Software remains a weak point for Amazon’s tablets. FireOS, Amazon’s heavily modified version of the Android operating system, is really an OS-based version of Amazon’s website. Fire tablets are designed to sell you Amazon content, and FireOS is the means of selling that content. It never stops selling. Never.
There is no Google Play Store here, so if you aren’t heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem (particularly Prime offerings), then Fire tablets of any stripe will feel limiting. There are ways around this, more on that below, but out of the box it’s all Amazon, all the time.
But there are good things in the Amazon ecosystem. FreeTime, for example, is one of the better tools for regulating what your kids can access on a tablet. And of course Prime Video, Amazon Music, and Kindle Unlimited offer just about all the movies, music, and books you could want. If they don’t, Amazon’s Appstore has most of the apps you might want, like Netflix, Disney+, Zoom, and Spotify.
A new addition in FireOS is Game Mode, which temporarily turns off all notifications and interruptions so you can play in peace. It’s a feature available in most new smartphones. Game Mode is on by default, so if you want to play some games but still get your important messages, you’ll need to disable it.
One thing that gets very little attention is that, however heavily customized FireOS may be, at its core it’s still the Android operating system. This has led a community of clever developers to figure out how to bypass Amazon’s software and install features like the Google Play Store, or even a whole new OS. The latter is not possible yet on these latest models, but it’s pretty easy to get the Google Play Store installed. There are only four files to download and install. Be warned—you’re on your own if anything breaks. (Worst-case scenario, you can always reset your Fire HD 8 to its factory default settings.) This is how I was able to install Mario Kart Tour, among other apps.Which to Buy?
WIRED senior writer Adrienne So has also been testing the new Fire HD 8 Kids Edition with her 3- and 5-year-old in the middle of a pandemic. In most respects, a young child’s experience remains largely unchanged from one Fire tablet to another, but with the latest, battery life has been a marked improvement. The old Fire HD 8 Kids Edition needed daily or every-other-day charging after a few hours of FreeTime, but the new HD 8 Kids Edition can sometimes last up to a week.
You can get most of the features of the Kid’s Edition from the regular Fire HD 8, but the foam padded case, combined with Amazon’s generous replacement policy, make the extra money for the Kid’s Edition worth it.
If you’re looking for a tablet to replace your laptop, none of these models are it. If your tablet use is considerably lighter, think browsing the web with your morning coffee, watching Netflix on the couch, and yelling at Alexa from across the room, the Fire HD 8 is one of the best buys on the market. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as you’re going to get for under $100.
The real question is whether you should spring for the Plus model with its extra RAM. Most people won’t notice it, but if you want a more future-proof device or you plan to use it for gaming, then the extra $20 for more RAM isn’t a bad deal. Also keep in mind that, come Prime Day (whenever that happens) or other big sale events, these tablets will likely be available for prices in the $50 to $60 range, which is, quite frankly, a steal.