weren’t
When it comes to those Dolby Atmos speakers, they crank out more sound than I originally anticipated. My music preferences don’t stray too far from metal and hardcore, but I was happy with how clearly cymbals crashed and guitars riffed in As I Lay Dying’s The Powerless Rise and August Burns Red’s Rescue and Restore. I was also happy with how loud these speakers could go without any sound clipping, which is quite the feat given how loud these speakers are in general. I had no trouble listening to Batman laying down some justice in Batman: The Animated Series from a different room.
As far as quality is concerned, the display is okay — nothing more, nothing less.
If only I could be as enthused with the display as I was with the speakers. Staying true to their names, the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 feature 8-inch and 10-inch screens, though both are 1,280 x 800 pixel resolution panels. As far as quality is concerned, the display is okay — nothing more, nothing less. Where the fantastic animation of The Legend of Korra shone through, Guardians of the Galaxy looked decidedly more noisy.
Otherwise, things can look rather pixelated, particularly on the Fire HD 10. It’s an issue that’s exacerbated by the operating system’s insistence on thin fonts. Even so, that’s somewhat offset by how bright the display can get, and it certainly gets the job done when it comes to Web browsing, playing games, and reading. It’s just nothing to write home about.
As is standard with most tablets, the Fire HD doesn’t have a great set of cameras. There’s a 5-megapixel camera on the rear, and a 720p front-facing camera. Unfortunately, the rear camera isn’t particularly great at snapping sharp pictures, with edges appearing rather fuzzy in images. The hair on my dog, for example, fails to appear properly defined, and capturing an HDR image can take up to seven seconds.
The 720p front camera also produced grainy results. It gets the job done for video calls and nothing more.
Surprisingly smooth, sometimes inconsistent, performance
Amazon opted to equip the latest Fire HD tablets with a 1.5GHz, quad-core, MediaTek processor, and 1GB of RAM. They don’t exactly scream high-end, and the lack of cutting edge hardware definitely shows in the lag when multitasking, and when I hit the Home button to leave an app. It also takes roughly three to four seconds to open the camera app, slightly longer than I expected.
When focusing on one task, however, the Fire HD runs just fine. I had to wait a few seconds here and there, but nothing too egregious. The same could be said about games, where playing titles like DuckTales and Injustice: Gods Among Us didn’t give me any headaches, though exiting those games by tapping the Home button sometimes led to the Home screen itself refreshing.
Unfortunately, the $150 Fire HD 8 only comes with 8GB of internal storage, which is pretty paltry in this day and age, though you can double that storage for an extra $20. The Fire HD 10 starts at $230 and comes with 16GB, or you can shell out another $30 for 32GB. Thankfully, both tablets include a Micro SD card slot for up to 128GB of additional storage.
Looking very Android, Fire OS 5
Along with revamped hardware, Amazon also took the time to revamp the software. Once a heavily-modified version of Android, Fire OS looks more like stock Android than ever with Fire OS 5 “Bellini,” which is based on Android 5.0 Lollipop.
Even with Lollipop’s software buttons, however, these changes are mostly cosmetic, as Fire OS 5’s purpose is still to bring Amazon’s content to the surface. As such, the operating system lets you swipe between a litany of tabs, including Home, Books, Video, Games, Shop, Apps, Music, Audiobooks, and Newsstand. Each of these tabs displays your content, as well as recommended content based on your habits.
However, the tablets aren’t meant to be Android powerhouses – they’re meant to engross you in Amazon’s ecosystem and suite of features, and in that respect, the Fire HD succeeds in spades.
Amazon Underground, for example, offers a number of games and apps, as well as any in-app purchases they might include, free of charge. These deals aren’t exclusive to owners of the pair of tablets, however, as any Android device owner can download the Amazon Underground app to receive the same benefits.
In addition, Word Runner is a new feature that displays the text of the book right in the middle, one word at a time. You can adjust how fast words go by, and while Word Runner will slow things down when there are longer words and punctuation marks, I don’t see it being a feature used by everyone due to different reading styles.
Ultimately, however, two things can severely hinder your experience with the Fire HD 8 or the Fire HD 10, the biggest being Amazon Prime. To really get the most out of the tablets, you will need to be an Amazon Prime member. Having a membership not only means you get unlimited access to tens of thousands of movies and TV shows, but also over a million songs and the ability to share videos with other family members on different devices, and even download videos for offline viewing.
In other words, while having an Amazon Prime membership is definitely optional, your experience wouldn’t be optimal on these tablets without one.
The second major pitfall is the Amazon Appstore. If you’re someone who sticks to apps like Facebook and Twitter, alongside a sprinkle of popular games, then the Appstore won’t give you migraines. If, however, you venture out a bit and want to download apps like Instagram and Asphalt 8, prepare for disappointment. Depending on the app you’re looking for, the Appstore can sometimes remind you that it lags way behind the Google Play Store, and for some, these omissions could prove to be a major turn-off.
Change your viewpoint, change your perception
Ultimately, whether you should pick up the Fire HD 8 or snag yourself a Fire HD 10 depends on your viewpoint. If you see it primarily as an Android tablet, and then as an entertainment hub, then there are much better options, such as the Dell Venue 8 7000 and the Nvidia Shield Tablet, just to name two. They may be more expensive, but they offer a much truer Android experience, while still offering Amazon services through apps on the Google Play Store.
Therein lies the rub, however. With the Fire HD, those services are already baked in, a boon for those who see the tablets first as an entertainment hub and then as a tablet, particularly Amazon Prime members. In addition, the $150 and $230 starting prices of the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10, respectively, provide a value proposition that not many well-known tablet makers can reach without making even more concessions than Amazon has.
Just make sure to temper your expectations.
- Plethora of Amazon content
- Improved Fire OS 5
- Inconsistent performance
- Mediocre cameras
- Bland design