Amazon Fire HD 8 review: A good, cheap tablet with one big compromise

Amazon Fire HD 8 review: A good, cheap tablet with one big compromise

Same software, same pros and cons

Since these are mostly the same tablet, I found myself using them both interchangeably. I spent most of my time reading comics via Hoopla or my own books in the Kindle app, watching movies on Prime Video and Disney+, shopping Amazon (or other retailers using the Silk browser app) and occasionally playing through a few levels of Candy Crush. The latter was made better by Game Mode, which mutes and hides notifications so you’re not interrupted while you’re playing.

The tablet basically lived on my couch and I picked it up any time I wanted a larger screen to work with than  my iPhone XR. Sometimes I didn’t even have to pick it up thanks to hands-free Alexa, which lets you bark questions at the tablet when it’s sitting idly next to you. I also barely had to charge the thing: Amazon estimates up to 12 hours of use on both the Fire HD 8 and the HD 8 Plus. I used it for hours one night and woke up to it with almost the same amount of battery life as I left it. Also, both tablets lasted roughly 21 hours when faced with the battery test we usually run on Android devices. 

TheFire HD 8 ran smoothly when I was using an app or playing a game, but navigating the Fire OS interface and doing things like turning on and off Show Mode produced a few seconds of lag time. The latter is Amazon’s way of turning a Fire tablet into an Echo Show — the standard app-grid interface disappears and you’re met with the same screen that you’d find on one of the company’s smart displays. If you buy a tablet stand or find another way to prop up the Fire HD 8, Show Mode makes it a good substitute for a standalone Echo device. 

However, the more I reached for the Fire HD 8, the more inconveniences I found — not with the physical tablet, but with its software. The Fire HD 8 technically runs Android, but Fire OS is really something totally different — set your expectations accordingly. The Google Play Store isn’t natively available on Fire OS. Instead, you have Amazon’s “AppStore,” which has programs made specifically for Fire tablets and a smattering of Android apps — but Google apps are left out.

Amazon Fire HD 8 (2020)

Valentina Palladino / Engadget

This has been a problem for the entirety of Fire OS’ existence. Instead of using Google Chrome, you have to use Amazon’s Silk browser; instead of Gmail, you’re left with a faintly-branded Amazon Email app, and the list goes on. This won’t be a huge issue if your life isn’t managed by Google services, but being forced to use Amazon’s imitation apps is not a great experience. To make things worse, many Android apps aren’t available at all in Amazon’s AppStore. So opting for an email app like Spark isn’t possible. And yes, while you can sideload the Play Store onto Fire tablets, that’s not something most users will want to deal with.

And we’ll probably never see the typical Android experience on Fire tablets. (I know, “never say never,” but I’m willing to go out on a limb here.) Fire OS is designed to keep Amazon products and services top of mind for the user — that means these tablets become a lot more useful if you’re entrenched in Amazon’s ecosystem. The homepages on the Fire HD 8 (Books, Video, Shop, Music, etc) are designed to make sure you’re using as many Amazon services as possible — even the ones you’re not currently paying for. Amazon Prime members will find they can do the most on Fire tablets simply because their Prime membership includes things like free ebooks with Prime Reading and access to the entire Prime Video library. If you don’t shop on Amazon often or use many of the company’s subscriptions and services, you may quickly feel suffocated by how much Amazon pushes its services in the interface of the Fire HD 8.

Wrap up

If you can keep your expectations in check, you won’t be as disappointed when you go to watch a YouTube video to find that you have to download a strange, third-party YouTube app or use the Silk browser. You’ll be less frustrated by the fact that the first things you see on your Fire tablet will always be a promo for a Prime Video original show or slideshow of books you might like that are available through Kindle Unlimited.

In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised by how capable Fire tablets are. I’d venture to say that most people can do most of the things they’d want to do on a regular basis with an Amazon tablet. In the case of the Fire HD 8, the experience is made better by its refined design, HD display and USB-C charging. It could very easily become your e-reader, tiny TV and smart speaker all in one. That’s a great deal for $90, and one that makes playing by Amazon’s rules a bit easier to swallow.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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