A $99 price tag on a tablet used to mean shoddy construction, poor battery life, a dim display and no access to the Google Play store. With the Amazon Fire HD 6, however, most of that has changed. You still get the Amazon App Store preloaded, but this tiny tablet features impressive parental controls, a user-friendly interface, solid performance and decent battery life in a colorful and sturdy design.
The first thing most people asked me upon seeing the Fire HD 6 was, "Is that a new phablet?" It's understandable. My smartphone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which sports a screen that's just 0.3 inches smaller than Amazon's new tablet. With dimensions of 6.7 x 4.1 x 0.4 inches, the Fire HD 6 is not that much bigger than my 5.95 x 3.12 x 0.33-inch phone. However, at 10.1 ounces, it's nearly twice as heavy as the 5.9-ounce Note 3.
Other 7-inch tablets, such as the ASUS MeMO Pad 7 (7.5 x 4.5 x 0.38 inches, 10.35 ounces) and the Acer Iconia One 7 (7.8 x 4.7 x 0.35 inches, 11.3 ounces), are larger and heavier.
Although my review unit had a smooth black back, the Fire HD 6 also comes in white, cobalt, magenta and citron. All around, the tablet feels sturdy and less likely to fall apart than its cheap competitors. That's unsurprising, since the company told me it splashes the device with freshwater and saltwater, slathers it in sunscreen and drops it from a meter (about 3 feet) high.
MORE: Tablet Buying Guide: 7 Essential Tips
The front of the Amazon Fire HD 6 is a familiar rectangle with a VGA front camera at the top (if held in portrait mode). The edges -- which house the power button, micro USB port and headphone jack on the top -- are angled slightly, with the widest point on the backside. Volume up and down buttons sit on the left edge.
The plastic back features another slight angle at about a quarter-inch from the edge. A 2-megapixel camera sits on the top-right corner, while a small speaker grille adorns the bottom inclined edge.
I would have liked Amazon to offer a microSD card slot to augment the measly 8GB of onboard storage that comes with the Fire HD 6. However, Amazon does offer unlimited cloud storage for apps, docs, movies, music, photos and pretty much anything else you might want to keep.
Click to EnlargeThe 6-inch, 1280 x 800-pixel display felt pretty small when I watched the 720p trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, but Zoe Saldana's green skin still appeared strikingly alienlike. Explosions looked radiant and full of sparks. When I watched an X-Ray-enhanced version of Jaws, the yellow buoys popped as well, despite the grainy nature of the film.
The screen's brightness registered 383 nits on our light meter. That's higher than the tablet average of 328 nits, and also beats the 271-nit ASUS MeMO Pad 7 and the 280-nit Acer Iconia One 7.
The Fire HD 6 boasts very good color accuracy, but its color spectrum is relatively limited compared to the competition. Using a colorimeter, we measured a Delta-E rating of 1.2 (0 is perfect). That is far more accurate than the category average (5.8), MeMO Pad 7 (6.1) and the Iconia One 7 (7.3).
The Fire HD 6 displayed 78.6 percent of the sRGB spectrum, which is lower than the 81.9 percent on the MeMO Pad 7 and the tablet average of 85 percent. The Iconia One 7 registered just 63.9 percent.
Click to EnlargeDon't expect great sound quality from the Fire HD 6's single speaker, which is located on the bottom edge of the back. Sinead O'Connor's "Daddy I'm Fine" sounded hollow and flat, lacking bass. Similarly, Magic's "Rude" missed that extra bounce that should come through the Dolby-enabled speaker. I also found it all too easy to muffle the speaker when I held the slate in my hand.
On the Laptop Mag Audio Test (measuring a tone from 13 inches away at maximum volume), the Fire HD 6 registered 79 decibels, exactly matching the tablet average. It's a tad louder than the ASUS MeMO Pad 7 (78 dB), but softer than the Acer Iconia One 7 (82 dB).
Click to EnlargeFire OS 4 Sangria, Amazon's skin for Android, appears on its latest crop of tablets. It looks similar to the previous generation, but with some new tweaks. Along the top edge of the home screen are shortcuts to Games, Apps, Books, Music, Videos, Periodicals, Audiobooks, the Silk browser, Photos and Documents. It's an obvious and easily navigable system.
Below that sits the carousel, which shows you the most recently opened programs or media in a swipeable list. Below that, if you swipe from bottom to top, you'll see all the apps that appear on the tablet.
As on other Android tablets, when you pull down from the top, you'll see some quick settings for Auto-rotate, Wireless, Brightness and Settings. Here, you'll also find Quiet Time, which prevents notifications from popping up while you're working or reading.
Click to EnlargeAmazon is so proud of its parental controls that it's issuing a special Kids' Edition of the Fire HD 6 and HD 7 that comes with a special kid-friendly case and full-year subscription to FreeTime Unlimited. FreeTime has more than 700,000 pieces of kid-friendly, curated content, including videos, apps, games and audiobooks.
With the standard-edition Fire HD 6, Amazon throws in a 30-day trial of FreeTime Unlimited. After that first month, though, this service will cost you $10 per month.
That's not where the family-friendly features stop. Fire OS 4 lets you create up to four separate profiles for kids and two for adults. That means each person can have his or her own apps and other content ready when entering their profiles.
You can also set unique restrictions for each profile. By default, a child's profile doesn't have access to the Silk browser, email, contacts, social apps or the camera. You can password-protect purchases (including in-app purchases), Wi-Fi access, location-based services and video playback.
MORE: Kids Tablets to Buy (or Avoid)
I like that you can set time limits for specific types of content and even set educational goals to, for example, read for 30 minutes before being allowed to play a game. The tablet is smart enough to designate existing content, such as books and apps, as kid-friendly. The Bedtime setting, which locks up the tablet at a set time of day, will also be extremely useful for parents of the "5-more-minutes" set.
With the purchase of a Fire HD 6, Amazon throws in a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime. That's hardly the year of Prime membership you get with the Fire Phone, but it should be long enough to decide if it's worth the $99 annual fee.
Click to EnlargePrime gives you free two-day shipping for products purchased on Amazon.com, as well as access to Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Music and the Amazon e-book lending library. The Instant Video library offers 40,000 titles, and the lending library is 500,000 strong. Amazon doesn't list an exact number of songs available through Amazon Music but claims it's in the hundreds of thousands.
Click to EnlargeAmazon enhances its media (books, videos and music) with X-Ray. For a book, this means easy access to a Cliff's Notes-like interface that details each character's appearances, themes throughout a book, notable clips and images. For music, that means showing you a song's lyrics as they are sung. And for video X-Ray, it means always knowing what actor/character is appearing on-screen, as well as getting extra trivia as a video plays.
Even though it's the most popular method of receiving customer service on Amazon's HDX tablets, the company doesn't offer its popular Mayday service on the Fire HD 6. However, Amazon does include a Help button on the top settings that allows you to quickly email or call customer support.
Bookworms will like Amazon's integration of Goodreads, a social network that enables members to see what their friends are reading, share highlights and rate books.
Amazon plans an update later this fall that will add a Family Library feature. That will allow family to link accounts of a family member, so you can easily share content. That includes apps, games, audiobooks, books and Prime Instant Video.
Click to EnlargeAmazon's default keyboard offers a pretty standard layout, with a swipe-to-type feature that I found fairly accurate. I also appreciated the very accurate dictation service you can activate by tapping the microphone button on the keyboard. I found that the tablet kept up well when I typed using more traditional methods, but my roomier iPad mini is more comfortable.
Click to EnlargeFire HD 6 owners will not be able to access the Google Play store, but Amazon does offer its own curated Android app store with more than 200,000 apps and games. While the selection isn't huge, we were pleased to see staples such as Angry Birds Star Wars II, Evernote, Facebook, HBO Go, Netflix and many others.
However, the lack of access to Google services and apps, such as Chrome and Drive, was a disappointment. Of the top 20 free apps in the Google Play store, you'll find 15 in the Amazon Appstore, but of the top 20 paid apps, you'll find only 12 for the Fire HD 6. Apps you won't find include Snapchat, Clash of Clans, FoxFi and Goat Simulator. I sincerely missed the Chrome browser app, which I use on every other device. Amazon only offers the preloaded Silk option.
MORE: 25 Best Android Apps
New Fire tablet owners in the U.S. get 500 Amazon Coins to go toward paid apps (a $5 value). Amazon also offers a paid app each day for free.
Click to EnlargeImages shot with the Fire 6's 2-MP rear camera had a bluish tinge. A red tricycle looked nearly purple on a bright day. A dog's brown and mottled fur looked dull, but I could make out good chunks of his individual hairs. A selfie from the VGA front camera lacked definition and detail.
The Fire HD 6 is powered by two 1.5-GHz CPUs and two 1.2-GHz processors, for a quad-core setup that is designed to offer good load balancing. The tablet sports 1GB of RAM as well. I found the tablet pretty responsive at opening and closing apps, as well as responding to my touch.
On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the Fire HD 6 scored 1,474. That falls short of the 2,431 from the ASUS MeMO Pad 7 (1.33-GHz Intel Atom Z3745, 1GB of RAM), and the 2,573 tablet average. It's also far below the Kindle Fire HDX 7's score of 3,784.
However, on the Vidtrim test, in which the tablet transcodes a 204MB, 1080p video to 480p, the Fire HD 6 took 4 minutes and 44 seconds -- the same as the Fire HDX 7. This was speedier than the MeMO Pad 7 (5:35), Iconia One 7 (7:04) and category average (10:35).
Measuring graphics performance, the Fire HD 6 scored an impressive 10,288 on 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, which blows away the Iconia One 7's 6,042 and the MeMO Pad 7's 2,218.
Click to EnlargeThe Amazon Fire HD 6 offers excellent battery life for its low price. The slate lasted 8 hours and 27 minutes on the Laptop Mag battery test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), which is a bit longer than the 8:20 tablet average. It also tops the Acer Iconia One 7 (6:36) and the ASUS MeMO Pad 7 (7:39).
MORE: 10 Tablets with the Longest Battery Life
Fire HD 6 vs. HD 7
Between the $99 Fire HD 6 and the $139 HD 7, the latter offers a bigger 7-inch display along with stereo speakers. Plus, it only weighs a couple of ounces more than the HD 6. But if you want a cheap tablet that doesn't scream "cheap" that easily fits in one hand -- whether it's for Junior or you -- the HD 6 is a great value.