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Amazon Fire HD 10 review: A cheap, big-screen conduit to Amazon's digital content

In order to differentiate themselves from regular apps, Amazon Underground apps have a little sash on the top left of their icons that says "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.

Easy access to the TV shows, movies, music and games that come with a Prime membership. Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

Like awaiting the boom of a firework right after it's lit, I kept expecting to have bust out my credit card and pay up, but it never happened. I downloaded a few games priced at $10 and I kept waiting for a catch. The ball never dropped. You actually do get these games and in-app purchases for free.

Amazon Underground is a great incentive for playing games on the Fire tablets. Not heavy-duty games with lots of flashy graphics, but simple mobile games, like the ones with a fun, cute or angry animal protagonist. (More on that in the Performance section of the review) If you're sharing your tablet with your kids, I have a hunch that this might be one of their favorite fetaures.

Coming soon

A few of the new features -- On Deck and Activity Center -- won't roll out until the next over-the-air update for Fire OS 5 Bellini. According to Amazon, that'll be sometime in the next few months. Our review unit ran an early version of the operating system and didn't have any of those features for us to try out. We'll update this review with more details and impressions as soon as the update is released.

Amazon has more features in store for the Fire tablets. Josh Miller/CNET

On Deck automatically downloads Amazon recommended video onto the tablet, if your available storage space allows. Amazon Prime TV and movie recommendations will systematically download on to your tablet for offline viewing. This way, if you're ever stranded without Wi-Fi, you'll at least have something new to watch on your tablet. The number of episodes or movie length will depend on how much space you have available, and if you happen to need that space for anything else, the downloaded content will automatically be deleted.

Activity Center is an extension of Amazon's already comprehensive parental controls. It'll allow parents to see exactly how kids are using the tablet. Information on which apps, videos or games are used and for how long are a few of the details the feature will provide.

Amazon's Fire OS is maturing nicely with thoughtful enhancements to the user experience and better organization. The new features sound promising and give the OS a unique appeal to shoppers. Look forward to an update to this review when the rest of the features are available for us to try out.

Smudge-prone design Josh Miller/CNET

Hardware

The Amazon Fire HD 10 houses a MediaTek ARM Cortex A15 quad-core CPU; two 1.2GHz and two 1.5GHz, PowerVR Rogue G6200 GPU, 1GB of RAM, 8GB or 16GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot expandable up to 128GB.

Performance

The Fire HD 10 performs smoothly for most of the activities it's designed for; swiping to the next page of a book is swift, apps launch seconds after the initial tap, and browsing the Web is smooth as butter -- unless you're downloading anything. Performance is sluggish when downloading anything, from an app to a video. Response to swipes and taps are delayed, menu pages take longer to load, and apps are sluggish to launch. Considering one of the best things about this tablet is the ability to download tons of Prime content, this is unfortunate. In order to avoid this, I simply downloaded what I wanted when I wasn't using the tablet.

Depending on what type of games you're into, the Amazon Fire HD 10 may or may not be suitable for your needs. If you're into high-end games with lots of moving graphics and fast action, you're barking up the wrong tree. If you like simple mobile games that require a lot less horsepower -- think Angry Birds and Candy Crush -- the Fire HD 10 tablet will do you just fine.

Pixels on the screen are more apparent on the 10-inch model. Josh Miller/CNET

Although you can download big games like Deer Hunter and Dead Trigger 2, you don't get the best gaming experience on the Fire HD 10. The games take a long time to load (as do the levels), and graphics, including screen transitions and moving objects, can further slow things down. The sluggish performance occurred when gameplay exceeded half an hour and when many apps were open or downloading in the background.

Unsurprisingly, this isn't a tablet for heavy gamers. In contrast, I didn't have any issues playing simpler games like Monument Valley and Cut the Rope. As long as I wasn't downloading any files, gameplay was smooth sailing. When it comes to gaming, the best advice I have is to keep it simple. One the bright side, it performed slightly better in 3DMark benchmark testing than its similarly priced competition.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Amazon Fire HD 10 1.2GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A15 PowerVR Rogue G6200 1GB Android-based Fire OS 5.0.1
Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70 1,7GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A53 Mali T760 1GB Android 5.0.1
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ 8016 Adreno 306 1.5GB Android 5.0.2

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Amazon Fire HD 10
10,255
Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70
9,227
Samsung Galaxy Tab A
4,333

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics score

Amazon Fire HD 10
10,813
Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70
8,460
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7
3,771

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Physics score

Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70
13,514
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7
9,049
Amazon Fire HD 10
8,685

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

The Fire HD 10 has the same 1,280x800-pixel resolution as the Fire HD 8 , but since it's stretched out over a bigger screen, the display resolution doesn't look as sharp as it does on the smaller model. The 10-inch model has 149 pixels per inch (ppi) whereas the 8-inch model is a little more dense, at 189 ppi. (PPI is a standard calculation that determines the sharpness of a screen. The more pixels that can be packed into a screen, the sharper the image is.) The difference is noticeable; HD video isn't as crisp, and pixelation in text is easily visible.

Screen specs compared

Tested spec Amazon Fire HD 10 Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70 Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7
Maximum brightness 433 cd/m2 360 cd/m2 401 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.40 cd/m2 0.25 cd/m2 0.38 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1082:1 1440:1 1055:1
Screen resolution 1,280x800 1,920x1,200 1,024x768
Pixels per inch (ppi) 151 224 132

In comparison to similarly priced Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70 , the Fire HD 10 is even less impressive. The 10-inch Lenovo has a sharper 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution (224 ppi), and the colors on the screen are more vivid and saturated than on the Fire HD 10. Between the two, the Lenovo provides a more captivating visual experience for watching movies and playing games. The Amazon tablet's screen just looks dull and washed out in comparison.

One thing the Fire HD 10's screen gets right is brightness settings. It's brighter than comparable tablets its size, which helps make the screen more visible outdoors and in bright rooms. However, the HD in-plane-switching (IPS) screen (strengthened with Gorilla Glass) still suffers from harsh glare and reflections depending on your environment, though that can be said of most tablets.

Prime movies load quickly when streaming. Josh Miller/CNET

The pair of booming speakers on the Fire HD 10 are a plus for those interested in a tablet for heavy media consumption. Coupled with Dolby Atmos technology, the speakers provide crisp audio and loud volumes. When watching video, dialogue sounds clear, and soundscapes as well as sound effects travel between the two speakers for an immersive listening experience. The Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70 is also billed as a tablet with powerful speakers, however in comparison to the Fire HD 10, its audio sounded tinny and shrill at loud volumes. The Amazon tablet provides a fuller sound with a bit more bass.

The Fire HD 10 houses a pair of cameras. The front-facing one has a very low resolution and takes grainy photos with a soft focus. It'll do for video chatting with relatives, but you'll want to skip any selfies. The 5-megapixel camera on the back produces photos that look fine on the 10-inch tablet's screen. If you transfer them to your computer, the lack of detail and soft edges becomes more obvious. Overall, the cameras are underwhelming, though for most tablets, this is a familiar story.

Amazon says that the battery should last up to eight hours for mixed use. After testing it in the CNET Labs -- consisting of looping a 720p video in Airplane Mode at a medium brightness -- the Fire HD 10 averaged 7.6 hours.

An upgrade to the big screen Fire HD means a downgrade in quality. Josh Miller/CNET

Conclusion

Typically relegated to entertainment purposes, big-screen tablets are currently having a moment. The recently announced Apple iPad Pro, Google Pixel C and Microsoft Surface Pro 4 are making waves in the tablet scene as high-end, productivity-geared powerhouses. In contrast, the Amazon Fire HD 10 is an inexpensive media consumption-centered tablet. However, its big display and low screen resolution combination isn't the best for enjoying movies and games. If you're interested in a big tablet for play, not work, you have a few other affordable options.

If a big screen is what you have your eye on, the $199 (roughly £130 or AU$255) Lenovo Tab 2 A10-70 and the $299 (about £190 or AU$416) Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7 are comparable alternatives. As previously mentioned, the Lenovo tablet has a sharper screen, and it houses a pair of powerful speakers, but they're not as full-sounding as the Fire HD 10's. The Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7's screen is comparable to the Fire HD 10, yet the Tab A's design rivals some of the thinnest tablets out there. Both feature heavily modified Android skins, however the Samsung and Lenovo models have access to the Google Play store and the full variety of Android apps -- something the Fire HD (and all Amazon tablets) lack.

The Fire HD 10 is a great way for Amazon Prime members to take advantage of the free TV shows, movies, music and games that come with a subscription. However, for media consumption, the Lenovo Tab 2 A10 has an edge over the Fire HD 10 with a sharper screen and a lower price.

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