Amazon is laying out a huge number of updates today, including a spec-bumped Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 tablet and an all-new e-reader that's frankly amazing. But the most important update might be the one that technology enthusiasts are the most likely to dismiss: the lowly Kindle Fire HD. Amazon is releasing two versions (or more than a dozen, if you count the color, size, and kid-friendly variants), and they aim to redefine how consumers think of cheap Android tablets.
The Fire HD comes in two sizes, a 6-inch screen and a 7-inch screen, and in five colors. The 6-inch version, which basically feels like it's competing more with the iPod touch than with the iPad mini, starts at just $99 (with Kindle Special offers). The 7-inch version starts at $139 (also with offers), and both will begin shipping next month.
This is far from the first time we've heard a promise that a low-cost Android tablet would be good. And when Kindle VP Peter Larsen said that "These don't compromise," I was skeptical. I'll remain skeptical until I have a chance to use them for an extended period of time, but after twenty minutes or so with them, I came away cautiously optimistic. Both have what Amazon describes as "quad-core" processors that run at 1.5GHz (they're made by MediaTek) with "3x the graphics performance of the Samsung Tab 4." It certainly seemed that way in the demos today, but even if the new Fire HD tablets don't reach those goals, they're certainly faster than the average bottom-end Android device.
Part of that speed perception actually comes from Fire OS, which is now on its fourth major version here. Amazon has added advanced family profiles, content sharing between family members, "ASAP" pre-caching of video it expects you'll want to watch, and other enhancements on top of the Android KitKat base. It's still not a tablet OS that feels very productive to me, but for consuming Amazon's content, it's fine. Since that's the primary purpose of an Amazon tablet, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that there aren't major changes.
The hardware itself is, at best, uninspiring. Both sizes are very thick and chunky, with harsh lines on the matted back. The color options are bold (hello "citron"), but making a svelte and attractive tablet wasn't the primary design goal. Instead, Amazon aimed to make a very durable tablet, going to far as to put a tablet in a medieval torture machine that twisted the machine without breaking it. Amazon claims it's twice as durable as the iPad mini, actually. This thing is meant to be knocked around, and it looks like it.
Both tablets have front and rear-facing cameras, and of the two the 6-inch version is much more interesting. It's the sub-$100 version, to start, but more importantly it just feels better than the larger version. It's in that zone where nobody has been able to adequately challenge Apple's iPod touch. It's cheap enough to buy and hand to a child or a teenager, durable enough to be battered, and fast enough to not make you want to test that durability by chucking it across the room in frustration. Theoretically, at least. Add in the fact that you can watch many Amazon Prime videos offline, and it may even be an intriguing option for anybody with a Prime membership — whether or not its UI performance is up to snuff.
A $99 phablet that lets you watch The Wire on a plane for essentially free is not a bad sales pitch. It's enough to make the Fire Phone turn green with envy.