Before you buy a tablet, you should ask this question, “what am I going to use this thing for”. This seems like common sense, but really, take a moment. What are you going to do with that slab of internet-connected screen?
If your answer is I need “something for making life-like 3D animations and playing graphics-heavy games”, you are obviously a power-user and need something top-of-the-line. See iPad Pro, among others.
But that’s not everyone. Most people just need, or rather want, a screen a little bigger than a phone; something to throw in a rucksack, live on a coffee table, or be a handheld display for watching movies on flights or the like.
I’ve spent the last few weeks using Amazon’s almost nonsensically inexpensive £50 Fire tablet (advertising slogan "so cheap, why buy just one" – sly, Amazon, sly) and for all its numerous drawbacks, this is all the tablet I really need.
Last year, Amazon introduced the idea of a super cheap usable tablet with the Fire HD 6, which cost £79. With the new Fire (yup, it's just called Fire) the company is taking this idea even further with a highly barebones device.
Cheap With a Capital “C”
The tablet has a 1024 x 600, 7-inch display, so we’re talking sub-HD here. Just for a point of comparison, the 7.9-inch iPad Mini 4 has five times more pixels in its display (at more than 5 times the price, mind). Real talk: the Fire has not got a beautiful screen. The colours are dull, even at its brightest setting.
The screen lives in a cheap, snap together plastic shell, but it’s pretty durable. I dropped the tablet onto a tile floor almost immediately after I got it, and it survived the harrowing encounter. That drop could’ve meant RIP for an iPad, so despite its cheap feel, Amazon's latest slate feels pretty sturdy at least.
The Fire also has big bezels on all the sides of that less-than-stellar display. Current common wisdom says that a tablet bearing little-to-no bezels is preferable, but I actually like having them there. The borders provide a nice hunk of glass and plastic to grab, comfortably making one-hand operation of the device possible, so as not to obstruct your latest Netflix binge. Moreover, I like the black border, which serves as a kind of envelope to help focus your attention on the content you’re consuming.
And, yes, this device is all about consuming content. You won’t do much with it at all.
All Things Amazon
Amazon devices aren’t so much open playgrounds as they are portals to Amazon services. The company’s Android-based Fire OS is basically a digital Amazon shopping centre. You’ve got ads on the lockscreen, the homescreen, and in apps. At every turn, the company is trying to sell you something.
This is totally fine if, like me, you use a lot of Amazon services. A less cynical way to understand this onslaught of ads is that the Fire tablet is a cheap way to take advantage of the Amazon services I already pay for, specifically, Amazon Prime Instant Video. As with other Fire tablets, you can download Prime content for viewing offline. (Netflix, Spotify and the like are right there too, if desired.) You’ll want to use headphones though because the built-in speakers are rubbish.
But really, I spent most of my time on this tablet reading books, and for that purpose, the Fire is more than sufficient. It’s not quite as nice as reading on the Kindle Paperwhite, and if you try to read for hours and hours, your eyes will start to burn. But remember, the Fire costs £60 less than Amazon’s lovely ereader. In fact its £10 cheaper than the most basic model, the Kindle, at £59.99.
The battery life on the Fire tablet is good enough that I only need to charge it every few days. If you spend a lot of time watching video, you’ll need your microUSB tether daily.
But what the tablet fails at completely is being any kind of reasonable tool for getting work done. Its performance is all lag, and even a simple task like internet browsing is pretty bad. Of course, it’s not particularly easy to do much besides consume media on an Amazon tablet, since there’s no Google Play Store. There are workarounds that will allow you to use your regular apps, but it’s not worth it. Even if you can load a big game like Dead Trigger 2 on to the Fire tablet, you probably won’t want to.
A Disposable Tablet is a Good Idea
Essentially, don’t expect any miracles from the Fire tablet. It is an entirely functional but very limited £50 device.
Amazon treats these tablets almost as if they’re supposed to be disposable. I mean, the company even has a buy-five-get-one-free six pack offer running right now. When you destroy one, just break out another. Rampant consumerism? Perhaps. But it makes a point.
Amazon could be on to something here, and it’s possibly pioneering an emerging class of inexpensive tablets. You see, tablets in general are gadgets that cost too much money. I understand spending a lot of money on a computer or even a phone, because they are essential tools to be used every day. But a tablet is an extra device. I don’t want to spend £400+ on a tablet. I’m not sure I even want to spend £200 on a tablet.
Which is why future of tablets isn’t just a premium slab that costs as much as a computer. It can also be a throwaway impulse-buy that you find in the near electronics shop tills. Welcome to the world of tomorrow.
Images by Michael Hession.