On Thursday, Amazon set a new stunningly low price point for a reasonably good and reasonably functional tablet computer – $49.99, and with free shipping included.
The tablet has a 7″ color screen, moderate resolution, a reasonably fast processor, and some very nice ‘extras’. And at the $50 price point, it is truly almost a ‘throwaway’ device, and/or something you buy in bulk and simply have them all around your house rather than needing to hunt down your tablet when switching from room to room. Amazon hints at this by offering a ‘six for five’ deal – buy five and they’ll throw in a sixth one for free.
Should you buy one? Should you buy a six pack? Our answers are ‘Definitely Yes!’ and ‘Maybe’.
What Compromises and Sacrifices are Present in the $50 Fire?
Okay, so you know you’re not getting a top of the line device when you pay only $50, right? But what are you missing out on?
Now for the surprising answer : Almost nothing!
The screen has a lower resolution than the best high-resolution screens, but with a 171 ppi density, it has better pixel density than the first several generations of Apple iPads (with a mere 132 ppi resolution) and also better than the first generation iPad Mini (which had ‘only’ a 163 ppi) and is also slightly better than a regular $80 black and white Kindle eReader (167 ppi). So it is clearly good enough for all normal/ordinary purposes.
You don’t get a GPS and you can’t connect the unit to wireless data from one of the wireless phone companies, meaning you can’t use it for navigation, and you are dependent on Wi-Fi for when you need to connect to the internet. It still does support regular mapping applications though and it sort of ‘knows’ where you are based on the Wi-Fi network you are connected to; it just doesn’t give you the extraordinary accuracy of a GPS device.
The two cameras are both low-resolution rather than high resolution, although the front facing camera is probably satisfactory for when you are video chatting with friends. It wouldn’t be so good for taking high quality ‘selfie’ pictures. But the chances are your phone has much better front and back cameras, and phones are more conveniently sized for photography to start with, so perhaps this isn’t a big ‘problem’.
The battery life, at a quoted ‘up to seven hours’ isn’t as generous as with an iPad Mini and the ten hours it claims to provide. However, there’s an easy solution to that problem, too. Simply travel with an external battery and you’ll have way more than ten hours – perhaps more than fifteen or even twenty hours (see our several external battery reviews, with prices as low as $20). And these days USB charging or access to mains power for chargers is more commonly appearing in airplanes and many other places.
The tablet has limited on-board storage, but unlike most other tablets, it allows for plug-in Micro-SD cards, which totally resolves that issue.
Although Amazon’s Fire tablets are Android based, they have a more limited subset of the entire Android store of apps. But this is much less restrictive than it earlier was, and for most people is no longer much of a consideration/constraint.
The Best Feature(s) of the Fire
The best feature of the Fire is an intangible one – its price! But it has other standout features, too. Perhaps the most notable is its ability to accept Micro-SD cards. These lovely little memory cards are about the size (and thickness) of a finger-nail, and can hold as much as 128GB of information on them. Because you can swap the cards around, that gives you effectively unlimited storage capacity.
The sweet spot in Micro-SD cards is for 64GB cards. A ‘name brand’ 64GB card costs $20 – $25, and no-name brands can cost about $10. We recommend paying the tiny amount extra for a name brand such as SanDisk, Samsung, or Kingston – some credible reports suggest they are more reliable and longer lived than the cheaper ones.
You’ll pay more than twice as much to double the capacity to 128GB – you can expect to pay in the region of $60 for a name brand 128 GB card. But if you do this, you can probably have everything you’ll ever need on a single card and not need to ever worry about swapping cards (note – if you will be keeping a collection of cards, they are small and easy to lose, so we urge you to consider some sort of storage holder for them such as this ‘Mobile Safe Case‘ we reviewed a while back).
Another excellent feature is that it qualifies as an Amazon Kindle device, so if you have a Prime membership, you can get free book rentals (up to one a month, for unlimited periods). The free book rental feature could quickly save you more money than the $50 device cost.
A related new announcement on Thursday was ‘Amazon Underground‘ – access to what Amazon says is $10,000 worth of free apps and in-app purchase credits, plus free movies and television shows.
We suspect that most of us will never enjoy anything close to $10,000 worth of value from this. But we also expect we’ll all find one or two things that we like and which we might otherwise end up spending money on.
This new service isn’t exclusively offered only on Amazon’s new Fire tablets, it is available on most Android powered phones and tablets. So it is a reason to consider Android in general over Apple’s iOS, but not necessarily a reason to consider a Fire tablet other Android powered tablets.
Underground is also not an exclusive collection of only free things. It is basically a new portal into the entire Amazon site/store, including some things which by chance might be free, and everything else which is not free. So we rate this as a disappointment verging on a trick rather than a brilliant new feature.
The Best Uses for the Fire
We see the Fire as being ideally suited for several particular purposes. One would be as a portable music player. Load up a 64GB or 128GB Micro-SD card with MP3 or AAC music, and you have a device that is an excellent music player and comparable to an Apple iPod Touch.
An even better use could be as an offline (rather than internet streaming) video player, due to it being able to swap micro-SD cards, giving it effectively an unlimited amount of offline storage.
There is a special new feature that makes this particularly compelling. A new shortly to be released feature – Amazon On Deck – will mean you can download Amazon Prime movies and television shows and store them on the Micro-SD cards. For example, you could load up with a lot of movies before going on a trip somewhere, and not need to worry about internet access to stream movies while traveling. This is a massively exciting new feature, and Amazon is the only streaming service that allows you to actually save a local copy of the streamed video.
The Fire is also great as an extra/spare/loaner device. If you wanted to lend someone an eBook, now you can simply lend them a Fire tablet with the eBook on it, rather than struggle with the restrictions on eBook lending that generally apply. If you have guests visiting, either just for a few hours, or for a longer period, they can borrow the Fire if they want to check their email, update their Facebook page, etc.
Talking about books, if you don’t yet have a Kindle eBook reader, this new multi-purpose tablet is lower priced than even the cheapest monochrome dedicated Kindle eBook reader. The entry level Kindle eBook reader is $80, the Fire is $50!
We’re still happy with our $120 Kindle Paperwhite for reading books on long flights due to its higher resolution screen and longer battery life, but for normal/casual use, or for the growing number of eBooks that include color illustrations or other color components, this $50 tablet is now the best way to go.
These tablets would also be great for simply ‘leaving around the house’ – one in the kitchen for recipes and perhaps for maintaining a shopping list that also automatically appears on your phone when you’re at the store (I use Simple Note on all my phones and tablets and even on my regular computers. It is free and simple and excellent and works with Macs and PCs, iOS and Android).
Have another Fire by the television so if you want to look up something while you’re watching a program (such as ‘where have I seen that actor before’) you can do so conveniently. One at the dinner table for when you’re having a discussion about something, so you can look up the answer immediately through Google.
You could even place one in your bathroom for ‘contemplative reading’ instead of a magazine or book. And if it falls in the bath, well, you’re only out $50 instead of perhaps $500 on a more expensive comparable tablet from Apple.
Comparing the $50 Fire to the $400 – $730 iPad Mini
Okay, so the $50 Fire isn’t quite as ‘nice’ as the iPad Mini. But you could buy 9 – 14 Fire tablets for the price of just one iPad Mini. That’s perhaps a ridiculous comparison because the chances are that while you might have some justifiable reason to buy two or three Fire tablets, you probably don’t need ten or more of them!
It could even be said that perhaps, for most people, the question isn’t so much ‘Do I buy the iPad Mini or the Fire?’ but rather ‘Should I buy a Fire as well as an iPad Mini?’.
Here’s a table showing what you respectively get, plus also detailing the upgraded Fire HD 8 for further comparison.
|Amazon Fire||Apple iPad Mini 4||Amazon Fire HD 8|
|Screen size||7.0″ diagonal|
3.5″ x 6.0″
4.7″ x 6.3″
4.2″ x 6.8″
|Screen resolution||1024 x 600|
|2048 x 1536|
|1280 x 800|
|External dimensions||7.5″ x 4.5″ x 0.4″||8.0″ x 5.3″ x 0.24″||8.4″ x 5.0″ x 0.3″|
|Weight||0.69 lb||0.66 lb||0.69 lb|
|Cameras||1.2/0.3 MP||8/1.2 MP||5/0.9 MP|
|Internal storage||8 GB||16/64/128 GB||8/16 GB|
|External storage||Yes, up to 128 GB micro SD||No||Yes, up to 128 GB micro SD|
|Cloud storage||Yes, free, unlimited for Amazon content||5 GB free across all iOS devices, 50GB for $12/yr||Yes, free, unlimited for Amazon content|
|Wi-Fi||Single band, 2.4 GHz, b/g/n||Dual band, 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz a/b/g/n/ac||Dual band, 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz a/b/g/n/ac|
|Wireless||No||Yes (+ $130)||No|
|GPS||No||Yes (+ $130)||No|
|Battery||‘Up to 7 hours’ of mixed use||10 hrs||‘Up to 8 hours’ of mixed use|
|Operating System||Subset of Android 5||Apple iOS||Subset of Android 5|
|Price||$49.99||$399/499/599 + $130 for GPS/wireless option||$149.99 or $169.99|
|Kindle free rentals||With Prime||No||With Prime|
|Free apps||A ‘$10,000’ package of apps||No||A ‘$10,000’ package of apps|
Upgrading from the $50 Fire
Amazon have a family of Fire tablets, and if you wanted to stay within the Amazon family but treat yourself to something slightly more fully featured, the logical next step would be to the (also newly released on Thursday) Fire HD 8.
This unit costs $100 more, and gives you a slightly larger and higher resolution screen, slightly longer battery life, better Wi-Fi connectivity, and for a mere $20 extra ($169.99 instead of $149.99), twice as much onboard storage. This is detailed in the table above.
We’d feel good about upgrading to the larger 8″ tablet if we expected to watch a lot of video – in that case there is a clear benefit both from the increased screen size and the improved screen resolution. Although a 1″ increase in screen diagonal size doesn’t sound much, the actual square inches of screen increases by about 36% – something to do with Pythagoras’ Theorem, I guess. And with the new video streaming feature that allows for offline downloading and saving of streamed video, we might end up watching a lot more video than we formerly used to.
However, if you’re looking for a simple but fully featured tablet, we’re not sure there’s any good purpose in upgrading from the $50 Fire to the $150 Fire. Chances are the $50 Fire does everything you want. And, at the price, simply buy one now and see if you like it or not. If you uncover something it doesn’t do that you feel you need, then you’re only out of pocket $50 and you have a spare device (or sell it on Craig’s List to get most of your money back).
Beyond that, regular Android tablets are available in abundance, and the entry level Apple iPad Mini – not the new Mini 4 (priced from $399) but the earlier and inferior Mini 2 – starts in price from $269.
If you don’t already have a Kindle, and do have an Amazon Prime membership, you should get one of these $50 Fires merely to qualify for and enjoy their ‘borrow a book a month for free’ program. That alone might more than pay for the cost of the Kindle, in less than a year.
If you’ve not yet purchased any form of tablet, this would be a great way to start. If you’re looking for some sort of device for computer-phobic family members, this would again be a great way to get someone feeling comfortable with basic things such as email, chat, Facebook, eBooks, possibly a game or two, music, and video streaming.
Even if you already have one (or more) tablets, these are so good and so inexpensive that you almost ‘can’t afford to say no’ and should consider getting one or two, as spares, for traveling with, sharing, and many other things.
Recommended. The only thing we’re not sure about is how many you should buy (I have ordered one to start – I would have ordered more, but I have six other tablets already!).