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Computer Review

Amazon Kindle Fire HD 10 (2017)

Offers those seeking Amazon content thrills and hands-free Alexa the best tablet value for the money, and not much else.

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Remember tablets? Remember how, just a few years ago, we were told the laptop was ‘dead’, and that we’d all be pinch/zooming on plastic slabs for all our computing needs? Yeah, those were the days. That total disruption might not have gone as planned, but it seems like our flat, rectangular friends are here to stay, so we might as well enjoy our time together.

The world may have slightly cooled on the idea of a tablet-only future (thanks, phablets), but there’s still a market for those seeking mobile digital thrills without being tethered to a standard laptop. The market seems to have divided into two camps: Apple and Everyone Else. Thanks to Chromebooks, even Google seems to have largely abandoned ship, leaving it up to third-party OEMs like Samsung to scrape by using custom versions of Android.

Prices have dropped all-around as manufacturers desperately try to get their tablets (and burgeoning digital ecosystems) into your anxious little hands. Even Apple’s baseline iPad, once tipping the scales at $500, is a more budget-friendly $329. Apart from Cupertino, however, only one other company seems equipped enough for the long haul, and they’ve got the world’s largest online marketplace to back them up. Do you shop Amazon? Subscribe to Amazon Prime? Heck, maybe you’re reading The Washington Post right now. If so, you’re already one foot in Jeff Bezos’ world.

Take Amazon’s new Kindle Fire HD 10 Tablet, for example. It does everything the 2015 model did, only better, faster, and with more memory than before. Did I mention it’s now got hands-free Alexa (a first for an Amazon tablet) and actually costs $80 cheaper? Competition, baby. Goodness, how I love the open-market.

Let’s get the TL;DR out of the way so we can all move on with our lives: the Kindle Fire HD 10 is the best tablet that Amazon’s ever made, with (nearly) the best screen, the best sound, fastest processors, and very smart use of their Alexa assistant. As long as you’re willing to live in a world of complete consumption, it’s the best value you can get for any tablet, and that includes comparable Android options and Apple iPads. You won’t get much work done, but you’ll probably be having too much fun to care.

A quick word about how this review will probably go for those on the fence about what tablet they should pick up. You’ll hear lots of talk comparing the Fire HD 10 to other tablets, specifically the iPad. Don’t worry too much about that, as we realize Apple’s wunderscreen isn’t meant for everyone, and any direct comparisons will primarily be to distinguish the strengths (and, of course, weaknesses) between platforms.

Build Quality:

There’s nothing special about the Fire HD 10’s design or build quality; you’ve seen this tablet before, just in other forms. With dimensions of 10.3″ x 6.3″ x 0.4″ it’s practically all-screen, with slightly chunky bezels on the top and bottom. It’s a bit heavy at 17.7 oz, but considering the size you’d expect some heft when carrying it around or cradled in your paws. The size will probably make it too unwieldy for kids, but Amazon already makes tablets specifically for them.

On top you’ll find the volume rocker, power button, a micro-USB charging port (also for local transfers), single 3.5mm headphone jack, and microphone. Just in case you need extra storage there’s a microSD slot near the top-right. For you audio lovers, there’s a pair of Dolby Atmos speakers housed on the left-hand side of the tablet, which sound surprisingly great when watching videos in landscape mode. Those of you who ‘belly’ your device when lying down might find them a bit muffled, but that’s not Amazon’s fault.

The Fire HD 10 feels sturdy, but in a budget-plastic way; it won’t be long before it’s covered in smudges and incidental hairs and water pockmarks. Amazon suggests you bring it into the kitchen while cooking, which you can (thanks to Alexa), but use common sense. I don’t think dropping one would shatter it, but why take the chance? In short, you’ll definitely want to pick up a sturdy case, preferably one that doubles as a media stand, and cover that huge screen with a quality screen guard. Both will extend the durability and enjoyment of the tablet quite a bit.

The Technical Stuff:

Let’s be honest: you’re not buying this tablet for the specs, which are decent. You’re buying it for what those specs can do, which is a whole lot. The new Fire HD 10 is beefier and more capable than ever thanks to a quad-core 1.8GHz MediaTek MT8173B processor running a respectable 2GB of RAM. Generally, the tablet runs everything you throw at it like a charm, including HD movies and graphically intensive games. Browsing the web is fairly smooth, as is streaming music and video from other sources. There’s the occasional stutter, but nothing rage-inducing.

Internal storage has also seen a nice bump as base models now include 32GB or 64GB (as noted above, a discrete MicroSD card lets you expand up to 256GB). Connectivity is nearly all wireless via the tablet’s fast dual-band a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, with Bluetooth support for headphones, external speakers, keyboards, and practically everything else.

Let’s talk about that screen: a huge 10.1” IPS display sporting a very nice 1920 x 1200 resolution at 224 ppi. This is a big upgrade from the previous model, which didn’t offer true HD. As lovely as the new Fire HD 10 screen is, it still doesn’t even top Amazon’s best-ever resolution; that honor still goes to the discontinued Fire HDX, which featured an insane 2560 x 1600 resolution at 339 ppi. But, again…totally discontinued.

10.1” is fairly large for a tablet (though still smaller than the iPad Pro’s ridiculous big 12.9”), but when your primary goal is delivering HD-quality video and nice viewing angles, you’ll be happy Amazon went the distance. The Fire HD 10 does both extremely well, with fast refreshing and none of the grime you’d normally find on a ‘budget’ tablet display. Color saturation, contrast and black levels all look great, text is sharp and clear (important for book and magazine reading), and everything looks like it should.

My only gripe is the reflective coating; while the HD 10 looks pretty stunning in darker rooms, it’s practically a mirror in well-lit rooms, which can be distracting when viewing darker content. Other than this, you’ll be happy with this screen.

Yes, the Kindle Fire HD 10 sports two cameras…but the less said about either, the better. There’s a 2MP rear-facing camera for taking quick snaps or recording 720p videos, neither of which look great. A below-average VGA camera on the front technically lets you take selfies or videocalling via apps like Skype, making this tablet a more affordable and capable alternative to Amazon’s own Echo Show. I’m not sure you’ll want to use, either, to be honest. So yes, there are cameras if you need them,  but under no circumstance should be opt for capturing those magic moments with this tablet.

Regarding battery life, Amazon promises up to 10 hours of playtime on a full charge, which required an initial 5-hour charge for the tablet to boot up and receive critical updates. After spending nearly a week of testing and media playback, I’d say that’s a good estimate. Your results will vary, of course, depending on what types of content you’ll consume – so best keep a charge cable at the ready.

Hey Alexa!

So let’s talk about the Fire HD 10’s most exciting new feature: Alexa! Or should I say, hands-free Alexa, which is a first for an Amazon tablet, and first for any Amazon device when you consider the tablet does this completely untethered. Once configured, simply belt out “ALEXA!” (you can change the wake word to “AMAZON”, but I wouldn’t) and get ready to live in lazy town. Alexa even works when the tablet is on standby, so you may want to be conscious when blurting out otherwise innocent commands, because she picks up everything.

Before this turns into a complete review for Alexa, check out Amazon’s FAQ on their assistant to see how your life could be changed/upended soon.

Unlike stymied competitors’ digital assistants (looking at you, Apple TV Siri) this is nearly the Alexa you want and capable of the tricks, skills, and voice shopping you’d expect, complete with onscreen graphics. Some features, like reminders and occasional media control (like Spotify) aren’t fully supported yet, but I’m confident that will change with software updates. There’s lots to do – check the weather, find a recipes, control individual room lighting and temperatures by shouting out commands, or reorder toilet paper with a command (living the dream). Frankly, I’m astonished by how polished the experience can be, and by how much Amazon is supporting their ecosystem.

Also, having such immediate access via a tablet hints at the possibilities where widespread Alexa-style support could lead, such as mounted devices in kitchens, garages, or bathrooms. Scratch that – especially bathrooms. You don’t even need to use your imagination there to see how that would work.

Amazon was smart to include ESP (Echo Spatial Perception, not the cool mind-controlling kind), which is a must for those living with multiple Alexa devices in your home. This means the microphone will auto-detect which device is closer when triggered and shout out appropriately. We live in a world where Alexa-enabled toasters and toilets is a real possibility, so it’s nice to see some future-proofing.

As good as Alexa is, there always comes that point when you’ll find yourself talking like William Shatner when attempting to relay your message. You’ll. Have. To Talk. Like This. To. Get. Your Message. Across sometimes. This isn’t unique to Alexa, but with all of these digital assistant things. Voice controls are still very much a 1.0 product, albeit a very fun 1.0 product.

Living in Amazon’s World:

People love crowing about Apple’s walled-garden ecosystem, but compared to Amazon’s it can feel like a utopian paradise. I kid, I kid… but owning a Fire tablet comes with its own set of compromises – and opportunities. It really all depends just what the heck you want to do with it. Those who love services like Amazon Prime, the Kindle bookstore, or any of Amazon’s ever-expanding goodies are really who’s being targeted here; consumers who consume.

Truthfully, Fire OS has come a long way since the original Fire tablet, offering a respectable and fluid alternative to iOS and stock Android. I think it speaks volumes that Amazon has been able to pick up where Google lagged, matching the possibilities of Android to pure capitalism. Your Kindle Fire tablet may not be able to ‘do everything’, but those things it can, it does very well.

As with all Fire tablets, the Fire HD 10 runs Amazon’s Fire OS and uses a proprietary App Store built on top of a custom fork of Google’s Android OS, with zero compatibility between them. You may hear that the Fire HD related to Android, but their online stores are entirely separate, so purchases can’t be used between the two. With Fire OS, you’re committing your App purchases to Amazon’s tablets only. Media is a different story, of course. Like Shrek’s smelly onion, there are layers to using a Fire tablet, and you’ll flip through all of them.

Apps, Games, More

The primary focus of an Amazon tablet is, of course, Amazon content consumption, and thanks to the well-placed focus on stock apps like Kindle, Video, Books, Audible, and Newsstand you probably won’t forget it. Silk browser offers a decent web-browsing experience, while your Kindle book collection and Prime Video binging are mere taps away.

It becomes apparent that if you don’t have an active Amazon Prime subscription, or aren’t willing to get one, there’s really no point to opting for a Kindle Fire tablet. Whether they intended it or not, constant prodding to upgrade or ‘try’ new features make me feel more like a visitor than a homeowner, like all of the fun stuff goes away if I stop paying. Use caution before diving right into all of these services without reading the fine print: many are just free trials, like Music or Kindle Unlimited, and have additional costs outside your main Prime subscription.

As with most of Amazon’s tablet/reader options, your lock-screen becomes prime real estate – literally – with Amazon’s “Special Features” (i.e. ads) hocking the latest and greatest. You can remove them, but it’ll cost you.

Amazon’s curated App Store is hardly a wasteland, but it’s no Google Play. This means no Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, YouTube, Chrome browser, and so much more that should be available in a version of Android (and all are, ironically enough, for iOS users). I’ve read elsewhere there aren’t any Microsoft apps – not true (see Outlook and OneNote below) – but none of their real heavy-hitters are here.

You’ll still have access to nice versions of Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Soundcloud, Facebook, Dropbox, HBO Go, and most of the popular stuff you’d expect. Oddly, the curation seems wildly inconsistent as there’s several of the ‘questionable’ apps you’d also see in the Google Play Store (i.e. blatant knock-offs with Engrish typos). I’m pretty certain Microsoft didn’t authorize this version of Cuphead.

The App Store is well-packed with games, too, including heavy-hitters like Minecraft, Five Nights at Freddy’s, The Escapists, Terraria, Clash of Kings, Candy Crush, Angry Birds and many others. Most of them are free (with in-app purchases, of course), so there’s always something to try out. I was genuinely surprised to see newer games like Blizzard’s Hearthstone and Ironhide’s Iron Marines, both of which are practically begging to be played on the Fire HD’s 10” screen.

Productivity, or Lack Thereof:

Note: I’m fully aware that it’s possible to root a Kindle Fire tablet to sideload and install Google’s Play Store, which pretty much negates any of the following criticism. However, this review deals with the stock Fire OS and what it can – and can’t – offer users without having to fiddle with such things. Root as your own risk.

If you’re hoping to use the Fire HD 10 to write the next great novel (or even a terrible one, which sell better anyway), don’t count your royalties just yet. That goes double for photo editing, audio recording, or anything one might label “production ready”. While Fire OS does come stocked with many of the basic productivity apps you’d expect (Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Calculator, even Maps) it’s pretty telling they occupy space far below more fun stuff like Shopping, Video, Music, and Games. Kindles aren’t really meant for getting any real work done (and no, binge watching Prime videos don’t count).

It’s pretty easy to pair a Bluetooth keyboard with the Fire HD 10 and type away – if you can find a decent writing app. Sure, there are alternatives in the App Store like OfficeSuite Professional, but most look sketchy at best and I’m not sure I’d trust them. As of this writing, the top-selling “productivity” app in the store if a virus protection suite. Says it all, really.

Incredibly, even Amazon’s own well-featured Storywriter app isn’t available. Worse, loading up the site via the Fire’s Silk browser directs you to download the app for Chrome browser. C’mon, Amazon! Optimistically, I was heartened to see Microsoft producing marquee apps like Outlook and OneNote, both of which are decent, and hope some version of Office will become available in the future. You know, for when you’re done watching the latest season of Catastrophe.

Conclusion:

As stated above, this vastly improved Kindle Fire HD 10 is the best value for the money – if you’re in the market for a tablet that only lets you soak up content at breakneck speeds. It packs a punch, offering Amazon diehards everything their subscriptions entitles them to in one bright, classy package. The ability to use hands-free Alexa only sweetens the deal, and may point to the future of a totally voice-controlled home that blurs the line between awesome and pure laziness. If you really don’t care about writing documents, photo editing, digital illustration, or anything rising to the level of ‘productivity’ (i.e. actual work), you simply won’t find a better tablet for the money.