ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Amazon Fire 5th-gen Review - The $50 Tablet That Could

The 5th-gen Amazon Fire is an interesting little device, simultaneously ambitious and barebones. While the prospect of a $50 tablet is itself nothing new, in the past this price point was exclusively the domain of Chinese knockoffs and barely-functional toys for small children. But when a name like Amazon steps in, things are immediately a bit different. Amazon has already proven itself as a budget hardware manufacturer with its excellent Amazon Basics lineup, and now the Fire brings the same spirit into the tablet space, and with some pretty impressive results...considering the price.

Of course the first question that everyone wants to ask about the Amazon Fire is: can a $50 tablet really be any good? While I'm happy to report that the short answer is 'yes,' that's a response loaded with caveats and a distinct awareness of the Fire's asking price.

Build Quality

For starters, at $50 one of the first things you'd expect to go down the tubes is the actual build quality of the device, but thankfully that's not the case here. The Fire looks slick and feels solid, and while cheap materials do lend to heavy fingerprinting, more often than not I forget that what I'm holding didn't cost me significantly more. The times I do remember mostly come when adjusting the volume or connecting headphones or a USB cable. With the exception of the MicroSD card slot on the side all of the Fire's ports and buttons reside along the top edge of the device—a cost-saving measure doubtlessly made to simplify both the internal hardware and manufacturing process. Adjusting the volume in portrait mode feels awkward as the volume rocker is backwards for my taste, plus the physical buttons on the device are the one thing that actually feels cheap. But that small gripe aside, there's actually a lot to like about the Amazon Fire from a purely cosmetic perspective. It looks clean and compact and first impressions are really quite positive.

Hardware & Performance

...Then you turn the screen on. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad, but it's immediately obvious that the Fire's 1024x600 IPS display can't hold a candle to higher-resolution tablets and smartphones on the market. It's especially odd coming from Amazon considering their position as the biggest eBook distributor on the internet. Text just doesn't look all that good, made worse by the fact that the Fire's pixels aren't perfectly square. It's certainly serviceable, but there's a reason Amazon dropped the Kindle branding from the name. This is a tablet first and an eReader only second.

Thankfully in other applications the screen becomes easier to forget. While it may lack pixels it's still a high enough quality display. Colors pop and movies and games actually look pretty good. It's impossible not to see pixels every once in a while, but I did find myself getting used to the screen quite quickly.

But this is not the Fire's only major limitation. The other comes in the form of internal storage space—or rather, the absence of it. Out of the box the device affords only around 5GB of usable storage, coming from a total of 8GB. As mentioned earlier there is a microSD card slot for expanded storage, but using it for apps is easier said than done on the latest versions of Android. While Amazon does have their own solution in place it's limited to certain whitelisted compatible apps, so your mileage will vary. It should also be noted that since a microSD card of some sort is practically necessary, unless you already have one lying around Amazon's $50 tablet can quickly turn $10-20 more expensive, albeit still extremely reasonable at that price.

Beyond that, the Fire also comes packing a quad-core MediaTek MT8127 CPU clocked at 1.3GHz with a quad-core Mali 450MP4 GPU built-in, all paired up with 1GB of RAM, roughly 128MB of which are dedicated to the GPU. Modest specs to be sure, but real-world performance shows they hold up quite well, even during fairly intense gaming. In fact, I was so impressed with how well the Fire handles games I decided to make a video of just that, which you can see below.

As you can imagine though, with only 900MB of usable RAM the Fire's multitasking capabilities are limited. Naturally, not all apps are created equal and most will run just fine, but certain RAM-heavy applications will definitely need to be managed carefully to prevent the device from being bogged down, and periodic reboots are a must to keep things running smoothly. In my experience this has never been more than a minor inconvenience though, even when using Google Chrome which is admittedly not the most resource-friendly browser.


Yes, you read correctly: I am using Google apps on an Amazon tablet. While you won't see it listed anywhere as a selling feature for the device the Amazon Fire actually has a lot of hacking and modding potential, and the well-known XDA community has already taken to it like a fish to water and gotten all sorts of cool things running on it. I'd go so far as to say Amazon's tablet is at its best when run with custom firmware and the Google Play Store, but be careful going this route as any mistakes could end up bricking the device beyond your ability to recover it, and Amazon may not take too kindly to repairing a tablet that's been tampered with. On the bright side, at $50 making software modifications doesn't exactly pose a huge risk, and if you have the know-how it's a risk worth taking to get the most out of what's there.

On its own Amazon's Fire OS is a fine skin of Android that packs a few handy features to boot, but overall it's too cluttered for my liking. While it does a good job balancing familiar Android functions with unique re-skins and custom additions, it's clear that the ultimate purpose of Fire OS is to draw you in to Amazon's ecosystem—not necessarily be a good front-end for Android. The magazine-style UI mixes 'recommendations' (aka advertisements) in alongside your own collection of Amazon content both local and in the cloud—and that's Amazon's primary motivation to release a $50 tablet at all, really. The Fire hardware is almost certainly subsidized, as is the Amazon Underground model of free apps that still pays for developers. That leaves it up to Fire OS to capitalize on these loss-leaders and draw customers in to spend money on more profitable Amazon products and services. And at that it is effective—so much so that the average consumer probably won't even notice the clever marketing scheme behind it. But with this as the focus it should come as no surprise that as an app launcher Fire OS is a distinct second to stock Android. It's not bad, but neither is it as pleasant a user experience as it could be.


There's no getting around that Amazon's 5th-gen Fire tablet makes compromises to achieve its landmark $50 price, but for the most part it makes the right ones. A low-resolution screen coupled with limited storage space and RAM certainly leave room for future improvement, but at the end of the day it's the Fire's uncompromising performance and build quality that really won me over. Despite being stupidly cheap for an Android tablet it doesn't feel like a sub-par product. If you're willing to work with its limitations in one way or another they tend to fade into the background of the experience rather than constantly remind you of their presence. While I might feel a bit let down if the Fire was priced alongside other 7" tablets, at $50 it's nothing short of an incredible value that should not be ignored.