Amazon's $110 tablet is the best budget alternative to the iPad — but you get what you pay for

Key Points
  • You should check out the new Amazon Fire HD 8 Plus tablet if you need a new tablet but don't want to spend hundreds of dollars.
  • The Fire HD 8 Plus starts at $109.99, more than the Fire HD 8 at $89.99, but adds wireless charging, more RAM and a faster charger in the box.
  • It's a great tablet but the camera could be improved and the screen won't blow you away.
Amazon Fire HD 8 Plus
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You should check out the new Amazon Fire HD 8 Plus tablet if you need a new tablet but don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on an Apple iPad.

Amazon announced it in May alongside a regular Fire HD 8 tablet and a version that was designed with a special protective cover for kids.

But the Fire HD 8 Plus model is the one I tested and the model I think most people should buy. With a starting price of $109.99 it's only slightly more than the regular $89.99 Fire HD 8, but includes wireless charging, a fast charger in the box and additional memory that helps it run a bit more smoothly.

Here's what you need to know about it.

What's good

There's USB-C charging and a headphone jack (next to the power button and volume buttons.)
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Amazon completely redesigned both the regular Fire HD 8 and the Fire HD 8 Plus this year. Both have faster processors and more memory than the 2018 models, and the Plus has slightly more memory than the regular model.

But the biggest improvement is in how you charge it up.

The Plus model includes a fast 9W charger in the box that will charge the tablet fully in 4 hours (versus under 6 hours for the 2018 model or under 5 hours for the regular Fire HD 8). The move to USB-C also means you'll be able to carry just one charger to power the Fire HD 8 Plus and an Android phone, for example.

Todd Haselton | CNBC
I love using it in Show-mode while it's charging, which makes it like an Echo Show.

The Fire HD 8 Plus also adds wireless charging. It's the first time I've seen this in a tablet, and I love it. I can now rest it on the Samsung wireless chargers I have next to my bed and on my desk and watch CNBC. (Amazon also has a wireless charger designed for the tablet, but it didn't arrive in time for me to review it.)

There's also a "Show mode" that kicks in when you place it on a charger, turning it into a version of Amazon's Echo Show, the company's screen-based video calling device.  So you'll see news updates, talk to Alexa, be able to watch TV shows, and even place video calls to other Echo devices.

I liked watching CNBC on the Fire HD 8 Plus.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Amazon moved the camera to the side of the device, too, which makes a lot more sense for video chats in landscape mode or when it's on the charger. But the cameras still stink: Pictures and videos are both kind of blurry. I really wish Amazon splurged for a better camera, especially in the Plus model.

The battery life is solid. It lasted me several days when I just used the Fire HD 8 Plus to stream some TV shows or read on the couch. You'll find the tablet drains faster if you're playing a lot of games or streaming a lot of TV and movies. 

As you'd expect on Amazon's tablets, Amazon content is front and center -- part of the reason the tablets are so cheap is they're really meant to get you hooked on Amazon content and turn you into a loyal Amazon Prime subscriber. 

The Fire HD 8 Plus is great for reading.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

This works for me because I read a lot of Kindle books. Amazon Prime Video lets watch in a new picture-in-picture mode, too, which didn't exist outside of the Fire HD 10 until now. I like that I can have a movie in a windowed mode while shopping on Amazon, for example.

I also like that Amazon continues to include a microSD card slot. That means you can buy the cheapest 32GB model (the 64GB option costs an extra $30), and then add your own microSD card to download more movies and TV shows for when you don't have Wi-Fi. A 128GB microSD card only costs about $20 from Amazon.

Finally, there's still a headphone jack in case you still use wired headphones or just want to plug the tablet into a speaker. Bluetooth headphones also work if you're like me and switched to wireless a long time ago. 

What's bad

There's wireless charging hiding in here.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I have two main complaints with the Fire HD 8 Plus, apart from the blurry cameras: Sometimes it feels sluggish, and the screen isn't that great.

Despite the added RAM and the faster processor, there are times when it slows down, like when I have a lot of apps open or when I'm scrolling through an app. Amazon's Silk browser still feels really slow and seems to reload websites every time I open it. Yes, it feels faster than the Fire HD 8 I bought in 2018, but it's way slower than Apple's iPads (which also have features like pencil support, way faster processors and nicer screens and cameras). But the iPad starts at $329 and the similarly-sized iPad mini starts at $399. You get what you pay for. 

I love that it's easy to see all of the books I'm currently reading.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The screen is fine for watching movies or TV, and sharp enough for reading books. But it's clearly one way Amazon saves money. You can see pixels if you look close enough and the colors aren't as vivid as you'd get on far more expensive OLED displays on phones and other tablets. But it's totally fine for the price.

Lastly, as has been the case with previous Fire tablets, even though it runs FireOS, which is based on the open-source version of Google's Android platform, it doesn't support Google Play Services. That means you don't get the Google Play Store, Google News, Google Assistant, Google Maps, the full version of YouTube or a variety of other Google-built apps. There's also limited support for third-party Android apps -- the New York Times has decided not to support it any longer, for example, and instead directs you to its website. HBO Max isn't on the Fire tablet but you can still use HBO Now with the same account, though it lacks the full library of HBO Max. 

Should you buy it?

Todd Haselton | CNBC
I love using it in Show-mode while it's charging, which makes it like an Echo Show.

This is the the tablet I recommend to most people when they ask me about something that's cheaper than an iPad. It has good battery life, I love the added wireless charging and fast charging, and it's perfect if you shop a lot on Amazon and read Kindle books.

To be clear: It's not as good as an iPad. But you'll save a lot of money if you just want a tablet for watching movies, reading and playing some games.

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