I was recently in the market for a cheap tablet to take some of the burden off my phone, since I was burning through the battery on my S7 Edge several times a day. My son had already been using a 7″ Fire tablet for the past year that we won in a raffle. When I looked up the prices on these tablets, I was surprised to see how inexpensive the whole Fire tablet lineup was. I thought the 7″ screen would be a little too small, and decided I would be better off with the 8″ version of the Amazon Fire HD 8 (2016 model, 6th generation).
The specs on the tablet aren’t going to impress anyone, but they’re good enough and at $79.99 for a tablet, it’s hard to beat. You’ll get the most benefits from it if you’re an Amazon Prime member, but membership isn’t required to enjoy it.
The Fire HD 8 comes with an 8″ screen, a 1.3 Ghz quad-core processor, 16 GB of internal storage, 1.5 GB of RAM, front and rear facing cameras, dual band WiFi, and Bluetooth. Amazon is advertising 12 hours of battery life, but in reality, this figure depends on how much you use it. Under heavy use I get about 8-10 hours of battery life, with light use I can get through a whole day with some juice to spare. The microSD slot allows for expansion up to 200 GB. The tablets are available in a colorful variety, including black, blue, magenta, and tangerine.
I’ve been using this device since April 2017, and here’s what I think.
Amazon Fire HD 8 Tablet
The Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet (2016 model, 6th generation) is a no-frills, budget-friendly device that's best suited for entertainment rather than work. It's a minimum spec tablet that tends to run slow, but it gets the job done. The experience isn't frustrating if you know what you're getting ahead of time. You don't need to be an Amazon Prime member, but it'll be more enjoyable if you have access to Amazon's vast digital media library. Alexa comes built into the OS. It gets great battery life. If the Amazon App Store isn't cutting it, you can install the Google Play Store. It's durability makes this tablet a great choice for kids. It isn't in the same class as an iPad, but at $79.99, it's a quarter of what the cheapest iPad costs. The price makes this a surprisingly high-value product.
I haven’t used a tablet in years, since the iPad 4 (which wasn’t that impressive in my book). I know it’s an old device, but it’s the only point of reference I have for any kind of tablet comparison. I liked the iPad’s hardware and the form factor, but I wasn’t too keen on iOS. The software pretty much ruined the experience for me. I also hated the hassle created by iTunes, which became an icon guessing game anytime I wanted to use it. I like being able to connect a USB cable from a device to my computer, then drag and drop media, documents, and other files from Windows that take too long to transfer using Bluetooth. I couldn’t do that with the iPad and eventually gave it to my wife. This tablet checks that box. I can easily transfer the music and movies I want.
I was a little worried that the 8″ screen would be too small, but I’m finding it’s very comfortable to view. The display is nowhere near as sharp as an iPad. The resolution is a paltry 1280 x 800 pixels, giving the device a weak pixel density at 189 pixels-per-inch (ppi). When you compare that to my phone’s quad HD pixel density of 534 ppi, it can take a minute to readjust when switching to the tablet’s lower resolution display. The screen does OK in direct sunlight; it’s just bright enough to make it usable but not comfortable. Overall the display is decent, just not great.
I purchased the Amazon case to protect the screen from scratches and the tablet from light tumbles. I really like it and recommend it. It has a magnet that automatically turns the screen on and off. The cover is a full case that flips back when you want to use the tablet. The corner of the cover bends, allowing the Fire HD 8 to stand upright in portrait and landscape modes. It’s a simple design but very effective.
It also took me a while to adjust to the size of the tablet. The iPad 4 had a screen aspect ratio of 4:3, but the Fire tablet uses a 16:10 aspect ratio. This makes it have more of a phone feel to it- I can even grip it one-handed. This makes it comfortable to hold in portrait mode, whether I’m reading an e-book or an online article. I also like the aspect ratio for watching movies in landscape mode.
The Fire tablets don’t use stock Android, nor do they ship with any Google service normally associated with Android. It uses a heavily modified version of Android Lollipop that Amazon calls FireOS. My unit shipped with version 5.3.1, with a pending software upgrade to 5.3.3 waiting after I completed setup. The bootloader is locked, and there are no known root methods at this time. Amazon’s App Store isn’t bad, but it’s nowhere near the size of the Google Play Store. Luckily…
Install Google Play
A bright spot- it’s relatively easy to install Google Play on this device, which gives you full access to the Play Store, as well as Google services such as Gmail, Drive, Maps, the Google app, and more. You’ll need to install these APKs in order:
Each one should be installed with Settings → Security → Toggle on “Apps from Unknown Sources”. If you need more help, How-To Geek has a detailed article about how to do it . It’s easy to install and should only take a few minutes. If any of the APK installers won’t let you tap the “Install” button (this happened to me), just restart the tablet and try again. Once you install the Play Store, any apps that you downloaded from the Amazon App Store can be updated through the Play Store.
Performance, Camera, and Battery
The biggest problem that may discourage anyone from buying a Fire HD tablet is that it’s seriously under-powered. It bogs down quite often. This usually happens when playing casual games, like Bubble Witch 2. Apps like Facebook, Messenger, Chrome, and ES File Explorer can really slow it down. Usually these are just momentary stutters here and there, but sometimes it slows down to the point where a reboot is necessary. This was a major hurdle for me to overcome. The solution was to uninstall offending apps- Facebook, Messenger, and ES File Explorer all had to go. I opted to keep Chrome rather than using the Silk Browser that ships with the tablet. Other apps work just fine. This cleared up most of the performance-related issues.
If you can’t live without your Facebook apps, you can download Facebook Lite , an official Facebook app that also includes Messenger. It doesn’t look as nice as the regular Facebook app, but it uses 5 MB of RAM total instead of 50-70 MB per process that the normal app uses. You’ll also get a major boost to your battery life. Since it worked out so well on the Fire HD 8, I’ve also started using on my phone too.
Amazon offers their Fire tablets so cheap for one purpose- drawing you deeper into their services like Kindle Books and Prime Video. Despite being on the low end of the performance spectrum, this tablet is perfectly capable of streaming movies. In fact, it’s surprisingly good at all forms of media consumption. For anyone looking for a tablet to use purely for entertainment purposes, excluding gaming, then look no further. The Fire HD 8 will do the job.
The performance is also good enough that I would recommend it for browsing. My son routinely uses his Fire tablet to search for and watch YouTube videos online. The Fire HD 8 has dual band WiFi (802.11ac), so it can connect to either a 2.4 Ghz or 5 Ghz network. You won’t be blown away by the browser’s speed, but it’s definitely usable.
If the camera is important to you, don’t choose this device. Or use your phone’s camera instead. The rear facing camera is a meager 2 MP, and the front facing camera is worse. Remember, this isn’t a premium device.
The battery life is one of the strongest selling points for this device. Unless I’m using it to watch Netflix, Plex, or YouTube for hours, it’s pretty much an all-day tablet. My heaviest use comes from reading news articles and browsing the internet, but I’ll also play a few levels of Bubble Witch 2 or online chess games several times throughout the day. Email and social media apps usually get checked numerous times a day or whenever I get a notification. An average user will probably be pleased with the battery life. Since it’s not a quick-charge capable device, it will take a while to recharge the battery (about 5 to 6 hours).
Alexa is Amazon’s digital assistant. It’s built right into the tablet (can be enabled/disabled), but it’s a little different than using an Amazon Echo . The Echo is always on, and always listening for a command. The Fire version of Alexa requires you to hold down the home button, rendering the assistant a little less useful than the Echo version.
As home automation is my primary reason for using a digital assistant, I’ve been a little disappointed in Alexa. Sure, it’s easy enough to set it up to control my smart devices. My biggest complaint, though, is that Alexa can’t tell the difference between the words “light” and “lights”. That simple oversight means I need to remember exactly what I named every device in my house. Google Assistant does a better job of understanding what I mean and works much better for this purpose. Additionally, Alexa won’t work with SmartThings devices that provide entry into a home, like a garage door opener or door lock . This makes sense, but it’s something I had to learn on my own.
Otherwise, Alexa is fine when it comes to reading weather reports or looking up information on the web.
After installing the Play Store, I installed the Google app. I was disappointed to find out that the “Ok, Google” phrase couldn’t start Google Assistant. This is similar to the behavior of Alexa. If you need voice-activation of a digital assistant, this device may not be for you.
If you don’t want to use Alexa, see the slideshow below:
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
FireOS has its pros and cons. I’m a fan of the home screen launcher. I like the way it’s set up- you can swipe left or right to navigate through various entertainment categories (Recent, Home, Books, Video, Games, Shop, Apps, Music, Audible, Newsstand). This makes it very easy to quickly find content without needing to start an app or dig through a file manager. Of course, all online content accessible from the home screen comes directly from Amazon.
See the gallery below to see the layout of Fire Launcher:
I also like how Amazon implemented Prime videos on the tablet. First of all, they’re available for offline use. Anyone who travels will appreciate that. Secondly, content is randomly downloaded so you always have something to watch offline. Amazon refers to this feature as “On Deck”, and it’s enabled by default. Videos are automatically deleted as space is needed. Some people might not like this feature, especially if their internet is through a metered connection or if they have limited bandwidth. You can turn it off if you don’t want it. Follow the slideshow below to disable it:
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
Then there’s the things I don’t like. The Recent page is kind of a useless feature for me. It doesn’t get in the way of using the tablet, and I guess it’s there for the people that want to use it. The app icon sizes are way too big, detracting from a mostly nice interface. It’s just…ugly. Luckily, you can disable recent apps to make it look better. Unfortunately, you can’t disable or hide the page itself.
Next is the search bar on the Home page. It can’t be disabled. It’s terribly slow, and it will only perform searches with the built-in Silk browser. All web searches are performed using Bing. You cannot change search providers. The Google search bar for Android blows this away, but unfortunately you can’t use it on the Fire tablets (FireOS doesn’t support widgets). I highly recommend using Chrome instead of Silk for your browser.
The system settings are also a little watered down. Now that I’m used to Nougat on my S7 Edge, the FireOS/Lollipop settings seem so…antiquated. The biggest thing here is that there’s no way to show notifications on the lock screen. There’s also no battery usage statistics, so you’ll need to download an app to handle this if you run into problems with an app draining your battery.
Amazon is marketing the Fire HD 8 as a kid-friendly device. It comes with their Free Time Unlimited app pre-installed. It’s a subscription-based service that costs $2.99 per month for Prime members, and $4.99 per month for everyone else. The subscription gives you access to age-appropriate videos, TV shows, books, and music, but you don’t have to subscribe. There’s also the free version, which gives you access to less content but works in the same manner to protect kids from inappropriate content.
Free Time locks down FireOS with a cartoonish UI for kid use. You can create as many users as you need for your children. Having separate users allows a child and an adult to share the device. You’ll pick which user to login as from the lock screen. When Free Time is active, only content that you allow is able to be viewed on the tablet. This also limits what they can view online. Free Time allows for time limits- screen-on time, bedtime, educational goals, and limiting video and app use are all included. I’ve never seen the depth of parental controls Amazon has baked into this tablet on any other device. Additionally, a child can’t exit Free Time without a PIN code. The PIN code also protects the tablet’s settings menu, so kids can’t change their user status. To exit Free Time, simply swipe down from the top of the screen, tap “Exit”, then enter the PIN. Amazon offers a “Parent Dashboard” (available on the web) where you can view which videos, apps, and websites your child has been using and for how long.
Child profiles can be managed from the stock settings menu. This provides a hassle-free way to manage your kids online habits. To manage a child profile, follow the slideshow below:
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
If you don’t want to use Free Time with child profiles, the Fire tablets also offer parental controls. The manageable settings in parental controls aren’t as fine-tuned as they are in a child profile, but still give parents control over how a kid can use the tablet. See the slideshow below to see how it works:
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
Special Offers Discount
When I was researching the Amazon Fire HD 8, I wasn’t sure what this meant at first. After reading up on the subject, I didn’t think it would be that bad. Amazon basically gives you a $15 discount if you buy the “special offers” version of the Fire tablet. This means that advertisements show up on the lock screen, which isn’t so bad. These are easily ignored. But you also have advertisements that show up as popup notifications. These are the ones that really bothered me. After using the tablet for a few days, I was scrambling trying to figure out how to get rid of them for free. I tried a few things that involved the adb command line, but it wasn’t a permanent solution. The ads came back as soon as the device was rebooted.
In the end, I ponied up the $15 for Amazon to remove them. Technically, you agree to it when you purchase the device. I personally consider this a shameful practice. There’s no reason that a company as big as Amazon (who’s already selling you a device that specifically targets their services) needs to auction off your lock screen space too.
Comparison to the New 2017 Model
Not much has changed between the 2016 and 2017 models. The newer model has a slightly better display, a better graphics card, and it’s a little bit thinner. It’s definitely not worth upgrading to, but if you’re just getting into the Fire tablets like me then it’s worth considering.
You’ll pay somewhere around $15 more for the newer tablet though. Best Buy has the older model for $65 at the time of this writing. The 2016 model is no longer carried by major retailers anymore.
For what it is, the Amazon Fire HD 8 (6th generation) is not a bad device. It’s a budget-friendly tablet- it’s not going to compete with an iPad or a quality Android tablet. It’s slow, but capable. It’s a great buy at its price point, especially if you want a cheap tablet for younger children. You can buy each version of the tablet in a discounted “special offers” version, where you agree to receive unobtrusive lock screen ads and the more intrusive popup notification ads.
The tablet has great battery life and works well for consuming media. The camera is lacking to say the least. The software has some minor bugs/hangups, but overall, it’s not a bad experience.
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