Amazon's $79.99 new Fire HD 8 (16GB) is the best sub-$100 tablet available right now. With a lower price, stronger Wi-Fi, and better audio than last year's model, it takes the crown away from its less-expensive sibling, the $49.99 Fire 7. While you shouldn't expect to compete against the iPad at this price point, the Fire HD 8 fits the bill for media consumption and light gaming, making it our Editors' Choice for affordable tablets.
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The Fire HD 8 is a plastic-shelled tablet available in black, blue, red, and yellow. It measures 8.4 by 5.0 by 0.4 inches and 13 ounces. It's a decent size to hold in one hand as an ebook reader, but it's a bit too heavy for marathon reading sessions (the Kindle Paperwhite weighs 7.2 ounces, a big difference). It's not formally ruggedized or water-resistant, but the plastic shell can withstand average drops and knocks.
The HD 8's 1,280-by-800 LCD has 189 pixels per inch and isn't the brightest. The smaller Fire 7 has a brighter but less dense screen at 171ppi. The HD 8's display also tends to be a little yellow, while the Fire 7 is powerfully blue (neither is particularly evenly white). The extra pixels here really make a difference when reading comics and online magazines, though. Small text in the PCMag Digital Edition is considerably more readable on the HD 8 than on the smaller tablet, and comics panels have a bit more room to breathe.
Amazon isn't altogether sure whether the tablet should be used in portrait or landscape mode. The dual stereo speakers are on the bottom in landscape, but on the left in portrait; the front-facing VGA camera is on the top in portrait, but on the left in landscape. Also on the top edge (in portrait mode) are the headphone jack, volume buttons, power button and micro USB port for charging and syncing with PCs.
Chipset and Networking
The HD 8 uses the same quad-core, 1.3GHz Mediatek processor the Fire 7 does, running the same Fire OS 5.4 software, based on Android 5.1. But performance on the HD 8 is distinctly better because it has 1.5GB of RAM as compared with the HD 7's 1GB. That means UI icons render more quickly, apps crash less often, and web benchmarks score higher, making for a real difference in usability.
Dual-band Wi-Fi is becoming more standard on affordable tablets, and that's a very good thing. In PCMag's test lab, for instance, the 2.4GHz band is so congested that we get much better speeds at 5GHz. The HD 8's 5GHz Wi-Fi is considerably faster than the Fire 7's, possibly because of the difference in RAM. In several tests at different distances from our Netgear router, we often got almost double the speed on the HD 8 than on the Fire 7. That made a real difference when doing things like downloading comics.
Battery life, at 4 hours, 42 minutes of web video streaming at maximum screen brightness, is fine but not great. You'll probably get much longer battery life in mixed usage, as Amazon's Silk web browser eats up a lot of power. Invest in a 10,000mAh backup battery like the Anker PowerCore 10000 and you won't have to worry.
Amazon's Fire tablets, while Android compatible, are best thought of as Amazon media consumption devices. With a bit of work, you can turn them into general-purpose Android slates, but we think the Amazon restrictions can be a blessing in disguise: They prevent you from getting too frustrated with your inexpensive tech.
Amazon's Fire OS is derived from Android, and it runs Android apps, but the basic UI is nothing like Android. If you love Amazon, there's a lot to love here. The interface is much simpler and clearer than on most Android tablets, with bold words pointing the way to Books, Video, Games, Music, and Audiobooks. Your Amazon content library is automatically synced, loaded, and shown in every pane, and you have the option to stream or download content. Nearly every page tries to sell you something as well. This is Amazon, after all, so the company is guessing what you like and trying to provide more of it for you.
The OS comes with its own navigation, document reader, and email apps supporting the most common services and formats. To download apps, the tablet defaults to the Amazon Appstore. You can sideload other Android apps using APK files transferred from a PC or a microSD card, but there's no official or reliable way to use the Google Play store on these tablets; there are hacks, but they tend to break when Amazon upgrades its OS. The Amazon Appstore has plenty of Android apps, but it's missing some big names.
All of the Google apps (such as YouTube) are absent, as are some Microsoft Office apps, many popular navigation and transit apps such as Citymapper and Waze, any alternative web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox, and the American Airlines and Delta apps, for example. Of course, you can always go to the mobile sites, but it isn't the same. We turned to a backup APK from a phone so we could load Marvel Unlimited.
By default, the lock screen shows colorful ads for products on Amazon. Right now, our unit is shifting between a clay mask kit and a 10,400mAh power bank (not the Anker one we recommend!). You can get rid of those ads for $15.
There are some pluses to Amazon's Android spin-off. Most notably, the kids' content and parental controls are excellent, with a $2.99/month FreeTime Unlimited subscription service stuffed with age-appropriate books and videos, and a web dashboard for parents that lets you monitor and control the usage of up to four child accounts.
Amazon's tablets now support Alexa, but without the always-on "Hey Alexa" functionality that makes the Echo so useful. You have to hold down the home button to voice search. You may be more likely to use the tablet as a place to read query results, as you can now tell your Echo to "send the answer to my Fire."
Music and Video
The HD 8 comes in 16 and 32GB models (the 32GB model is $30 more). The 16 GB model, which we reviewed, has 12.24GB free. There's also a micro SD memory card slot, and you can store content and most apps on the memory card.
The HD 8's dual speakers are a big, positive surprise. Most affordable tablets, including the Fire 7, have a single, tinny speaker. But the HD 8's two bottom-mounted speakers give you true stereo sound in landscape mode, and generally bigger and better-defined audio than you'll get from other similarly priced tablets in every use case.
Video playback suffered a little bit because of the slightly dim screen. Videos sound great and play smoothly, but we had trouble making out dark scenes on the screen in a bright room. The Fire 7 does a bit better there.
The HD 8 and Fire 7 have 2-megapixel cameras on the back and VGA cameras on the front. The less said about them, the better. They haven't improved from the previous models, taking low-framerate videos and grainy images in any sort of low-light situation.
The Amazon Fire HD 8 is best cheap tablet experience you can find under $100. It's good as a color ebook reader, an audiobook player, and especially as a kids' tablet. Its main downside is the lack of the Google Play store; hacking your way around that can get tiring quickly. But Amazon makes it very easy to download and manage content from its own stores, with an especially safe experience for kids.
If you absolutely need Google Play, turn to the Lenovo Tab3 8. You'll pay a bit more and lose dual-band Wi-Fi, but you'll gain access to Google's collection of apps. At that point, though, you might start chafing against the low-end tablets' performance. Amazon's OS doesn't over-promise, and the new Fire HD 8 delivers.