Amazon announced three new tablets a couple of weeks ago – an extraordinary value $50 tablet with a 7″ screen, a second tablet with a larger 8″ screen ($150 or $170), and a third with a 10″ screen ($230 or $260).
Amazon also have a current high-end 9″ screened tablet ($380 – $580), a 6″ screen tablet that is now rather superseded by the new generation ($100) and a rugged 7″ tablet designed for children and harder to break ($100).
We bought one each of their new 7″ and 8″ tablets and they arrived on Wednesday. This review discusses them and hopefully helps you decide which among the large Amazon family of tablets would be best for you – or should you ‘play safe’ and get an iPad instead?
Let’s start with a table summarizing the important differences between the main models in Amazon’s family
|Screen size||7.0″ diagonal|
3.5″ x 6.0″
4.2″ x 6.8″
4.7″ x 7.6″
5.5″ x 8.6″
|Screen resolution||1024 x 600|
|1280 x 800|
|2560 x 1600|
|1280 x 800|
|Screen area||21 sq in||28.6 sq in||35.6 sq in||46.1 sq in|
|External dimensions||7.5″ x 4.5″ x 0.4″||8.4″ x 5.0″ x 0.3″||9.1″ x 6.2″ x 0.3″||10.3″ x 6.3″ x 0.3″|
|Weight||0.69 lb||0.69 lb||0.84 lb||0.95 lb|
|Cameras||1.2/0.3 MP||5/0.9 MP||8/0.9 MP||5/0.9 MP|
|Internal storage||8 GB||8/16 GB (+$20)||16/32/64 (+$20/50)||16/32 GB (+$30)|
|External storage||Yes, Micro SD||Yes, Micro SD||No||Yes, Micro SD|
|Wi-Fi||Single band 2.4 GHz b/g/n||Dual band 2.4 and 5.0 GHz a/b/g/n/ac||Dual band dual antenna 2.4 and 5.0 GHz a/b/g/n/ac||Dual band 2.4 and 5.0 GHz a/b/g/n/ac|
|Wireless||No||No||Option + $100||No|
|GPS||No||No||Included with wireless option||No|
|Battery life||‘Up to 7 hours’ of mixed use||‘Up to 8 hours’ of mixed use||12 hours of mixed use||‘Up to 8 hours’ of mixed use|
|Operating System||Subset of Android 5||Subset of Android 5||Subset of Android 4|
(possible future upgrade to Android 5)
|Subset of Android 5|
|Price||$49.99 (or six for $249.95)||$149.99 or $169.99||$379.99 and up||$229.99 or $259.99|
Now, how to make sense of the almost 80 pieces of data contained in the above table? This depends a bit on how you expect to use the device – for example some people will need more battery life than others (but remember that you can always get an external battery to recharge your device with so don’t let battery life dominate your thinking too much).
If the tablet is mainly to be used for reading books, then screen size is perhaps not as important (I’ve read an entire book on a 3.5″ sized original iPhone screen, years ago) as pixel density (for smooth easily read text). It if will be used for playing games, then maybe processor speed and screen refresh rates become more important. If you want to watch video, then screen size and resolution are important. But if it is just to be used for email and Facebook updating, then perhaps cost is the most important feature. If it is something you want to travel with, then smaller and lighter is preferable to bigger and heavier.
We suggest the considerations for most of us to give prominence to are screen size/resolution and cost. The screen size/resolution issue is actually quite layered in its complexities, and so we published an article just now all about how to evaluate tablet screen size issues.
The chances are after reading that article and then looking at the screen specifications above, you’ll love the 9″ tablet screen, you’ll like the 8″ tablet screen, you’ll see the 7″ screen as being ‘good enough’ at a stunning value point, and you’ll view the 10″ screen as not really a good choice.
When you look at the cost of the 9″ tablet, you’ll also realize that it is in a different price league to the 7″ and 8″ tablets. We’d not discourage you from buying the 9″ tablet if you’re happy with that price, although we do wonder slightly how much longer it will remain as a current model. But if your focus is on value and the best amount of reasonable performance for the most reasonable price, that will surely concentrate your focus on the 7″ and 8″ models.
The big question now becomes – is the 8″ model worth paying three times more for than the 7″ model?
Perhaps that question is partially answered by a related question – can you actually see a difference in the different screen sizes and resolutions when using the tablets for ordinary purposes? A second question would be ‘Are there any other reasons to choose one model over the other, apart from screen size and resolution?’.
We answer these points in the sections below.
Can You See a Meaningful Quality Difference between the 7″ and 8″ Fire Screens?
The 8″ screen model has 36% greater screen area, and 67% more pixels on it. Does this actually translate to a true visible improvement?
If you don’t see the two screens side by side, you’ll probably be very pleased with the 7″ screen. It is clear, it is bright, and it does a good job of showing video. It is a ‘good enough’ screen, and a marvel of value in a $50 tablet.
If you do see the two screens side by side, you will notice very slightly greater clarity on the 8″ screen, particularly with 720P or higher video (but not on lower resolution video and much streamed video is lower resolution, as are DVDs). I tried to photograph this, but gave up after dozens of photos of the two screens side by side – an abundance of challenges, starting from getting 720P video to stream in the first place, and then getting perfectly even lighting and no shadows, setting the screens to the same brightness level, then freezing both videos at the same point, and getting perfect focus, proved too much. You’ll see in the next section a failed attempt at this, but it is only to illustrate the respective picture sizes, not to show any difference in quality.
Rather than ‘the camera never lies’ none of the pictures I took fairly reflected the reality of the images, so I gave up. You’ll just have to trust me – a slightly better picture on the larger screen.
Indeed, the video on the 8″ tablet was massively sharper than the video on my computer screen, and also better than that displayed on my HDTV. I’m tempted to watch all video on the tablet now, but somehow there’s still some ‘magic’ to the big screen, and 5+1 channel sound, that a tiny tablet and headphones just doesn’t recreate.
What About the Screen Size?
Now this I can photograph! As you can see here, the 8″ image is appreciably larger than the 7″ image. The 8″ image subtends a comparable field of view as a computer monitor or television, the 7″ screen looks a little smaller.
Both are okay, but the 8″ is larger.
This larger size (36%) and higher quality resolution (67%) of the 8″ screen also made text both larger and clearer as well. The 7″ screen is good – stunningly/staggeringly good for only $50, but the 8″ screen is better. Only you can decide if it is $100 better!
There are several other differences as well between the two units.
The 8″ unit has better cameras in it than the 7″ unit. Neither are as good as the latest cameras in phones, or of course, in standalone cameras, and generally people don’t use tablet cameras much, preferring the more ergonomically comfortable size/shape of a ‘real’ camera or at least a phone to that of a tablet.
But if you’re video chatting, or if the tablet is the only device at hand, then either will take okay photos, with the 8″ unit being much higher resolution.
The 8″ unit supports both ‘normal’ Wi-Fi on the 2.4 GHz frequency band and also newer Wi-Fi standards on the 5.0 GHz band.
This can sometimes be helpful if you are somewhere that offers both frequencies – the 5 GHz band is typically less crowded than the 2.4 GHz band, and can support faster data rates. On the other hand, 5 GHz signals usually have less range than 2.4 GHz.
Internal and External Storage
The 8″ unit comes with both 8 GB and 16 GB internal storage options; the 7″ has only the 8 GB option. You might think this is unimportant due to the ability to swap Micro SD cards as needed, and you’re half right about that.
Certainly we’d never store any video on the device itself, only on external cards. But we would load all the apps onto the internal storage, and probably all our books too, so they’re always available to us, no matter which Micro SD card we had plugged in. Because the first 4GB or so of storage is taken up with operating system and other things, the 8 GB really only means about 4 GB of usable space; and the 16 GB translates to about 12 GB of usable space – significantly more and harder to use up.
We chose to spend the extra $20 to get the 16 GB version of the 8″ Fire, but – so far, and we’re only starting to load up apps, haven’t used more than a couple of GB of the remaining space on either unit. So you can get away with 8 GB if you have to (and we keep coming back to the extraordinary value of the 7″ Fire at only $50), but if you’re going to the 8″ unit, it probably makes sense to pay $20 more for the greater growth/flexibility it offers.
One surprising difference was audio, and we’re almost wondering if our 7″ unit is faulty (update – this has been confirmed by other purchasers, too). The 8″ unit drives our various headphones at good volume levels, and typically we have the volume set about half way to hear sounds at ‘normal’ levels. Cranking it all the way up to full makes it way too loud. But to get the same volume level as with the 8″ unit at a half way setting, we had to tweak the 7″ unit up to 3/4 of maximum, and turning it all the way wasn’t quite as deafening as the 8″ unit.
This was okay, but surprising, and if you had a recording with low volume levels and headphones that have high impedance or need lots of power, you might find the 7″ unit struggles a bit on occasion.
Reader Harry had a similar problem and after many calls to Amazon support, was advised to download the free app from Omega Centauri Software, Speaker Boost. He did, and now can play audio with satisfactorily higher volume levels.
A difference we haven’t yet fully and accurately evaluated is battery life. Amazon claim battery lives of up to 7 hours for the 7″ unit and up to 8 hours for the 8″ unit.
We cringe whenever we see the phrase ‘up to’ because that reduces the measurement that follows to irrelevance. But preliminary testing suggests that whatever the actual battery lives may be, they are probably not significantly different from Amazon’s claims.
Is the difference between 7 hours and 8 hours of battery life important? That depends on your typical usage patterns. And there is always the possibility of packing an external battery with you to ‘top up’ the onboard battery, with either unit, if you run low on charge. So we note the difference in battery life, but don’t see that as a compelling reason to choose the 8″ unit over the 7″ unit.
One important and surprising similarity is weight. Because the 8″ unit is a bit slimmer, it ends up weighing the same as the 7″ unit, and because the weight is distributed over a larger surface area, it sort of ‘feels’ lighter than it actually is.
A Fire – or some other Android, or an iPad?
If you are thinking about buying a tablet, should you now get either of these Fire units, or some other Android tablet, or an iPad?
Amazon have done an excellent job of stripping out all the non-essential features of a tablet and offering up a good tablet with everything ‘important’ that you’re likely to need, and at astonishing prices. There’s a huge price jump from either of these tablets to anything even slightly better – a price jump that is hinted at within their own product range, when you go from $150 or $170 for the 8″ Fire up to $400+ for their high-end 8.9″ screen version.
If high value is important to you, then you can’t go wrong with either of these units.
If you want something perhaps with a GPS or wireless as well as Wi-Fi data connectivity, or a higher resolution screen, or who knows what other feature that is important/essential to you and lacking on these two units, then of course that rules them out, and you will have to start looking at considerably more expensive devices instead.
On the other hand, a rare and very positive feature of these two units is their acceptance of Micro SD cards. That makes them massively more useful as a way to store and play an extensive library of books, music and video, something few other tablets offer.
In the past I’ve been critical of Amazon’s subset of Android and its restrictions on what apps you can load. But the latest version of their Android derivative feels much closer to the Android that you find on pure Android devices, so there is more instant familiarity and commonality between the Fire tablets and any other Android devices you might have.
Plus, Amazon has greatly expanded the range of third party apps you can load onto your Fire tablets, so I no longer feel so ‘confined’ by the limits that remain. Furthermore, even the lightest bit of Googling brings up a number of articles on how to defeat the limitations Amazon places on its devices, if that is something you absolutely must do.
We have been very happy with our iPads, and if we were looking for a high end product, we’d probably choose another iPad. But for products in the $50 – $150 price range Amazon is now within, there’s nothing anywhere near the same quality, performance, and value.
A wonderful use of these tablets is to save video on them to watch, offline and not connected to the internet, later.
Amazon makes it very simple to do this if you are a Prime member – you can save any of the Prime videos, and in particular the tens of thousands of free videos, onto the tablet or a Micro-SD card, and then watch the video subsequently – for example, on a plane, cruise ship where you don’t have internet access, or even in a hotel that does have internet access but which is too slow to stream reliably without interruptions and breaks, or when traveling internationally and faced with metered and very expensive internet charges.
There are other ways to save video from other sources for offline playback, but they are complex and not always very practical. The truly simple process on the Fire tablets, and the ability to load up with lots of video onto Micro-SD cards, is a huge point in favor of the Fire tablet, assuming you’d like to watch video both while connected to the internet and also when not having a fast/free feed at hand. It is also a strong reason to get an Amazon Prime membership, and a huge competitive advantage over Netflix.
Simply choose the videos you want to watch and then click the download icon rather than the play now icon. If you are downloading to a Micro-SD card, you have three choices – 720P quality, which they call ‘best’ quality, and lower ‘better’ and ‘good’ qualities.
An hour of video in 720P quality used up about 1.75GB. A 64GB card would hold about 36 hours of video, perhaps about 20 or so movies. The lower quality resolutions of course get you more viewing time per GB. The good setting requires a mere 175 MB per hour of video – ten times less than the best setting, and the middle quality gets you in the middle.
Downloading videos was slow, but that probably depends on the speed of your internet connection as well.
One thing to be aware of. You can only watch videos on the Fire that downloaded them. So if you and a traveling companion both have Fires and both have downloaded videos, you can’t swap Micro SD cards. Or if you have multiple Fire tablets, make sure you match the tablet you downloaded video through and the Micro SD card you downloaded it onto.
There’s also a requirement to be connected online at least once every two weeks to keep your offline viewing rights active.
These points are slightly strange and inconvenient, but probably represent requirements by the studios as a way of protecting their digital rights and preventing piracy. And while slightly inconvenient, they are no big deal, and the upside – take tons of video with you when you travel – is enormous.
We like both these devices, and remain absolutely open-mouth amazed at how much value and how many features Amazon crammed into the $50 7″ Fire. The $150 8″ Fire is three times more expensive, and so compared to the stunning value of the 7″ unit doesn’t feel quite so compelling a deal, but it is still half or less the price of comparable tablets from other manufacturers, and therefore is also an extremely good deal.
We were excited when the first Fire tablet was released four years ago, for $200. It had a 7″ screen and the same resolution as the new 7″ Fire, and also had 8 GB of internal memory and a battery with similar life, but did not allow for external Micro SD cards. To see the price reduced to one quarter of what it was four years ago, and to have a slightly better/faster/more versatile unit to boot, makes this a stunning bargain. It is a struggle to buy dinner for two for $50 these days – stay at home tonight and treat yourself to a Kindle Fire instead!
If your budget will allow a bit more, there are definite improvements and enhancements to be had in the 8″ Fire. On the other hand, you can buy three of the 7″ units for the same price as one of the $150 or $170 8″ units. The 7″ unit is almost literally a ‘throwaway’ unit and ideal for traveling with – who cares if you forget it on a plane or in a hotel room. Perhaps that’s why Amazon also sell them in six packs for $249.95!
Which should you buy? You won’t regret either choice, and perhaps you’ll end up doing the same thing we did – getting both!