Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8 Review

Update: This review is for the original Fire HD 8, not the updated model that was just introduced in Sept 2016. The new HD 8 is faster and cheaper, which makes it even more compelling. Now if they could just improve what is offered in the Amazon App Store!

For the past couple of years I’ve been using a hand-me-down Apple iPad 1 as my tablet, and while it might have been revolutionary in 2010, today it is pretty archaic: slow, low-res screen, and a web browser that crashes more often than not.

So I decided to get myself a new tablet for Christmas. My requirements were modest, and I decided I did not want to pay the “Apple Tax” for an iPad. Android would be fine. And being an Amazon Prime user, there was some appeal in getting a Fire OS device. So when Amazon put their HD 8 tablet on sale I pulled the trigger.

After using the device for a few weeks, here are my impressions.

What I Got

  • Fire HD 8, 8″ HD Display, Wi-Fi, 16 GB – Includes Special Offers, Black:  $169.99 $149.99 (on sale)
  • AmazonBasics 8-Inch Tablet Sleeve:  $6.79
  • SanDisk 64 GB micro SD Memory Card: $22.99

So I got an 80GB, 8″ tablet with sleeve for $179.77 ($198.49 after tax delivered to my door). I chose not to buy a case for it, since who wants to spend $40-$50 on a case for a $150 device? ( I will be keeping an eye out on refurbished cases).

By comparison a 64GB iPad mini4 is $499. A 32GB iPad mini2 is $319. Yes, those are better tablets — but that much better?

Specifications

Let’s see how this device compares to my old iPad 1, and the current iPad Minis.

Fire HD 8 iPad 1 iPad Mini 2 iPad Mini 4
Screen Size 8 inches 9.7 inches 7.9 inches 7.9 inches
Screen Resolution 1280 x 800 1024×768 2048×1536 2048×1536
Screen PPI 189 132 326 326
RAM 1 GB 256 MB 1 GB 2 GB
Processor 1.5/1.2 GHz quad-core MediaTek 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8 1.3 GHz dual-core Apple Cyclone 1.5 GHz dual-core Apple Typhoon
Back Camera
5 MP/1080p N/A 5 MP/1080p 8 MP/1080p
Front Camera
720p N/A 1.2 MP/720p 1.2 MP/720p

So the Fire holds its own against the current Mini’s on most specs, except for the screen (and it soundly trounces the old iPad 1). Also, Apple devices are known for  good quality cameras, so while the specs here are similar, one has to assume the Apple cameras would out-perform the Fire’s — something I believe is true based on informal comparisons.

Storage

One fantastic thing about the Fire is that it accepts micro SD memory cards, so it’s cheap to upgrade from 16GB to 80GB. But there is some confusion as to how this add-on storage is used. So to clarify:

  1. Not everything can be stored on the add-on SD card. According to Amazon: audio books, books, Silk Browser downloads, email, and some apps must be stored on the internal storage.
  2. For other stuff you control use of the external SD card in Settings under Storage. This lets you store movies, TV shows, music, photos, videos and some (“supported”) apps to the SD card.

So the internal storage is always used for some stuff. Because of this I got the 16GB model instead of the 8GB model. Fortunately large things, like music and video, can be stored on the external SSD card.

Display

One of my concerns with the HD 8 was the display. The specs are OK, but nowhere near Apple’s retina displays. So would the HD 8 display be sufficient?

In short, the answer is yes. The HD has an IPS display that is bright, with vivid colors and good viewing from off-angle. It is very good for games and video.  It is fine for photos, and is sufficient for book reading if you are not doing lengthy reading sessions.

This last point is important. If you intend to use the HD 8 as a primary Kindle e-reader, then you might be disappointed due to it’s fairly low (by Apple standards) PPI.  The HD 8 is fine for casual reading, but if you want a serious e-reader then I’d get a Kindle Paperwhite. Fortunately you can get an  HD 8 and a Kindle Paperwhite for less than an iPad mini!

So overall the display, while not fantastic, is sufficient — at least for my use.

Camera

So far I’ve only used the rear facing 5MP still camera. Based on initial results I’d say the camera is fine for Facebook posts and other casual snapshots, but there is some degree of softness and lack of detail. This won’t be replacing your iPhone 6 or dedicated digital camera, but it is perfectly fine for quick social media shots.

Fire OS 5.5

If you’ve used a Fire TV or Fire Stick then the Fire operating system will be familiar. While the home screen has the obligatory set of app icons, the rest of the user interface is oriented around content — especially Amazon content. Swiping vertically on the home screen scrolls through your apps. Scrolling horizontally takes you through content types: Books, Video, Games, Shop, Apps, Music, AudioBooks, Newsstand.

This works fine, although results in multiple ways to get to the same content, and the content is presented in different ways. Want to play music? You can open the Amazon Music app from the Home screen, or you can tap on the Music category. Why would you want to do one over the other?  Generally speaking the categories tend to focus on Amazon content with recommendations for you, while the apps focus on your content more specifically. But still, it’s two different ways to get to the same stuff, and any UI based on that is bound to be a bit sub-optimal.

One nice feature is that swiping to the left of the home screen shows a “Recents” page that summarizes apps and content that you’ve recently accessed. Very convenient.

So overall the user experience is fine, but this would not be my first choice for my mom where the simpler and more consistent Apple iOS experience would be easier to use.

Which brings me to my next point. Much of Fire OS focuses on Amazon Prime content. That’s one of the appeals of a Fire tablet for Prime members. But if you are not an Amazon Prime member then that takes away a large portion of the benefit of using Fire OS.

Basic Apps: E-Mail, Silk Web Browser

E-Mail works fine. Simple to set up. Runs and performs well. No complaints.

The Silk web browser works and preforms ok, but overall it feels less mature than Safari on iOS. For example the Southwest Airlines web site doesn’t load on my Fire HD 8, but it loads fine on my wife’s iPad. My wife has confidence that she can do any web browsing on her iPad that she would do on a iMac. I do NOT have that confidence with Silk. It’s fine for most uses, but it does not replace your laptop.

Performance and Stability

Performance of the tablet is tolerable. It performs well for games and media. Surfing the web is ok for many sites, although on occasion Silk is sluggish to respond to taps on links, and more complex sites can bog down (Note: the extra memory in the updated version should help this).

The tablet has been pretty stable except for one incident that could have been part user error. After using the tablet for a couple weeks I started getting random messages about the SD card being removed improperly — even though I never touched the SD card after initially installing it. This led to the tablet failing to launch apps, and eventually getting into a reboot / filesystem repair loop.

I then removed the SD card, did a factory reset on the tablet, reinstalled the SD card and erased it, then re-downloaded apps. That seemed to do the trick and I have had no problems since. My theory is when I initially installed the SD card I did not seat it fully in its slot.

Update: The SD card has continued to be an issue with the tablet occasionally having issues reading the card. I suspect it is my SD card, but it has not happened often enough for me to try another card to verify this. I’m now thinking it might be best to always have apps installed onto the built-in storage, and use the SD card only for media (music and video). This is controllable via the Settings.

Other than that the tablet has been pretty stable. I do end up power cycling it once a week or so to keep issues at bay and it running smoothly.

The Kindle App Store

One of the advantages of Fire OS is easy access to Amazon Prime content. But one of the disadvantages of Fire OS is the relatively weak Kindle App Store.

You want DropBox? Not there.

1Password? Nope.

Instagram? Snapchat?  Sorry.

These are all available in Google Play. But not in the Kindle AppStore. And this can be frustrating.

There is a way around this — it’s called sideloading. Basically you

  1. Change a setting on your Fire tablet to allow applications installed from untrusted sources.
  2. Go download the app’s software package from somewhere
  3. Install it on your Fire tablet
  4. Hope it works

#2 can be the hard part. In some cases it’s not bad, for example DropBox provides an Android download on its website. But 1Password does not — I ended up signing up as a Beta user to get an Android download.

There are ways to trick Google Play into letting you download packages onto FireOS, but it gets fairly complicated.

This is the big tradeoff with an Amazon Fire tablet. You get easy access to Amazon Prime content, but you loose easy access to some number of Android apps. Also, the Kindle Store has a fair amount of cruft in it. For example, there actually is a version of Instagram in the App Store, but it is old and doesn’t support the current tablets.

So once again, if you don’t have Amazon Prime then you probably don’t want a Fire tablet. In that case a more vanilla Android tablet would be a better choice.

Update: Amazon seems to be making a renewed push for developers to use their App Testing Service to verify their Android apps for Fire OS — touting that 85% of all Android apps “just work” on Fire OS. Let’s hope that this starts bringing new content to the Amazon App Store.

Security / Encryption

As expected you can set a pin or password that is required to unlock the device after it has been idle — a highly recommended precaution to take.

But as far as I can tell, there is no device encryption. Apparently this was available on some earlier fire tablets, but I don’t see this option on the HD 8. Maybe it doesn’t have the hardware necessary to support (fast) encryption, or maybe it will come in a later OS update. But depending on your use this could be a deal killer.

Update: It’s confirmed. Amazon did remove device encryption from Fire OS 5 and they now have announced plans to bring it back in the spring.

Special Offers

I opted for the Special Offers edition to save a few bucks. A couple observations:

  1. The offers only appear on the lock screen. You don’t see them otherwise (well, except for the next bug).
  2. On rare occasions I’ve had the “special offers” screen saver linger in the background after I switch to the Home screen. This problem seems to have gone away after I set my own wallpaper — fingers crossed. Update: since setting my own wallpaper this problem has gone away.
  3. While unlocking the tablet, once in a while I inadvertently tap something concerning the speical offer and end up getting more information on the offer or playing a video concerning the offer. Annoying.

You can disable special offers after purchase by paying $15. Due to #3 above I am now considering this!

Summary

Overall the tablet works pretty well, but there are some drawbacks:

  1. The Kindle App Store is weak compared to Google Play
  2. No full device encryption, but hopefully that will be remedied in a few months.

If you have Amazon Prime and you are looking for a cheap tablet to access Amazon content, then the tablet is good choice. Otherwise a generic Android tablet might be a better way to go.

 

Amazon Echo Review

Introduction

Last fall Amazon announced the Echo:  a combination personnel assistant (think Siri) and bluetooth speaker. For some reason I found the cheezy video strangely compelling, so I signed up for one (and at $99 for Prime members it seemed pretty reasonable). And here we are in February and it just arrived.

Unbox and Setup

IMGP7806The unit arrived in a nice compact box. The internal box followed Amazon’s Fire branding: low key black outside with a pop of orange on the inside. Contents of the box:

  1. The Echo tower
  2. Power adapter
  3. Remote control
  4. Batteries for remote control
  5. Getting started guide and Echo tip sheet

The Echo tower itself is nicely finished and pleasantly hefty due to the two speaker drivers with large magnets. On top of the tower is a light ring that is both a volume knob and a visual indicator that changes color/pattern depending on what’s going on with the Echo.

So I plug it in and it powers up, first flashing some blue, then changing to a sweeping orange. Echo then speaks, telling me that it’s time to start the setup app. My dog is slightly spooked.

The companion app for the Echo runs on iPhones, Android phones, and browsers on your computer. I decided to do the setup using my iMac and Safari, so I went to http://echo.amazon.com and the app loaded. So far so good. I advanced to the connection screen where I’m informed that the Echo has set up a WiFi network, and it was time to turn on my iMac WiFi and connect to Amazon-XXX. I did, and the Echo pleasantly informed me that my client had connected and to continue with the setup app.

And then I hit a problem. The application was stuck on “Connecting….”. My iMac had joined the temporary wifi network just fine (according to my network settings), but it couldn’t connect to the Echo. I tried all the normal things you try in this situation: power cycling the Echo, trying the app on an iPad, etc. Nothing helped. So I called Amazon support.

Initially I talked to a general support engineer in some far away country, but he quickly transferred me to an Echo specialist, Stephanie, who sounded like she was right next door.  After going over some basics, Stephanie had me reset the Echo by inserting a paper clip into a small hole in the base of the Echo. And to make a long story short — that did the trick. I was able to perform the setup process. So to highlight this for others:

If your Echo setup application hangs on “Connecting…”, then turn your Echo over, insert a paper clip into the small hole in the bottom of the Echo, hold for 5 seconds to reset the Echo to factory defaults, and then re-do the setup process.

OK! So now our Echo was up and running.

Speaker Quality

The first thing I was interested in was the speaker quality. One of the primary uses of Echo is to play music so it better sound pretty good. And it does.

The tower contains two downward firing drivers: a 2″ tweeter and a 2.5″ woofer.  Clearly you’re not going to get window shaking bass, but the Echo does produce a full rich sound. Since it is a point source of audio, it’s not going to fill your room like a good home system does. But for background music while you are cooking dinner? Perfect!

Overall the Echo played louder and sounded better than the Cambridge Soundworks Oontz we have (a small decent sounding bluetooth speaker). But it likely lacks the punch of higher end ($200) speakers. I do wish the Echo had some way to support adding external speakers — maybe a headphone out.  But it does not.

In general I have no complaints with the sound quality. It sounds great for what it is.

Voice Recognition

To get the Echo’s attention you use a wakeup word — “Alexa” by default (you have an option to use “Amazon” for those families that already have an Alexa). In general the voice recognition works well. Both my wife and I had no problem using the Echo, and even when it is playing music it easily recognized me without needing to shout. The Echo comes with a remote control with a microphone for those cases when the room is too noisy, or you are too far away. The companion app contains a voice recognition training feature, but so far we’ve felt no need to use it.

In terms of range — it is quite good. The Echo seemed to easily hear us from any point in a large room — and even a room away (with no music playing).

In fact, the voice recognition might be too good! We were watching American Idol one evening, and there was a contestant named “Alexis”. I’m not sure exactly what Ryan Seacrest said, but in the middle of the show our Echo announced “Adding Books to your shopping list”.

Music Streaming

Currently the primary use of the Echo will be to stream music. The Echo has access to your Amazon Prime music, as well as the streaming services iHeartRadio and TunieIn. Some example of requests you can ask Echo:

  • Play my “Dinner Party” play list
  • Play Journey
  • Play KNBR radio
  • Play Taylor Swift
  • Louder
  • Softer
  • Next
  • Volume 4
  • Mute

Generally Echo first tries to satisfy your request using your Prime Music library, then falls back to free content on Prime Music. At times it has also fallen back to iHeartRadio and TuneIn. For example Amazon Prime has plenty of Journey, but apparently no Taylor Swift. So “Play Journey” played stuff from Prime, and “Play Taylor Swift” went to iHeartRadio.

iHeartRadio also streams live radio, so “Play KNBR” plays our local sports radio station. And of course you can explicitly pick an iHeardRadio custom station by saying “Play iHeartRadio My Jazz”.

TuneIn has a variety of podcasts and NPR shows, so “Play This American Life” will play the latest episode.  Unfortunately I have not found a way to select a specific podcast episode via voice command. For example I want to listen to Episode 1 of the Serial podcast, but I can’t get the Echo to do that unless I use the companion app to select it.

Overall the music streaming works pretty well, but it is not without frustration. There have been times that I just can’t get the Echo to understand what I’m requesting. For example, I have some tracks from the soundtrack to Whiplash in my Prime music library, but no matter what I said it kept playing some song name Whiplash. I had to resort to creating a specific playlist — at which point “Play playlist whiplash” did the trick.  Also, sometimes requesting specific classical pieces does not go well. It just has no idea what I’m asking for.

But these frustrations have been relatively minor, and we find ourselves using the music streaming capability often.

Other Features

In addition to streaming music Echo has some additional features:

  • Sports: The Echo has some integration with sports results. It’s very handy to be able to ask: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next” or “What was the score of the Giants game?”.
  • Setting a timer: we love this feature! If you’ve just phoned in your Japanese take out order and you need to leave in ten minutes to pick it up: “Alexa, 10 minute timer!”. Our your hands are covered in bread dough: “Alexa, 15 minute timer!”.
  • Shopping and ToDo list: You can add and remove things from these lists by asking Alexa. These lists are made available in the companion app so you can access them on your smart phone. “Alexa, add Almond Milk to the shopping list”.
  • Flash Briefing: You can get a brief update on news and weather by asking: “Alexa, flash briefing”. We have ours configured to use NPR for the news.
  • General info: I was concerned that the Echo might be a temptation to cheat on my Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle — after all, I’m used to asking my wife questions. Why not Alexa? Well no worries there — the Echo is not as smart as some of the other digital assistants — at least not yet. For example it did not know the largest lake in South America. And in general, these type of queries are hit and miss. But the Echo does know about local sports teams, which is huge! So this does work: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next?”.  And I get the answer in Pacific Time  (which is better than Yahoo Sports which seems to list everything in ET).
  • Spelling: oh yes, the Echo can spell. So now my family can ask Alexa instead of me!

Conclusion

So why is this better than Siri on your iPhone plus a bluetooth speaker?

It’s better because the Echo is always on, and always there. You don’t have to find it. You don’t have to touch it. You just talk at the room and voila — you have your answer or your music. So for $99 bucks I think it’s a bundle of fun for Amazon Prime members.