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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.

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7.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

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.

firehd8underground.png
Free movie, TV show and app downloads. What's not to like? 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 features.

The search bar sits on top of each menu page. Josh Miller/CNET

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 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.

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.

Bellini is Amazon's best OS yet. Josh Miller/CNET

Hardware

The Amazon Fire HD 8 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 Amazon Fire HD 8 is good for what it is; a decent tablet that doesn't cost a lot. That said, the limitations of its performance are simply a result of its lack of capability.

The tablet is geared towards people who want to use it for entertainment purposes, and when doing so, performance is smooth as the tablet's own glossy backside. Watching video, reading and browsing the Web all ran without a hitch -- as long as nothing's downloading. If downloading a video, magazine or app, performance slows down. 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 8 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 8 tablet will do you just fine.

Only some games run smoothly. 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 8. 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.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Amazon Fire HD 8 1.2GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A15 PowerVR Rogue G6200 1GB Android-based Fire OS 5.0.1
Dell Venue 8 2.1GHz dual-core Intel Atom Z3480 PowerVR G6400 1GB Android 4.4.2
Lenovo Tab 2 A8 1.3 GHz quad-core Mediatek MT8161 Mali-T720 1GB Android 5.0
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ 8016 Adreno 306 1.5GB Android 5.0.2

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Dell Venue 8
14958
Amazon Fire HD 8
10161
Lenovo Tab 2 A8
4942
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0
4391

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Score

Dell Venue 8
16933
Amazon Fire HD 8
10734
Lenovo Tab 2 A8
4340
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0
3834

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Physics Score

Dell Venue 8
10621
Lenovo Tab 2 A8
9598
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0
8931
Amazon Fire HD 8
8563

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Most tablets in the same price range as the Fire HD 8 have similar screens, and the one on the Amazon tablet doesn't impress much, but it also doesn't disappoint. It has a wide 16:10 aspect ratio -- which is great for watching movies -- and a 1,280x800-pixel resolution. HD video looks fine and colors appear accurate. It's not the best, but it's good enough for enjoying all of your Prime content.

Screen specs compared

Tested spec Amazon Fire HD 8 Dell Venue 8 Lenovo Tab 2 A8 Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0
Maximum brightness 534 cd/m2 368 cd/m2 312 cd/m2 339 cd/m2
Screen resolution 189ppi 283ppi 189ppi 160ppi
Pixels-per-inch (ppi) 1,280x800 1,920x1,200 1,280x800 1,024x768
Aspect ratio 16:10 16:9 16:9 4:3

The tablet's screen quality is unremarkable, aside from its luminous brightness. At its maximum setting, the Fire HD 8 is brighter than the majority of tablets on the market, including its high-end older brother, the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9. This makes 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.

Sharp enough for 720p HD video. Josh Miller/CNET

A tablet's speaker quality is usually dismissed without much thought because many people wear headphones when using a tablet -- and most tablet speakers downright suck. Amazon Fire tablets have been exceptions to the rule from their beginnings. Pairing up once again with Dolby, the dual speakers on the Fire HD 8 tablet benefit from Dolby Atmos technology. The feature aims to replicate the way sound travels in real life in order to create an immersive audio experience. With only two small speakers, that's a bit of a tall order, yet sound quality was consistently crisp and the max volume setting is impressively loud. There's a lack of bass and the speakers can be blocked depending on how you're holding the tablet, but even with these flaws, the Fire HD 8's speakers are still some of the most powerful we've seen on a small tablet.

The rear camera fares better than the front-facing one. Josh Miller/CNET

The Fire HD 8 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 8-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.

Under the duress of heavy use, the tablet's battery drained in about 3.5 hours. Granted, in this time I downloaded and utilized a ton of apps and games. After testing it in the CNET Lab, by looping a 720p movie at medium brightness in airplane mode, the Fire HD 8 averaged 8.5 hours.

Conclusion

The Fire HD 8 is an affordable and conveniently portable way to take your favorite Amazon Prime media to go. Its feature-rich operating system is great for parents and kids alike, and starting at $150 (£130 or AU$215 if converted), it's hard to find a better deal with the same family-friendly advantages -- unless we're talking about a different Amazon tablet.

If the Fire HD 8 sounds up your alley, but you wish it had a bigger screen for better gaming and videos, you're in luck. The Fire HD also comes in a $230 (£170 or AU$325 converted) 10-inch model that's identical to the Fire HD 8, but with a bigger screen. You can also save money if you don't mind a downsize; the new 7-inch $50 (£50 or AU$70 converted) Fire tablet (look for the review coming soon) and last year's $100 (£80 or $AU145 converted) Amazon Fire HD 6 have the same great perks packed into smaller sizes.

If you're more concerned about how it stacks up against other 8-inch tablets, the most comparable models are the Dell Venue 8 and Lenovo Tab 2 A8. Both have access to more Android apps via the Google Play Store and can be found online for $150 and $130 (converts to £85 or $AU184), respectively. The Dell tablet has a sharper screen than the Fire HD 8, but its speakers are pretty weak. The Lenovo Tab 2 A8 has the same screen resolution as the Amazon tablet and, though it has a pre-loaded Dolby app to beef up the sound of its front-facing speakers, they also fall short of the Fire HD 8's booming pair. If media consumption is the name of your game, the Amazon tablet's better sound quality might be the ace-in-the-hole you need.

The Amazon Fire HD 8 stands out from the competition and outshines its fellow budget tablets. While the Fire HD 8's flaws are the same as most tablets with a price this low it's still one of the best ways to get the most out of your Prime membership. It's important to note that the $150 model of the Fire HD 8 only has 8GB of internal storage (16GB for $170, £150 or $AU240 if converted) and though this small amount of storage would normally be a huge deal breaker, the microSD card slot is the tablet's saving grace. If you pick up the cheaper model, make sure to also buy a microSD card -- or else you'll have a tragically low amount of space to save all of your downloads. For the same cost as upgrading to the 16GB model, you can buy a 32GB microSD card for your 8GB Fire HD 8. It might even be a better deal.

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