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Interface and reliability
- Very different from stock Android
- Pushes Amazon's shops and services
- Doesn't have Google Play
If there's one bit that might put you off the Amazon Fire HD 8 (2016), it's the software. It's not bad, it's just very different.
At its core this is an Android tablet, but its top layer is an Amazon-made interface that radically alters the software. In Android, you get home screens, which are like rooms in a house. You can decorate them as you like.
The Fire HD 8 has home screens, but almost all of them are given over to Amazon's digital services. Amazon curates them, not you. There's one for the Kindle bookstore, one for Amazon Instant Video, another for Audible and one for the Amazon store itself.
You can't get rid of these, they're there to stay. Unless you get the Fire HD 8 (2016) without 'Special offers' you'll even see an Amazon ad every time you unlock the tablet too. This is an interface built on bloat.
However, the 'storefront' home screens are fairly easy to ignore day-to-day. The first home screen you'll see when booting up the tablet or exiting an app is a simple page of app icons you can move around and arrange into folders: much more Android-like.
To the left of this screen is a page of recently used apps, the rest of the interface is all about making you consume more. More apps, more video, more books. Amazon is the pusher man of the digital age, desperate to get you hooked on its wares. Or at least get to you sign up for an Amazon Prime account.
The company goes as far as replacing the Google Play app store too, as Amazon has its own, called simply the Appstore. Its catalogue isn't quite as vast as that of Google Play, but it offers a few unusual incentives.
Amazon Underground is a part of the Appstore that offers games, for free, that would normally cost you cash on Google Play. The way it works is Amazon actually pays the developers for every minute you play a game, and in return Amazon gets some of your data.
Underground isn't for privacy freaks, but if you use Amazon then the company probably already knows an inordinate amount about you anyway.
The Amazon Appstore also uses a coin system that lets you earn store credit by playing certain games. Amazon is desperate to get you invested and involved in its services.
The Amazon Fire OS style is more polarizing than iOS or Android. This is a much more directed experience, but it is also a very full and rich ecosystem that tallies well with what people actually do with tablets. They noodle about with apps, play games, read some articles, and in some cases read novels.
Think carefully about whether this software, known as Fire OS, will get on your nerves.
The less subjective issue is performance. While not a mess, the interface feels significantly slower than the latest version of Android. Transitions are often a little juddery and it just takes that bit longer to get things done because there's so much more going on.
Movies, music and gaming
- Screen isn't great for video
- Good gaming performance
- Weak speakers
Let's dig a bit deeper into the media side of the Amazon Fire HD 8 (2016). Its main movie portal is Amazon Instant Video, which is a bit like Netflix but is usually accessed through a Prime subscription rather than a standalone sub. But it also lets you pay for some movies that aren't part of the Prime service, including a lot of new films and many older ones that aren't in the Prime library.
Thanks to the way licensing works, Amazon can't just lump every movie in existence in the 'free to stream' selection. Sorry.
There's also a simple app to play locally stored videos, and the Appstore has several of the most popular Android media players too, including MX Player.
The main thing holding the Fire HD 8 (2016) back as a mini movie machine is the screen. Feed it a quality 720p film and it looks good, but the poor contrast panel means it's closer to one of those airplane seat screens than a true high-end tablet.
This affects games too, and we found ourselves cranking up the brightness to combat screen reflectivity even indoors.
Gaming performance is surprisingly good though, despite the low-end CPU, precisely because of the slate's low screen resolution. High-end games like Asphalt 8 and Riptide GP2 run as well as they do on a much, much more expensive tablet, they just look worse thanks to the lower-quality, lower-resolution screen.
We also tried casual title Genies & Gems to try to earn some Amazon coins, and found that colorful casual games look pretty good on the Fire HD 8 (2016). It's generally 3D titles that reveal the slightly low pixel density most clearly.
In other words, it's a pretty great little budget gaming tablet. It's not so hot if you want the very latest games, though, as the selection is categorically worse here than on Google Play. For example, the Red Dwarf XI game just came out on Android, but it's not available through Amazon yet.
Amazon has taken a step back on speaker quality too. Some of the last batch of Fire HD tablets had surprisingly beefy speakers, but the Amazon Fire HD 8's are ultra-thin and bass-free. There are two speaker drivers that sit on the bottom (when held in landscape) for a stereo effect, but they're simply not very good. You'll want to use headphones or a separate speaker whenever possible.
The treble is quite clear and you can max-out the volume without causing distortion, but the speakers don't go all that loud.
Specs and benchmark performance
- Reasonable benchmark results
- As much power as we'd expect for the money
The Amazon Fire HD 8 (2016) has a MediaTek CPU, the less trendy rival to Qualcomm's Snapdragon series. It's an MT8163 chipset, which has four Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.3GHz and the dual-core version of the Mali T720 GPU, matched with 1.5GB of RAM.
This is not a high-end spec and the Fire HD 8 (2016) would be in trouble if it used anything less powerful, but Amazon knows what it's doing here. It's enough power to make everything run well on the 800p screen, just not quite enough to offset the ever-so-slightly sluggish Amazon software. But that's an issue of optimization and software design for the most part.
In Geekbench 3 multi-core tests the tablet scores a very respectable, for the price, 1900 points. That's up from a multi-core result of just 1506 from the previous model, though well below say, the iPad mini 2, which scored 2220.
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Andrew is a freelance journalist and has been writing and editing for some of the UK's top tech and lifestyle publications including TrustedReviews, Stuff, T3, TechRadar, Lifehacker and others.