SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon invited a small group of reporters to a perfectly staged house in San Francisco this week to unveil the next generation of some of its most popular devices, including an Alexa-enabled Fire TV and a $49.99 budget tablet.
The company showed off a total of seven new pieces of hardware along with a new mobile operating system rebuilt from the ground up. Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices David Limp told reporters they intentionally chose to hold the event in a house, because that’s becoming the focal point of the company’s entire hardware lineup. With everything from the Echo voice-controlled speaker to the Dash Button for quickly ordering everyday items, Amazon is looking for its hardware sweet spot in making life around the house just a little bit easier.
Amazon’s hardware refresh shows how the company will position itself against Apple, Samsung and other rivals for the upcoming holiday season. As expected, the new lineup does not include a new version of the ill-fated Amazon Fire Phone. Executives declined to say whether Amazon’s smartphone will be resurrected.
A lot of the products the company is unveiling today are confirmations of rumors that have been circulating for a while. The lineup includes updates to the Fire TV set-top box, which can now stream 4K video, and the cheaper Fire TV Stick. Both devices will soon come complete with Alexa, Amazon’s Siri-like virtual assistant. The company is also releasing a new and improved video game controller that pairs with the Fire TV.
On the tablets front, Amazon announced the new Fire HD 8, its $149.99 8-inch tablet; Fire HD 10, its $229.99 10-inch tablet; Fire, a new super-cheap $49.99 7-inch tablet; and Fire Kids Edition, its $99 kid-friendly model.
The smaller Fire HD 8 comes in a variety of bright colors we’re told Amazon’s fashion team put together.
“[The fashion experts] tell me these are going to be good colors for the holiday,” Limp said. “Tangerine especially, they seem to like.”
Besides the color schemes, none of the devices look all that different from their predecessors. But Amazon says, “don’t let looks deceive you,” as each was rebuilt from the ground up.
Everything announced today is now available for preorder, and will ship in the coming weeks.
Check below for a breakdown of everything the company announced.
Fire OS 5 ‘Bellini’
The most noticeable change to this installment of the Fire tablet family is the new Fire OS 5 “Bellini” mobile operating system, which is built on top of Android’s Lollipop.
Amazon says it designed the user interface to feel like thumbing through the pages of a magazine, with big pictures and a dedicated content pages at each swipe. This will look pretty familiar to those who have used previous Fire tablet models.
Of course, you start on a home page with a standard grid of apps. But swipe left and you’ll reach the page for books, then games, video, music, audiobook and periodicals. Each page shows your own content at the top, but fills in the rest of the screen with suggestions from one of Amazon’s many content services — like Prime Video and its e-book catalog.
The user interface looks sleek and is easy enough to scroll through. But I’m not convinced the layout is as simple and efficient as Apple’s iOS or as customizable as Android.
The operating system does put more of Amazon’s own content in front of users — which is exactly what Amazon is looking for as it uses the tablets as a bridge to reach customers with its other offerings.
In terms of features, the operating system adds a few new functions. My favorite is called “On Deck.” Basically, when you plug in the device to charge, it automatically downloads video content to fill open space on the device with shows you may be interested in. That way, if you find yourself bored and outside of Wi-Fi, there will at least be something there for you to watch even if you didn’t plan ahead.
There’s also an unusual new e-book feature Amazon says will help you read faster, called “Word Runner.” Instead of displaying text like the page of a book, it will show you one word at a time and go at whatever speed you’re looking for.
The company admits it takes some getting used to and is “for sure not for everyone,” but there is some science behind it — or so we’re told.
Of all the new tablets Amazon showed off, the one that really caught my eye was the $49.99, 7-inch Fire tablet.
The device doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles, but it’s built as a lower-end alternative for people who don’t need all the top-tier specs.
The Fire feels as solid as any other tablet and runs the new Bellini operating system. At such a low price point, Amazon said it’s excited to see how people will use it. The theory is that some customers may buy the device for a single dedicated purpose, like an alarm clock or kitchen computer.
To that end, the company is even offering a Fire six-pack for $249.99.
Amazon is known for building more affordable tablets, but even they have never gone this low before. It will certainly be interesting to see how it plays in the market.
Display: 7 inches
Battery life: 7 hours
Cameras: front and rear facing
Storage: Expandable up to 128GB through microSD card slot.
The Fire HD 8 and HD 10 are more traditional upgrades to the Fire line, though they’re both the first of their size.
They come complete with an industrial design that Amazon says outperformed Apple’s iPads in stress tests. They also have larger displays than previous models, but weigh less.
The tablet has all the essentials, like a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera and a front-facing camera that can handle 720p video for video conferencing. The 10-inch model starts at 16GB of storage, the 8-inch starts with 8GB, but both have microSD slots that will let you expand storage up to 128GB.
Amazon is also making a series of cases for the new devices, including one with a built-in bluetooth keyboard.
Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 specs:
Display: 8 and 10.1 inches, respectively
Battery life: 8 hours
Thickness: 7.7 mm, making it Amazon’s thinnest ever.
Storage: starting at 8GB and 16GB, respectively. Expandable up to 128GB through microSD card slot.
Speakers: Stereo with Dolby Audio
Amazon also announced an updated version of its kid-friendly tablet line. Like previous versions, it comes with the guts of a lower end tablet — in this case the Fire — wrapped in a protective, rubbery case. The device comes with features for parents, like the ability to choose which websites it can access and a two-year warranty.
Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
As rumored, Amazon released updates to its Fire TV and Fire TV Stick on Thursday. The news comes a week after Apple unveiled its new Apple TV hardware. At least on paper, Fire TV seems to hold its own.
The biggest change here is the addition of the Alexa voice-controlled personal assistant, just as Apple brought Siri to the Apple TV. The feature is coming to all Fire TV products via a free automatic upgrade sometime next month.
Amazon’s Fire TV has had voice control since it launched over a year ago, but Peter Larsen, who leads Amazon’s devices product team, said even they were surprised at how popular the feature has been. He quoted a statistic that “well over 90 percent” of all Fire TV searches happen via voice.
“So we thought to ourselves, how do we make that even better this year?” he said.
Alexa, which debuted on the Echo in 2014, will now come integrated with all Fire TVs and Fire TV Sticks. For the latter, you’ll also need a voice remote, which Amazon sells by itself for $29.99 or as a bundle with the Stick for $49.99.
The remote has a microphone built-in. It doesn’t listen all the time like the Echo. Instead, you press and hold a button when you’re ready to give a command. It can’t quite do everything Alexa does on the $179.99 Echo — namely a lot of the home automation features — but it gets pretty close.
You can use it to search for shows across various apps, play music or ask for updates like sports scores and the weather.
Eventually, Amazon said it wants to add commands that are more context specific, like, “Play the next episode of Breaking Bad.” But things haven’t gotten that far quite yet.
As for the Fire TV hardware, that got a makeover as well.
The set-top box still costs the same $99.99 as before, but its newer hardware that can do things like stream 4K video — which was noticeably absent on the new Apple TV.
The company says it’s “significantly faster” and has stronger Wi-Fi capabilities for better performance. It also has new features, like the ability to connect to Amazon’s Mayday service for customer support.
Like the first Fire TV, the updated model also has built-in gaming capabilities, and the company announced a new controller to go along with it. The controller comes complete with a headphone jack and the Alexa voice search.
Amazon is selling a new Fire TV Gaming Edition bundle, which costs $139.99 and comes with a Fire TV, the controller, a 32GB microSD card and two free games.
“I think it’s fair to say if you’re a hardcore gamer, you’re highly likely to have a console,” Larsen said. “And so the gamers on Fire TV, we do a lot of family gaming, we also do a lot of what we call casual TV gaming.”