Amazon hardware has never particularly been about the hardware.
Sure, the company has offered some interesting innovations here and there, from the high-res/low-cost screens of early Fire tablets to the four front-facing cameras of the Fire Phone. But at the end of the day, Amazon's entries into the space have been content-delivery devices first and foremost.
The model has often resulted in utilitarian devices — but that's not always a bad thing. After all, there's something to be said for a hardware product built around content discovery and consumption. Amazon has also done a good job offering its wares at deeply discounted prices. The company certainly has a well-oiled distribution mechanism in place, and besides, all of those TV shows, books, movies, and songs are where the real money is made.
But with multiple generation's of tablet-making experience and a robust suite of proprietary software, Amazon's certainly got the know-how to create a a slate on-par with the Apples and Samsungs of the world. So, how does it all come together for the Fire HD 10?
Unlike past tablets, Amazon isn't really looking to pawn off the new Fire HD as a truly premium device — not from an aesthetic perspective, at least. The slate has an overall budget feel that harkens back to earlier builds, with a glossy plastic backing that forms a slight lip as it meets the black bezel surrounding the 10-inch display.
The build does have some advantages — namely, a durability not found in more premium devices that are all metal and glass. At 15.2 oz, with a thickness of only 7.7-millimeters, the tablet also has portability going for it, making it a good candidate for slipping into a backpack ahead of a long plane ride.
The really remarkable bit as far as dimensions are concerned, however, is the width. The screen features a 16:10 aspect ratio, making the tablet really squat and really, really wide. It's a bit lopsided and might, perhaps, feel unwieldy. Kudos to Amazon for trying something a bit different on that front.
All of the Fire's physical buttons are located on the left side — power and volume rockers. That's also where the microUSB and headphone ports live. On the top is a microSD slot — it's a bit tough to open, but it's there. Again, points to Amazon for embracing expandable memory this time out. Even with the company's cloud syncing, every bit of extra storage counts.
The bottom houses two speaker grilles aimed at sending sound your way while holding the device in landscape mode. The configuration flips when you place the tablet in its stand, so you can actually hear the things. Around back is a lackluster rear-facing 5-megapixel camera and a big Amazon logo occupying the top third. The rest is a glossy plastic blank canvas, save for the FCC info at the bottom.
Once the centerpiece (not to mention namesake) of the Fire HD line, Amazon seems to be aiming for just OK with the screen this time around; 1280 x 800 (at 149 PPI) isn't the kind of resolution that's going to, ahem, set the tablet world on fire. In fact, it's the same resolution offered on the company's 8-inch tablet, which clocks in at a higher 189 PPI.
It's not up to the standards of much of the competition, but the display does a decent enough job with Amazon's streaming video service. The screen's got a pleasing color balance and gets pretty bright. It's a perfectly acceptable way to consume video, particularly on-the-go, but users searching for a truly top-end video experience will want to look elsewhere.
The audio, on the other hand, is surprisingly good for a little tablet. The speakers aren't going to compete with a decent set of headphones, of course, but they get pretty loud and do so with an impressive amount of clarity. They certainly do the trick for short bursts of video — though I'd suggest something a bit more powerful for music listening.
Amazon has swapped the hopefully optimistic "Special Offers" for a "Sponsored Lockscreen." The wording is a bit more straightforward, but the concept is the same — the device's base price includes built-in ads on the lock screen. Pay an extra $15, and poof, they're gone. If you've already got enough ads in your life, it's worth the additional charge to make them go away for good — I found myself repeatedly accidentally triggering videos for dog food and mobile games.
Once again, the tablet runs Fire OS — a heavily skinned version of Android, where content is king. The current version does pull back a bit from the in-your-face carousel found on past versions, instead offering up more Android-like icons on the home screen — naturally those icons are all Amazon by default. Above the row of icons are "new items," recently downloaded bits of content.
Swiping right brings you to your different Amazon media broken down by category: books, video, games, apps, music, and audiobooks. And just in case the whole setup was a bit too subtle, there's a Shop page as well, which shows you a list of all the physical goods you've recently purchased from the company. Buying groceries shouldn't require you to leave your tablet's desktop, right?
The competition (well, Apple) has long excelled at keeping users locked into its ecosystem, but Amazon has taken it to the next level with Fire OS, right down to the company's proprietary app store, which locks users off from Google Play, greatly reducing selection in the process. But hey, there's a lot to be said for convenience, and the operating system certainly offers plenty of it.
For all of its walled-off shortcomings, however, the operating system does bring a number of cool proprietary features to the table. That old standby X-Ray, for example, is a font of contextual information across the various categories of content, from IMDB actor information on the video end to lyrics on the musical offerings. It's continues to be one of the operating system's standout features.
Ditto for Mayday, which offers video customer support with a real live human being on the other end who can draw on screen to walk users through issues with the device or simply take over remotely. This, coupled with a free month of Prime and overall improved navigation, makes for a solid operating system experience and a compelling alternative to stock Android that doesn't get too bogged down with the skinning.
As with the display, the internals boast some cut corners, as well, including a 1.5 GHz quadcore processor and 1 GB of RAM. Pretty dismal specs, though if you're relying on the device primarily as a media-streaming machine, you likely won't notice too large a performance hit. Anything much beyond basic usage, on the other hand, and things can get a bit stickier.
The battery, on the other hand, is more of a bright spot, with a stated eight hours of life that should get you through most long flights. Storage-wise you get 16- or 32-GB. As mentioned above, that can be augmented via the microSD slot, adding up to 128 GB to proceedings. Coupled with Amazon's cloud storage, you should be pretty good to go on the media storage front.
At $229, the price is certainly right — especially given Amazon's frequent discounts (which list the tablet at a tempting $179 as of this writing). As a content delivery and consumption device, the Fire HD 10 does the trick. If you're looking for much beyond that, however, the tablet is a bit of disappointment. The design feels cheap and specs are lackluster — not exactly a great showing from a tablet maker that once had its sights set on setting the world on fire.