I get this little thrill whenever I get the chance to play with inexpensive tech. OK, let me rephrase that: whenever I get to play with cheap tech. The kind whose sole distinguishing feature isn’t powerful slabs of silicone, mind-bending specs, or gimmicks. We’re talking bargain-bin tech, where that deceptively low sticker-price inevitably leads to your disappointment in giving an unrecognizable brand “a chance” and praying the store will take the thing back.
In the world of cheap-o Android tablets, those low, low price-points usually signify danger: stay away.
It’s not like the history of cheap computers is noble. From failed efforts like the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) to the continuing wasted potential of Google’s Chromebooks, the desire to amalgamate a decent computing experience to that of a toaster has long eluded the tech world. Many would-be companies, most you’ve never heard of, have tried to fill this need by offering crap hardware at crap prices. The results, shockingly, have been mostly crap.
Amazon isn’t a crap company. Amazon is a gigantic, world-dominating company with the means and methods to deliver on this promise in ways few, if any, others can. Couple this ambition with the desire to link personal accounts with the world’s biggest digital storefront and you’ve got the perfect storm of want and need: the 7” Fire Tablet, the latest in Amazon’s increasingly impressive tablet family. Its key feature being, of course, that shockingly low price: $50.
The big advantage Amazon enjoys, like Apple, is they own both the hardware and software experience, and thus can tailor the experience however they like. Plus, they both run dedicated App stores and command huge cloud-based accounts, meaning consumers are treated to some of the most reliable buying options out there. Thus freed from the bloated expectations of having a non-Apple tablet possibly living up to the promises of a decent tablet experience, get ready to be impressed.
First off, keep in mind this is a $50 tablet. Drop all expectations about superior build quality or even shock resistance; this is cheap technology, served cheap, and designed to run software at a ridiculously low price. And it does all this well, but if your cheap Fire Tablet disintegrates than you won’t be enjoying new episodes of Transparent or Mozart in the Park, will you?
Suck it up and grab a carrying case when picking one up. Use two pieces of cardboard and some tape if you have to; anything is better than letting this thing fly unguarded in your backpack, purse, or transporting vessel of choice. And, of course, if you want your tablet experience without those lock-screen “Special Offers” (ads) you’ll have to spend an extra $15. I wouldn’t bother, to be honest.
Speaking of value, if you buy five Fire Tablets Amazon will throw in a sixth tablet on the house with an offer playfully called the Fire 6 Pack (get it?). They even come served in coffee-like little packets. When the world’s biggest retailer has successfully commoditized computers like socks, we’ve officially reached Peak Tablet.
Design and Tech Stuff:
I’m almost tempted just to point you to Amazon’s copious product page for the Fire Tablet as it contains every spec and piece of technical info you’d ever want. Then again, I wouldn’t want you leaving this review (perish the thought), so here’s a summation of what you’ll get for $50.
The first – and most notable – sign you’re using a budget tablet is the screen. Housed within that chunky bezel is a decently-sized 7” IPS display rocking a low 1024×600 resolution at an equally low 171 ppi. It’s touchscreen is quite responsive to single and multi-touch fingers smearing their way across. Viewing angles, surprisingly, are decent, though video playback quality is pretty bad across the board. For everyday adventures like browsing the web, scrolling through music, or even gaming, however, the screen is ‘good enough’, and not much else.
Remembering this is a marquee Kindle device, e-reading is mission-critical, and I’m happy to report the Fire Tablet handles eBooks like a champ. True, font quality isn’t anywhere near the reading nirvana of a standard e-ink Kindle, nor is the resolution or contrast as good as a pricier Kindle Fire HD tablet, but it’s more than adequate.
Another big feature of this budget tablet specifically designed for reading is how the software can handle eye strain. E-reading has always been – and likely will always be – Amazon’s killer feature, considering they do e-reading better than anyone. A recent OS upgrade added the company’s name-branded Blue Shade feature, which is designed to filter out sleep-inhibiting blue wavelength lighting common on electronic screens. It’s a nice feature that will become more common on other tablets, too, even if the reduced coloring makes the display look like it’s drenched in Orange Tang.
The internals are nothing to write home about (or even write much about, to be honest). Inside is a decent 1.3 GHz MediaTek quad-core processor coupled with 1GB of RAM. A single-WiFi antennae lets you get online and actually use the thing, while Bluetooth support for A2DP compatible devices is also available. What’s important is how everything comes together, and I’ll talk performance in a little bit.
There’s nothing outstanding – or memorable – about the Kindle Fire’s boxy design, which is something we’ve seen countless times in similar 7” Android tablets, minus the familiar Amazon logo stamped on the rear. Chunkiness aside, it’s still decently attractive, and measurements of 7.5” x 4.5” x 0.4” and 11oz (313 grams) weight means it’s comfy and discrete enough to carry around without much strain.
Nearly every function is assigned to the top panel: a mushy volume rocker, power/standby button, single 3.5” headphone jack, pinhole microphone, and micro-USB slot all present. A big issue with the charging slot, however, was that the USB cable tended to feel ‘stuck’ often when attempting to pull it out. I almost felt like it would detach entirely if I pulled hard enough; never a good feeling for such an important function.
There’s two cameras available: a VGA front-facing camera and an obligatory 2 MP rear-facing camera on the back for 720p HD video recording. I won’t mince words: they’re terrible cameras, and they don’t even let you take advantage of Amazon’s Mayday customer support.
There’s a single speaker on the bottom-rear, and it’s decently loud, but its placement isn’t great. When the tablet is laid flat the sound is muffled, sometimes by half. Considering how many apps are designed to be used with the tablet laid flat this was a bad design choice.
Another casualty of budget pricing: internal storage. The Fire Tablet comes with 8GB of internal storage, though only 4.5 GB is available to use out of the box as the rest is taken up by the OS and other software. Amazon includes “unlimited” cloud storage for Prime subscribers, but that won’t do you much good when you’re away from a solid WiFi signal. Thankfully, you can expand the memory up to 128GB via the discrete micro-SD card slot near the top-right.
Newer Kindle Fire tablets are powered by Amazon’s proprietary Fire OS 5, codenamed Bellini, which is pretty much a drastically forked version of Google’s Android. It’s pretty amazing how far it’s come since the original Kindle Fire tablet debuted back in 2011.
The latest OS looks and performs more like Android than ever before, meaning all your square apps are laid out on the familiar grid like you’d find on just about any iOS or Android tablet. They even function the same, with familiar taps to open and long hold-taps to arrange them. Familiar Android navigation buttons (Back, Home, App Manager) are there, as are the menu options via swipes from the top.
A row of categories help you easily navigate through your collections; Recent, Home, Books, Videos, Games, Shop, Apps, Music, etc. If you’ve ever used any of the newer Xbox interfaces you’ll be right at home in Amazon’s cozy, content-filled home.
Not to belabor a point, but this is a cheap $50 tablet, so don’t expect mind-bending, silky-smooth performance at every turn. That said, the general experience is fairly smooth and responsive with smaller apps opening quick and bigger apps, naturally, taking longer. Things start chugging when you’ve got multiple tasks open, even in the background, and this is especially true when downloading apps and doing anything else together. I suspect the WiFi connection is the culprit here, so a little patience (and studious app-closing) will do wonders.
Another big issue: battery life. The Fire Tablet offers up a decent battery life if you’re cruising the web or e-reading, but start playing video or music and the percentage drains. Battery life can be a full day or several hours, it just depends on what it’s running and for how long. It helps to keep it charged and ready, with a spare USB charger handy.
In truth, I wouldn’t even consider picking up the Fire Tablet – or any Amazon device, really – unless you’re subscribed to Amazon Prime. You CAN do other, non-Amazon, stuff with it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. However, if you’re one of the millions of users already locked into the service, go right ahead!
First: you’ll have access to Amazon’s bevy of digital goodness: Prime Video streaming, music, instant shopping, games, apps, and so much else. I’m not a big fan of how Amazon squeezes it all together sometimes (is there such a thing as too much?), but there’s tons of fun stuff to watch and play here. Buy and track packages, subscribe to Amazon’s book services, stream music to your compatible devices, unlimited photos, etc. As long as you keep your expectations in check and don’t like living in Bezo’s curated digital wonderland you’ll be happy.
Just don’t expect too far with it as your offline experience is really going to be limited. Yes, Amazon Prime lets you download certain items to enjoy offline, but this Fire Tablet really isn’t suited for delivering that type of experience, expandable memory aside. This is really an ideal second companion tablet to have around the house, or in the back of the car (for, you know, the kids).
And speaking of kids, for parents and discriminating adults looking for an ideal ‘cheap’ tablet for their brood – or fellow clumsy adults – Amazon even offers a Fire Kids Edition, which doubles the price but adds quite a bit, including the same tablet and rubberized protector case (in blue or pink, naturally), and a year of Amazon’s kid-centric FreeTime Unlimited service.
There’s also a no-hassle 2-year protection policy with a “If they break it, we’ll replace it. No questions asked” guarantee. This means bathroom time doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking experience anymore (you know what I’m talking about).
Unlike the somewhat disingenuous Fire Stick, which claimed to run games from Amazon’s App Store (but almost never could), the Fire Tablet is shockingly capable of running most of what’s on tap. For my considerable testing (ahem, for work) I only downloaded games that were Free, or as Amazon will tell you “Actually Free”, meaning no in-app purchases or nags to pay more for extras. It’s a nice feature, even if the way Amazon humble-brags borders on annoying. Hubris, Amazon!
So what was available for cheap consumers like myself? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Recognizable games like Ducktales: Remastered, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Fruit Ninja, Sonic CD, Angry Birds (loads of them), Bad Piggies, Badland, Jetpack Joyride, Goat Simulator, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and even Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. All gratis.
Naturally, lighter fare like Ducktales, Sonic, and the rest ran surprisingly smooth and played well, especially on the Fire’s responsive touchscreen (how well they played is another matter, but that’s touchscreens for you). I didn’t find any distinguishing differences between versions on this tablet and those found elsewhere, say, beefier Apple or Google tablets. Sure, loading times were much longer and the screen quality is ‘Meh’, but performance is what counts and when the games work, they generally work well.
First issue: the Amazon App Store. Yes, it’s a walled-garden of Amazon goodness, one that was seeded from Google’s infinitely more populated Play Store. These were originally Android apps, plucked and transplanted into Amazon’s environment and – with luck – onto your growing Kindle family of devices. When this homogeneity works, it works. When it doesn’t, it can become a confusing, confounding experience that nearly sullies whatever karmic goodness earned elsewhere.
One giant letdown, for me, was trying to play Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones. The game’s big download (over 1GB) aborted several times, without warning, due to lack of available memory. I was able to free some up by deleting other beefier games, but even after getting it installed and running, the game continued to tease me by presenting an utterly broken experience: instead of detailed visuals (which the Fire is clearly capable of running) I got black shadows and textures, though the nice voice-acting still played.
When nerds talk derisively about the main differences between competing mobile ecosystems like iOS, Android, Amazon, etc, this is usually what they’re talking about. It’s noble that Amazon wants to cull the crap from Google’s Play Store to present an Apple-like experience, but there needs to be better memory management and compatibility statements in place.
It’s a problem we really noticed on their diminutive Fire Stick; Amazon may say certain apps and games are available on your device, but there’s almost no compatibility descriptions to speak of. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and hope for the best. Even the customer review section seems to be a mix-match of Android/Amazon reviews, none of which is helpful to users looking for useful info.
Here’s the part where I’m most torn about the budget Fire. On one hand, you’ve got the most affordable ‘good enough’ tablet ever made. Despite its ancient innards, it’s easily capable of handling just about every moderate task thrown its way, and most often without much hassle.
The basic software setup isn’t bad; you’ve got internet browsing (Silk), a decent email client that works with other providers (like Gmail), Calendar, Calculator, Contacts, Weather, Clock, and a few others that add basic functionality when you need it. Of course, you’ll really want to dive into Amazon’s curated App Store to get the most out of the tablet.
As far as app selections go, most of the basics are here: Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Evernote, Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, and others. But the selection is really limited, especially compared to the glut of options available elsewhere. This was always going to be an issue when considering an Amazon tablet over fancier – and pricier – iOS and Android options, especially as the choice isn’t throttled by technology but choice. You don’t need much to run a halfway decent office suite, especially those like Google Drive or even Microsoft’s mobile Office Suite. But these simple pleasures have been barred from Amazon’s Garden, so you’ll have to scour their store to find suitable replacements or go without.
I’m just going to address the 500lb elephant in the room. It’s entirely possible to run a few scripts and get the full Google Play Store up and running on this Fire Tablet, infinitely expanding what’s possible on such an inexpensive little tablet. This means you’ll get real Gmail, Drive, Maps, and so many other awesome options that could easily run here, but have been denied entrance.
For this review, I’ve refrained from adding the hack, which doesn’t require fancy sideloading or much in the way of complexity (though you’ll need a Windows PC). The Kindle Fire isn’t being sold like this, and there’s no reasonable expectation that Play Store apps will run correctly on it (then again, there’s no expectation that Amazon App Store apps will run correctly, either…). If you fancy yourself a capable Android poweruser, here’s your chance to experiment and get the most from your $50.
Just about every gripe I have with the Fire Tablet can easily be countered with “…but it’s only $50”, and I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over recommending it. It does nothing superlatively well, except challenge the notion that a sub-$100 tablet doesn’t have to suck. If you’re a diehard Amazon Prime user this is the ultimate consumption tablet… for the money. It runs and plays video, music, eBook reading, and even light gaming reasonably well, it’s not ugly or inconvenient, and you can even pick up five of them for less than half most decent Android tablets. Heck, do that and Amazon will even toss in another one for fun. You really can’t lose here.