Amazon Fire 7 (2017)

We’ve built up some pretty straightforward expectations for a new Amazon Fire 7 tablet. Each iteration is going to be a solid but basic mini tablet that acts as a 7-inch window onto the sprawling Amazon ecosystem.

But what we expect above all else is that a new Amazon Fire 7 is going to be extremely cheap. The new Amazon Fire 7 (2017) meets all of the above criteria, and it still starts at just $49.99/£49.99 (around AU$85, though with no word on an Australian release).

With these essential points ticked off, then, two questions arise: Is cheap and cheerful still enough in 2017? And also, what’s new?

The most helpful Fire 7 yet

  • Alexa personal assistant comes to Fire
  • Dual-band Wi-Fi improves web browsing considerably

Undoubtedly the headline addition with the latest Amazon Fire 7 is Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant. US users will have seen this already in previous Fire devices, but it’ll be a first for UK customers – though older models are also getting it as a software update.

Alexa is as impressively useful a tool here as it is on any other Amazon device, such as the Echo speaker or one of the more capable (and expensive) Fire tablets. From the very start, it coped with our casual requests like “play me some music” or “what’s the latest news?” without missing a beat.

In the former case, Alexa responded with an Amazon Music radio station it thought we might like based on our previous activity. In the latter case, we were given a Flash Briefing, which amounted to the latest BBC News headlines delivered in a radio report format.

Asking “How tall is Wayne Rooney?” while that news report was playing brought up an image of the stout footballer, as well as text and a vocal response that answered the question directly. Impressively, once Alexa had finished talking, the Flash Briefing resumed in the background.

Our Alexa experience wasn’t perfect, though. When we asked Amazon’s assistant to “Open Guns of Boom,” it thought we were asking it to “Open Guns of Boob”. We’re sure the web results for that would have been rather interesting had we flicked over from the default Amazon tab.

Alexa didn’t like it when we asked it to “Open Geekbench” either, though it was on the ball when we asked to “Open Real Racing 3”.

Activating Alexa is a simple case of pressing and holding the virtual home button at the bottom of the screen, which brings up a subtle blue bar to let you know it’s listening. It doesn’t immediately take over the display like, say, Siri.

If Amazon is going to place Alexa at the heart of its hardware range – which seems quite likely – then it might be an idea to incorporate a dedicated hardware button in future iterations. It’s also a shame that the Fire isn’t listening out for an audible trigger command, like on the Echo. But the current solution works just fine.

Indeed, alongside the similarly priced Echo Dot, the new Amazon Fire 7 is the most affordable way to get hold of Amazon’s advanced personal assistant.

Those with smart home set-ups will also be able to use Alexa on the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) to interact with their gear.

Another notable addition to the Fire 7 – although much less interesting – is dual-band Wi-Fi. This enables the tablet to connect to both the 2.4Ghz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands, which increases your connectivity options. Indeed, with 5GHz now supported, internet browsing speeds can be much quicker than with the 2015 model.

Design and display

  • Essentially the same design as the 2015 model
  • 1024 x 600 really isn’t sharp enough even at this price

You might struggle to tell the difference between the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) and its two-year-old predecessor. They look very similar indeed, with the same functional matt plastic body (available in black, blue, red or yellow), embossed Amazon logo, and chunky screen bezels.

However, while the new Fire 7 occupies a familiar footprint, it’s actually 1mm thinner, 8 grams lighter, and 1mm longer than the Amazon Fire 7 (2015).

The keen-eyed among you may also have noticed that there’s been a slight reshuffle of the buttons and ports. It’s nothing drastic, but the volume keys and the 3.5mm headphone port have switched places along the top edge.

In practice, this means that all of the tablet’s physical controls are positioned near the corners, making them a little easier to reach without looking.

That’s an improvement in our book, although the placement still feels somewhat awkward when using the tablet in portrait mode, as does the decision to pile everything (the micro USB port is also here) onto one short edge.

Well, we say everything. The microSD slot is positioned on the right-hand edge of the device.

Amazon claims to have improved the display of the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) over its 2015 predecessor, with better contrast levels. That may well be true, but two core facts remain: it’s not very bright and it’s not very sharp.

If you had any aspirations of taking your new Fire 7 out into the sunshine this summer, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Doing so will render the screen a washed-out, overly reflective mess.

It’s fine when you bring it indoors, but doing so will serve to bring home how fuzzy the picture is. Perhaps we’re being overly harsh given that low low price point, but we’d suggest that 1024 x 600 falls short for any mainstream tablet in 2017.

Keep in mind that even a bog-standard budget smartphone will hit at least 1280 x 720 these days – and such phones invariably feature displays that are much smaller than the 7-inch example here.

Perhaps this really is all you can get for $50/£50 right now. But given the screen is the key component in any tablet, we’d argue that either raising the price by 10 to 20 dollars/pounds or dropping the cameras altogether would be preferable in order to hit that 720p minimum standard.

Interface and reliability

  • Prime customers will benefit the most from Fire OS
  • Amazon Appstore continues to lag way behind

At its heart, the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) runs on Android. For all intents and purposes, though, it’s a completely separate OS.

At first glance, the Home section of the so-called Fire OS makes it look much like any regular Android tablet. This essentially presents a list of all the apps you have installed on the device – though this one scrolls through them vertically.

Shifting right will reveal what the Amazon Fire 7 and its Fire OS are really about – bringing you all of the media content and online shopping that Amazon has to offer in one easily browsable interface.

The classic Fire OS carousel has only really been gently refined over the years, and it’s still a reasonably pleasant – if somewhat busy – interface to navigate. The focus here is notably different to its rivals, though.

Neither iOS nor Android brings your media front and center to the same extent, choosing instead to silo the content off into separate apps.

Which approach you prefer depends on your individual usage. In particular, the Amazon Fire 7 is a way more involving device to use if you’re a fully paid up Prime customer.

Prime membership means that under the Video tab you’ll have seamless access to the latest Prime TV offerings alongside your purchased or rented content, while Music acts as a portal to Prime’s curated streaming catalog of two million songs – again alongside any digital music you might have purchased through the online retailer.

The Books section is far more than an after-thought here, given Amazon’s considerable ebook presence. If you’ve ever bought any digital books for a pure Kindle device, they’ll be available to view here.

Ordinarily we’d discuss such things in the following media section of the review, but with the Amazon Fire range the media IS the interface. Suffice to say, if you lean heavily on Amazon for your media and shopping needs, the Amazon Fire 7’s interface has an awful lot to recommend it.

Perhaps the key difference between Fire OS and so many other custom Android interfaces relates to its app ecosystem. You don’t get access to the Google Play Store here, and that continues to be a major weakness in Amazon’s devices.

Sure, Amazon has its own Appstore with “over 500,000 of the most popular free and bestselling apps”. But both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store have burst well past the 2 million barrier.

You might justifiably argue that most people only use a dozen apps at most, but when popular apps like Dropbox and YouTube – indeed, all of Google’s apps – aren’t available, you begin to see the problem. Avid gamers are even more poorly served, with few of the latest hits available here.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Strong media access, provided you’re in deep with Amazon
  • Weak hardware compromises media experience

As we’ve just discussed, the Amazon Fire 7’s whole raison d’être is media. Movies, music, gaming and books all get their own prominent tabs on the home screen, which makes this the most media-focused tablet on the market.

Provided you’re talking about Amazon media, of course.

All your latest Amazon-sourced videos are ready and waiting to be watched as soon as you flick to the Video tab, with assorted recommended categories below.

The video-watching experience itself is perfectly decent, though it is ultimately compromised by that sub-standard display. As we hinted at before, when media consumption is the whole purpose of your device, a capable screen is by far the most important component.

Attaining a bare minimum of 720p, as pretty much all streaming media does these days, would be advisable.

Games are similarly compromised by the Fire 7’s screen quality, but far more of an issue is the scarcity of available games on the Amazon Appstore compared to rival tablet platforms.

We’re pleased to note, however, that performance is not a concern when it comes to gaming. We played some pretty demanding 3D games in Real Racing 3 and the online FPS Guns of Boom (one recent hit that has made its way to Amazon), and it didn’t skip a beat. Meanwhile, fast-paced 2D fare like Dan The Man also ran flawlessly.

Given the ultra-budget price tag, it’s deeply impressive that the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) can handle what can be one of the most demanding tasks a mobile device can be given.

Another area in which the Amazon Fire 7 has the scope to shake off its weak display is when it comes to music. Unfortunately the cheap hardware takes its toll here too in the shape of a weak, lone rear-mounted speaker. The sound output is both tinny and, thanks to the speaker’s position, frequently muffled, while cranking up the volume soon leads to painful distortion.

Plug in a decent set of earphones or a Bluetooth speaker, though, and the Fire 7 makes for a decent media player. Indeed, at just $50/£50 we could imagine this being used in conjunction with a speaker as a cheap and cheerful garden or holiday stereo system. Though it’s perhaps at this point that we should note the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) isn’t waterproof.

In terms of usability, Fire OS lacks lock screen media controls, meaning you’ll need to head to the home screen to pause and skip tracks. However, it does push a handy media control widget to the top of the notifications menu, which is helpful.

For all of your media, one issue you’ll quickly encounter is a lack of storage. The standard model of the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) has just 8GB of storage, which you’ll find will fill up alarmingly quickly. You’ll want to pop a microSD card in as soon as you open the box, but you can also do yourself a massive favor prior to that and spend the extra $20/£10 on the 16GB model.

Specs and benchmark performance

  • Great with games, somewhat stuttery in general use
  • Slow web performance through Silk Browser

If the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) has changed imperceptibly on the outside, it’s essentially the same device as before internally.

You’re looking at the very same 1.3GHz quad-core MediaTek MT8127 chip and 1GB of RAM that powered the 2015 model.

We’d have liked to have seen a power bump, but the fact remains that for $50/£50 the performance level is perfectly acceptable. Yes, there are much smoother so-called budget tablets out there, but you’d have to pay two to three times the price for the privilege.

As mentioned in the previous section, one of the biggest indicators of tablet performance is gaming, and that’s impressively slick on the Amazon Fire 7 (2017). It’s able to handle technically advanced 3D and 2D games alike with considerable composure.

You have to concede that a major reason for that smooth gaming performance is likely to be the tablet’s sub-par 1024 x 600 display, which will be placing far less of a strain on the humble ARM Mali–450 than a 720p or 1080p screen would. Every cloud, and all that.

Rather than gaming, it’s in general usage that the Amazon Fire 7’s performance comes under strain. There are small but frequent pauses and stutters when moving between tabs and media files on the Fire OS home screen.

Meanwhile, web browsing on Amazon’s own Silk Browser can be a painfully slow experience, with full websites like TechRadar taking seconds to load up completely.

We might have checked this against Chrome, Firefox, and Opera performance on the same device, but of course none of those can be found on the Amazon Appstore.

It seems likely that this is more an issue of limited RAM (things typically get a lot smoother in Android-based systems from 2GB upwards) combined with the quirks of Fire OS than any great CPU shortfall.

Geekbench benchmark results are predictably in line with the 2015 model. In fact, a multi-core score of 1197 is almost identical.

In terms of recent comparisons, the Asus ZenPad 10 Z300M scored 1943 with its faster MediaTek MT8163 CPU. Further up the scale, the iPad Mini 4 – comfortably the current mini-tablet champ – scored 3126 in our multi-core test.

Again, though, we have to keep coming back to that price tag. For $50/£50 you’re getting a competent general experience with particularly capable media performance. It’s still difficult to sniff at that even two years on from the previous model – though we have to say it’s getting easier.

Battery life

  • Amazon has extended the Fire 7’s battery life slightly
  • Battery saver modes are welcome

Despite the nigh-on identical hardware, Amazon claims to have squeezed an extra hour of battery life out of the Fire 7 (2017). This leads to an estimated eight hours of mixed usage.

We experienced nothing during our time with the device to suggest that this number is off. It would comfortably get through a day of intermittent usage with plenty to spare.

In 10 hours of very light usage (occasional app and media usage), we recorded a drop from 75% to 48%. It bore up quite well under more intensive usage too, with 15 minutes of Guns of Boom gameplay yielding a drop of just 8%. Meanwhile, 30 minutes of video streaming resulted in a 10% drop.

These are solid figures, and they mean that you’ll be able to use the Fire 7 as a media player even on extended trips.

Since the launch of the previous model, Amazon has also added a couple of battery-saver tools. Low Power Mode will optimize the device’s display settings in order to conserver power, while Smart Suspend turns off wireless connectivity when the Fire isn’t in use.

Camera

  • Terrible pictures regardless of conditions
  • HDR reasonably effective

Earlier in the review we posited the idea of Amazon ditching the Fire 7’s camera in order to make space in their budget for a superior display. That might sound a little fanciful, but looking through the pictures we took with the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) only strengthened our view.

The pictures this 2MP camera takes are universally terrible. On a sunny day, normal landscape shots were both blown out and incredibly grainy. Indoors with good natural lighting they were fuzzy and lacking in detail, while indoors shots in bad lighting looked as if we’d coated the lens in Vaseline.

Somewhat surprisingly there’s an HDR mode that needs to be manually activated in the camera menu, which does indeed serve to reveal a more uniform image in mixed lighting conditions. For once, though, the concealment of detail in shadowy areas is something of a mercy.

Can you make an excuse for the Amazon Fire 7’s camera given its unbelievably low price tag? To a certain extent, yes. But when a component is fundamentally unfit for purpose like it is here, it could be argued that price is irrelevant.

There’s also an odd, slightly zoomed-in effect that seems to come from the Fire 7 cropping down from a native 4:3 image to a more widescreen 16:9. It can be a little disconcerting, particularly when you’re trying to line up a close-up shot.

On the plus side, the camera interface is nice and clean and intuitive. As mentioned, the HDR toggle is buried in the camera settings menu, but the camera app will notify you when it thinks a shot would benefit from the function.

The settings menu also contains a Lenticular mode, which lets you string together a bunch of shots into a single image for a kind of stop-motion, live-GIF effect. 

It’s an interesting concept dating back to the ill-fated Amazon Fire Phone, but we found the execution to be a little woolly and the outcome not all that great.

There’s also a VGA front-camera that’s even lower resolution than the main one, and you’ll want to ensure you’re in strong lighting before you conduct any video calls. Better still, just use your smartphone. It’ll almost certainly be better.

Camera samples

Verdict

Amazon continues to own the $50/£50 tablet space with the Fire 7 (2017). No one else seems capable of producing a solidly built, capable media player for such a low price, which immediately justifies its place on the market.

Still, it’s a real shame the retail giant couldn’t carry the hardware improvements further. In particular, the Fire 7’s display remains a disappointment in terms of resolution and brightness, while the camera is perilously close to being useless.

In software terms the addition of Alexa works out nicely, and for dedicated Amazon Prime customers there’s no better platform on which to consume all that lovely online content. However, the Amazon Appstore remains in a distant third place to the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store for app availability.

Who’s this for?

The Amazon Fire 7 (2017) would be the ideal second or even third tablet for a busy family. Its low price means you could throw it in a garden shed or a beach bag with a Bluetooth speaker and it would serve as a decent ad hoc media system.

Thinking along similar lines, it would also be the ideal tablet for young kids given its rock bottom price and intuitive media-focused interface.

Should you buy it?

At $50/£50, the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) remains an excellent first tablet for young kids – or even an additional tablet for those who can never seem to lay their hands on a smart device when they need one.

It would seem churlish to complain about the Fire 7’s modest hardware, but a lack of meaningful progress means we’re more inclined to grumble now than we did in 2015.

In particular, the Fire 7’s low-res display simply isn’t up to displaying video and gaming content as it should be rendered. Given that media playback is the focus of Amazon’s tablet range, that’s a bit of an issue.

On the plus side, the addition of Amazon’s Alexa assistant makes the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) even easier to use and considerably more helpful – especially for non-tech-heads, though this is one benefit that the previous model is getting as a software update, so not worth upgrading for.

While there’s little else this cheap, you can get better tablets for still fairly low prices, such as the three below.

Amazon Fire HD 8 (2017)

Perhaps the most direct competition for the new Fire 7 comes from Amazon itself. The next tablet up in the range is the Amazon Fire HD 8 (2017), and it’s a similar device in many ways.

However, its display is slightly larger (8-inches) and sharper (1280 x 800), and it has a dual-speaker setup, making it better for media playback. All this and it only costs $10/£20 more compared to the equivalent 16GB Fire 7 model.

Otherwise, all the same praise and criticisms apply to the latest Amazon Fire HD 8 as the Amazon Fire 7. But in this case bigger is arguably better.

Asus ZenPad S 8.0

You’ll need to pay a little under three times the price of the Fire 7 (2017) for the Asus ZenPad S 8.0, but for the money you’ll be getting a great-looking Android tablet with a superb display.

At 8-inches and 2048 x 1536, we’re talking a small jump in image size and a huge leap in sharpness, bringing it to iPad levels. Combined with dual front-facing speakers, it’ll be much better for viewing videos on.

Besides a superior 8MP camera, you’ll also have access to the Google Play Store – which means a much broader selection of apps and games than the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) can call upon.

Huawei MediaPad M2 10.0

The Huawei MediaPad M2 10.0 is significantly bigger than the Amazon Fire 7 (2017) – in fact its 10-inch display drags it into iPad territory. It’s also a lot more money at around $300/£200 (roughly AU$400).

But it’s worth a mention in light of our point about the Amazon Fire 7’s true value in relation to its hardware limitations – particularly with a view to its media playback focus.

With a 10-inch 1920 x 1200 display, four (yes four) excellent Harman Kardon speakers, and access to the Google Play Store, Huawei’s tablet is a brilliant media-playing Android tablet. For that reason, we’d argue it’s better value than the Amazon Fire 7.

First reviewed: June 2017

By Jon Mundy
from Techradar.com

from Blogger http://ift.tt/2suOhiD

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