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With models available in 7-, 8- and 10-inch screen sizes and priced as low as $50 before Prime Day discounts, Amazon's line of Fire tablets have long been the go-to option for bargain gadget hunters. But with its 2020 refresh of the 8-inch Fire HD 8 tablet, long the Goldilocks of its line, Amazon is adding a twist that may leave you wondering which one to buy. There are now two 8-inch models to choose from: a baseline Fire HD 8 starting at $90 (£90), and the $110 (£110) Fire HD Plus, which adds wireless charging and slightly better performance. The tablet isn't available in Australia but the starting price converts to about AU$160.
The two models look identical on the outside. The HD 8 Plus is only available in a slate color while the standard HD 8 is available in black, white, plum, twilight blue and slate. But apart from the white version, they all have a black bezel around the display. Both models improve over the previous 2018 Fire HD 8 version with a faster processor, USB-C charging, improved Wi-Fi performance and a bump from 16GB to 32GB of storage in the base model. The standard HD 8 has 2GB of RAM -- that's up from 1.5 -- and the HD 8 Plus has 3GB of RAM, which is where you get the performance boost. The USB-C charging does help reduce charging times by about an hour from the previous HD 8, with the HD 8 Plus charging even faster.
What's a big deal is that Amazon has moved the front-facing camera. It used to be at the top of the tablet when you had it in portrait mode. Now it's on the side, so it's at the top when you have it in landscape mode. That helps when you're doing video calls with Zoom and other video calling apps, including Amazon's own. The new model is a bit wider than the 2018 HD 8, but it's shorter and the bezel is now a similar width around the whole display, which remains the same 8-inch size. Only a high-end tablet like the iPad Pro has more screen and less bezel: Other budget tablets typically have wide bezels.
Thanks to the combination of a new 2.0 GHz quad-core MediaTek 8168 processor and some software updates, battery life is now rated at 12 hours of "mixed-use" instead of 10. The other small upgrade is that the microSD expansion slot now accepts up to 1TB cards. Previously, the maximum capacity was 512GB.
So all in all, there are some substantial changes. And you'll have to pay more for them. As stated above, the standard HD 8 now costs $90 instead of $80 and the HD 8 Plus with wireless charging and the extra gigabyte of RAM is $20 more at $110. The price for the Plus goes up another $20 if you buy the companion wireless charging dock for the Plus, which you probably want to do.
Both new Fire HD 8 models have the same 1,280x800-pixel resolution display as the previous HD 8. The screen is technically HD but it's basically 720p and not 1080p. It's fine for watching videos but it's not nearly as sharp as the screen you get with, say, an iPad, which is why you're paying a lot less for this. At 355 grams, the new Fire HD 8 weighs a touch less than its 363g predecessor.
A few years back, the HD 8 seemed sluggish, but its performance has steadily improved and now it's pretty zippy (Amazon says the new HD 8s are 30% faster than the 2018 HD 8 thanks to the new processor and software optimization). It isn't as responsive as an entry-level iPad, which is often on sale for about $250, but it's overall pretty smooth and I didn't have any problem running games like Asphalt 9: Legends. That said, the 8-core processor and GPU -- the graphics processor -- are faster in the 10-inch Fire HD 10, which also has a sharper 1080p display. When that model goes on sale for $100, it's probably the best value in tablets. But some people are looking for a smaller, lighter tablet and the HD 8 is a significant bump up from Amazon's cheapest tablet, the Fire HD 7.
I didn't see a big difference in performance between the HD 8 Plus and standard HD 8, but the extra gig does help. Apps open a touch faster and it can help with multitasking and more graphically intense applications. It never hurts to have more RAM, I can tell you that.
The HD 8 Plus seems to wirelessly charge on any Qi-enabled charging pad -- at least the ones I tried with 7.5 watts or greater charging power. But you really want the charging dock that Amazon bundles in for an extra 20 bucks. That's because one of the big appeals of the Fire HD 8 Plus is that you can drop it in the dock and it automatically goes into show mode, essentially turning your tablet into an Echo Show 8, complete with hands-free access to the Alexa voice assistant. It's still using the tablet's internal speakers instead of a real speaker and the tablet doesn't have a more extensive microphone array for picking up your voice like an Echo speaker does. But it works well enough and the sound is OK (it's fine for watching video but not so great for music). You could wirelessly connect a Bluetooth speaker to augment the sound.
I put the dock in my kitchen and used the HD 8 Plus as a mini TV because I have Spectrum TV as my cable provider (like the Fire HD 10, the HD 8 now has a picture-in-picture mode for watching video in a small window in the corner of the display while using the tablet's other applications). There happens to be a Spectrum app that gives me all my channels on the Fire HD 8 or HD 8 Plus so long as I'm on my home network (you get a reduced number of channels when you're away from your home network). You could get a cover with a built-in stand -- Amazon sells plenty of those, including its own nicely designed but expensive covers -- and create the same set-up for watching videos. But you wouldn't be able to wirelessly charge the tablet at the same time.
The Fire HD 8 has always been a handy tablet for consuming Amazon content, whether it's video, ebooks or music, and it's still particularly useful for Prime members. You can also watch other streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu, but the Amazon app store has always been limited compared to Android and iOS, especially for games. You won't find apps for Vudu or HBO Max, for instance (though the latter may be coming sooner or later).
The Fire HD 8 runs on Amazon's latest Fire OS, a customized version of Android P, which was released in the fall of 2018. And while Amazon doesn't encourage it, you can install the Google Play store by following some instructions on the internet. That would allow you to run a lot more apps. But some people may feel intimidated by the process.
The Fire HD 8 is popular with parents who want an affordable tablet for their kids. If that's who you're buying this for, the standard HD 8 is going to be just fine. It's a good value and it'll be a bargain when it goes on sale. (There's also a $130 Kids Edition that bundles in a protective case and a year of Amazon's Freetime Unlimited all-in-one subscription service that gives kids access to thousands of age-appropriate books, videos, apps, Audible books and games).
I like being able to wirelessly charge the Fire HD 8 Plus and the dock is nicely designed. I think you'll end up using the tablet more because it does double duty as an Echo Show; it's basically always charged and ready to go when you want to use it outside the dock. So for me the HD 8 Plus with the dock bundle is the way to go, especially if it goes on sale. I do wish the screen was 1080p, but you apparently can't have everything at this modest price.