Amazon Fire HD 7: Great for Content, But Keep Your Expectations in Check

When my daughter fractured her leg earlier this year and was put in a large cast, both my wife and I thought we’d have 6-8 weeks of us carrying her around, plunking her down someplace, and her staying there wanting to be entertained. She wasn’t yet two years old (so not old enough for daily screen time) but we decided to make an exception on a short-term basis and buy her a Fire HD 7, complete with a purple giraffe skin case. Here are my thoughts on this device after having it in our family for a few months.

The Good

  • It’s $99 freaking dollars for the 8GB version, and only $20 more for the 16 GB version! At least it was when I purchased it (May 2015). Amazon has regular sales of Fire tablets, so you don’t have to wait long for a promotional price. Buying the 16 GB version is a no-brainer given the price spread. As of August 2015, Amazon has re-configured their tablet line, so this exact product is no longer available. Amazingly, you can get their 7 inch Fire tablet for $49 now…!
  • The hardware quality is quite good. For such an affordable product, Amazon did a great job of making the hardware feel solid and high-quality. Yes, it’s plastic, but it doesn’t creak. The screen is quite good. The audio is decent. It comes in a variety of nice colours (unlike the painfully boring colours from Apple). I’ve seen far worse build quality from Android tablets that cost more.
  • DOWNLOAD Amazon Prime Instant Video. The first time I saw that you could download Prime Instant Video titles I was stunned – this had been available for a while, but I frankly hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on in the Fire tablet world. Amazon recently extended this to other platforms, and it’s a powerful advantage over Netflix and Hulu when you’re a parent wanting to load up on video content before a trip…
  • I like that I can pay to make the sponsored ads go away. Amazon can provide a cheaper product by selling it with sponsored ads you see every time you turn it on, but you can make it go away for, in this case $17.10 with tax. It’s fast and easy to do, and Amazon is smart to allow users to opt out for a bit of money. And it’s of course pure profit for Amazon – those guys are smart. 🙂
  • With FreeTime Unlimited, this is the tablet for highly controlling involved parents. Amazon has found a niche they can fill, and it’s one where parents want to have fine-grained control over what their kids do on their tablets. I won’t list all the features (check out the FreeTime Unlimited page for that), but you can things like limit the amount of time your kid can spend on a tablet, set start and end times during the day (it stops working at 8pm for instance), and even goals around specific consumption of content (reading ebooks). While I’m not personally interested in using this kind of method for controlling how much screen time my kids get (we have our own method), I do see the value in it – and it’s something that Apple, nor any Android OEM, seems to care about. So kudos to Amazon for seeing a need and filling it. However, it’s a bit of a train wreck from the UX perspective (see below).
  • Amazon Underground = Free Apps. Amazon is doing some interesting stuff with apps; they have a collection of apps (around 50-100 I’m guessing) where all in-app purchases are free. They have a banner on the icon that says “Really Free”. Given the move toward freemium games where, especially as parents, you watch your kids enjoy a game then you have to pay, and keep paying, this is refreshing. There’s quite a few quality apps/developers in here,  including Disney games, Dr. Panda games, Angry Birds, etc. I’m not sure if they rotate in and out, but it’s real value.

The Bad 

  • The apps, especially for kids, are a mixed bag. There’s just no way around this – iOS gets the best apps first, and they tend to take full advantage of the hardware iPads have. Case in point: my daughter loves a game called Balloonimals on my son’s old, woefully under-powered iPod Touch. We bought it for her on the Fire HD 7, and the developer has the entire app happening in the upper right 25% of the screen, while the other 75% is blank. It’s like he created it as an Android phone app, and did no testing on Fire tablets. Android already gets shafted when it comes to developers putting in real effort on apps, and Fire OS is another yet platform to port and test on (despite being Android underneath). I will say that when I did some digging, looking for high-quality apps my kids like on iOS (Dr. Panda, Toca, etc.) I found them all on the Fire app store – so things are slowly changing and developers are making apps for Fire tablets. But are you going to get the newest, best apps that push the hardware? No, not at all. And if you’ve already invested in iOS apps, re-buying apps on a Fire tablet kind of sucks.
  • It might have a quad-core CPU, but it’s still sluggish at times. Amazon’s Silk browser still sputters a bit on most Web sites, and while overall the UI is fairly fluid, you can see it struggling fairly often. Will most people buying a $99 tablet care? No, but it’s something to be aware of you care about things like that (I do). If you care about high performance and fluid UX, this tablet will not make you happy. Switching profiles without exiting is particularly painful, likely due to a lack of RAM. I’m reminded of Windows XP with 512 MB of RAM when two profiles were open at once…
  • The UX is still kind of wonky. If you’re logged into one profile, and you want to switch to another profile, you can’t. You need to press the power button to turn it off, turn it back on, then touch the icon for the profile that’s currently logged in – and only then you’ll see the profile you want to use. WHAT!? This is in no way intuitive. Or being logged into one profile, and needing to tap the icon for that profile to show the other profile…what? Fire OS needs a UX overhaul and serious user testing.
  • Amazon hardware products are usually slow to ship. I signed up for Amazon Prime the same week I arrived with my family in the USA, and ordered from Amazon 177 times (!!!) in 2014. I’m very accustomed to two day prime shipping, unless it’s something I’m in no rush for, then I’ll use the slower option and get my $1 digital credit. The point is, Amazon has trained me to expect fast delivery and two-day gratification. So I was surprised and disappointed when ordering this product that there was a two week wait – no matter which configuration or colour I picked, it was a 2-4 week wait. Amazon seems to have a weird problem when it comes to their hardware products – I waited many weeks to get my Amazon game controller, many months to get the Fire TV Stick, etc. I will point out though that in the case of the Fire HD 7, Amazon surprised me first by bumping the ship take up by six days (vs. the 12 day wait I was initially told), then they delivered it a day earlier than that. So they surprised and delighted me by delivering it much faster – but maybe that’s only because I complained about the issue on Twitter. Either way, I wish Amazon could deliver Amazon-branded products faster.
  • Amazon only includes a 5 watt / 1 amp charger. This is a slow-ass charger. This is the charger you’d normally get with a smartphone (and not from a company that cares about your time). I can’t find the exact size of the Fire HD 7’s battery, but I’m guessing it’s in the 6000 to 7000 mAH range. Charging a battery that big at 1 amp is brutal – I did a charge of the Fire HD 7 from 0% to 100% and it took about 3.5 hours on a 1.5 amp charger. Amazon should have included a 1.5 amp at bare minimum, or a 2.4 amp ideally. I know keeping the cost low is important, and more powerful chargers cost more money, but 1 amp chargers are just so slow…maybe it’s a custom option when you’re picking the colour and storage config, you can pick what kind of charger you want, paying a few extra bucks for a faster one?

The Ugly

  • Everybody intuitively understands the big iPad button. Nobody intuitively understands a Fire tablet. Apple has a UX home run with their big, obvious button smack on the front of the device. Most people turn on the device with that button. They understand the button takes them back to the screen with all the icons. The Fire HD 7? It has a little narrow fiddly button on the top of the device. What’s far worse though is having to swipe off-screen, then toward the screen, to bring up the software controls…that then vanish again. Or not, depending on context. This is simply not a natural behaviour for most people, and it’s not one that either of my kids ever really grasped. I’m sure they would have eventually, but not easily. I also had to explain these controls to an adult – she didn’t understand how to “get home” without a big button. My kids understand the iPad Mini and iPod Touch without training.
  • FreeTime Unlimited = Immediate Disappointment. Amazon did something interesting – they show your kids all the icons for all the books, videos, and apps offered. So your child scrolls through the list, picks something she wants, taps on it…and nothing happens. She has to wait for it to download. So she gives up and does something else, or puts the tablet away. Then if she comes back again 20 minutes later, whatever she downloaded will be there – but she’ll probably click on a different icon the process will repeat itself. I understand the theory of what Amazon was trying to do here – present the full breadth of choice to kids – but in practice it’s a colossal failure when it comes to apps (downloads = minutes) and books (downloads = 30+ seconds). Videos work if your kid is willing to wait for 5-8 seconds. My two year old daughter? Nope. She’d just tap on something else for the most part. Older kids will be more patient, but there’s something fundamentally broken with this “tap and wait ” UX model. It just doesn’t work in the real world.

The Verdict

If you’re looking for a budget tablet, Amazon’s Fire tablets are tough to beat, especially if you live in the Amazon ecosystem and are a Prime member. There are some powerful advantages to these tablets, but you also have to be aware of the limitations and be ready for the learning curve (especially for kids). It’s not entirely fair to compare a $269 iPad Mini 2 with a $99 Fire HD 7, because they serve two different markets. Perhaps the most telling thing I can say is that I ordered my son an iPad Mini 4, my daughter will get his old iPad Mini, and this Fire HD 7 will likely get sold. If I hadn’t already been invested in iOS tablets and apps, the story might have been different…

PS: My daughter didn’t let a giant let cast stop her from crawling around the floor and doing whatever she wanted, so she wasn’t that interested in this tablet anyway! 😉