It’s often posited that a major factor in the tablet market’s recent decline is a lack of reason to upgrade; most people use these devices for little more than content consumption, and the one they bought years ago will often do that job for years to come. I don’t quite embody this myself, as I work on my iPad Pro almost every day, but it’s not surprising to me either — I also still use my Amazon Fire HDX all the time.
The weird thing with Amazon tablets in particular, though, is that if I did decide to buy a new one today it’d actually be a downgrade.
Amazon’s Fire tablets aren’t for everyone. If you care about app selection or productivity, there are far better options out there. But if all you want from your tablet is a simple device that’s bigger than your phone, easier to hold than your laptop, and better for watching videos and reading books than both — and I think that applies to a lot of people — it’s hard to beat the 2013 Fire HDX. My 7-inch model has a great 1920 x 1200 screen that holds up well even next to newer devices, and its Snapdragon 800 processor remains entirely fit for purpose. We recommended it over the higher-end 8.9-inch model upon release.
But Amazon discontinued it in 2015, replacing the HDX with the Fire HD line. The Fire HD comes in 8-inch and 10.1-inch 16GB variants, both with 1280 x 800 screens. The smaller model sells for $89.99 and the larger model costs $229.99, though it’s listed as out of stock until July. Given the identical resolution, more practical size for ebooks, and dramatically lower price, I think the 2016 Fire HD 8 is clearly the more mainstream model between the two, though you can save even more with the 7-inch 1024 x 600 8GB Fire at $49.99.
The upshot is this: not a single Fire tablet on sale today, a range of products ostensibly intended for the express purpose of watching Amazon Prime Video, has a 1080p-capable display. What?
Resolution isn’t everything, of course, so I wanted to check out the Fire HD 8’s screen in person before calling it bad. I ordered a Fire HD 8 last week. The screen is bad. Quite aside from the noticeably lower pixel density when compared to the HDX, the colors are washed out with a blue tint, the air gap is bigger, and it’s far more reflective. It’s a bad screen.
The HD 8 does have some advantages over the HDX. Despite its lower quality, I do prefer the 8-inch screen size, especially with the smaller side bezels. The speakers are a little better. The battery life seems better, too, though you’d expect as much from a bigger, thicker, and multiple years newer device. There’s a microSD card slot and a rear-facing camera — it’s staggeringly bad, but it exists. And the operating system, the Android Lollipop-based version of Amazon’s Fire OS known as Bellini, is a vast improvement; the UI is actually great, ditching the old carousel design for a simple system of icon grids, swipeable tabs, and a useful “recent” view; and it supports Alexa. (Granted, this “advantage” is because Amazon didn’t update the HDX’s software beyond Sangria, the KitKat version of Fire OS.)
But screen quality is everything for a tablet, particularly one primarily sold as a vector for Amazon’s own video service. Amazon’s original shows like Transparent and The Man in the High Castle are filmed in 4K, and Prime Video is one of the better sources of 4K and HDR content out there. It’s odd to me that Amazon would drop ludicrous amounts of money on The Grand Tour, one of the most expensive shows ever made, and encourage you to watch it on such an inadequate device.
Pricing is, of course, a concern, and I’m sure the Fire HD 8 would be worth $89.99 to pretty much anyone that doesn’t own a tablet. And Amazon says its low-cost strategy is leading to more sales. But I don’t think that explains why it couldn’t offer a credible higher-end device as well. The HDX 7 was $229.99 in 2013, the same price as the lower-specced Fire HD 10 today, and got steadily cheaper over time. 1080p panels are not exotic or expensive components these days. And this is the same company that sells the $289.99 Kindle Oasis, essentially a luxury ebook reader, alongside the $79.99 entry-level Kindle.
It was reported throughout 2015 that Amazon was refocusing its Lab126 hardware division, with projects including a 14-inch tablet said to have been put on ice. As someone that takes his 12.9-inch iPad Pro on every vacation and weekend trip pretty much exclusively for use as a misshapen portable TV, I would have bought the heck out of that 14-inch Fire tablet if it were the best way to watch Prime Video (and Netflix, and Hulu, and so on).
Now, I accept that a gigantic Amazon tablet would probably have been a very niche product and it’s not too surprising that it never saw release. A smaller tablet that can play Mozart in the Jungle in 1080p, though? That doesn’t feel like a stretch. I don’t think I need one myself — I still have my HDX, after all. But what about first-time buyers?
A year ago, I defended the Kindle Oasis by calling it a cork as opposed to a screwcap bottle — it’s not materially better, but it is a lot nicer, and often that niceness can be worth paying for. The Fire HD 8, then, is box wine. It’s cheap, accessible, and does the job in a pinch, but you wouldn’t want all wine in the world to be that way. With that said, here’s hoping Amazon sees the value in releasing another screwcap tablet sometime soon.