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Amazon Fire HD 10 (2021) review: things are getting complicated

Amazon’s lineup of Fire tablets has settled into a familiar routine: they are available in small, medium, and large; they are priced far lower than comparable iPads; and they are mostly good for reading and watching movies or TV, with content likely supplied by Amazon itself. The company doesn’t update them as often as their competitors, sometimes going a few years between upgrades. This year, the large model, the Fire HD 10, has gotten a refresh, bringing a redesigned body, better performance, and a host of new configurations you can choose from when buying it.

Despite the update, much remains the same. The Fire HD 10 is a good, inexpensive tablet for consuming content from Amazon, including Kindle books, Prime Video movies and TV shows, and Audible audiobooks. It also has access to other popular streaming services, like Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, and HBO Max. The Kids editions are great for parents who want to limit what content their children have access to or how long they can use a screen each day. But if you’re looking for a tablet to replace your laptop or get serious work done, the Fire HD 10 is not it.

The Fire HD 10 family (yes, it’s a whole three-row SUV full of options now) now includes the $150 standard model, the $180 Fire HD 10 Plus, a $200 HD 10 Kids model, and a $200 HD 10 Kids Pro option. (Those are all the full MSRP prices; Amazon frequently discounts its products, and you should probably just wait for a sale if you’re planning to buy one.) Of these, three of them — the Fire HD 10, the Fire HD 10 Kids, and the Fire HD 10 Kids Pro — have the same hardware; the Fire HD 10 Plus adds an extra gigabyte of RAM, a soft-touch finish, and wireless charging.

The HD 10 and 10 Plus are available with either 32GB or 64GB of storage; the Kids models are only available with 32GB. All of them have support for microSD card storage expansion up to 1TB. The Fire HD 10 is available in four muted color options, while the 10 Plus only comes in black and the Kids versions come with a variety of colorful cases. Lastly, the HD 10 and 10 Plus include Amazon’s lock screen ads by default; you can pay $15 more to remove them either when you buy the tablet or after the fact.

Not only has Amazon expanded the configuration options available for the Fire HD 10, but it’s also increased the number of accessories you can opt for. The big new thing is a $50 detachable keyboard case that works with either the Fire HD 10 or 10 Plus. You can get it in a “Productivity Bundle” that includes the tablet, the keyboard case, and a year of Microsoft 365 for $220 or $250, depending on which Fire HD 10 you choose. It’s clearly Amazon’s answer to the iPad Pro and other tablets that aim to be more than just laid-back consumption devices. You can also opt for a $40 wireless charging dock made by Anker that’s specifically designed for the Fire HD 10 Plus and turns it into an Alexa smart display. And then there’s the usual suite of $40 color-matched snap-on cases that work with either model and provide protection and a vertical or horizontal kickstand.

It’s a whole lot of choices for what most would consider to be a simple, almost impulse purchase. I’ll go into more depth below, but if you are looking to buy one and want the TL;DR, my recommendation is to get the 32GB Fire HD 10 in whatever color you prefer and a separate microSD card to expand its storage.


Amazon Fire HD 10

This year’s Fire HD 10 lineup comes with an appreciated improvement to the design released in 2019: the bezels around the screen are now uniform, making it easier to hold and giving it a more modern look than before. The bezels on the long side are actually slightly bigger, but the bezels on the short sides are smaller than they were, with the net effect being a noticeably smaller overall footprint. Amazon has also rounded the corners more, giving it a more iPad-like silhouette, and it’s about eight percent lighter, tipping the scales at just over a pound. It’s still got a hard plastic chassis that feels a bit cheap, but the finish fortunately masks any fingerprints. I wish Amazon had found a way to add some kind of fingerprint scanner or biometric authentication because typing in a PIN code every time you need to unlock the tablet feels like you’ve time-traveled back a decade.

Inside those slimmed-down bezels is a 10.1-inch 1080p display that the company claims is 10 percent brighter than the prior model. It’s a good screen, especially for this price point: it’s plenty sharp, has good color and saturation, and works well indoors. It’s still not great in direct sunlight — 10 percent brightness bump or not — and it won’t compare to the best displays from Samsung or Apple, but I don’t think anyone buying this tablet will complain about the screen’s quality.

There is no active stylus support on any of the Fire HD 10 models, so none of them are great options if you plan to take notes on the screen or create artwork. If that’s a feature you want, you’ll have to pay a lot more for one of Samsung’s or Apple’s tablets.

Amazon moved the front-facing camera from the short edge, like it is on iPads, to the long edge, so video calls in landscape orientation are much less awkward. The 2-megapixel camera still isn’t very good, with lots of image noise, smeared details, and low color saturation. The same can be said for the upgraded 5-megapixel camera on the back. It might work fine for scanning the occasional document, but the phone you have in your pocket almost certainly has a better camera attached to it.

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Inside the new Fire HD 10 is the same 2GHz octacore MediaTek MT8183 processor that was used in the prior model. But this time, it’s paired with 3GB of RAM (a 50 percent increase), which provides a noticeable improvement in the tablet’s performance. Apps open quicker, navigating between home screens and menus is faster, and it’s generally less annoying to use than it was before. It’s still by no means a fast tablet (4K video stutters in the browser), but it doesn’t get in its own way nearly as much as the last model.

Amazon claims up to 12 hours of battery life between charges, and though I didn’t do a formal rundown test, my experience leads me to believe that’s accurate. The Fire HD 10 can easily handle a few consecutive movies, and it doesn’t lose much battery life when it’s sitting idle, unlike Apple’s latest iPads. A USB-C port is there for charging, but it doesn’t charge quickly at all. Amazon says it will take four hours to completely recharge the tablet using the included 9W charging brick. You can shorten that time by using a faster charger; it took about two hours to fully charge with a 30W USB-C charger.

Amazon did not change the speaker situation, which consists of two speakers on the top edge (when you’re holding the tablet in landscape orientation), and I wish it had, as it’s the weakest part of the movie experience with the Fire HD 10. The speakers get loud enough, but they don’t sound nearly as full or clear as those on other tablets and aren’t as pleasant to listen to. Fortunately, there’s still a 3.5mm jack and Bluetooth support for using the headphones of your choice.

The other thing Amazon hasn’t changed in a long time is the software. The Fire HD 10 runs the company’s Fire OS fork of Android, the latest version of which is based on the years-old Android 9 platform. That makes it feel dated compared to a current Android phone. There’s no gesture-based interface, for example, just the old home, back, and recents apps buttons at the bottom, nor is there a light mode and dark mode that switches automatically in the software or some of the other niceties we’ve become accustomed to in more recent versions of Android.

Amazon also uses the home screen to promote content, apps, videos, and more in a spammy way. The For You tab, which is meant to be a personalized page, is basically one big ad for apps and videos you don’t own. Once you are in an actual app, these annoyances fade away, but it’s not a fun road getting there.

The bigger software problem remains: Amazon does not have access to the Google Play Store and is therefore lacking many of the apps you are familiar with on a phone (think Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Docs, etc). Amazon’s own Appstore has never been well-stocked, and it is even worse than it used to be in terms of having the latest, most popular apps and games available. In fact, Amazon’s own Luna subscription gaming service doesn’t work on it. That’s less of a problem if all you want to do on the tablet is watch movies or TV shows, but if you’re trying to get stuff done, it’s hard to do it without the apps you need. (I’ll cover this more in the section on the HD 10 Plus.)

In general, the Fire HD 10 is the default model and the one I’d recommend most people buy if they are looking for an inexpensive tablet for watching movies or reading books. You can absolutely get a better tablet that’s more capable and has more options for apps, but you will have to pay considerably more for it.


Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus Productivity Bundle

As noted above, the Fire HD 10 Plus is the same as the standard model, but with 4GB of RAM instead of 3GB, a soft-touch finish, and wireless charging. None of these things are worth the extra cost: the RAM didn’t make an appreciable difference in performance because Amazon’s software is the bottleneck for productivity; the soft-touch finish is slightly grippier, but anyone who puts a case on the tablet won’t even experience it; and the wireless charging is convenient but slow, and finding a charger that’s big enough for the tablet and not awkward to use is a bit of a challenge. (Amazon tells me the Anker stand I tested it with is currently unavailable.)

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I tested the Fire HD 10 Plus with the $250 Productivity Bundle, which includes a detachable keyboard case and a year of access to Microsoft’s Office apps. It’s Amazon’s acknowledgment that people are using tablets for more than just media consumption, especially as many workers and students were stuck at home during the pandemic and had to do everything remotely.

The keyboard case is made by Fintie, but it’s designed to the specifications of the Fire HD 10. Half of it is a detachable Bluetooth keyboard that pairs wirelessly with the tablet. The other half is a snap-on case that connects to the keyboard via magnets to form a familiar clamshell look. I like that you can easily detach the keyboard when you don’t want to use it, but it’d be nicer if it didn’t use Bluetooth and instead communicated directly with the tablet like most other designs do.

The keyboard is small, has no backlight, and the keys themselves are plasticky. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever typed on, but it’s far from the best, and I would only want to use it for short emails and not much more. It does have a useful function row for media controls, brightness, and volume, plus there’s a shortcut to open the Fire HD 10’s split-screen mode so you can use two apps at the same time. There is no trackpad or pointing device, however.

But the hardware is not the main thing holding the Fire HD 10 Plus back — it’s the software, or, more accurately, the lack of it.

Amazon has worked with Microsoft to get its suite of Office apps into the Amazon Appstore, including Outlook, Word, Excel, and Teams. There’s also Zoom for video calls. But if your work demands any other productivity apps, you’re going to have a hard time finding them.

Here’s a list of productivity apps I use daily for work that are nowhere to be found on the Fire HD 10 Plus (or any other Amazon tablet):

  • Slack
  • Asana
  • Google Meet
  • Feedly (the poorly rated third-party app I tried crashed on login)
  • Todoist
  • SwiftKey
  • NY Times (the app in the Amazon store is just a bookmark to the website)
  • Bitwarden (Also missing are LastPass, 1Password, and Dashlane. Logging in to apps with my passwords requires juggling my phone and the tablet, and it’s a huge pain.)
  • Two-factor authentication apps
  • Pocket (Pocket used to be in the Amazon Appstore, but the company has removed it and now instructs Fire tablet owners to sideload the app from its website.)

You can get around this problem by sideloading the Google Play Store and its related services onto the Fire HD, but that requires disabling security features, downloading software from sites that don’t have authorization to distribute it, and installing it in a specific order. Frankly, it’s not something most people are going to do, and if Amazon wants to market something called a “Productivity Bundle,” it needs to do a much better job at making its tablet more useful for work tasks.

Should you find all the apps you need in the Appstore, you’ll still run into wonky problems trying to use them in split-screen mode. I was able to pull up the Office app and a browser window at the same time, but in order to create a new Word doc, I had to exit the split-screen mode. The tablet’s relatively small screen and widescreen aspect ratio also make things quite small to work with when you have two apps open.

The Fire HD 10 Plus and the Productivity Bundle are just a token acknowledgment of the trend to use tablets for work. The Fire HD 10 Plus is not a good device for getting work done. It’s inexpensive, but you’ll most likely be able to get a lot more done with a Chromebook or Chrome OS tablet, such as the excellent Lenovo Chromebook Duet, for not much more money.


Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids and HD 10 Kids Pro

As with prior Kids versions, the new models come with a year’s subscription to Amazon’s Kids Plus content service, a two-year warranty against damage, and a kid-friendly case.

Despite their names, the Kids and Kids Pro models are, in fact, the same hardware, just wrapped in a different case. The Kids model, which Amazon says is designed for ages 3 to 7, comes with a chunky, spongy rubber case that’s easier for little hands to hold on to and will protect the tablet from tumbles and drops. The Kids Pro model is meant for children ages 6 to 12 and comes with a slimmer plastic case that’s more akin to a standard tablet case. As mentioned before, both cases can be had in a variety of colors and designs and come with built-in kickstands that double as carrying handles.

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The other difference is found in the software interface. The home screen and app grid on the HD 10 Kids is the same as before, but the HD 10 Kids Pro features a cleaner interface that’s more similar to a phone, with a search bar at the top and more grown-up-looking app icons. Amazon started rolling out this new interface last fall, and it’s determined by the age range you select for your child’s profile, not the hardware; you could put the new interface on the standard Kids tablet if you so desire.

I’m not a kid, so I handed the Fire HD 10 Kids and HD 10 Kids Pro tablets to my six- and nine-year-olds to get their take on them. They’ve been using 2017-era Fire HD 8 Kids tablets for a few years, so they have a good perspective on how the new models might be different from older tablets.

Both kids appreciated the larger screen and better sound from the 10-inch tablet compared to their older 8-inch models. Also popular was the built-in kickstand on the case that let them put the tablet down when watching a video. Both kids noticed and remarked upon how much faster it was downloading games and launching episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants — my nine-year-old said they were able to download “ten apps in like three seconds.” (Kids may be prone to exaggeration.) Given how slow and frustrating their old tablets are whenever I have to use them for anything, I think parents considering upgrading to new models should probably just go ahead and do it. I also appreciated having a USB-C port for charging, which is a lot easier to deal with and works more reliably than the Micro USB port on their old tablets.

As much as I dislike using the Fire tablets for my own entertainment or work, I do like the Kids editions for my kids. Unlike an iPad, the Kids Plus software allows me to easily restrict the content available to them to age-appropriate levels. I don’t have to worry about in-app purchases or ads for scammy games popping up. I can selectively adjust how much time they have playing games, reading books, or watching video before the tablet locks them out for the rest of the day.

The interface available for younger kids doesn’t have a web browser at all, and I can control whether the camera can be used. For older kids, a web browser with built-in content filters is available, though that too can be turned off by the parent. Apps that aren’t available in Amazon’s Kids Plus library can be selectively requested and enabled for the kids’ profiles.

Parents can control all of this, including the screen time limits, from a web dashboard on any device, making it very easy to manage. It’s something you can set up and then just hand to your kid and not worry about what they are accessing or who they might be communicating with. If you have multiple kids sharing a single tablet, each can have their own personalized profile accessible right from the lock screen. It’s baffling that Apple hasn’t done anything along these lines for the iPad.

Still, when it comes time to do schoolwork, the Kids edition tablets have the same problems as the standard models. These aren’t great schoolwork companions — they are really just for entertainment (and maybe a little bit of edutainment in the mix).

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge