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In recent years, the tablet world has been little more than the iPad world. If you’re looking for a tablet, it’s very likely that the iPad is the right tablet for you. The iPad’s drop in price to $329 earlier this year strengthened its position even further.
But back when the iPad cost $500 or more, there was a burgeoning market of cheap tablets that promised to do all of the iPad things for a lot less money. This was Amazon’s world. Its line of Fire HD tablets were way less expensive than Apple’s devices, and made for good alternatives if you didn’t want to spend the money for an iPad.
Amazon never really left the cheap tablet market; you’ve been able to consistently get 7- and 8-inch Fire models for as little as $50 that worked fine as a device for kids or a Kindle replacement that could also play video. But now Amazon has refreshed its larger Fire HD 10 for the first time since 2015, with an upgraded display, faster processor, better sound, and lower price. A lot has changed since the last time the Fire HD 10 was updated — not least of which: the iPad is a lot cheaper now. So, Amazon is tackling that head-on. The HD 10 is much closer in size to the standard iPad, and at $149 to start ($80 less than the 2015 model), it’s less than half the price. (The $149 Fire HD 10 comes with Amazon’s ads on the lock screen; a one-time $15 fee will remove them.)
So the obvious question, as always, is: does the Fire HD 10 work well enough to be a compelling alternative to Apple’s tablet, while saving you a good chunk of money? I’ve been testing the new tablet for the past few days, and my response is no. If you want an iPad to do iPad things (video, games, reading, email, etc.) and maybe sit in for a laptop from time to time, you should pony up for an iPad. But that doesn’t make the Fire HD 10 a complete write-off.
The biggest and best improvement Amazon made to the new Fire HD 10 was giving it a new 10.1-inch display with 1920 x 1200 pixels of resolution. It’s well saturated and has good viewing angles, making it great for watching video, browsing webpages, or reading ebooks. It’s obviously not as nice as the iPad’s higher-resolution screen, but most people won’t have an issue with this panel. It’s the best screen an Amazon tablet has had since 2013’s Fire HDX, and far better than I expect from a $150 device.
Amazon’s also upgraded the sound with two Dolby Atmos-tuned speakers, and the processor has been bumped up to a newer MediaTek quad-core chip paired with 2GB of RAM, which Amazon claims is 30 percent faster than the 2015 Fire HD 10’s chip. The entry-level model comes with 32GB of storage, but you can pay more for 64GB or just use a microSD card to expand the storage.
All of these things make the Fire HD 10 very capable at doing basic tablet things: playing video, browsing the web, or even playing games. Navigating the interface, loading apps, and switching between them all happens without drama.
You don’t really get the feeling that the Fire HD 10 is cheap until you turn it over, where a hardy, matte plastic finish greets you. It feels a bit like a child’s toy compared to an iPad (especially in the bright blue color of my review unit), but it’s grippy and feels like the kind of thing that will take a few knocks without showing it. Most people are probably going to put the HD 10 in a case and never see the finish anyway. (Amazon offers a basic $39.99 folio case that can prop the tablet up in either portrait or landscape orientation.)
Despite its low cost, it’s not the hardware that really holds the Fire HD 10 back from competing head-to-head with the iPad, it’s the software. As with every Fire tablet, the HD 10 runs Amazon’s custom version of Android called Fire OS. The core interface is fine; it’s easy to switch between the main app launcher and sections for video, books, games, music, audiobooks, and magazines. There’s also a new “For You” section that shows apps, books, and videos you’ve recently used, as well as suggestions for what to do next.
But going beyond the basics is where the Fire HD 10 starts to falter. Amazon’s app store is loaded with popular apps, such as Netflix, HBO Go and HBO Now, Hulu, and so on, but it doesn’t have nearly as many apps as Apple’s App Store or even Google’s Play Store. It’s missing all of Google’s apps, including Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail, and Chrome, and all of Microsoft’s apps. Fire OS comes with its own web browser and a rudimentary email, calendar, contacts, and document apps, but they are poor substitutes for Google or Microsoft’s suites. This all makes the Fire HD 10 a fine consumption device, but not something you’d want to use for heavy productivity. The app I missed the most was my password manager, which meant that I had to look up my passwords on my phone whenever I wanted to log into an account on the Fire HD 10.
Like most Amazon products, the Fire HD 10 wants you to use Amazon’s apps for everything, such as Kindle, Amazon Music, Audible, Prime Photos, and so on. All of these apps come preinstalled on the tablet and are great if you’re already fully invested in them. But if you use a different photos app or music player on your phone, they won’t do you much good here.
One thing that Amazon has added is hands-free Alexa, which means you can bark voice commands at the Fire HD 10 and it will respond to you, even if the screen is off. Like the Echo Show, the Fire HD 10’s version of Alexa will display information on the screen depending on what you ask. Ask for the weather and it will show current conditions plus a five-day forecast, for example. Alexa on the Fire HD 10 is almost as fully capable as it is on Echo devices, and it can be used for managing smart home gadgets, adding things to a shopping list, or buying items from Amazon by voice. The only thing it wouldn’t do for me is play music from Spotify or use Alexa voice and video calling, which is an odd and frustrating limitation, given that Echo devices support Spotify and the Fire HD 10 has a front-facing camera. (Amazon tells me that it is “working on” support for Spotify.)
That makes the Fire HD 10 a compelling kitchen tablet: it can be used hands free for unit conversions, timers, alarms, recipe look-ups, and other cooking related tasks. Or you can use it to watch videos from Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, or other sources, including live TV from Hulu or Sling. That makes it a better (and cheaper) kitchen device than Amazon’s own Echo Show, provided you don’t care about using Amazon’s video calling service (and you probably don’t).
The other thing that the Fire HD 10 will be appealing for is as a device for kids. I’ve already mentioned its hardy construction, but it also supports multiple accounts and parental controls, which are non-existent or difficult to implement on an iPad. Since kids are most likely to use a tablet for watching video or playing games, the Fire HD 10’s software limitations aren’t going to be much of an issue here. (The only problem might be YouTube, which can be accessed via the Fire HD 10’s web browser.)
I don’t think cheap tablets will ever be as interesting as they were a few years ago, when the iPad was a much more expensive device. But while the Fire HD 10 won’t win over anyone looking to replace their laptop with a tablet, it’s still a fine tablet for doing basic things that doesn’t cost a fortune.
And when you’re spending $150, there’s little more you can ask.
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