Cheap and cheerful, robust, Show Dock is a game changer.
Sluggish, weak screen, minimal changes from 2017, Fire OS isn't even subtle at trying to get you to fund Bezos' lifestyle.
WHEN YOU BUY a Fire HD tablet, you're not expecting top of the range technology. Or if you are, then you should seriously question how the price is around a third that of its rivals. Yes, Amazon sells cheap, but not that cheap.
Like buying own-brand value beans rather than Heinz, you know compromises are being made, and they're still on full display with the latest Fire HD tablet. It can be sluggish straight out the box, the screen is pretty weak and it's about as sleek as a Lego brick, but despite all this, it remains a bargain at its £80 price point.
It's no iPad Pro, but if you want something that you can use to browse the web and watch Netflix on, or palm off to a clumsy child without worrying about breakages, then the Fire is the tablet for you.
Only this time it has an ace up its sleeve: it moonlights as an Echo Show. And it's a masterstroke.
Design and display
If you were under illusions that you were getting a cheap iPad Pro when you paid your £80, this will be quickly shattered when the product arrives in the post. Thick bezels run all the way around the 8-inch display like a cheap picture frame, and rather than the glass back that's all the rage with the most pricey tablets you get a bright-coloured plastic casing.
It's not a bad look, by any means, but it is all a bit Fisher Price compared to the competition - especially in the bright red our review sample came in. It does feel hugely robust though: just the thing to give to the terminally butter fingered. In a way Amazon has just cut out the middle man - you'd likely want a protective case anyway, and it feels like the company has one built in.
It's all pretty simple design wise, but Amazon has got the basics nailed down. There's a power button, buttons for raising and lowering the volume and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There's also a microSD card slot for expanding the fairly paltry 16GB of storage by up to 400GB.
There are no physical buttons for navigation, and instead, a home, back and menu button appear at the bottom of the screen in whatever orientation you carry it. That 8in IPS screen, as you might have guessed, is far from the best we've dealt with. It's a 1,280x800 panel, meaning you get around 189 pixels per inch.
Weak as that is compared to most smartphones these days, text looks reasonably crisp, and things are perfectly reasonable when you're using it face on to browse the web or watch a movie. I quickly found that when moving around a brightly lit room that viewing angles are far from great, and it doesn't cope well in direct sunlight, mind. The TV show I had on in the background became more of a radio drama the further I strayed from the device.
In fact, outside and inside, the Fire HD 8 has barely changed from last year's model. For the core tablet, precisely two things have changed: the front-facing camera is now 720p, and the microSD slot now supports 400GB cards, for the baffling fraction of people that only spend £80 on a tablet, but will happily drop £150 on a memory card.
That means the specifications remain on the meagre side. It's packing a 1.3Ghz Mediatek MT8163 processor, backed by 1.5GB RAM. For the most part, this is fine for simple web browsing, but even out the box it can often feel sluggish, with simple tasks like opening apps and swiping between screens occasionally prone to embarassing pauses.
This anecdotal evidence is backed up by the benchmarks. In Geekbench 4, the Fire 8 HD scored 613 in single-core tests and 1,692 in the multi-core round. In GFXBench, it was in single-digit fps for most of the graphical tests it could manage. You won't be doing high-end gaming on this, but what do you expect for £80?
The payoff to this limited performance is that battery life is truly stellar. You're easily looking into double figures in terms of hours, and comfortably more if you only use it from time to time. When you do need to charge it, any microUSB cable will do - the kind which you're likely already drowning in.
Although the Fire HD 8 runs Android, it's not the kind you've seen on your smartphone - unless you're still plugging away with the Fire Phone. Rather this uses Fire OS - a heavily reskinned version of Android, and it works well as long as you're the kind of person that:
A) Doesn't like to tinker too much
B) Is happy being heavily pushed towards spending money with Amazon every minute of the day.
The home screen is packed with the Amazon app store, Prime video, Amazon Books, Audible, Amazon Offers and so on. Cycle through to the next tab, and it's your Kindle library with picks for you to buy, based on Amazon's algorithmic stare into your very soul. Scroll again and you hit Prime Video with the same deal.
You get the idea. If you buy the £80 version, you're greeted with offers on the lock screen too, with a relatively ad-free experience costing £10 more. Arguably you'll still get ads in the form of context-sensitive recommendations, but it's considerably less obnoxious.
There's nothing stopping you from treating this as a slightly hobbled Android tablet: you can install the Google Play Store, but it's a slightly unwieldy process that involves downloading the APK files and installing them yourself. And you'll still have to deal with the Amazon-friendly interface, even if you do regain full control over your apps.
The trump card
You may be reading this and wondering why you'd buy the 2018 version when the 2017 one is practically the same. The answer is Amazon's trump card: the Fire HD 8 2018 edition can disguise itself as an Echo Show, and that's a game changer.
To be clear, you have to pay a bit more for the privilege. The Show Dock will cost £40 when it's released as a stand-alone item later, but for now, it's only available in a bundle with the tablet, and will set you back £110. That may sound like quite a lot for a package which contains a case with charging contacts on the back, and a dock to stand it in, but when you consider the new Echo Show retails for £220, that's still a solid deal in anyone's book.
True, it's not quite the full Echo Show experience. The new Echo Show has dual 2in drivers and a passive bass radiator, not to mention a full HD screen, but it's a good enough approximation for people who want to test how Alexa functions with a screen. Plus, if you start watching a show on Amazon Prime while making breakfast, you can detach the Fire HD and carry on watching it on the bus on the way to work. It's a smart design choice that I'm sure others will be copying in due course.
As for the utility of Alexa with a screen, we're still not hugely convinced. Voice controls are a bit flakey with all digital assistants, and it's just easier to prod at a screen with fingers than repeat yourself ad infinitum, but it certainly has its uses. Ask for the weather, and you'll get a visual forecast to go with Alexa's readout. Ask to watch a show, and it'll search Prime Video on your behalf.
There's still no YouTube, though, owing to the prolonged and in no way immature standoff between Amazon and Google over Chromecasts and Home devices. That's a crying shame: being able to pull up recipe videos on YouTube would make this almost as essential a kitchen accessory as a hob to my mind, but for now, that's just the way it is.
The Amazon Fire HD 8 2018 tablet isn't the fastest or the prettiest, but it may well be the best value. Most would probably have had a bit more power rather than support for larger microSD cards and a slightly beefier front camera, but the optional Show Dock is a genuine game changer.
For around half the price of a dedicated Echo Show, you're getting something with the same functionality, which can also be used as a cheap, cheerful and (most importantly) rugged tablet. Aside from the slightly aggressive Amazon hard sell operating system, what's not to like? µ
Cheap and cheerful, robust, Show Dock is a game changer.
Sluggish, weak screen, minimal changes from 2017.
Fire OS isn't even subtle at trying to get you to fund Bezos' lifestyle.