Kids and tablets sometimes go together like bulls and china shops. I've seen smashed screens, sticky buttons and devices coated with a fine film of gunk, food and who knows what. And that's before you get to dealing with all the inappropriate apps and websites kids can possibly access on a tablet.
Handing over an iPad is less of a white-knuckle experience than it used to be, with starting prices dropping from $500 to $329 over the past few years, but that's still a lot of faith to put into tiny hands that may not understand just how delicate these devices can be. And while specialty kids' tablets and kids' computers have been around for years, they've typically been low-end machines that don't do much, and do it slowly. Some are locked into a handful of preloaded no-name apps, others are about as fun to use as a bad Black Friday doorbuster.
Amazon's Fire line of tablets has a natural appeal for parents, with low prices, decent specs and access to a wide world of apps and features. But they're still general purpose machines, aimed at adults, and specifically at Amazon Prime members on top of that. Starting in 2014, however, a parallel series of Kids Edition Fire tablets took the same basic hardware and added accessories and software (and higher prices), in an attempt to make something useful for the younger set.
This review is specifically about the Kids Edition. You can read about the overall excellent Fire HD 8's hardware and performance in this review, and the also very good, but more limited Fire 7 here.
A numbers game
The current Amazon Fire ($39.99 at Amazon.com) line, last updated in 2017, comes in 7-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch versions, with on-sale prices dropping as low as $35 for the (very) basic Fire 7. It's the tablet as impulse purchase, subsidized by the hope that you'll buy content -- books, videos and apps -- from Amazon and create a recurring revenue stream for the e-commerce giant.
Besides the standard models, there are also the aforementioned Kids Edition versions of the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8. These kid-friendly models are physically identical to the regular versions, and the difference comes from accessories, software and support. At first glance, it seems crazy to pay an extra $50 for a tablet that usually costs $49/$70 (for the Fire 7/Fire HD 8), but the math actually makes more sense than you might think.
The Kids Edition costs $100 or £100 for the 7-inch, and $130 or £130 for the 8-inch version of the Fire tablets. (Sorry, Australia: Amazon hasn't yet decided to offer its tablets Down Under.) Here's what that extra cash gets you:
A rubberized bumper case: Amazon sells this separately for $30 or £20. I've had a similar one on my son's hand-me-down iPad 2 for years.
A two-year "no questions asked" replacement warranty: The case is nice, but this is where the real peace of mind comes in. Smashed screen? Dumped in the mud? Amazon will replace it gratis for the first two years.
Double storage: In each case, Amazon bumps up the storage from the baseline "adult" model. Buying the Kids Edition of the Fire 7 gets you 16GB instead of 8GB, while the HD 8 gets you 32GB instead of 16GB. Both are further expandable via microSD cards, which are plentiful and cheap.
One-year subscription to FreeTime unlimited: This Netflix-like subscription service is chock full of kid-appropriate ebooks, videos and games. After one year, the service costs $2.99 a month for Amazon Prime members ($4.99 for non-members), which is about $35 per year. That all adds up to well more than the $50 premium for the Kids version over the standard tablet.
Keep in mind also that Amazon regularly puts these devices on sale. The Fire 7/Fire 7 Kids Edition can at times be as low as $35/$75 and the Fire HD 8/Fire HD 8 Kids Edition can be found for $55/$95 during Amazon sales in the US, with similar price cuts often running in the UK.
Amazon Fire prices
|Fire 7 (8GB)||Fire 7 Kids Edition (16GB)||Fire HD 8 (16GB)||Fire HD 8 Kids Edition (32GB)||Fire HD 10 (32GB)|
The hidden charms of FreeTime
Of the extras included in the Kids Edition of the Fire tablets, the subscription to FreeTime Unlimited may seem the least useful, at least compared to the padded case, extra storage and no-hassle replacement plan. It's actually Amazon's secret weapon, and having used the service extensively over the past couple of weeks, it's almost criminally low-profile for the value and flexibility it offers.
I'd previously heard about the service, which combines the actually free FreeTime features, including detailed scheduling and usage tools for parents to limit how and when kids use their tablet, with the subscription Unlimited part, which acts as an all-you-can-eat buffet of ebooks, apps and videos.
A child (or children, as you can set up multiple profiles at an extra cost) gets a custom interface, much different from the standard Android-like Fire interface. FreeTime has a blue background and a handful of large category icons. It's also landscape-only, although some apps and ebooks work in portrait mode while they're being used.
As is often the case with content browsing, actual discovery can be hit or miss. There's not a clear master list of what specific content is included, or a real understanding of what highlights the app chooses to surface. That said, the offers are so broad and much of it is of high quality, that kids will enjoy just trying random new things.
My 6-year-old son Dash has been using FreeTime Unlimited on his recently purchased Fire HD 8 for a few weeks now, and is a big fan, especially of the idea that he can pick and download his own games without getting me or his mother to sign off on every individual one.
When setting up FreeTime, you select the age range of media you want displayed, and that changes the level of books, videos and apps. I set Dash's range at up to 8 years old, just to make sure he was challenged by new things.
The video appears to be from Amazon Prime, so you're not getting anything new there, but the ebooks and apps add great value. Books are fairly well-formatted for the screen. Some work on either landscape or portrait mode, but others are restricted to one view or the other. There's no pinch-to-zoom to read text, which can get small, but double-tapping on text pops it up in a larger bubble. Read one blurb, then swipe left with one finger to automatically advance the text. I can't say it will encourage self-directed reading for every kid, but it worked on the one I know, largely because he could pick what to download by himself.
The apps are mostly games. Many are of the free or freemium variety (and no, kids can't make additional purchases on their own), but a good number are actually surprisingly premium. I was pleasantly surprised to find a large library of apps from Toca Boca, publisher of Toca Life, Toca Lab and other kid-friendly apps. Dash is a big fan of these, and I've previously purchased a few for around $3 each. One download like this per month covers the cost of the entire FreeTime Unlimited service once the included one-year subscription expires.
Getting in character
One interesting way to search for content is through a top menu icon labeled "characters." There, kids can scroll through icons that run from generic, like Dinosaurs, to very specific brands, like Lego, Sesame Street, Marvel and Star Wars. Clicking on any of these brings up a list of all available ebooks, videos and apps from that category, and tapping on each individual item downloads or streams it.
It's a great way to discover content, although some brands have only apps and videos, but no books, or only books and videos, but no apps, and so on. Many, however, have all three, and Dash now has an instant Phineas and Ferb book collection.