Amazon's new $180 tablet is good, but most people should still get an iPad

Key Points
  • Amazon's Fire HD 10 Plus has great battery life, a good screen and easy access to movies, music and books
  • But it lacks a lot of apps that you might want and doesn't have a very good web browser.
  • It's a fine tablet for folks who just want something basic and don't want to spend a lot of money, but most people should consider the regular $329 iPad instead.
Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus tablet
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I've been testing Amazon's new Fire HD 10 Plus tablet for the past several days. It started shipping to customers earlier this week and starts at $179.99, a little more than half the price of the entry-level iPad.

The Fire HD 10 Plus is Amazon's most high-end tablet and has a few more features, like extra RAM and wireless charging, that make it a better buy than the $149.99 regular Fire HD 10.

Unlike Apple, Amazon's tablet business doesn't generate a considerable bulk of the company's revenues. Instead, they're just portals into Amazon's content and services. They're compelling because they're cheap but let you stream movies, music and read books. They're great if that's all you need out of a tablet. Still, I think most people who can save a bit longer will find they can do a lot more with an iPad.

Here's what you need to know about the new Fire HD 10 Plus.

What's good

Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus

If you're like lots of people who just want a tablet to poke around some basic games, read Kindle books, stream Netflix and Amazon Prime video or listen to music from services like Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music and others, the Fire HD 10 Plus (or even the entry-level Fire HD 10) is a good choice.

It's light and offers a big 10.1-inch display that's crisp, bright and colorful. The tablet is made out of plastic, but the soft-touch finish helps make it feel a little less cheap. You won't find metal or any other higher-end design features you'd get on an iPad, though.

Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus tablet
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like the stereo speakers that play audio from both sides of the tablet, instead of just one side, so that audio sounds balanced when you're watching movies in landscape mode. They're fine for playing music -- I liked listening to classical while reading at night, for example -- and get loud enough.

Amazon boosted the RAM to 4GB this year, which means it feels a bit faster when running applications at the same time. It didn't really feel sluggish to me, even when I ran Netflix on one side of the screen while browsing the news on the other side. 

Another bonus you don't get with an iPad: there's a microSD card slot for expanding the storage so you can download more movies, photos and music for listening when you don't have a Wi-Fi connection. I recommend buying the cheapest 32GB model for this reason, instead of the 64GB model, since microSD cards are cheap and can be easily popped into the side.

Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus on wireless charging dock.

Amazon includes wireless charging in case you want to buy yet another optional accessory, the wireless charging dock, which brings the total cost up to $219.99. It works well. You just plop the tablet on the dock and it starts charging. Again, you won't find this on an iPad.

There's a unique "Show Mode" and turn the Fire HD 10 Plus into an Amazon Echo Show with a screen. This is great if you're using the wireless charging stand. It'll show you recipes, the weather and act as an Echo when you say "Hey Alexa" nearby. It's convenient if you're already an Echo household and want to turn the tablet into a hands-free assistant in places like the kitchen. I mostly just watched movies while it was charging on my desk, though.

I also like that Amazon's home screen shows you all of the stuff you might want to access quickly: the book you're already reading, the last TV show you watched, books you might like to read, apps you recently opened and the weather.  It's super convenient. And you can easily control smart home gadgets, like your lights and cameras, if you already have them connected to an Amazon Echo. As expected, it just ties in really well with Amazon's products and services.

Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus

Amazon also launched a $49.99 Bluetooth Keyboard Case accessory for its tablets this year. It's included in a new productivity bundle with the regular -- not plus -- model of the tablet for $219. That bundle also offers a year of Microsoft Office worth $69.99. Amazon sent me the keyboard, which also works with the plus model. It's decent for a $50 keyboard and works well for things like typing in Microsoft Word. But the keys are a little cramped and it lacks backlighting, so I often just found myself using a computer when I needed to get real work done.

Finally, the battery life was excellent in my tests. Amazon promises up to 12 hours of usage. I started playing a movie on loop, with the brightness set to about 50%, at 10 a.m. and by 10 p.m. it was still playing with about 28% battery life. So, it exceeds Amazon's promise in this regard. Speaking of the battery, I like that Amazon continues to use the more modern USB-C charging port, which is the same charger you might already use for your computer or Android phone.

What's bad

Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus

You'll get far more bang for your buck from the regular $329 iPad if you like having access to lots of apps.  The Amazon AppStore is still pretty barebones compared to the Apple App Store. Sure, you'll get all the big streaming apps like HBO Max, Netflix, Hulu and other popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and more.

But, others are missing. You won't find Slack, for example. None of Google's apps, like YouTube, YouTube TV, Gmail, Chrome, Maps and others are there. Instead, you have to rely on Amazon's far inferior Silk browser to surf the web (unless you want to do some hacking to get Google's services on it.) Consider this if you're thinking it might be a good option for your kids to use for homework: are the apps the school requires even supported?

And speaking of the browser, it's still not very good. You might use Chrome, Safari or Edge on your computer or phone. But all of your saved websites and passwords in those browsers won't transfer over here. So you'll need to remember all your logins for everything. It's OK if you just want to, say, go to CNBC and read the latest news. But it's not great if you want to remain in sync with the browser you use on other devices like your phone or computer. iPads support all those browsers and stay in sync better.

And other things are missing that just seem odd. Amazon's new Luna game streaming service, which works on Android, iPhone, PCs and Amazon Fire TV's and is actually pretty fun, isn't supported by the tablet. I hope that's added soon since you'd expect an Amazon service to work on a tablet dedicated to Amazon's media offerings.

The cameras aren't that great, either. The front-facing 2-megapixel camera is fine if you want to do a quick video chat, but it's not very sharp and video/photos are too dark. Same goes for the back-facing camera.

Should you buy it?

Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus tablet
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you're like a lot of people and really just want a tablet to catch up on Netflix on the couch, browse any of Amazon's services, and you're not worried about having to access specific apps like Slack for work, or anything Google makes, then sure, the Fire HD 10 Plus is a fine tablet. And I think that's who Amazon is targeting: people who just want something simple and affordable to watch movies and read books on. In fact, I recommend saving some money and buying the $149.99 model that has slightly less RAM and lacks wireless charging but still performs well and comes in three additional colors.

But if you want a tablet that has a far better browser, more apps and a more premium design, just save up for the $329 iPad. I know it costs a lot more, but you can also do more with it.

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