As the quality of tablets has gone up, the minimum cost to get a halfway decent one has gone down. Read on, as Gizmag reviews one of Amazon's most aggressively-priced products yet, the US$99 Fire HD 6 tablet.
You could do a drinking game while reading reviews of the Fire HD 6 (from Gizmag or anywhere else): every time you run into the phrases "for $99" or "for its price," everyone does a shot. Is this a great tablet, by 2014 standards? No. But is it great for its price? You bet. That's the Fire HD 6 in a nutshell: it's special, but only because of the value it offers for $99.
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It has the same software-related strengths and weaknesses as every other Amazon Fire tablet. On one hand, it's an Amazon shopper's paradise, with quick and easy access to the company's digital and physical goods (especially sweet if you're a Prime member). But on the other hand, its selection of third-party apps isn't the greatest and, unless you want to do some tinkering, you won't have access to a single Google-made app.
The version of Fire OS (Amazon's forked version of Android's open-source core) that runs on the Fire HD 6 doesn't support Android and iOS standards like recent-apps-switching, setting reminders or voice control. When you try to jump from app-to-app, you'll notice some lag, and the screen is too small to turn it into a faux laptop. And many popular apps that are in Amazon's storefront are older (crappier) versions than you'll find on the iOS App Store or Google Play Store (1Password and Flipboard, for example).
... but hey, for $99, what do you expect?
The Fire HD 6 is fairly thick (10.7 mm/0.42-in), but I find it to be comfortable in hand (thin devices are sexier, but sometimes it's easier to grip a device with some meat on its bones). It's small enough that I can comfortably cup it in my secondary hand, and its bezels are wide enough that I can grip its side without accidentally touching its screen.
At 6 inches, the Fire HD 6's screen is about as small as you can make a tablet while still calling it a tablet. In fact, its display is only 5 percent bigger than those of the Nexus 6 and Lumia 1520 smartphones (they have the same diagonal measurements, but different aspect ratios). If you already own a phablet, then, needless to say, this isn't the tablet for you.
Its screen quality isn't bad at all (for $99). At 252 pixels per inch (PPI), it's only slightly less sharp than Apple's last four full-sized iPads (they're 264 PPI). There are going to be compromises in any ~$100 tablet, but Amazon was wise to make the Fire's display one of its high points. As long as text and images look crisp (especially for e-books and videos), I'm more likely to put up with some slight lag and a few missing apps.
Speaking of e-books, the Fire HD 6 makes for a pretty damn good e-reader. If you can live with day-long (as opposed to weeks-long) battery life, and sacrifice some readability in direct sunlight, then it can save you $20 over the Kindle Paperwhite. And the Paperwhite doesn't let you play Grand Theft Auto, send emails or watch The Sopranos.
Battery life is a pleasant surprise. In our test, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, it dropped around 13 percent per hour. That's slightly better than the iPad Air 2, and only a hair off the pace of the iPad Air 1 and latest iPad minis. With "regular" use, this is easily an all-day device.
There are a couple minor asterisks attached to the Fire HD's price. By default, the device ships with lock screen ads. I don't find them to be particularly intrusive, but you will need to pay an extra $15 if you want to get rid of them. The base model also ships with 8 GB of storage (half what you'll find in an entry-level iPad). If you want a 16 GB model, that will cost an extra $20.
The Fire HD 6 is a remarkably good deal (and after the overpriced Fire Phone launch, it's nice to see the company get back to what it does best). Sure, its boxy design doesn't make for the sexiest tablet. It's missing apps that you'll find on other tablet platforms, and multitasking isn't much fun. But how many other $99 tablets give you a screen this good, with battery life this long?
The Fire HD 6 is perfect for someone who has never bought a tablet because they cost too much. Ditto for families that want an extra slate floating around for when the iPad is already taken, or someone looking for a good stocking stuffer for the holidays. And again, it isn't a bad e-reader alternative either.
The Fire HD 6 is available now, in select stores and (if you're too sloshed from playing the "for $99" drinking game) online.
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