underscored fire hd 8 review lead
CNN  — 

When we took a first look at the design of Amazon’s new Fire HD 8 and HD 8 Plus tablets earlier this month, we were enamored. Now, after a week of use and testing, we’re still just as impressed with the duo, especially when we take into account their affordability.

The Fire HD 8 starts at $89.99 for 32GB of storage and $119.99 for 64GB.

The Fire HD 8 Plus is $109.99 for 32GB of storage or $139.99 for 64GB of storage. Or, if you want to take advantage of its new wireless charging capabilities, you can order a bundle that includes a wireless charging dock for an extra $30.

Both models are available in black, slate, plum, twilight blue and white.

Still in love with the new design

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Fire HD tablets have long been boxy and, frankly, kind of ugly. The new Fire HD tablets have been completely redesigned (which isn’t even mentioned on the Amazon website) to give them a more refined look and feel.

The two devices are identical on the outside, with the differences between the HD and HD Plus coming down to the Plus having 3GB of memory (instead of 2GB), wireless charging support, and a 9-watt wall adapter for faster wired charging in the box.

The front-facing camera has been moved. When the tablet’s held horizontally, the camera is now centered at the top, rather than on the side. The move makes sense as it’s primarily designed for use in video calls, which are undoubtedly better in landscape mode.

There’s also a camera on the back of the tablet. The front and back cameras capture 2-megapixel images, and while they’re not the sharpest of cameras, they get the job done.

The 8-inch screen has a resolution of 1280x800, meaning it can handle 720p HD with ease.

The tablet measures 8 by 5.4 by 0.4 inches and weighs 12.5 ounces, about three-quarters of a pound.

The power button, volume controls, USB-C port for charging and data transfer, and a headphone jack are on the right side.

We embrace the move from micro USB to USB-C for charging. We can use the same cables that we use to charge other gadgets, with most Android and accessory makers having made the switch.

On the bottom edge of the housing is a microSD card slot that accepts up to 1TB of additional storage, giving you the option to add plenty of room for your kids’ games, books and videos.

The top of the Fire HD 8 is where you’ll find the dual speakers, which surprisingly don’t sound bad. They have plenty of volume and a clear sound quality, which is hard to find in low-end tablets.

The overall build quality feels just OK. That’s not to say it’s bad, but instead, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a tablet with a plastic housing.

That said, and at risk of repeating ourselves, the new design is attractive. The rounded edges go a long way in improving the comfort of holding the Fire HD 8 and HD 8 Plus while we read our Kindle books or browse Amazon’s store.

We would have loved to see a fingerprint sensor on either model. Entering a PIN code to unlock the tablet every single time we want to use it is cumbersome, but required by Amazon’s Fire OS due to sharing the tablet with kids.

Performance and battery life

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When we’re asked about Amazon’s Fire tablets, the conversation usually involves performance and whether it’s worth it. It’s no secret Amazon’s tablets aren’t workhorses like the iPad Pro, but they’re not so slow and sluggish that they’re unusable.

In other words, the performance of the Fire HD 8 and HD 8 Plus is more than enough for something that serves up books, videos and the occasional Amazon shopping.

We weren’t able to run our standard benchmark app on either tablet due to Geekbench 5 not being listed in the Amazon Appstore. We even tried to sideload it — that is, install an app outside of the standard Appstore process — and that failed.

Geekbench 3 is available in Amazon’s Appstore, but without scores from other devices to compare with the results, it wouldn’t tell us much.

We’ve run countless battery tests on countless devices, and have come to understand that results can vary based on a number of factors. Room temperature and the size and quality of the movie file can all influence how well a device does. We even know that running the same battery test on the same device will often return different results.

Why are we telling you this? Because the consistency in the battery performance between the HD 8 and HD 8 Plus is amazing.

Using CNN Underscored’s battery life benchmark — which consists of looping the same video file with the display brightness set to 50% and all extra connectivity and features turned off — we monitor how long the battery lasts.

The Fire HD 8 powered through 9 hours and 40 minutes of constant playback. The Fire HD 8 Plus? It lasted 9 hours, 38 minutes.

Granted, neither tablet made it to Amazon’s advertised 12-hour mark, but the fact that only two minutes separated the tablets is amazing on its own.

When it comes to performance and battery life, we found the Fire HD 8 Plus to be our preferred tablet for personal use. Not because it opened apps faster or gaming was smoother, but we found that apps didn’t have to reload as often while multitasking, likely due to the extra memory.

Otherwise, the performance was mostly identical. They’re not the fastest tablets you can buy, but for around $100, that’s to be expected. Actually, we found that their performance is on par with the $349 Galaxy Tab S6 Lite.

When we weren’t actively using the Fire HD 8 Plus, it was sitting in the Qi-compatible wireless charging stand. A few seconds after setting it down, you’ll hear a chime letting you know that Show Mode has been activated, turning the tablet into an Echo Show, with Alexa awaiting your questions and commands.

The standard HD 8 has the same feature you can manually turn on, or it will auto-enable itself whenever you plug it in to charge. Seriously, this is an underrated feature for any tablet.

You can use voice commands to start music, video, control smart home devices or ask for weather updates. And when you’re done with that, you can pick up the tablet and continue reading your latest Kindle book.

Fire OS needs a refresh

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Fire OS feels like it’s in need of a refresh and a move away from its tabbed homescreen. Apps and services are broken into different categories.

For You has weather, recent apps, app suggestions and news. Home is where you can find all of your installed apps. Then the Books, Video, and Games & Apps tabs: Books is a mishmash of books you own, books you’ve read, and suggestions. The Games & Apps tab shows apps you have installed, and once again provides suggestions for apps you may like. Then there’s Shop, Music, Audible, and Newsstand, all of which are similar to the rest of the tabs, but with their own pieces of content and suggestions.

It’s all very overwhelming, especially when trying to accomplish tasks like installing a new app. You’d think you’d go to the Games & Apps tab to search for it, but all that does is search the web or Amazon’s website, which sometimes redirects you to Amazon’s Appstore, where you can finally download the app.

A more streamlined interface would go a long way toward improving the overall experience and removing the often duplicative and confusing interface.

Bottom line

Navigation issues aside, the Fire HD 8 tablets are well worth the price.

If it were up to us, Amazon wouldn’t make the standard HD 8 and would only offer the HD 8 Plus. The added benefits of more memory, a faster wall adapter and wireless charging are well worth the extra $20.

To be clear: If you’re looking for a Fire HD 8, splurge on the HD 8 Plus. It’s worth it.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.