In the run up to Christmas, when the likes of Apple are suggesting we might like to buy someone an iPad as a present, here is a tablet so cheap that you can buy one each for a family of four and still have £40 left compared to one entry-level iPad Mini 2.
The Leader Demands a High Price
Apple will likely sell a lot of iPads this Xmas. After all, the word ‘iPad’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘tablet’ and a lot of people wouldn’t consider anything else for fear of getting it wrong.
The Fire brand can bring some competition, because it has the might of Amazon behind it and they’ve decided to offer a wider range of models, starting with the basic Fire here, which can be had for under £50!
Cheap or Value?
But can any £50 tablet really be any good? Well, as unfair as it is to compare it to an iPad, I’m afraid I’ll slip into that trap occasionally, because almost everyone has had a go on an iPad and it’ll help set expectations.
Delivered in a brightly coloured box that’s been designed to stand upright, this Fire has ‘gift idea’ written all over it. Well, not literally, but it’s neat packaging.
Opening the box releases a compact tablet that, whilst conservative in design (bland), feels well made, good in the hand and is about the weight of a small hardback book.
Powering it on triggers the first of a few disappointments for those used to iPads. The screen is not magical by today’s standards. In fact, my example is worse than that, with visible light-bleed from two corners that wash out the blacks to grey and a scattering of dead pixels too. Perhaps this one received a bump in transit, but my first impression has also taken a hit.
Otherwise, we’re in familiar tablet territory here, with power and volume buttons, a headphone socket, micro-USB for charging and a micro-SD slot for memory expansion. It’s worth noting that the memory card slot will take up to 128GB. An iPad will take an upgrade of . . . nothing. You can’t upgrade an iPad.
Love Fire, Love Amazon
The Fire runs an operating system called FireOS. It’s basically a reworked version of Google’s Android, which is no bad thing. Waking up the tablet always reveals an advert, which itself is the beginning of another reveal - why Amazon might want to sell a £50 tablet.
The menu system will be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up and used a smartphone and I imagine, intuitive to the remaining few that haven’t. Tabs across the top of the screen divide the categories, starting with ‘Home’. Home is where all your apps live in a long sorted list of icons. Swipe once from right to left and you’re into the next category, which is Books. Keep swiping and you’ll see Video, Games, Shop, Music, Audiobooks and more.
Unlike home, each of these other views is essentially a storefront for one of Amazon’s digital services. Books is their Kindle service, AudioBooks is ‘Audible’ and Music is ‘Prime Music’.
Yes, to use a Fire tablet is to spend a lot of time in Amazon’s ecosystem and hopefully spend some of that money that you saved on the tablet on some of their other services.
If that sounds borderline cynical, it’s not meant to, but it’s worth being aware. I default to Amazon for a lot of online purchases, so actually don’t mind too much that there is a bias in their direction on this tablet. Also, it’s only a bias. If I want to listen to Spotify instead of Amazon Prime Music, or read e-books from my local library via OverDrive, I can simply download the app. Certainly if you’re an Amazon Prime member, all the included services you get come together beautifully and you may never want or need to download other paid digital content. Point is, Amazon won’t stop you if you run off to Netflix and everything works smoothly and responsively.
Third Party Apps
Whilst we’re covering the operating system, it’s important to understand that whilst it’s Google Android underneath all that Amazon-ness - it really is a different beast altogether. For example, there’s no access to the Google Play app store here. You have to use Amazon’s.
In terms of sheer numbers, that means less apps are available. However, there’s a lot less junk in Amazon’s app store and I was pleasantly surprised to find most of the ones I use regularly on iPad (and my Android phone) here, present and correct. There’s also a large amount of apps that are paid-for on other platforms that Amazon have made free here, which was a nice surprise. I did see a number of reviews from younger buyers that expressed disappointment that Snapchat wasn’t available. I’m afraid that’s still the case and could be a deal breaker for those of a social-network persuasion.
Other than that, you’re pretty well served. I’ve been enjoying Feedly, Pocket and Flipboard for reading; Netflix and iPlayer for TV and Wunderlist and Trello for keeping myself organised. I could even do a spot of work if I wanted to as I found Microsoft’s Outlook, OneDrive and OneNote on there and all connected to my Office365 account without an issue. I confess, I didn’t do any real work with it, but you can if you fancy it.
All of the above apps ran well. Amazingly well given the price tag, which I’m starting to find, well, amazing. After all, this is not a cutting edge piece of technology, but it works.
Obviously there is compromise. The apps take longer to load than they do on an iPad. You adjust to that though. The screen is also no where near as sharp and is clearly more limited in terms of colour reproduction and contrast. That said, short blasts of reading are fine - although it is text that suffers worst for the lower resolution. Pictures actually look pretty good and video looks great if you’re the type happy with DVD picture quality. Outside, the screen will not compete with bright sunlight, but in all indoor conditions, I was happy to watch videos and play games on it, without feeling that the screen was coming up short. If you have an expensive smartphone, or your other tablet is an iPad, maybe consider one of the HD branded Fire tablets instead.
Otherwise, it’s not nearly as bad as the spec-sheet suggested.
Gaming is definitely one area where you’ll want to be careful. If you plan to play the latest ‘console quality’ games, I recommend you put this review down and look further up the Fire range, or consider a fruit based tablet. But everyone else is well served. Popular titles like ‘Words With Friends’ and ‘The Room’ are here for the thinkers and even MineCraft Story Mode and Farming Simulator are available for those who plan to spend a few hours at a time gaming.
Again, everything ran just fine, after slightly longer than expected load times. I did notice the Fire getting rather warm during Minecraft, but at Christmas a hand-warmer is also a nice present! Sonic the Hedgehog also got a little bit choppy when he reached top speed, but it was perfectly playable and the kids will love it.
Speaking of kids, I can imagine many readers are considering this as a present for a young friend or family member. If they can cope with the absence of Snapchat, then I recommend it. Firstly, because young people do not always respect their things and, in a protective case, it should remain protected against a hard life. You no doubt want to protect your children in their online lives too and Amazon have done a great job baking a ‘kids mode’ into the Fire.
Each family member can have a profile and there are two kid’s modes that can be applied - one for 10 and under and the other for 11 plus.
The first thing you can do is set a bedtime. This means the tablet will not only shutdown at said time, your child won’t be able to wake it up again until you’ve decided what time everyone, gadgets included should go back online.
Secondly you can set some educational goals. After all, tablets aren’t just good for games and, as well as reading obviously, there are plenty of good learning apps out there. But for example, you can set a daily goal of, say, 30mins reading. If you really want to get tough, you can ban all entertainment apps until the educational goals have been reached - but it’s totally up to you.
Finally, you can place internet browsing off-limits entirely (so they can only use the kid-friendly apps that you’ve given them) and you can block use of the cameras.
It’s a great system, very easy to setup and you can apply different settings for weekdays and weekends.
If your kids are very young, take a look at the 'Fire Kids Edition Tablet' whilst you're on Amazon. At a penny under £100, this is the same unit under the hood but the extra money is not wasted. First of all, for two years, if your kid breaks it, Amazon will replace it with no questions asked. It comes encased in a fun, but rugged shell that Amazon probably hopes means you won't be claiming too often. And lastly, you get a year's access to the 'Kids Unlimited' package meaning all the content they'll ever need at no additional cost.
When I received the Fire, I had to work a bit to make sure I wasn’t biased by my more premium personal smartphone and tablet. But I didn’t have to work that hard. Whilst my sample had a few broken pixels, it otherwise managed to impress me with both its simplicity and usability. Yes, the spec-sheet is not exciting by any stretch, but you really can do most things you expect to be able to do on a tablet and have a perfectly fine time.
This tablet is a great first entry point for adults who think they may want the pick up and use convenience of a tablet, but aren’t sure they want to commit too much money. Those who go on to spend hours on it, may do well to trade up to an HD model, as the Fire is also a good second tablet for families who are getting fed up with fighting over a single tablet.
It’s also a great gadget for kids - especially as Kids Mode will go a long way to protecting them as they explore the online world.
It’s not for those people already rocking expensive phones and computers. Next to an iPad, the screen looks poor and it is slower, at least when it comes for waiting for apps to open. If you don’t have one of those for constant comparison, you’ll likely not care or notice most of the time.
In short, the Fire is a good tablet and it’s astonishing that you can buy a good tablet for this kind of money. It will definitely ensure a happy Christmas for a lot of people this year.