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Amazon Fire HD 8 review: An affordable and family-friendly media consumption tablet for Amazon Prime members

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The Good The Amazon Fire HD 8 is affordably priced and houses a microSD card slot for extra storage. The screen is bright and the speakers are satisfyingly loud. Amazon Prime members can stream or download movies and TV shows in the Prime library, and download games that are exclusively free for Amazon users. It has extensive parental controls.

The Bad The plastic design feels cheap. Large games are slow to load and gameplay gets occasionally sluggish. Performance can also lag when downloading apps or video. To truly take advantage of what the tablet has to offer, you need an Amazon Prime membership.

The Bottom Line Amazon Fire HD 8 is an affordable way for the whole family to take advantage of all the Prime media library perks that come with the cost of membership.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

Just like Disney World, the Amazon Fire HD 8 is fun for the whole family. Unlike The Happiest Place on Earth, this tablet won't cost you an arm and a leg. Starting at $150 (around £130 or AU$215 if converted), the Fire HD 8 offers tons of features for adults and children and its potential is truly unleashed if you subscribe to Amazon Prime.

A Prime account gives you access to a huge media library full of free games, TV shows, and movies with personalized recommendations from Amazon -- all of which you can download to your tablet or a microSD card as big as 128GB. The addition of the Kindle Unlimited service, which offers a large bounty of books to choose from and download, and the built-in speed reading feature, Word Runner, should appease bookworms who want an inexpensive compromise between a tablet and e-reader.

If you're a parent who likes to share their toys with their kids, the little ones in your household can use the tablet in the same way you do, but under the restrictions of extensive parental controls that can probably rival the NSA. Amazon FreeTime allows parents to restrict which books, apps, games and videos kids can access, as well as how long and when they're allowed to use the tablet. An upcoming feature (expected in the next software update) called Activity Center will also provide surveillance information on how kids are spending their time using the tablet -- whether it be reading or watching videos. Additionally, the Fire HD 8 tablet -- according to Amazon -- is a tough cookie that can withstand a few falls.

The Fire HD 8 isn't without its faults. The chunky plastic design feels a bit toy-like, performance is slow during downloads or when running bigger games and Amazon's app store is light years behind Google and Apple's when it comes to selection. Yet, what it lacks in aesthetic finesse, fast specs and apps variety, it makes up for in tons of content for you and the whole family.

For the price, the Fire HD 8 will soon have you forgetting that you originally signed up for Amazon Prime for the two-day shipping. There's also the option of last year's smaller Fire HD 6 and this year's brand new 10-inch Fire HD 10 . And, if you're really low on funds, you can even go for the soon-to-be-released $50 7-inch Fire tablet.

They're all priced to sell and run the same content-rich operating system. Other tablets in the same price range don't have the same perks, family-friendly features or operating system tailor-made for easily accessing it all. If you're already a member -- or don't mind signing up -- the Amazon Fire HD 8 is a small device for taking advantage of your Prime membership in a big (and very shareable) way.

Editors' note: The Amazon Fire HD 10 is an almost identical version of the Fire HD 8 (reviewed here). Portions of their reviews are similar.

Editors' note, October 15, 2015 : The review has been edited to clarify that Amazon Underground is available to all Amazon users.

Design

The reflective sheen, bold colors and sharp corners mean the Fire HD 8 looks like a hybrid of the Apple iPhone 5C and the Lumia 2520 , Nokia's ill-fated foray into tablets. The tablet measures 0.3 inches (7.7mm) thick and weighs 0.68 pounds (311g). It's far from the " thin is in" tablet trend, but it's still small enough to throw in your bag without adding too much bulk.

Design specs compared

Tested spec Amazon Fire HD 8 Dell Venue 8 Lenovo Tab 2 A8 Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0
Weight 0.68 pounds (311g) 0.74 pounds (336g) 0.79 pounds (360g) 0.69 pounds (313g)
Width (landscape) 8.4 inches (214mm) 8.5 inches (216mm) 8.3 inches (210mm) 8.2 inches (208mm)
Height 5 inches (128mm) 5.1 inches (130mm) 4.9 inches (125mm) 5.4 inches (137mm)
Depth 0.3 inches (7.7mm) 0.35 inches (8.9mm) 0.35 inches (8.9mm) 0.29 inches (7.4mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.68 inches (17mm) 0.8 inches (20mm) 0.7 inches (18mm) 0.75 inches (19mm)

The tablet back is made of glossy plastic that comes in four colors: black, magenta, orange and blue. The smooth back panel feels comfortable against your fingertips, but it attracts some visible fingerprints. Despite the lightweight material, it feels rather solid thanks to its girthy build and hefty weight.

On the top edge you'll find the power button, micro-USB port, headphone jack and volume buttons. The left houses the microSD card slot, which is concealed with a little flap, and a pair a speakers are located on the opposite edge.

It's a chunky little thing. Josh Miller/CNET

The bold colors and glossy plastic design of the Fire HD 8 evokes a toy-like impression that's part fun and part cheap. The polished aesthetic doesn't really feel high-end or premium. At its low price, the Fisher-Price feel is no surprise.

In some way, the flagrantly plastic construction is refreshingly unpretentious. To be sure, the design is one of its weakest aspects, but considering it's a tablet meant for entertainment rather than productivity, the playful aesthetic all kind of makes sense in a way.

All of the buttons are located on the top edge. Josh Miller/CNET

Features

The new Fire HD tablets debut Amazon's latest Android-based operating system, Fire OS 5 Bellini. The updated user interface has a fresh design that's easy to navigate and new features to enhance watching video, gaming, and reading. Though it runs a modified version of the Google OS, you don't get the full breadth of Android apps available in the Google Play store. Instead, you have the Amazon App store, which is highly curated and limited in its selection. It's a downside to the Amazon OS, but if you don't care for downloading many apps, it's not a big deal.

What is a big deal is how little internal storage the $150 model of the Fire HD 8 has. The entry-level model only comes with a pathetically low 8GB of storage. Thankfully, it has a microSD card slot that makes it expandable up to 128GB. Consider picking up a memory card an essential part of buying this tablet. Otherwise, you can spend a little more on the 16GB version, which costs $170 (£150 or AU$235 if converted).

Fire OS 5 Bellini

Fire OS 5 Bellini is refreshingly different from previous iterations. Gone is the giant app carousel and gloomy black and grey motif of previous Fire OS versions, and in is a spruced-up, colorful, content-focused UI.

If you swipe right from the home screen, you see a page full of recently used apps. Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

The home screen now consists of a row at the top of the page with new library content and an array of apps on the bottom. The top row is very useful if you subscribe to newspapers or magazines; whenever a new issue is released it automatically shows up on the home screen. A new screen with recently used apps is accessed by swiping right from the home screen, and if you swipe left from the home screen, you'll find that menu screens are now organized by content. Books, videos, games, apps, music, audiobooks, and newsstand each have their own separate page dedicated to that specific content. There's also a search bar at the top of each page that automatically categorizes search results into three sections: search results from Bing, search results from the Amazon store and matches in your content library. It's a one-stop-shop for your searching needs.

In addition to displaying media you own in your library, the menu pages also show Amazon's recommended content. Based on your previous purchases and downloads, Amazon tries to show you other Prime content you might enjoy. I found the recommendations pretty spot on, especially with music, but I wasn't being shown anything new, just things I liked that weren't in my library.

firehd8screenshotrecs.png
Like any good friend, Amazon suggests new music, videos and apps to try. Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

On that note, for the first time ever, Amazon put microSD card slots in their tablets and, to make the deal even sweeter, you can download your Prime content on to the memory card. This allows your tablet more breathing room with its internal storage and increases the amount of media you can download.

In streaming video upgrades, the new ASAP function (which stands for Advanced Streaming And Prediction) tries to guess what shows and movies you'll watch before you even select them based on your viewing habits, and pre-buffer the video so you don't have to wait for it to load. Since it's a behind-the-scenes type of function, it's hard to notice the effects unless you're watching closely. When I was continuously streaming a TV show, I noted how quickly a new episode would start after the last one ended. But, when I was choosing something new to watch, buffering still took a few seconds after I made my selection. The inconsistency might be because our review unit was running an early version of the OS. Either way, when working, the ASAP feature seems to competently live up to its name.

If you get the 8GB model, make sure to get a microSD card. Josh Miller/CNET

Let's not forget that Amazon tablets are also great for readers. The Fire HD 8's seamless Kindle integration now includes the Word Runner feature. It's a speed-reading function that displays individual words at a pace that you can control. You might have heard of the similar software Spritz, but Word Runner is built into the Fire's operating system and works with most English language books. I can see how it can aid in reading comprehension, by making you focus on one word at a time, however I personally didn't enjoy it more than reading an entire page at my leisure. Maybe it's acquired taste -- or sight, in this case.

If you're already overwhelmed with what the Fire HD 8 can do, Mayday Screen Sharing is a useful feature for helping you figure it all out. When you call Amazon for assistance with your tablet, you can share the tablet's screen with the customer service rep so they can see what's going on and help walk you through solutions.

Binge-watching-friendly Josh Miller/CNET

Amazon Underground

Amazon Underground allows you to download tons of games in the Amazon App store for free -- literally. Think of it as the gaming version of Amazon Prime Video. You get access to a bevy of different titles and, sure, the selection is limited, but it's free so you can't complain too much.

In order to differentiate themselves from regular apps, Amazon Underground apps have a little sash on the top left of their icons that say "actually free." There are a lot of popular games available through Amazon Underground -- like Badland and Fruit Ninja -- and games that are free downloads to begin with include free in-app purchases. Details on what in-app purchases are free are conveniently detailed in the description of the app's download page.

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