The world is full of overpowered technology — gadgets with capabilities well beyond what we need. For me, it’s a $400 iPad mini 2 that I use almost exclusively to watch TV before bed. But I could easily replace Apple’s souped-up device with Amazon’s latest tablet, for a fraction of the cost, and basically be happy with the result.
That’s my conclusion after testing Amazon’s $50 Fire tablet. By definition, it’s not a high-end machine. No one should be expecting anything blazing fast or spectacularly powerful. But it’s perfectly suitable for many everyday uses. Maybe it could serve as a digital cookbook. Maybe you give it to your kids to keep them entertained in the car. Maybe you give it to your dad for Christmas so he can play digital poker while he watches baseball (hi dad!).
You could even do all three and have some backup tablets left over with Amazon’s six-pack option — and still not spend as much as you would on one iPad.
No, the Fire is not a great tablet. Everything takes a while to load, even books, and graphics stutter in most games and apps. The built-in rear-facing camera is a mere 2 megapixels. The 7-inch tablet is also surprisingly heavy, weighing in at 311 grams, 10 grams heavier than the 7.9-inch iPad mini 4. Amazon claims 7 hours of battery life, which seems about in-line with my use, but other tablets get more life with less weight.
Perhaps the worst thing about the tablet, something immediately noticeable to anyone who’s used a high-end phone lately, is the screen resolution. At just 1024×600, it’s nowhere near HD quality and can be a strain to read on for long periods of time (unlike the excellent Kindle Paperwhite).
Typing is pretty terrible, since it doesn’t show which key you’re actually pressing, and the Silk web browser is slow on the device. It’s not really meant to be a productivity device, though, and probably won’t be replacing anyone’s laptop. It’s meant for consumption, fitting in with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ “we want to make money when people use our devices” philosophy.
And consumption is where the Fire tablet excels. It can play games like Pac-Man 256 and Monument Valley. Videos stream fine, as well, as long as you don’t mind the lower resolution. In fact, it’s on par with other Amazon tablets as one of the best ways to watch Amazon Video content, with easy-to-access X-Ray info and a whole home screen dedicated to video.
From the moment you wake the device up (the Fire tablet comes with Amazon’s Special Offers), you are pushed to buy something. Each page of the home screen (which includes sections for books, videos, apps and games, among others) has a recommended section with other stuff you can buy.
All that stuff may quickly clog up your device, because the Fire comes with just 8GB of storage. However, you can quickly and cheaply expand it with the microSD card. There’s even a link in the storage settings that takes you to an Amazon page filled with recommended cards that you can buy.
In addition to the screen, the construction of the tablet marks the Fire as an obviously cheap devices as well. My unit gave a slight, plasticky creek when squeezing it as I was reading. The thick bezel around the screen joins the plastic case with a sizeable lip that isn’t very uniform around the screen. Buttons wiggle easily and the plugs jiggle at the slightest touch. It feels like a $50 gadget.
But for specific purposes, the tablet performs admirably. And at $50, it’s easy to find a reason to get one.