The $50 Fire Tablet: First Impressions

In its continuing bid to attempt to take over the world so no one ever will buy anything from anyone but them, Amazon a couple of weeks ago released a $50, 7-inch Fire tablet, designed, one presumes, to entice the curious, the cheap and those on limited incomes. Well, it worked on me; I was curious what a $50 tablet from Amazon would be like, so I got one. It arrived while I was away, so it wasn’t until yesterday that I pulled it out from its packaging and played with it.

My initial impressions: For $50, I don’t think you can really complain. This is by no stretch of the imagination a top-of-the-line tablet — it’s plastic-y, the power buttons are a little wobbly, the screen is a you-notice-the-pixels 1024×600 (171 ppi), and there’s only 8GB of memory on the thing — but, again, it’s fifty bucks. It’s got roughly the same basic specs as the 7-inch Samsung tablet I bought in 2012, and I thought that was pretty cheap at $250. One fifth the price in three years for these specs? Seems pretty fair.

If you accept you’re not getting the top of the line, you can also accept that what it is, is fairly decent. The screen is not great resolution but it’s an IPS screen so the colors pop. The 8GB memory on board is nothing great but it has a microSD expansion slot so you can expand the memory on board up to an additional 128GB (which will cost you the same as the tablet). In my playing with it, it’s perfectly responsive and had no problems with Web sites, email, and casual games. It’s for casual consumption of stuff.

And specifically, stuff from Amazon. The OS is Amazon’s fork of Android, so if you know Android, you won’t get lost here. That said, everything about the Fire is channeling you through Amazon. The app store is Amazon’s app store; when you turn on the tablet it advertises things on Amazon to you (you can apparently pay extra to have that turned off); the screens on the tablet are organized to help you more efficiently consume Amazon product.

I don’t think this should be huge shock. To be blunt, if you buy a branded tablet from a ruthlessly competitive retailer like Amazon, you shouldn’t be entirely surprised that you get a locked-down Amazon-only experience. But it’s also fair to point out that’s what you get, and to ask yourself if that’s actually what you want.

I went in knowing this tablet would be all-Amazon, all the time, so it wasn’t a problem (I suppose I could root the thing, but, really, why). Indeed, one reason I got the thing is that I have an Amazon Prime account and having a Fire tablet, as I understand it, allows me to access some features I might not otherwise be able to. So as a Prime user, this is the cheapest way to do that.

Would I recommend a $50 Fire tablet? Not for anyone who isn’t idly curious and/or has more than $50 to spend and/or isn’t already tied into the Amazon ecosystem. There are better options, including ones that don’t lock you into Amazon’s OS, app store and retail experience. But for $50, and for folks whole hog into Amazon? Hey, you know, it’s pretty damn not bad. So far I’m pleased with what I got in exchange for my money, which, ultimately, is the key metric.

40 thoughts on “The $50 Fire Tablet: First Impressions

  1. I bought one and I’m happy with it. I like that it has a sd card slot and the resolution is fine for reading and watching prime video. I bought it to leave up at our lake place in the summer. It does the basics just fine and I’m pretty happy with the Amazon ecosystem, so it’ s a win for me.

  2. I picked one up for my 13yo daughter and it’s been perfect for her needs. It’s inexpensive enough not to worry about, and since we have to buy her some books for school I can get them on Kindle and even monitor whether she’s actually doing her reading.

    It works for us.

  3. …but is it a Kindle? There are some Amazon features only available to Kindle users, and not to Android users of Kindle software. The Prime (ahem) example is the Kindle Lending Library.

  4. I got a Fire as my first tablet around Christmas last year. (Again- they were having a sale) I have a desktop for heavy-duty work, but for my at-home, check the email and play Candy Crush machine, it’s just fine.

  5. joelfinkle:

    The Fire counts as a Kindle for those purposes, yes.

    matthewcaffrey:

    I have a lot, let’s just say. But older electronics get passed around and reused by others.

  6. “I have a lot, let’s just say.”

    You better hope we avoid some Maximum Overdrive situation where radiation from a strange comet makes all your devices sentient so that they start… taking inappropriate pictures and uploading them to your twitter account, maybe? I guess sentient tablets aren’t as scary as sentient trucks.

  7. If you only want to read books, that sounds like its far more than enough horsepower for books right or audiobooks right? This means in a 2-3 years, Amazon should be able to sell an ereader tablet just for ebooks for $10. Most of the cost will be manufacturing. This is what they want. They want you to buy books from them.

    It may get to the point in a few years where if you sign up for Amazon prime or some book club they just give you the E-Reader for free.

  8. My wife wanted to get a large-screen phone so she could play games and watch video. After pricing options for that, we looked at tablets instead and we got this one. Works very well for what she wants (and, since she is down with pneumonia this week, she is doing extensive testing!)

  9. Does it allow you to use the Youtube App through the Amazon App Store? I love my Kindle Fire HD, but it irritatingly does not let you do that.

  10. @Guess – kind of like how DVD players went from $500+ luxury items the first few years they were out, to something you could pick up at the drugstore and Best Buy basically gave you for free when you bought a new HDTV?

    A few years back I bought a Kindle PaperWhite for what I think was $39 on special from Amazon because I wanted an eReader that was small enough to carry to the gym, but big enough that I wasn’t blinding myself reading on the exercise bike. Works nicely, and I still sometimes use it when I just want an eReader – but I think my next phone’s going to be an iPhone 6S Plus, which will basically negate its value to me.

  11. Ugh. I’ve lost a long comment TWICE on account of my Android tablet reloading the page and losing what I’d typed on the on screen keyboard when I went to get a link or logged into Facebook for my identity. Suffice it to say, you don’t have to root the Fire to put the Play store on it, from which you can load almost any Android app. No DMCA violation required, as far as my layman’s knowledge of the law goes. Just activate developer mode from a menu. More details here; my lunch break is over and I’m out of time to type.

    http://www.teleread.com/chris-meadows/on-adding-the-google-services-apps-to-the-50-fire-tablet-and-what-happens-next/

  12. Hmm, I didn’t realize the price of such things had dropped so low. Do you know whether it supports text-to-speech for reading audiobooks? I’ve used the accessibility plugin with Kindle for PC, but something a little more portable would be nice to have, if it’s that affordable.

  13. I was going to buy one to give away in a drawing to one of my newsletter readers. Am I going to look cheap? Is it not really ‘Kindle’ enough for somebody to be happy, or will they be frustrated by things it won’t do?

  14. It supports everything the bog-standard Android Kindle app will do, because it effectively is a plain vanilla Android tablet with a custom launcher and no Play store. It doesn’t have much of a speaker, but does have an earphone jack and Bluetooth.

  15. Plastic-y? As in.. “Someone, usually but not exclusively female, whose physical augmentations tend towards the plastic look of either an airbrushed mag ad or a mid-naughties video game.”? I don’t know where that term germinated but it should have stayed in the dirt.

    I disagree on the “plasticy”. The new Fire has a solid feel for a unit made from, yes, plastic. At that price point, it is well made. I won’t rehash specs, but memory is tight given you can only use 5gb of the 8gb. The MicroSD is a welcome addition but not a simple path for storing Amazon content. [Check out: http://blog.the-ebook-reader.com/2015/10/05/fire-tablets-microsd-card-how-to-guide-everything-you-need-to-know/%5D

    As for, “…if you buy a branded tablet from a ruthlessly competitive retailer like Amazon, you shouldn’t be entirely surprised that you get a locked-down Amazon-only experience…”, Apple too has been called evil but even they don’t lock you in as much as Amazon. Apple provides competitor e-reading programs in their app store.

    All that aside, the new Fire is a damn good deal. I got mine a few days ago and have been toying with it. I’ve already easily added a couple non-Amazon tools I use (without rooting) and am surprisingly satisfied with the device. Stuff like Netflix, HBO, etc., are all available and workable.

    I tried dedicated e-readers in the past and cannot recommend unitaskers. I don’t web surf on portables. I find the tiny experience annoying. I only started streaming recently, while on the treadmill, but it is a decent device for that purpose. Given for me it’s use is first reading and then streaming, I find it well worth the price. For me, it technically came free. Thanks Microsoft Bing!

    Thanks for another review and good luck with your new toy! Will we see pictures of you in the spring sitting under the new Maple trees reading ARCs on your new toy? How about writing something new to go along with that toy?? Surely there is a budget priced short story bouncing around in that head of yours somewhere!

  16. It sounds a whole lot better than the $50 Tablet we bought for our 10 y.o. last Christmas! She rarely uses the thing because it never runs/loads/does anything remotely useful besides “update apps.” Maybe this Christmas we’ll get her one of these…

  17. I am sorry for being an electronics idiot, but hey, I’m the demographic for that. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on a couple of things.

    First, does a tablet also act as a telephone? Would this replace my (much too old, clunky, short-battery-life) Android?

    Second, I gather I can surf the net with this, including checking my email?

    Third, and for me most important, how does this compare to my Kindle Paperwhite? Easier to read or harder? It looks like I could finally read comics on it, which would be a plus, but would it otherwise be as easy to read as my Kindle? I read A LOT on my Kindle, so this is a huge issue.

    Thanks for the help!

  18. I got a couple HKC 8″ Android tablets in June of last year for $70 each and they’ve been great. I use ’em mostly for web browsing (keep one on the table right next to my comfy chair for looking up stuff I encounter whilst reading). Their specs are pretty much the same as the $50 Fire tablet but they’re not locked into Amazon. I haven’t checked lately but I think one can get that sort of tablet for about $50 these days as well. Give me a choice and I’d avoid a tablet that’s locked into any specific vendor like the plague.

  19. Just to answer some questions and correct something. It does support audiobooks via audible. As for Hulu. Netflix, HBO, etc they all work as well. The one thing about Amazon, love them or hate them, you can consume their content on more than just their devices. They have apps for all over the place, content is what they want to sell.

  20. $50 would be a good price. I got one a couple years. It’s kind of my Kindle backup, or, the, Yeah, honey, I bought that book on my account (my wife & I have separate Kindle accounts), but here, read it on the Fire. I don’t use it much. I absolutely agree with you on being funneled through Amazon. I don’t think much of its Silk browser, but I think it’s pretty good for downloading TV or movies (via Amazon), a so-so reader (I don’t care reading on that screen).

  21. @SherryH: I believe text-to-speech is a sticky point, because Amazon wants you to buy in to their Audible store, not do on-the-fly conversions. I don’t know if this thing supports an app that will do that, but YMMV; I am unfamiliar with Amazon Android and all its ramifications.

  22. I’ve had a fire xd for sometime and even though it’s really A Relentless Amazon Purchasing Machine I’m pretty pleased with it.
    One thing I have noticed is that the picture quality is noticably worse on Netflix than Amazon’s own prime service, and I’m pretty sure that’s intentional.

  23. Did Amazon omit/cripple the Google Play books and music apps? If not, this might be worth it as an extra player. Amazon makes it difficult to consume Prime content on non-Amazon devices.

  24. @Michael F: The Amazon app store actually has a good number of Prime competitors, so you can install those with no problem. About the only competitors it won’t let you stick on are third-party e-book reading apps—even though they’re in the Amazon App Store and they’re all perfectly compatible with the Fire if you, say, download them to an SD card and then sideload them. Or, of course, you can get them from the Google Play Store if you use the above-stated method for sticking it on. As far as I can tell, they’re exactly the same versions of the apps on both stores. In fact, after I sideloaded the Play Store, it cheerfully started auto-updating a number of apps I’d previously installed from Amazon. Go figure, huh?

    @Brett: No YouTube app via the Kindle store, alas—YouTube, is after all, part of The Hated Enemy, so all you get is a launcher shortcut to the YouTube web site. That being said, if you install the Google Play app store as I suggested above, the YouTube app will happily plop right into your tablet from out of it and play YouTube videos like nobody’s business.

    @SherryH: To clarify the brief answer I posted earlier: yes, it supports Kindle text-to-speech in both its forms. You can get Audible e-book/audiobook Whispersync from within the app if you bought both the e-book and audiobook from Amazon/Audible. You can also go into the settings menu and enable text-to-speech (“when supported for this title”) and it will read the text aloud to you in an artificial computer voice if you want. Again, the single built-in speaker is tiny and tinny, but it’s got an earphone jack and Bluetooth so it’ll work great with headphones or external speakers.

    One other thing I should clarify is that it’s not exactly like the Amazon Kindle app in that, for whatever reason, Amazon segregates store-bought e-books and stuff you sideload or send-to-Kindle into two separate apps (“E-Books” and “Documents”) rather than combining them into one single Kindle app. But apart from that separation, they behave effectively identically. The only really annoying thing is that it can’t access e-books stored on the SD card; for whatever reason, the Documents program behaves as if that card doesn’t exist, which is aggravating given the minuscule 8 (5 user-accessible) gigabytes of on-board memory. If you want to carry a lot of e-books around on an SD card, you’ll have to install a third-party e-reader via sideloading or the Play Store.

    @terryweyna: The only way you could get it to act as a telephone would be to install the Google Play store and add Google Voice functionality to it. Or else use and pay for telephone access from Skype, which you can get from Amazon’s store. Neither one is really a terribly good substitute for a true telephone.

    @Mike Starr: It’s true that there are other $50 tablets out there on Amazon. The thing to bear in mind is that they tend to be cheap Chinese OEM stuff, Amazon tends to shave hardware margins razor-thin when they can, and the price of the Fire is partly subsidized by the $20 lock-screen ads. So you’re effectively getting a $70 tablet for $50, and a $70 tablet with not a lot of fat in the price at that.

    For example, the Fire can support SDXC cards of up to 128 GB, while most OEM tablets can only handle SDHC 32 GB cards. You can’t (as yet) completely root the tablet so you can use true plain-vanilla Android, but I’ve found that once I installed the Play Store on mine, and added almost all the Google apps I was missing (only Inbox won’t work on it for some reason), it’s about 80 to 90% as good as a plain-vanilla tablet in my book—and at $50, it’s a darned good price. Indeed, you get kind of the best of both worlds, because leaving everything else as it is and just adding the Google stuff means the tablet still registers as a genuine Kindle product, too, so you can still get the benefit of all the Amazon-ecosystem-only stuff they stuck in.

    @Rick K.: As noted, Amazon leaves out all the Google apps, including Books and Music—but once you sideload the Play Store, you can install them from there and they’ll work just fine (except for Inbox, for whatever reason). Even the Chrome Browser runs and doesn’t complain.

  25. I picked one up the day they were released, and I’ve been pretty pleased. It’s no iPad, but I knew that going in. It works great for Amazon Video, Netflix, Amazon Music, and some light web surfing. I’ve added the Twitter app, Wikipedia, and a few others, and it makes a great “leave it on the coffee table” kind of device. And I love that I can download from Amazon Video at work on the good office Wi-Fi, and watch it at home where my connection isn’t exactly robust.

    Yes, it’s small, and the back is obviously plastic, and the screen is a bit pixel-y, and it really, really wants you to buy more stuff from Amazon. So what? You have to ask yourself one question: What the hell do you want for fifty bucks?

  26. I’ve got one from a couple years ago that’s on indefinite loan from a friend (indefinite = at least through Hugo nominating season; we’re sharing books). It doesn’t do much (no SD card), but what it does is fine. I read the books, I watch the video, I can go over to the Documents for books bought outwith Amazon. I websurf other places, but this is a handy little thing to stick in your pocket or purse for entertainment purposes.

    It would be splendid to give to your kid, esp. if you set it up as the child portion of your account, so they can’t buy anything or read the naughty books.

    For $50, it’s eminently suitable.

  27. I got mine a few weeks ago. I am seriously into the Amazon ecosystem, so the Amazoniness of the device doesn’t bother me. I knew what I was buying.

    It’s not my first e-reader (that was actually a phone… several phones back). I bought a Nook first. I liked that, until I broke the page forward thingy. An e-reader that doesn’t page forward is kinda pointless.I got one of the first Kindle Fires, which still works just fine. But this one is thinner, and lighter and I got a very affordable case with a built in stand, so it’s finally light enough to hold, and I don’t even have to.

    And I don’t mind the ad. One per session, I visit websites that do worse.

  28. I wonder if Amazon is going to get into some of the same trouble Microsoft did with force-feeding their own software and funneling people to their own store.

  29. After Amazon got in bed with the big publishing houses and raised prices 30 percent or more, I sold my Fire tablet. In what universe does publishing an eBook cost more than a hardcover book?

    $50 is just the entry fee to a world of overpriced eBooks.

  30. @Tim: A world where the publishers are free to set e-book prices as high as they want because they pushed through restrictive agency sales agreements, but Amazon still has the option to discount paper books below retail prices because they’re still sold on a normal wholesale basis? The reason “publishing an e-book costs more than a hardcover book” is that Amazon still has the right to mark down the hardcover book.

    Really, you’re blaming the wrong people for e-book prices going up. Amazon didn’t “get in bed with” the publishers. Indeed, they spent a year fighting with the publisher Hachette over the first such contract before they finally gave in.

    Anyway, only the Big Five Publishers’ e-books are overpriced; most self-published titles are priced a lot more reasonably.

  31. Mine arrived today. First impressions, it’s a helluva deal for $50. Screen is okay, if not up to iPad sleekness, easy to use, performance is poky, but acceptable. A good tablet to toss in the bag for a quick trip.

  32. @The Mad Librarian, thanks! I’ve been told they also want to protect their content – the same features that would make it accessible to outside screen readers would also make it more accessible to people who want to rip the content and sell it. Don’t know whether that’s true or not.

    At least on Kindle for PC with the accessibility The Kindle for PC with accessibility plugin uses my screen reader (NVDA) to read menus and titles and its own TTS engine to read the actual content. Trust me, it’s no competition for audiobooks! The voice is flat and mechanical, and I’d say its…what, glossary?…is much more limited than NVDA’s.

    But sometimes I want the text itself, rather than a reader’s interpretation, and there are self-published friends and indie publishers I’d like to support whose work isn’t available in audio format.

    @Chris Meadows, thanks! That helps a lot!

    I have used Android’s Talkback feature, though I can’t say I’m very proficient with it. So far, all the ereader apps I’ve found have let me access the menus and library with Talkback, but not the actual contents of a book. Doesn’t mean they’re not out there, just that I haven’t looked hard enough. I suspect that, rather than a new tablet or Kindle, is the direction I should be looking in.

    You know, I never thought to check whether the Kindle app on my smartphone has TTS. D’oh!

  33. Tim, also, the cost of production is only one of the things that determines price – the demand for the product at the current instant also affects the price that Amazon can charge for an e-book. Think of it as “price discrimination” in the “neutral, Economics course” sense: for the “take my money, I want it now” people who have to have the newest thing, Amazon can charge a high-ish price. When the item has been in the marketplace for a while, Amazon can lower the price and get a new group of people to buy it, or get the original hardcover purchasers to buy an electronic copy. It can even temporarily lower the price (even to zero) if the author has a number of titles available – the “first taste is free” model of marketing. If this seems evil to you, think of it as equivalent to offering coupons in the Sunday paper – there are people who have enough time to clip, store, and retrieve coupons so that they pay a lower cash price at the supermarket compared to other people. In this case, one pays a lower price by spending “time”.

  34. @mmug: As I noted above, Amazon doesn’t control the price for those expensive e-books. The publishers set the price. Amazon doesn’t have the ability to mark them down, so whether it’s “price discrimination” or not, Amazon isn’t the one doing the discriminating.

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