Amazon’s new Fire HD 8 (16GB) is the best sub-$100 tablets available now. With a lower price, stronger Wi-Fi, and better audio than last year’s model, the Fire HD 8 fits the bill for media consumption and light gaming.
The Fire HD 8 is a plastic-shelled tablet available in black, blue, red, and yellow. It measures 8.4 by 5.0 by 0.4 inches and 13 ounces. It’s a decent size to hold in one hand as an ebook reader, but it’s a bit too heavy for marathon reading sessions (the Kindle Paperwhite weighs 7.2 ounces, a big difference). It’s not formally ruggedized or water-resistant, but the plastic shell can withstand average drops and knocks.
The HD 8’s 1,280-by-800 LCD has 189 pixels per inch and isn’t the brightest. The smaller Fire 7 has a brighter but less dense screen at 171ppi. The HD 8’s display also tends to be a little yellow, while the Fire 7 is powerfully blue (neither is particularly evenly white). The extra pixels here really make a difference when reading comics and online magazines, though. The dual stereo speakers are on the bottom in the landscape, but on the left in portrait; the front-facing VGA camera is on the top in portrait, but on the left in landscape. Also on the top edge (in portrait mode) are the headphone jack, volume buttons, power button and micro USB port for charging and syncing with PCs.
The HD 8 and Fire 7 have 2-megapixel cameras on the back and VGA cameras on the front. The less said about them, the better. They haven’t improved from the earlier models, taking low-framerate videos and grainy images in any sort of low-light situation.
The HD 8 uses the same quad-core, 1.3GHz Mediatek processor the Fire 7 does, running the same Fire OS 5.4 software, based on Android 5.1. But performance on the HD 8 is distinctly better because it has 1.5GB of RAM as compared to the HD 7’s 1GB.
Amazon’s Fire tablets, while Android compatible, are best thought of as Amazon media consumption devices. With a bit of work, you can turn them into general-purpose Android slates, but we think the Amazon restrictions can be a good thing sometimes: They prevent you from getting too frustrated with your inexpensive tech.
Amazon’s Fire OS is derived from Android, and it runs Android apps, but the basic UI is nothing like Android. The interface is much simpler and clearer than on most Android tablets, with bold words pointing the way to Books, Video, Games, Music, and Audiobooks. Your Amazon content library is automatically synced, loaded, and shown in every pane, and you have the option to stream or download content.
The OS comes with its own navigation, document reader, and email apps supporting the most common services and formats. To download apps, the tablet defaults to the Amazon Appstore. You can sideload other Android apps using APK files transferred from a PC or a microSD card, but there’s no official or reliable way to use the Google Play store on these tablets; there are hacks, but they tend to break when Amazon upgrades its OS. The Amazon Appstore has plenty of Android apps, but it’s missing some big names.
All of the Google apps (such as YouTube) are absent, as are some Microsoft Office apps, many popular navigation and transit apps such as Citymapper and Waze, any alternative web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox, and the American Airlines and Delta apps, such as. Of course, you can always go to the mobile sites, but it isn’t the same. We turned to a backup APK from a phone so we could load Marvel Unlimited.
Amazon’s tablets now support Alexa, but without the always-on “Hey Alexa” functionality that makes the Echo so useful. You have to hold down the home button to voice search. You may be more likely to use the tablet as a place to read query results, as you can now tell your Echo to “send the answer to my Fire.”
The HD 8 comes in 16 and 32GB models (the 32GB model is $30 more). The 16 GB model, which we reviewed, has 12.24GB free. There’s also a micro-SD memory card slot, and you can store content and most apps on the memory card.
Battery life, at 4 hours, 42 minutes of web video streaming at most screen brightness, is fine but not great. You’ll probably get longer battery life in mixed usage, as Amazon’s Silk web browser eats up a lot of power.