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Amazon Fire HD 6 review: Raising the bar on low-end tablets

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The top edge is home to the headphone jack and micro-USB port. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

One of the downsides of the Amazon Fire tablets, including the Fire HD 6, is their lack of Google Play store access. The Fire tablets instead offer Amazon's app store, which still offers a great number of apps, but not as many and as varied as Google's. Sometimes, it also takes awhile for the latest games and apps to to hit the store, however a curated app store is less overwhelming in terms of options -- a nice relief for the non-tech-savvy -- and it matches the simplified operating system.

Hardware

The Amazon Fire HD 6 houses an ARM Cortex-A15 1.21GHz quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB or 16GB of internal storage.

Other specs on the tablet include 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope. Unlike the HDX series, the Fire HD 6 is not offered in a 4G LTE version.

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The small screen can be difficult to see outdoors. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Performance

Despite being dirt-cheap, the Amazon Fire HD 6 performed like a midrange slate. Performance was consistently swift and smooth -- until the internal storage ran out. After downloading a movie, some magazines, books and various apps, the free 5GB of internal storage was quickly spent. Amazon tablets are very cloud-centric -- in place of offering an expandable storage option -- and the Fire HD 6 is no different.

For casual use like checking email, reading, and browsing the Web, the tablet performed effortlessly. Even when many apps were open in the background, the tablet ran without a hitch. Navigating between one app and another was also swift, and Web pages were speedy to load.

Screen comparisons

Tested spec Amazon Fire HD 6 LG G Pad 7.0 (LTE) Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 7.0 Toshiba Excite Go Google Nexus 7
Maximum brightness 390 cd/m2 317 cd/m2 (294 cd/m2) 314 cd/m2 380 cd/m2 570 cd/m2
Maximum black level .30 cd/m2 .29 cd/m2 (.22 cd/m2) 0.47 cd/m2 0.25 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1300:1 1,093:1 (1,336:1) 668:1 1,520:1 1,295:1
Screen resolution 1,280x800 1,280x800 1,280x800 1,024x600 1,920x1,200
Pixels-per-inch (ppi) 251ppi 215ppi 215ppi 169ppi 323ppi
Display type WXGA IPS WXGA IPS WXGA TFT WSVGA LCD WUXGA IPS

HD video looks sharp on the small 1,280x800-pixel resolution IPS LCD screen. Colors appear true to life, but sometimes fall flat when watching cartoons or CGI-infused movies. Text is also clear and easy to read at the smallest and largest fonts. Reading e-books was smooth sailing, however the lack of an ambient light sensor requires manually adjusting the screen's brightness when changing environments.

Touchscreen response was quick and accurate. If the tablet is in the process of downloading a large file, gesture response can become delayed or staggered -- a typical downside to tablets with less than 2GB of RAM.

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You'll find X-Ray on the Fire HD 6, but no Mayday. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Gaming performance for simple mobile games was consistently stable. Large games fared slightly differently; loading times were sluggish for games like N.O.V.A 3, and each level took at least 30 seconds to load, slowing down the pace of any action-packed game. This is another typical performance downside to low-end slates.

The Fire HD 6 packs a pair of cameras, but don't expect much from them. The front-facing VGA camera performs fine for video-conferencing, but photos are fuzzy with dull colors. The 2-megapixel rear camera isn't much better. Though there's a manual focus option, photos at full resolution carry a significant amount of digital noise and don't look very sharp. Aside from a bluish tint, colors tend to look life-like. The good news is that, when reduced in size as seen below, the 2-megapixel photos don't look half bad.

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The 2-megapixel rear camera is fine for quick snapshots. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

In actual use, battery life for the Fire HD 6 was preemptively impressive. With casual to heavy use, the tablet lasted about two and a half days on a full charge. With a little less than 50 percent battery life I was able to stream about three hours of video with the brightness on full blast, and at only 10 percent remaining, I was able to squeeze out about half an hour of reading. Check back after we're done testing the tablet in the CNET Labs for results from our battery-drain testing.

Conclusion

The Amazon Fire HD 6 is a bit of a revolutionary addition to the budget tablet landscape; its sharp IPS display, compact construction, feature-filled OS and smooth performance are a rare combination for a device that's only $99. It's still hindered by the lack of Google Play store and its thick, plastic build, but certain sacrifices are to be made if saving money is a priority.

The Fire HD 6 is a good tablet, but if you're interested in something great, an upgrade can be found in the Fire HDX 7 and Google Nexus 7. The high-end end Fire HDX line packs a Mayday button for instant customer service as well as a thinner design, a faster processor, and a sharper screen. The Nexus 7 gets you access to Google's huge cache of apps and services. If those fancy bells and whistles are unimportant, the Fire HD 6 is the best bang for your buck. Though it's on the low end of the spectrum, the feature-filled 6-incher raises the bar for sub-$100 tablets.

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