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While many Android tablet manufacturers have given up on the market, Amazon has found some success with their very affordable, very customized, and very easy to use Fire HD tablets. The 2020 version of the Amazon Fire HD 8 should be no exception. If you love Amazon’s ecosystem of video, music, books, audiobooks, apps, Alexa compatible accessories and everything retail, the Amazon Fire HD 8 is going to be a great portal to that world.

Specs

The MediaTek MT8168 2.0 GHz quad-core processor and 2GB RAM is 30% faster than previous versions of the Fire HD 8. You’ve also got an 8” 1280 x 800-pixel screen, its form factor is 8.0 by 5.4 by 0.4 inches, and it weighs 0.78 lbs.

Onboarding Experience

I want to start with the out-of-box onboarding experience. This is what users see first, and with the Amazon Fire HD 8, it is very very good. Amazon has gone to great lengths to make the setup experience very informative and easy to use. It starts with a video about Alexa and goes through a bunch of the features of the device. Then it proceeds to explain basic navigation which is very useful for people who are not super familiar with computers or tablets. Here’s a video of it:

The out of box experience is going to be top-notch for new users.

The onboarding tutorial even teaches you how to scroll content pages.

Here’s a screen explaining the shapes in the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. This is one of the things Android does very poorly… and now that Google is switching to a wiener-shaped gesture bar, the new-user usability is even worse. Something Amazon could do to increase the usability here would be to add text labels to the navigation buttons. There’s PLENTY of room to add the works “Back”, “Home”, and “Active Apps” to the navigation bar to clarify the navigation buttons for beginners (and reduce cognitive load required to memorize the functions.)

When you finally get to the Amazon Fire home screen, you’ll see that it is very well designed for easy navigation. There are words written in the language you chose on first boot that clearly identify the functions of most of the elements on the screen. Every app icon has a label, and the sections at the top are clearly identified. This concept of making the user interface obvious to the user has huge advantages. There are less cryptic icons to memorize. There are no hidden gestures to discover and memorize (other than the top-edge gesture.)

This attention to “ease to learn” usability is probably what makes the Amazon Fire tablets so much more popular than other Android tablets.

Hardware

The 8″ screen is not a spectacularly awesome screen. This is, after all, a very affordable $89 tablet. Still, it’s absolutely usable with a1280 x 800-pixel resolution.

You’ll notice quite a good-sized bezel here as well. Thin or non-existent bezels are very popular now, but the problem there is… how do you hold the device without touching the touch screen and accidentally activating buttons. I have this happen many times with bezel-less touch-screen phones. It doesn’t make sense unless you can someday make a touch screen recognize your intent and decipher between holding or interacting touch actions. Of course, that’s not possible right now, so a good thick bezel makes for a good place to hold the tablet.

One one of the longer edges, there is a small 2MP front-facing camera in the bezel. It’s on the long edge so that you can place the device in a stand-in horizontal landscape mode and use it as a video conferencing screen. This comes in handy in “Show mode”.

The top, or right edge depending on how you’re holding it, has the power button and volume up/down buttons. There’s also a USB-C charging port.

On the opposite end next to the USB-C port there’s a 3.5mm headset jack for plugging in headphones.

The longer top/left edge has two speakers with a series of holes to let the sound out. The sound is nice and loud, which is important since “show mode” makes the tablet act as an Alexa device.

The opposite longer edge has a little plastic flap that you can open with a fingernail in order to reveal a MicroSD slot that you can use to add up to 1Tb of more storage space.

The final edge is just smooth clean plastic.

There’s a 2 megapixel camera on the back, too, but this is a tablet so don’t expect to use this for anything other than maybe showing something on a video call. The image quality is not impressive.

Software

The software is really where the Amazon Fire HD 8 differentiates itself from other inexpensive Android tablets. It runs the Amazon Fire OS, which is really Android 9 with a highly customized launcher, lots of integrations with Amazon’s other services, and no Google Play services. So instead of having to log in with your Google account like most Android devices, you have to log in with your Amazon account.

Even the lock screen is customized with Amazon content. Above is an advertisement for some best selling books that you can buy and read in the Amazon Kindle app.

The Fire HD’s “Home” interface consists of side-scrolling panels that let you flip to different sections. It’s similar to the excellent Windows Phone and Windows 8 “Metro” UI design styles as everything is written in plain English (or your language of choice) in order to make it all very easy to understand.

Each panel lets you browse a different type of content offered by Amazon. There’s books, music, audio books, movies & videos, news, games, apps, and even a “shop” section where you can browse for and order real-world things on Amazon.

Amazon’s “Silk” web browser is based on the open-source Chromium 81, so it works just as well as Chrome on Android in terms of HTML rendering.

Besides the Amazon product apps, the Fire HD 8 also includes a lot of must-have apps and utilities that work quite well. These are all built by Amazon. The email app supports POP3, IMAP, and Exchange Servers. At first, it didn’t seem to work at all with Exchange, but after a hard reset and re-add, it’s totally working fine. The Contacts and Calendar apps also sync with Exchange as well as Google accounts. There doesn’t seem to be a way to manually specify CardDAV or CalDAV sync servers though.

The Maps app is basic but functional as well. It uses Nokia’s HERE maps data, not Google’s. Unfortunately it does not offer offline map downloads like the normal HERE apps.

“Show Mode” turns the Amazon Fire HD into an Alexa powered smart speaker display. Be sure to turn on the “Alexa Hands free” mode first though, otherwise nothing will work and Alexa won’t hear your commands.

While just about all of Amazon’s software is very well designed and easy to use, one of the issues you might run into is the lack of app selection in the Amazon app store. Your mileage may vary, but some of my must-have apps were actually missing. OneNote wasn’t available. Xbox App wasn’t available. Nine wasn’t available. With OneNote, I thought I could just use the web app version in the browser, but it turns out copy/pasting URLs or other content between other apps and the OneNote web app is impossible.

It is possible to hack the Google Play services and the Google Play Store onto the Amazon Fire HD if you really want to though.

Personally, a lot of my preferred apps are actually open-source apps that can be side-loaded or installed via F-Droid. F-Droid can easily be installed on the Amazon Fire HD 8 via the F-Droid website. You obviously have to allow it in the settings and the browser will prompt you for that. While F-Droid also does not have as much of a selection as Google Play, it’s good to support more ethical software developers.

I installed OsmAnd for offline GPS mapping, Twidere for Twitter, Fedilab for Fediverse access, Frost for a customized Facebook, Termux for Linux emulation, OpenVPN to access private networks, and Jitsi Meet for standard WebRTC video conferencing.

While most of the included Amazon apps work quite well, the Alexa app only ever shows an animated circle on a black screen. I tried hard-resetting the entire device, clearing the app’s data/storage, etc. Nothing got it to work. Alexa itself works fine with voice commands and show mode, but the app just doesn’t work for me. Luckily, after a week or so, the app updated itself and now allows for seeing the history of commands, adding skills, and adding IoT devices, so yours will probably work correctly.

Another bug is in the “Alexa, what’s my next appointment?” command. If I ask that, Alexa responds with “I don’t see a calendar set up. Want me to send a link to your phone to set up your calendar?” This happens even if I have the calendar open with appointments clearly visible in the Amazon Fire HD’s calendar app. I can see the next appointment on the screen, but Amazon doesn’t think I have a calendar set up.

Also, what phone are you going to send a link to? I’m not using a phone, I’m using an Amazon Fire HD tablet. It turns out, saying “yes” to this will put a notification on the tablet which you can tap and navigate to the Alexa app. You have to set up your calendar AGAIN in the Alexa app instead of in the Calendar app. The Fire HD has the same problem with email. Alexa can’t read the email in the email app on the Fire HD. You have to add the accounts AGAIN in the Alexa app. Furthermore, the Alexa app doesn’t support the same types of email accounts as the email app does.

Alexa only supports Microsoft O365Hotmail/Live/Outlook.com and Gmail. It doesn’t support open-standard email protocols like IMAP and POP3 even though the email app does, and it doesn’t seem to support self-hosted Exchange servers. So if you’re not using Gmail or Microsoft hosted email, you’re out of luck when it comes to Alexa. Though that might be just as well given privacy issues concerning Alexa’s software reading your messages anyway.

Battery

The battery life is rated to last about 12 hours. It may be less than that if you’re constantly watching videos. For me, using it on the couch for web browsing, email, and social network apps, it can last almost 3 days without a charge.

Pricing & Availability

One of the big advantages of the Amazon Fire HD 8 is that it’s very affordable. It’s only $89.99 and it’s available on Amazon.com.

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Very affordable $89 price
  • Very user-friendly software design
  • Heavily integrated Amazon services
  • 12 hour battery life
  • Loud speakers
  • Alexa hands-free show mode makes the tablet work like a smart speaker appliance

Cons

  • Amazon Android app store doesn’t have as many app choices as Google Play
  • Sends a lot of information to Amazon to help sell you more stuff

Conclusion

Instead of being designed to lock you into doing everything within Google’s ecosystem like most Android devices… or lock you into doing everything within Apple’s ecosystem like iOS devices… the Amazon Fire HD 8 is designed to lock you into doing everything within Amazon’s ecosystem. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since Amazon’s ecosystem of content and products to sell you is quite diverse and expansive. The Fire HD tablets are very inexpensive as well, so instead of getting one $400 iPad, you could get 4 $90 Fire HD tablets and have internet-connected tablet computers for the whole family. If you’re on a budget, the Amazon Fire HD 8 is a great choice for couch consumption of content.

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