This post is the first in a three-part series. This one is an introduction to the tablet with my thoughts on all the things I like about them and the few things I don’t. The second post tries to make sense of all the different models out there. (I think Amazon and Roku are in competition for the Worst Product Naming award.) The final post provides instructions on how to install apps that aren’t in the Amazon app store—the biggest “con” I’ll be talking about in this one.
I wasn’t always a Fire fan. I bought the first version as soon as it was released because it finally had what I had been wanting for years—a tablet the size of a Kindle e-reader that could do more than just read e-books. The iPad had already come out by then, but it was too big for me. The Fire tablet’s 7″ size was a perfect fit for me. (No “that’s what she said” jokes please!)
So I was very excited when my what-was-then-called Kindle Fire arrived. This was my Facebook post on November 16, 2011, the day it arrived (after pre-ordering it on October 2).
And this is what I posted as a comment on November 17:
“So far, not too crazy about it. The default text size is really tiny, and when I change the settings to increase it, some sites become virtually unreadable. I’m also still having trouble getting it to respond when I touch links and buttons. Other stuff too… Definitely not very intuitive to use.”
A couple of weeks later I still couldn’t get used to it and returned it to Amazon, something I almost never do. So don’t ask me what prompted me to order the second generation tablet a year later, except that I knew that I wasn’t the only one who had had a lot of issues with the first generation so I was hopeful that Amazon had fixed the problems.
And they did! I loved the new tablet (now with an HD display) and used it every day. And it was still working great a year and a half later. But then Amazon offered a special bundle deal for the next-generation Fire HDX 7 tablet plus their brand-spanking-new-at-the-time Fire TV streaming media player for just $249, an $80 savings, and the new tablet had some performance and other enhancements. By now, Amazon had also added an 8.9″ model plus different storage capacities to the product line, but the bundle only applied to the 7″ model with 16GB of memory. That was fine for me since, as I said earlier, that was my preferred physical size and I don’t download videos or games to my device, so I never ran out of space.
Since then I’ve bought several more models: a 4th-generation Fire HD 7, 5th-generation Fire, Fire HD 6 and Fire HD 10, 6th-generation Fire HD 8, and 7th-generation HD 8. (I told you the naming sucked, right?) I mainly bought these because by this point I was planning to write a series of posts on the tablets and I wanted to be able to compare the various models.
But even though I was trying out these new models, for the longest time I was still using my 3rd-generation HDX 7 as my primary tablet… until it had an “unfortunate incident” in April 2016. 🙁
Now that you know that my background with Fire tablets, here’s what I consider to be the best things about them and the things I’m not so crazy about.
First of all, despite the crappy naming, I love that they have multiple models available to meet different people’s requirements, although they have reduced the variety available with the latest, 7th-generation models. Now they have the basic 7″ non-HD version and 8″ HD models with a kid-friendly version of each, which include a rubber case, special content, and a 2-year no-questions-asked warranty.
I also think the quality of the display and sound are great (the HD’s is noticeably better), but full disclosure: I’m not a person that can really tell the difference unless something is spectacularly crappy. But I find the screen really clear and easy to read and the sound really clear as well—with or without headphones.
The tablet interface is really easy to use. I know that we get used to our own devices so I don’t normally like to compare them against other manufacturers’ when I don’t use them myself. But I recently got an iPad Mini and I find it much harder to do things I want to do. No back button… whaaaat??? And I much prefer scrolling up and down to access all the apps rather than side to side (it just seems more natural to me) and find it much easier to move icons around the screen than on the iPad.
In November 2016, Amazon began adding Alexa capabilities to some of their tablet models, and it’s currently available for the non-kids versions of both the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8. Alexa is Amazon’s Internet-based assistant that you can interact with by voice. It lets you ask questions, get news updates, play Amazon music and videos, control home automation products and more.
You can add a MicroSD card to increase your storage.
The keyboard! The Fire tablets have the best touch keyboard I’ve used across multiple devices. I rarely hit the wrong key, unlike with my Android phones and my iPhone 4S, which I’m always screwing up. (I realize the phones’ keys are smaller than the tablets’ but that doesn’t explain why I have so much more trouble with the iPhone than with the Android phones.) They have some nice extra features as well that I haven’t seen elsewhere, although other products may have them. My two favorites are the split-screen layout for when I’m holding the tablet in landscape mode and the separate set of arrow keys for precise positioning of the cursor. And the autocomplete/autocorrect/add-to-dictionary functions are much better than on my other devices.
Fire tablets are also great if you’re a heavy user of Amazon Prime and Amazon content (videos, music, books, etc.). The integration is so seamless. They’re also a great companion for your Fire TV player, whether it’s using the remote app to control the player, casting Amazon videos to your TV, or mirroring your entire display (only a few models have the last option).
And last but definitely not least, you simply can’t beat the prices of these great devices. Seriously, you can get the basic tablet for $49… $49! And even the higher-end models are much more affordable than a certain Cupertino company’s offerings.
So those are the main things I love about my Fires. Next up…
I’ll start with a few minor annoyances before I talk about what I consider the biggest issue with the Fire tablets.
I’ve already mentioned the crappy naming of the various models, but worse than that is that the physical layout of the tablets differs so much from one to the other. By that I mean that the power and volume buttons and various ports are located in different places so when I switch from one to another I’m constantly confused. My dearly departed HDX 7 had one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen; when you plugged the USB cable into the tablet, it didn’t go straight in; it went in at an angle. For the longest time I thought it was just a defect with mine but then I looked it up and turned out it was like that for everybody. Since most people won’t have as many tablets as I have at the same time, it’s probably not that big an issue but still…
While some of the earlier models supported screen mirroring (sharing your tablet screen on your TV), they’ve removed that feature for the current generation. I actually think this is a bad business decision by Amazon since Apple’s AirPlay is available with all their latest phones and tablets (and I consider display mirroring a hugely beneficial feature, especially for cable cord cutters).
There’s a search box on the Home screen that I always start to use and then stop myself. Why? Because it uses the Bing search engine and there’s no option to change it. You can still open a browser and go to google.com to search there, but c’mon Amazon. There’s a reason the expression is “Google it”!
And despite all the good things I said about the keyboard, there is one feature that I wish they would add, which would be the ability to move or hide the period key, which is directly to the right of the space bar. I often hit it when I mean to add a space and there’s really no need to have a period key at all anymore since you can just tap the space bar twice to type a period.
So those are the smaller things that bug me. Here’s the big one.
Amazon’s Fire Operating System, Fire OS, is built on top of Google’s Android operating system but has its own look and feel. Other phone and tablet manufacturers do this as well, so I have no problem with that. What differentiates Amazon is that their version of Android doesn’t support the Google Play Store, which is where you get apps for Android devices.
Instead, Amazon has its own app store, which would be fine except it has a fraction of the number of apps that Google does. And I’m not talking only about random apps with low user interest; it doesn’t have some of the most popular apps out there including Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram! Snapchat!
And sometimes even when they do have an app, it doesn’t have the latest functionality, since developers usually build apps for iOS first, then for Android, and finally for Amazon Fire OS. (The Facebook app was embarrassingly far behind in version number for ages, but in September 2016, they finally released a new version with some more recent features like Facebook Live and Reactions.)
Now there are ways to get the Android apps onto Fire tablets, which I cover in the third post of this series. Unfortunately they don’t always work exactly the same on a Fire. For example, you can get Google Cast onto the devices that have Fire OS 5 (not possible at all with the previous version of the OS) that lets you cast some apps to a Chromecast. But Netflix still isn’t one of them.
I don’t know whether Amazon decided to create its own app store purely to make more money or because they’re not exactly buddy buddy with Google (or some other reason), but I have no doubt it’s the single biggest reason someone would choose not to buy a Fire.
On the other hand, I recently mentioned this issue to someone else and she said it didn’t bother her at all because she almost never uses apps on her Fire. She uses it primarily to consume content and to occasionally use email and surf the Web, all of which work very well on the tablets right out of the box. When she wants to use other apps, she uses her phone. So depending on how you use your mobile devices, this could be a non-issue for you as well.
In my case, I use my tablets for everything except making phone calls. But since for the most part I can install Google Play apps on them and I do have a phone for the few apps that don’t work the same, I’ve learned to live with it. And as I said at the very beginning of this post, I still love my Fires. But it still bugs me… 🙂
Do you use a Fire tablet? What do you like/not like about them? Add your comments below!
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