Amazon's $50 Fire Is Cheapest Tablet Worth Buying

When Amazon thinks tablets, it thinks content. So when it came time to update the Fire lineup, available Sept. 30, Amazon focused on making discovering and consuming movies, books and games easier and better for the lowest prices possible. That includes a new 7-inch Fire tablet for just $50.

There are also new 8- and 10-inch Fire HD tablets priced at $150 and $230, respectively. Both run the new Fire OS 5, which brings some exciting enhancements. The new tablets both feature widescreen HD displays — all the better for watching movies and TV shows — and come with a microSD slot for to boost capacity for holding all that content.

The company also updated its Fire Kids Edition, only offering the new model in the 7-inch size, while cutting the price tag by $50 to $100.

After some up-close time with Amazon’s new tablets, here’s what stood out about the devices and the OS that powers them.

Building a Cheaper Fire

The updated Fire OS also powers Amazon’s attempt to build a low-cost tablet, the 7-inch Fire. While the Fire’s $50 price tag will draw most people’s attention, Amazon would bristle at the suggestion that build quality matches the bargain basement price.

Take the display, which is a 1024 x 600-pixel IPS display that Amazon says will offer great color saturation and viewing angles. A 1.3-GHz processor powers the Fire tablet, which ships with 1GB of RAM. Amazon executives stacked a Fire tablet next to a Galaxy Tab 3 Lite from Samsung to show how their device offered more fluid graphics.

You’ll make some compromises for that $50 price tag. The Fire certainly looks squatter and less eye-catching than its larger-screen siblings. But Amazon would counter that it’s an extremely durable low-cost tablet, again citing the tablet’s ability to endure tumble tests that would fell rival devices. And while the device features just 8GB of storage, you can use the included microSD slot to expand storage to 128GB, just as you can with the Fire HD.

The Fire is also the basis for Amazon’s latest Fire Kids Edition, which takes the 7-inch tablet and wraps it in a kid-proof case. In addition to the protective bumper, the Kids Edition version of the tablet features a 2-year warranty where you can replace the tablet should your kids do what Amazon’s tumble test could not.

At $100, the Fire Kids Edition is less expensive than last year’s model, but it offers more content. Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited service now features 10,000 books, videos, apps and games curated for kids; you get a year’s subscription to the service with your Fire Kids Edition. The tablet also includes access to more than 20,000 age-appropriate websites and YouTube videos, a feature parents can turn off or augment with their own approved content.

Fire HD Gets Big

With its 10.1-inch display, the Fire HD 10 is the biggest tablet Amazon’s ever made. And while its resolution won’t blow anyone away — both the Fire HD 10 and Fire HD 8 have a pretty pedestrian 1280 x 800-pixel resolution — Amazon thinks the tablets’ 16:10 aspect ratio are more ideal for reading and watching video than the 4:3 ratio favored by rival tablets. That means more viewing area — 15 percent more for HD video in the case of the Fire HD 8 and 22 percent more for the Fire HD 10, than tablets with a 4:3 aspect ratio.

You should enjoy better sound when watching those videos, too. Amazon says both Fire HD tablets have stereo speakers with Dolby Audio. The improvements help make the tablets 50 percent louder than similar devices without sound distortion, an Amazon executive told me. Other significant features inside both Fire HDs include a quad-core 1.5-GHz processor and support for 802.11ac wireless networking. Amazon says the tablets should offer 8 hours of battery life.

But the design of the Fire HD is the really eye-catcher. The tablets are 7.7mm thick, making them Amazon’s thinnest tablets ever. That said, the tablets feel pretty substantial when you pick them up, particularly the Fire HD 8, which comes with a bright colorful back available in black, magenta, blue or tangerine. The Fire HD 10 is available in more staid black and white options.

Amazon designed the tablets with the idea that these kinds of devices take a beating. To that end, both versions of the Fire HD sport a Gorilla Glass display, and Amazon contends its tablet is twice as durable as the latest iPad Air. To prove the point, Amazon executives showed off a Fire HD 10 that had been through a tumble test — think a giant tumbler that tosses the tablet around. Amazon’s new tablet took 200 tumbles in that test, with only some scuffing on the edges hinting that it had been through any distress.

Storage seems to be in short supply with the Fire HD. The $150 Fire HD starts with 8GB of storage; there’s also a 16GB model. The $230 Fire HD 10 ships with 16GB of storage; you can also order a 32GB model. But both tablets feature a microSD slot, a design choice that lets users decide how much storage they need after they buy their tablet. Users can add up to 128GB of storage via microSD.

Amazon is also offering some Fire HD accessories — protective covers in a variety of colors start at $40. The 10-inch Fire HD gets its very own keyboard case. It’s a little less stylish than the Smart Keyboard case Apple showed off last week for its super-sized iPad Pro, but at $100, Amazon’s Bluetooth keyboard case is significantly less expensive.

Fire OS 5

The real star of the show for Amazon’s tablets is be the updated Fire OS, which is built on Android Lollipop. Fire OS 5 introduces some interface changes built around the idea that tablets are used for fun and that customers can use a hand with discovering new content.

The home screens on the Fire HD are meant to evoke the feeling of flipping through pages of a magazine. Screens are organized by content type — books, videos, apps — with content from your own library displayed prominently at the top. Scroll down, however, and you’ll see recommended content, such as Amazon Prime Instant videoss on the video page. Recommendations will be based on past purchases, though Amazon concedes recommendations may not always be spot-on to your tastes.

Those recommendations will play a part in a new Fire OS feature available to Amazon Prime members called On Deck. The new feature, due out in a software update in the coming months, tries to solve the problem of remembering to load up your tablet with movies and shows before you hit the road. Plug in your Amazon tablet overnight, and it will automatically download content so you’ll never get on a flight without something to watch.

Don’t worry about On Deck eating up storage space: the programming it downloads doesn’t take away space from any material already stored on your tablet, and whenever you need more storage space for downloads, Fire OS removes the On Deck material. Think of it as a tablet-centric version of TiVo’s Suggested Recordings feature, where the DVR will record programming it thinks you like but erase it whenever you need more storage space.

A feature that should really impress bibliophiles is Word Runner, aimed at helping speed readers. Enable the Word Runner feature and chapters will appear on your screen one word at a time. By default, words appear at a normal pace — 100 words per minute — but you can speed them up or slow them down to your taste. Miss a word, and you can pause and rewind to get the full flavor of a book. It won’t be a feature you use all the time, but when you want to pick up a story’s pace, Word Runner should help speed things along.

The Fire HD tablets also ship with access to Amazon Underground, the company’s app store that makes paid apps and in-app purchases available for free.