It’s a pretty sad state of affairs in the tablet world when removable memory is a way to lead off a review but there you have it – the Fire HD 8, Amazon’s latest addition to its tablet family, has a removable memory slot. This means you can expand things beyond the include eight or sixteen GB of memory that the device comes with. That’s a good thing and Amazon should be praised for the addition. The rest of the tablet – data on the apps, the design, the screen, the processor – is at once compelling and bog standard, a problem that Amazon has yet to solve in their extensive Fire line.
What is this tablet? It’s at once a glorified ereader, a shrine to all things Amazon, and the incarnation of Amazon’s retail might. It allows you to read an Amazon-provided book while downloading Amazon-provided movies and then do a little Amazon shopping for shoes and glasses, so you have them. And, like a warm sitz bath or some Marmite, if you’re in the right mood the whole Amazon-enfused process can be quite relaxing and rewarding.
But, unlike previous incarnations of the Fire, Amazon makes no effort to make this a non-consumer device. While Amazon once talked up the tablet’s ability to run productivity apps and edit photos, all that has fallen by the wayside. You can still do it, but Fire OS 5 is all about your content. New reading systems encourage speed reading for maximum book consumption, a pre-emptive download system ensures you have plenty of video content to enjoy on trips, and something called Amazon Underground lets you download paid apps for free including in-app purchases. If you’re a parent and that last part doesn’t make you salivate like one of Pavlov’s mutts then you’re raising your children in a distant Ashram and probably aren’t reading this.
Why should you buy this tablet? First, at $149 you’re getting a lot of device for the money. This won’t win any prizes for screen resolution or video playback but it has an excellent contrast ratio for reading and an interesting aspect ratio for video. You can definitely “see the pixels” here but not enough to warrant concern. You didn’t buy this for the retina clarity Further, the device is very robust. This is the device you give the kids. Thanks to systems like FreeTime, for example, the Fire is a perfect childhood tablet even without a case and because it is solidly built from candy-colored back to heat-sealed front you can’t break it by dropping down the stairs. You can lock the software down quite easily and control the time they spend on the tablet. This feature is worth the price of admission alone for families and schools (which is why Amazon sells the entry level model in packs of 6.)
They’ve also improved the reading experience with WordRunner. This trick shows one word at a time in rapid succession, a process that lets you ostensibly read at a high rate of speed. In practice I was able to hit about 500 word per minute although the comprehension was a bit scattered. I think with practice I could get better.
In short, this tablet is for people who want to solely consume media. You can browse on this and download productivity apps but I’d be hard-pressed to recommend either activity. There are far better devices out there with better processors and better screens and, while the cost a bit more, you’ll probably be happier in the long run. Heck, for app ecosystem alone I’d recommend an iPad Mini over this thing although I would love FreeTime-like features on iOS sooner than later. Until then you’re stuck with the Fire.
Who shouldn’t buy this tablet? Readers. If you want to read, get a Kindle Voyage. This is an enjoyable and eminently totable reader that offers a far simpler and more streamlined experience than the Fire. But if you want to do a few things, you have an Amazon Prime membership, and you don’t mind being driven through the EPCOT Center of Jeff Bezos’ marketing machine, this is the way to go. This is not a walled Amazon garden but it’s darn close and, in a way, that’s fine. By reducing the opportunity to become confused while using the new Fire Amazon has initially reduced complexity to zero and, thanks to the MayDay video help system, it is now below zero. This tablet can’t do it all but if you want to do lots of things at a surprisingly low price the Fire 8 and 10 inch models are well worth a look.