Background: I recently found myself wanting to replace my iPad Mini 2. It’s around four years old and starting to become sluggish enough to be frustrating. Given the incredibly low price of Amazon tablets on Prime Day, I decided to take a risk and try out the Kindle Fire HD 8. Below are my impressions after using it for a couple of weeks.
The Price. Being prime day, I was able to get the tablet for $50. Throw in a 64gb SD card plus a cover and altogether the total was around $80, which is the normal selling price of the tablet. Even if it weren’t on sale, you have to consider that to replace my old iPad with the current equivalent it was going to cost me $300, and that is without expanded storage or any accessories. Right away I’m feeling good about this purchase because of the low initial investment.
The Support. Amazon has now retired the “Mayday” feature, but they still have excellent support built right in. I was having a minor issue where custom playlists were not showing up in Amazon Music. You simply go to the Help app and from there you’re able to request assistance by either email or phone under the “Contact Us” section. The representative contacts you, so you don’t have to wait on hold, and helps you with whatever issue you may have. I’ll admit that at first it sounded like a very low-level call center tech, but nonetheless he was able to resolve my issue quickly. This seems like a great feature for the not-so-tech-savvy folks you may want to gift this to.
The integration. One of the reasons I was willing to take a risk on a Kindle tablet is that we’ve become pretty big users of the Amazon ecosystem. I listen to Amazon music frequently. My family watches Amazon Video. And of course we do a ton of shopping on Amazon (who needs Walmart parking lots, am I right?). Being an Amazon product, all of these are first class citizens on the Kindle Fire. Not to mention Alexa, who is quickly becoming like a family friend around our house.
The Hardware/Performance. For $50, there is respectable hardware in this device. The screen is crisp and clear, the apps run well (mostly), and moving around the tablet is smooth (mostly). More on the mostlies in a moment. Also, coming from a completely closed-off iPad, having the option to expand storage with an SD card was a very welcome feature.
The Apps (or lack thereof). Number one, chief issue with Amazon tablets is the lack of apps. There’s just no way to spin it. You won’t find any of the Google products you likely rely on, like Youtube. Microsoft ones are hit and miss (Outlook but no OneNote). There are many popular ones that are present, like Facebook, but easily twice as many that aren’t. You can mitigate this by installing the Google Play Store, or using sites like APKMirror. But, (a) this requires a higher technical skillset than many users are comfortable with and (b) it potentially opens you up to vulnerabilities by bypassing the Amazon app store (you have to enable the installation of apps from unknown sources). Where you fall on the techy spectrum and your views on convenience vs customization will affect how much of an issue this is for you. I found it workable but annoying.
The Operating System. Amazon’s Fire OS is really just a modified version of Android, and it’s a complete mess. Forgive me if I sound biased coming from a mostly iOS background, but stepping into Android feels convoluted and disjointed. Don’t get me wrong, there are things about it that I grew to like. But overall I still prefer iOS by far. This is not only because of the greater consistency and aesthetic appeal, but also for security and privacy reasons. Being Android at its heart, Fire OS is victim to all the same issues Android has (ie I’ve never had to install antivirus on a tablet before). I do, however, feel that privacy is more in the users’ hands with the Fire tablets than those completely pre-stocked with Google’s apps and framework.
The Interface. Jumping off of the OS point, the custom interface of Fire OS leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it would actually be much better if they just left it at stock Android instead of adding their own customization. I realize that much of the intent is to focus you in on Amazon content. (That is, after all, why these are so cheap. They want it to be a gateway to Amazon services.) I would argue, however, that their confusing interface actually makes this more difficult. Want to watch something on Prime Video? You go to the Video tab, right? Wrong. That tab will advertise videos to you, but it doesn’t list your watchlist, etc. I found it much easier to simply go to the actual Prime Video app, which felt more full-featured and more readily presented what I was looking for. In fact, I moved it and everything possible to the Home page so that I could avoid flipping through the various tabs. They aren’t at all customizable, and after a short time became something I avoided completely. Part Android/part Fire OS issue, I always felt like there were multiple ways of accessing similar things and rarely clear rules as to which should be used. On a less important note, there are a litany of small UI issues that are more preference than anything else (ie I still don’t know how to copy/paste correctly).
The Performance. Before I comment on this, let me remind you that this is a $50 tablet. That being said, if you’ve used tablets of a higher caliber then there is a certain level of responsiveness you’ve become accustomed to, even without realizing it. I had rosy eyes going into this experience due to price, Amazon integration, and some of the other points mentioned above. This area was the smelling salts, as it were, that awoke me to reality. Remember how I said “mostly” in the good performance section? When you first turn on the device things are very smooth, surprisingly so in fact. However, as you begin to install apps and put it through its paces that experience quickly withers. It doesn’t become unusable, but noticeably less smooth. My biggest irritation was when exiting apps back to the Home screen. There would be a delay in the icons appearing on the screen. This may sound like a small deal when you read through this, but think about how many times you perform that action throughout the course of using a tablet. Overall this leads to a noticeable amount of lag that is consistently presented to you. Also, in many apps there was a surprising amount of choppiness. One of the reasons I wanted something newer was so that games and such would perform better. However, when I went back and compared the Fire HD 8 to my 4-year-old iPad mini, it was actually performing worse. Hearthstone had run, albeit not perfectly, on my iPad but was almost unusable on the Kindle. Even simpler games like Candy Crush were annoyingly laggy on the Kindle but ran smoothly on the older iPad. Not what you’re looking for in a new device experience.
So, what does all of this mean? Do I think the Kindle Fire HD 8 is a good tablet? Yes. Do I think it’s one for me? No. In fact, I’ve gone back to using my iPad Mini. I’ll likely save up and buy a newer Mini to replace it. Why? Mostly ecosystem, experience, and apps. If you’ve used a tablet that performs well then using a laggy one feels like going backwards. Also, on iOS I have access to the ecosystem that all my other devices use as well as a rich app store. Whether you’re invested in either the Apple or Google ecosystems, you’re going to struggle adjusting to Amazon’s app selection.
That being sad, this doesn’t mean the Kindle isn’t a great device for others. I think it would be a fantastic device for someone who (a) is buying a tablet for the first time and doesn’t have any previous expectations and investments into other ecosystems or (b) simply wants to consume Amazon services. It’s also great if you want something cheap to get beat up. Full disclosure, we have two of the cheaper Kindle Fire 7 tablets that my kids use. For simple children’s games, etc, they’re just right. I’ll likely save this one for when one of theirs dies and let it be a nice upgrade for them.
Could I make the Kindle Fire work? Yes, but I prefer the iPad. And sometimes preference is all it comes down to.