Amazon's big 10-inch tablet delivers serious media chops for less than half the cost of Apple's basic iPad.
The 10-inch tablet remains the perfect size for slate-style devices. Any smaller, and you're in big-screen phone ("phablet") territory. Larger, and one might as well get a full-featured laptop or convertible. But right in that sweet spot sits Apple 's category defining 9.7-inch iPad, the slightly larger 10.5-inch iPad Pro , the 9.7-inch Samsung Tab S3, the 10-inch Lenovo Tab 4 and now, the new-for-2017 10-inch Amazon fire HD 10 . While we found its 2015 predecessor to be underpowered and overpriced, the refresh of Amazon's largest tablet is notably faster, has built-in access to the Alexa digital assistant for the first time -- and comes with a huge price cut.
Starting at $150, It's less than half the price of the current basic 9.7-inch Apple iPad, which is $329 (£339 or AU$469). Both devices start with 32GB of storage and HD screen resolutions -- 1,920x1,200 for the Fire HD, 2,048x1,536 for the iPad.
But the iPad is, even after all these years, slick-looking and well-proportioned, with a metal chassis available in three colors. The Fire HD 10 is, well, thick and a little unwieldy, with a plastic back. It also has color options -- black, blue and red -- but just changes the color of the plastic panel on the back.
Apple's tablet also has iOS 11, the latest mobile OS for iPads and iPhones, which adds a redesigned dock, new split-screen multitasking skills, a new file system, and even drag-and-drop in supported apps. The Fire HD 10 has FireOS, Amazon 's customized version of Android, which is primarily built around blurring the line between buckets of content you own and the nearly infinite list of digital goods and services Amazon would like to sell you.
More so than any other device I can think of, Amazon's tablets make it feel like you're living in a 24/7 shopping mall, and paying for the privilege. And unless you fork over an extra $15 (£10), lock screens can push additional ads at you. ("It's not an ad, it's a special offer!")
Now that I've explained why something like Apple's current iPad has a better design, more advanced operating system, and even feels less ambitiously aggressive about turning you into an e-commerce zombie, put all of that out of your mind.
It turns out the new 10-inch Fire HD does so much right, and at such a reasonable price, that you'll probably be happy to overlook its personality quirks.
Part of what it does right is a new and improved implementation of Alexa, Amazon's seemingly inescapable digital assistant.
Alexa started life on the Amazon Echo smart speaker, but eventually slipped the chains tethering her to that single device and migrated to other Echos like the Dot and Show, other products, such as the Triby smart radio and Lenovo Smart Assistant, and now a growing number of Android devices and even smart watches. She'll even be in BMWs soon.
Fire tablets have gotten on the Alexa train, too, with support going back to the fourth-generation models (this is the seventh-gen Fire HD). The difference here is that this is the first and so far only Fire tablet to offer hands-free Alexa access. That means instead of having to tap a button to activate, you simply speak the all-powerful wake word, "Alexa." Like other Alexa-enabled products, you can change the wake word to "Amazon" instead, but where's the fun in that?
Alexa on the Fire HD 10 just works. She heard me every time I said her name, even if the system was asleep, and answered about as quickly as an Echo speaker does. While the experience here isn't an exact duplicate of the Echo Show , some answer, such as about the weather, came with on-screen graphics detailing the response.
One issue -- there's no quick-access mute button, as there is on an Echo speaker. So it will perk up every single time someone says "Alexa," unless you go into the quick settings menu, accessed by dragging down from the top of the screen.
There's a built-in feature called ESP, or Echo Spatial Perception, which controls which device answers if you ask a question in a room where you have multiple Alexa devices, for example, both a device like the Fire HD 10 and an Echo speaker. It's frankly a scenario less far-fetched than one might think. Turn the feature off and the device closest to you will answer, either speaker or tablet. Turn ESP on, and the Echo speaker will answer, even if your tablet is closer and listening in.
For $150, this is great value. The basic things you want to do with a media-driven tablet -- stream video, read books, play around with select games and apps -- all work exceptionally well. Other things, like web surfing, taking photos, working on office documents and using non-Amazon media sources, feel like second-class activities, as they always have on Amazon's Fire tablet line.
For movies and TV, Amazon video, either through Prime, add-on subscriptions, or purchased and rented content, is the main focus. Standalone Netflix , Hulu and other apps are also supported, but you'll have to download them and then look under the Apps tab, rather than under Video. Similarly, the Music tab is just for Amazon Prime music and Amazon Music Unlimited. For Spotify, Pandora or anything else, head over to that Apps tab again.
That's one of the few real headaches with the Fire HD 10. The navigation is so tightly focused on promoting a few categories and shopping opportunities (shoportunities!), that diving down and finding what you really want can be tricky at times.
While viewing video, the high-resolution screen looks crisp, but is a little on the dim side. It's also very glossy, so your room lighting will have a big impact on the viewability of videos, especially during dark scenes (as I discovered trying to watch the digital copy of "Blade Runner: The Final Cut" I picked up from Amazon this past weekend). Audio is passable for movies and TV, but I wouldn't set it up on a table as a speaker for my next dinner party.
Most of the apps you expect from a tablet are available in Amazon's app store, which is somehow more limited than Google 's massive Play app store for Android devices, yet still jam-packed with junk. As always, check reviews and the names of developers. Within minutes, I found a low-quality $2 knockoff of the new Xbox game Cuphead, with a couple of incredulous one-star reviews from frustrated users.
But most of the biggest Android games are there, and performance in the ones I tried was excellent. In the benchmarking app 3D Mark, the latest 9.7-inch iPad was faster than the Fire HD 10, but not by a huge margin, and both blew away the performance of Amazon's $50 (£50) entry level Fire 7 tablet. Amazon's recently refreshed 8-inch Fire HD 8, which costs about half as much as the HD 10, is also available.
Some examples of what is in the Amazon app store: Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Instagram and even Plex. Not there: Google's Chrome web browser, Microsoft's Office apps and rival video streaming service Vudu (owned by Walmart).
If you're writing a novel, doing homework or using the built-in cameras to start your own YouTube channel, get a laptop or at least a Chromebook.
Some tablets, such as the iPad Pro, try to promote a very laptop-like feel for either productivity or content creation. This one doesn't. It's a handheld entertainment box, and even improves on previous models by adding hands-free Alexa, cutting the starting price from $230 (£170) to $150 (£150 or about AU$190) and boosting the base model storage capacity to a decent 32GB (and yes, there's a microSD card slot to add more storage if needed).
Yes, Apple's basic 9.7-inch iPad is a better all-around tablet, from a hardware, OS and general usefulness perspective. But it's also twice as expensive. The Fire HD 10 has compromises, but definitely feels like it should cost more than $150. On a pure price-to-value level, it's hard to imagine a better big-screen tablet deal right now.
Editors' note: Amazon rates the Fire HD 10 at 10 hours of battery life. Consider the ratings herein to be provisional until those tests are completed.