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Amazon Fire review: Not good, but good for the price if you're a Prime member

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The Good The Amazon Fire tablet definitely isn't overpriced. It runs a user-friendly operating system and houses a microSD card slot expandable up to 128GB. Amazon Prime members can access the bevy of free TV shows, movies and games included in the subscription.

The Bad The design feels cheap. Performance is slow if many apps are open in the background and when downloading. The display has a low resolution and touchscreen response can be sluggish. Gaming performance for large games is slow and the graphics can experience frame rate drops.

The Bottom Line The Amazon Fire is a fine tablet for casual use, but it's not a good tablet, it's just good for the price.

6.0 Overall
  • Design 5
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

Summer '16 update

Amazon says the Fire is its best-selling tablet of all time. It's certainly the best tablet in its price range.

The Fire delivers middling performance and a mediocre display. But, at $50, it does so extremely inexpensively. (Amazon briefly sold it for $35 during the run up to its Prime Day sale event in July.) If you're an Amazon Prime member, you get a tablet that serviceably plays all of the TV shows, movies, music and games that come with your membership; you can also download them all for offline use. Bottom line: no other tablet delivers comparable value at such a low price. (You can evaluate the competition in CNET's roundup of budget tablets under $200.)

Since we last reviewed the Fire, Amazon has expanded the available color options to include magenta, blue and tangerine in addition to black, and added a $70 version with 16GB of internal storage -- twice the capacity of the $50 version. And the Fire includes a microSD expansion slot so you can add storage on your own up to 128GB. (For $20, you can buy a 64GB microSD card on Amazon.)

There's also a kid's version of the Fire that comes with a protective case and one-year subscription to FreeTime Unlimited, which offers kid-friendly books, movies, TV shows, educational apps, and games. Also included is a worry-free guarantee that gives you access to unlimited replacements for two years. The 8GB kid's version costs $100, and the 16GB model costs $120.

As of right now, there's no official word as to when or if Amazon will be refreshing its tablet lineup for the 2016 Christmas shopping season. But it's certainly a possibility: the 2015 models are approaching the one-year anniversary of their debut.

Editors' note: The original Amazon Fire review, first published in October 2015 and updated since, follows.

The Amazon Fire is special for one reason: it costs $50 or £50. (Amazon doesn't typically sell hardware in Australia, but the US price converts to about AU$70.) It's an unremarkable-looking tablet that runs Amazon's custom Fire OS 5 Bellini operating system, which is based on Android but can't natively access the Google Play store, and offers easy access to Amazon's vast media library.

At its low price, the Fire is an attractive option for frugal customers who don't care about the latest and greatest technology. In fact, it's a great option for those who don't care much about technology at all. For an undiscerning user, the Fire is simply an inexpensive device for watching video, reading, light gaming, browsing the Web and, of course, shopping the Amazon store. At a price this low, you can buy six of them for less than the cost of one Apple iPad Mini 2 -- you pay for five and Amazon throws in the sixth for free.

Just like the Fire, this review is simplified to the bare essentials. Since it's a tablet with specs so dated we haven't reviewed a comparable model in over two years, it's an exception to the rule. The review answers the important questions by focusing on what the Fire has to offer, if it's worth buying and, if so, for whom. We've never seen tablet at this price that was worth recommending. Is the Amazon Fire the first?

If you're a Prime member, yes. The operating system is tailor-made for watching and playing all of the TV shows, movies, music and games that come with your membership. You can also download them all for offline use, onto a memory card or the internal storage. No other tablet will give you the same perks for such a low price. However, if you're not a Prime member the Fire tablet does little to change your mind about what you should expect from a tablet that costs $50 or £50. For more details, keep reading.


Design

Thicker than most tablets. James Martin/CNET

Is it comfortable to hold?

The rounded edges comfortably sink into your palms and the smooth plastic back is pleasant enough, but the finish lacks grip support and feels more slippery than silky.

Dimensions compared

Tested spec Amazon Fire Amazon Fire HD 6 Amazon Fire HD 8
Weight 0.69 pounds (313g) 0.63 pounds (290g) 0.68 pounds (311g)
Width (landscape) 7.5 inches (191mm) 6.7 inches (169mm) 8.4 inches (214mm)
Height 4.5 inches (115mm) 4.1 inches (103mm) 5 inches (128mm)
Depth 0.4 inches (10.6mm) 0.4 inches (10.7mm) 0.3 inches (7.7mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.62 inches (15mm) 0.62 inches (15mm) 0.68 inches (17mm)

Does it feel cheap?

The plastic construction does feel a bit flimsy. If you give the tablet a small squeeze both front and back panels slightly cave in. Yet its hefty weight makes it feel solid -- if you were to keep squeezing, it doesn't feel as though it wouldn't crack in two. We, however, did not put this to the test.

What's so bad about the design?

Its thick girth and big bezels make it look more like a tablet that came out in 2011 instead of 2015. It's not ugly or anything, but top tablets today feature sleek, super-slim constructions and the Fire looks dowdy and unfashionable in comparison.

Features

Amazon's latest OS is called Bellini. James Martin/CNET

What's so great about Amazon's Fire OS 5 Bellini?

The Fire tablet's operating system is tailored for Amazon Prime users. The latest version sports an updated look with a few new features. You can find all the details in the Fire HD 8 review.

What's the app store situation?

The Fire doesn't have access to all of the Android apps in the Google Play Store. Instead it has the Amazon app store. It's curated and doesn't offer as great of a selection. It has many popular games, like Hearthstone and Angry Birds, but you're unlikely to find any of the new and trendy games that are available in the Apple App Store and Google Play store.

Do I need an Amazon Prime account to buy or use one?

No, but it would definitely enhance your experience with the tablet. More on that below.

Can I download video?

Yes. With an Amazon Prime account you can download any of the TV shows or videos available in the Prime library. You can also download content you've bought from Amazon or load your own video files onto it, either with a microSD card or by transferring them onto the tablet directly.

Performance

Gaming performance is mediocre at best. James Martin/CNET

Is it unbelievably slow?

Surprisingly no. To be sure, everything from apps to videos take at least a handful of seconds to load, especially if they're bigger file. But I expected it to be a lot slower. As with the Fire HD 8 , download times were also on the slow side.

Is it buggy?

I didn't encounter as many performance quirks as I was expecting. When I was browsing the Prime library, a few menu pages of video content wouldn't load. Another time, I downloaded a game and watched the download complete and install, but when I tried to open it I was redirected to the game's download page in the app store and had to download it again.

If many apps are open in the background, performance can get sluggish. Games and apps will take longer to launch and tap response is delayed. Occasionally, the screen had difficulty responding to taps. I had to increase the pressure (which felt more like pressing a button than pecking at a touchscreen) before it would recognize the gestures. This happened randomly then went back to normal. The top edge of the tablet can also get a little warm after using it for a long time, but not so warm that it becomes uncomfortable.

Standard definition screen James Martin/CNET

What's the screen quality like? Is it HD?

The screen has a 1,024x600-pixel resolution, so it's not high-definition. And, unlike the Fire HD tablets, it is not a Gorilla Glass screen, meaning it's not as solid and durable.

Viewing angles aren't very wide (when you view it from the side the screen looks darker and harder to see) and it's best for single person viewing. The screen isn't very bright, but it's luminous enough to comfortably view indoors in normal lighting situations. The color range is limited and there's a prevalent green hue on the screen that's most noticeable when you compare the screen with the Fire HD 6's. The Fire HD 6 displayed more accurate colors, while everything on the Fire looked like it had a thin film of green over it.

Screen specs compared

Tested spec Amazon Fire Amazon Fire HD 6 Amazon Fire HD 8
Maximum brightness 328 cd/m2 390 cd/m2 534 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.24 cd/m2 0.30 cd/m2 0.50 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1366:1 1,300:1 1068:1
Screen resolution 1,024x600 1,280x800 1,280x800
Pixels-per-inch (ppi) 169ppi 251ppi 189ppi

What's the audio quality like?

There's a headphone jack located on the top edge and a single speaker on the bottom right. The speaker is loud enough for single viewer watching, but quality is poor. Highs sound tinny at loud volumes and it lacks bass.

How's its gaming performance?

Not as bad as you might think. Simple mobile games -- like Cut The Rope and Angry Birds -- run smoothly. They can take a few seconds to launch if a big file is downloading or if many apps are open in the background. Bigger games like Dead Trigger 2 and Hearthstone take anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds to load. Gameplay is mostly smooth, though it's common to see choppy graphics, which already look pretty rough on the SD screen.

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Amazon Fire HD 8
10161
Amazon Fire HD 6
9960
Amazon Fire
4646

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Score

Amazon Fire HD 6
10835
Amazon Fire HD 8
10734
Amazon Fire
4098

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Physics Score

Amazon Fire
8741
Amazon Fire HD 8
8563
Amazon Fire HD 6
7764

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

How much internal storage space does it have?

There is only one version of the Fire and it comes with 8GB of internal storage. Out of the box, you have about 5.6GB of free storage (the rest is taken up by the software to run the tablet) so in reality, you have almost 3GB less than the advertised 8GB.

Does it have a microSD card expansion slot?

Yes! For the first time ever, Amazon's Fire tablets have microSD card slots. It's expandable by up to 128GB.

Expandable up to 128GB James Martin/CNET

Do I need a memory card to use it?

No, but yes. You don't need one, but I'd say it's necessary if you plan on downloading anything, especially video. If you were to download an hour and a half movie at its lowest setting, it's the file size is around 500MB (half of a gigabyte), but if you download it at its highest quality, the file size can be well over 2GB. You could do the math and work out how much you can squeeze onto the tablet, or you can just shell out an extra few bucks on a microSD card. In fact, you can easily buy one from Amazon by accessing the Storage menu in the Settings. These days they're not too expensive, so pick one according to your budget or storage capacity needs.

Does it have Wi-Fi?

It does have Wi-Fi. It has single-antenna (also known as single-band) that supports current standards (Wi-Fi b/g/n) just like the Fire HD 6. This is the recommended upgrade, but it's not the fastest. The Fire HD 8 and 10, as well as the Fire HDX 8.9 all have faster dual-band (Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac) capabilities.

What's the battery life like?

Our battery test consists of looping a 720p video in Airplane Mode at a fixed brightness of 160 candelas per meter squared, which is about a little over half the brightness. After testing the Fire, it lasted an average of 7.5 hours.


Amazon Fire Kids Edition

amazonfiretablet6.jpg
The Kids Edition comes with a case and a two-year warranty. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

What's the difference between the regular Fire and the Kids Edition?

The Kids Edition is more of a package consisting of the Fire tablet, a protective case, one year subscription to FreeTime Unlimited and a Worry-Free guarantee. It's essentially the Fire with some extra kid-friendly goodies.

What is the Worry-Free guarantee?

If anything happens to the tablet, Amazon will replace it. The warranty lasts two years and, according to Amazon, there is no maximum number of returns you can make within that time.

amazonfiretablet4.jpg
The protective case has a grippy texture. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Does the guarantee cover physical damage?

Yes. Amazon states that it is truly a no-questions-asked policy. If you need a replacement for a cracked screen, charging problems or blown out speaker, they'll replace it.

What's FreeTime Unlimited?

Think of it as a Prime membership for children. The FreeTime Unlimited subscription offers access to kid-friendly books, TV shows, movies, apps and games. It's all inclusive and can be accessed through the FreeTime app that comes pre-loaded onto the tablet. There are extensive parental controls so you can set time limits and control what content can be accessed. It's suggested for kids in between the ages of 3 and 10.

It costs $5 (£4) per month for one child or $10 (£8) a month for up to four children. If you're an Amazon Prime member, there's a bit of a discount. The service is currently unavailable in Australia.

amazonfiretablet5.jpg
The Kids Edition comes with a year subscription to FreeTime Unlimited. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Say I have more leeway in my budget. What's the next best thing?

The Amazon Fire HD 6 is better in a few ways, but not in all. It doesn't have an expandable microSD card slot, so I recommend upgrading to the 16GB version of the tablet.

Is it worth paying extra for the Kids Edition?

The Kids Edition is an extra $50 or £50. This includes the cost of FreeTime Unlimited and a case that can withstand your children's haphazard handling. If you still expect a tragedy within the next two years, the price of the Kids Edition includes a Worry-Free Guarantee, so you won't need to pay for a replacement tablet. Add in the case and FreeTime Unlimited, and it's a deal.


A Prime membership goes a long way on the small tablet. James Martin/CNET

Anything else I should know?

The screensaver of the Fire tablet displays ads. The ads are Amazon's, so they range from promoting a shopping sale to promoting an exclusive TV series. In order to rid yourself of the ads, you have to pay an extra $15 or £10.

A few days after getting the Fire tablet, the micro-USB port became recessed from its opening on the tablet. I'm assuming by plugging in the charger the port got pushed back. This caused some problems when charging: it wouldn't recognize that a charger was plugged in and sometimes charging would randomly halt. The defect should be covered under the manufacturer's warranty (if you have the Kids Edition, the Worry-Free guarantee should have you covered), but it's a small glimpse of the little things that can go wrong with a cheaply made device like the Fire.

Would you recommend it to someone?

If you're on a shoestring budget, yes. If you can spend more, I'd recommend that instead.

amazonfiretablet2.jpg
The Fire HD 6 is smaller, but it has a sharper screen with a more accurate color range. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

What are my other options?

There's a plethora of sub-$100 tablets from obscure and relatively unknown brands, but I can't recommend them. If you're trying to spend as little as possible, but would like something a little better than what the Fire offers, I recommend another Amazon tablet: the Fire HD 6. It has a sharper (but smaller) screen and faster performance. However, it doesn't have an expandable microSD card slot, so I recommend upgrading to the 16GB version for $120 or £100.

8GB model 16GB model
Amazon Fire $50, £50 (AU$70 converted) N/A
Amazon Fire HD 6 $100 or £80 (AU$140) $120 or £100 ($AU170)
Amazon Fire HD 8 $150 or £130 (AU$210) $170 or £150 ($AU241)

All Fire tablets have the same easy access to Prime content and family-friendly features, but each has different capabilities. Think of the Amazon Fire as a go-cart, the Fire HDs as sedans and the Fire HDX 8.9 as an SUV. The more expensive, the more it has to offer. The Fire is the simplest of them all, but it works fine for basic activities. The Fire HD 8 & 10 perform faster and have bigger, sharper screens. The Fire HDX 8.9 bests them all. It's an impressive high-end device with speedy specs and a super-sharp screen. It's also the most expensive.


Conclusion

The Fire tablet conundrum is rather simple. Is it a good tablet? No. Is it good for a cheap tablet? Yes.

For only $50 or £50, all of the Amazon Fire's shortcomings are understandable. The age-old adage "you get what you pay for" comes to mind, but if you're an Amazon Underground user, Kindle Unlimited subscriber or Prime member, it's one of the most affordable tablets for taking full advantage of Amazon's vast library of TV, movies, music, books and games.

If you're not a Prime member, the Fire is still a viable option for the price, but don't expect it to change your view on what low-price tablets are capable of. Its price is appealing, but you're better off spending a bit more on something more capable.

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