Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition review: An amazing value

id=”cnetReview” section=”rvwBody” data-component=”indepthReview”> Update, Sept. 7, 2018: Amazon has announced a new version of the Fire HD 8 that will be available starting Oct. 4. Pricing remains the same at $80 (£80) and the changes are modest — the new version steps up to a 2-megapixel front-facing camera with 720p video, a microSD slot that can accommodate up to 400GB of additional storage and hands-free, always-on Alexa support. The company also announced that the 32GB Fire HD 8 Kids Edition ($130 or £130) has been similarly upgraded and includes a protective case, a two-year free replacement policy and one year of FreeTime Unlimited. We’ll post a full review of both as soon as we get our hands on review samples, which should be just before it ships on Oct. 4. 

The Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition review, published on April 23, 2018, follows.

Kids and tablets sometimes go together like bulls and china shops. I’ve seen smashed screens, sticky buttons and devices coated with a fine film of gunk, food and who knows what. And that’s before you get to dealing with all the inappropriate apps and websites kids can possibly access on a tablet.

The Fire HD 8 Kids Edition is frequently discounted from its standard $130 price. Check our list of Amazon device deals to see if it’s on sale now.

Handing over an iPad is less of a white-knuckle experience than it used to be, with starting prices dropping from $500 to $329 over the past few years, but that’s still a lot of faith to put into tiny hands that may not understand just how delicate these devices can be. And while specialty kids’ tablets and kids’ computers have been around for years, they’ve typically been low-end machines that don’t do much, and do it slowly. Some are locked into a handful of preloaded no-name apps, others are about as fun to use as a bad Black Friday doorbuster.

View full gallery Sarah Tew/CNET Amazon’s Fire line of tablets has a natural appeal for parents, with low prices, decent specs and access to a wide world of apps and features. But they’re still general purpose machines, aimed at adults, and specifically at Amazon Prime members on top of that. Starting in 2014, however, a parallel series of Kids Edition Fire tablets took the same basic hardware and added accessories and software (and higher prices), in an attempt to make something useful for the younger set. 

This review is specifically about the Kids Edition. You can read about the overall excellent Fire HD 8’s hardware and performance in this review, and the also very good, but more limited Fire 7 here.

A numbers game

The current Amazon Fire line, last updated in 2017, comes in 7-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch versions, with on-sale prices dropping as low as $35 for the (very) basic Fire 7. It’s the tablet as impulse purchase, subsidized by the hope that you’ll buy content — books, videos and apps — from Amazon and create a recurring revenue stream for the e-commerce giant.

View full gallery The Fire HD 8 behind the Fire 7.

Sarah Tew/CNET Besides the standard models, there are also the aforementioned Kids Edition versions of the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8. These kid-friendly models are physically identical to the regular versions, and the difference comes from accessories, software and support. At first glance, it seems crazy to pay an extra $50 for a tablet that usually costs $49/$70 (for the Fire 7/Fire HD 8), but the math actually makes more sense than you might think.

The Kids Edition costs $100 or £100 for the 7-inch, and $130 or £130 for the 8-inch version of the Fire tablets. (Sorry, Australia: Amazon hasn’t yet decided to offer its tablets Down Under.)  Here’s what that extra cash gets you:

A rubberized bumper case: Amazon sells this separately for $30 or £20. I’ve had a similar one on my son’s hand-me-down iPad 2 for years.

A two-year “no questions asked” replacement warranty: The case is nice, but this is where the real peace of mind comes in. Smashed screen? Dumped in the mud? Amazon will replace it gratis for the first two years.

Double storage: In each case, Amazon bumps up the storage from the baseline “adult” model. Buying the Kids Edition of the Fire 7 gets you 16GB instead of 8GB, while the HD 8 gets you 32GB instead of 16GB. Both are further expandable via microSD cards, which are plentiful and cheap.

One-year subscription to FreeTime unlimited: This Netflix-like subscription service is chock full of kid-appropriate ebooks, videos and games. After one year, the service costs $2.99 a month for Amazon Prime members ($4.99 for non-members), which is about $35 per year. That all adds up to well more than the $50 premium for the Kids version over the standard tablet.

View full gallery Joshua Goldman/CNET Keep in mind also that Amazon regularly puts these devices on sale. The Fire 7/Fire 7 Kids Edition can at times be as low as $35/$75 and the Fire HD 8/Fire HD 8 Kids Edition can be found for $55/$95 during Amazon sales in the US, with similar price cuts often running in the UK.

Amazon Fire prices

Fire 7 (8GB) Fire 7 Kids Edition (16GB) Fire HD 8 (16GB) Fire HD 8 Kids Edition (32GB) Fire HD 10 (32GB)

US $50 $100 $80 $130 $150

US sale price (offered periodically) $35 $75 $55 $95 $110

UK £50 £100 £80 £130 £150

The hidden charms of FreeTime

Of the extras included in the Kids Edition of the Fire tablets, the subscription to FreeTime Unlimited may seem the least useful, at least compared to the padded case, extra storage and no-hassle replacement plan. It’s actually Amazon’s secret weapon, and having used the service extensively over the past couple of weeks, it’s almost criminally low-profile for the value and flexibility it offers.

I’d previously heard about the service, which combines the actually free FreeTime features, including detailed scheduling and usage tools for parents to limit how and when kids use their tablet, with the subscription Unlimited part, which acts as an all-you-can-eat buffet of ebooks, apps and videos.

View full gallery Sarah Tew/CNET A child (or children, as you can set up multiple profiles at an extra cost) gets a custom interface, much different from the standard Android-like Fire interface. FreeTime has a blue background and a handful of large category icons. It’s also landscape-only, although some apps and ebooks work in portrait mode while they’re being used.

As is often the case with content browsing, actual discovery can be hit or miss. There’s not a clear master list of what specific content is included, or a real understanding of what highlights the app chooses to surface. That said, the offers are so broad and much of it is of high quality, that kids will enjoy just trying random new things.

My 6-year-old son Dash has been using FreeTime Unlimited on his recently purchased Fire HD 8 for a few weeks now, and is a big fan, especially of the idea that he can pick and download his own games without getting me or his mother to sign off on every individual one.

View full gallery Joshua Goldman/CNET When setting up FreeTime, you select the age range of media you want displayed, and that changes the level of books, videos and apps. I set Dash’s range at up to 8 years old, just to make sure he was challenged by new things.

The video appears to be from Amazon Prime, so you’re not getting anything new there, but the ebooks and apps add great value. Books are fairly well-formatted for the screen. Some work on either landscape or portrait mode, but others are restricted to one view or the other. There’s no pinch-to-zoom to read text, which can get small, but double-tapping on text pops it up in a larger bubble. Read one blurb, then swipe left with one finger to automatically advance the text. I can’t say it will encourage self-directed reading for every kid, but it worked on the one I know, largely because he could pick what to download by himself.

View full gallery Sarah Tew/CNET The apps are mostly games. Many are of the free or freemium variety (and no, kids can’t make additional purchases on their own), but a good number are actually surprisingly premium. I was pleasantly surprised to find a large library of apps from Toca Boca, publisher of Toca Life, Toca Lab and other kid-friendly apps. Dash is a big fan of these, and I’ve previously purchased a few for around $3 each. One download like this per month covers the cost of the entire FreeTime Unlimited service once the included one-year subscription expires.

Getting in character

One interesting way to search for content is through a top menu icon labeled “characters.” There, kids can scroll through icons that run from generic, like Dinosaurs, to very specific brands, like Lego, Sesame Street, Marvel and Star Wars. Clicking on any of these brings up a list of all available ebooks, videos and apps from that category, and tapping on each individual item downloads or streams it.

It’s a great way to discover content, although some brands have only apps and videos, but no books, or only books and videos, but no apps, and so on. Many, however, have all three, and Dash now has an instant Phineas and Ferb book collection.

View full gallery The “character” menu of FreeTime Unlimited.

Sarah Tew/CNET This does help highlight one of the UI’s shortcomings, however. Figuring out what content you have actually downloaded is difficult, as you see icons for “available”  and “downloaded” content mixed together and virtually indistinguishable from each other. The giveaway is a tiny checkmark on the bottom left corner of downloaded content, so keep an eye out for that.

Speaking of downloading, the 8-inch Kids Edition starts with 32GB of SSD storage, double that in the non-kids base model. The 7-inch has 16GB, up from 8GB. If that gets filled up, anna og lotte dukke there’s a microSD card slot that can take up to a 256GB card. A 256GB card can be more than $100, but a 64GB one, tripling your storage, can be found for as little as $20.

Timing is everything

The part of FreeTime that you can access without a subscription is a deep set of parental controls. Key among them is the ability to set time limits for tablet usage. (That’s also a common feature on gadgets from the Nintendo Switch to the Apple iPad.)

For example, you can set the system to go to sleep at 8 p.m. and not activate again until 8 a.m. Different schedules can also be set for weekdays versus weekends. But that’s just the beginning.

I can limit the total amount of screen time to 1 hour, 4 hours, or leave it unlimited. Or, I can set time limits on specific categories of content, from books to apps to videos to the basic included web browser (which goes to an approved whitelist of websites). Or, I can set what Amazon calls “educational goals,” and require 30 minutes of ebook reading before allowing access to apps and videos. A parent can mix and match these controls to fine-tune the experience, and it provides a great deal of granularity, if that’s what you’re looking for.

View full gallery Some of the highly customizable parental controls.

Sarah Tew/CNET One parental tip I’ll share here: Using the built-in timer, and explaining to your child that the Fire tablet will shut down at precisely 8 p.m. (or whatever time you choose), may be a lot easier than doing it yourself. I’ve found that with both FreeTime and Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant, kids are more responsive to alarms and timers, and usually (but not always) acquiesce without throwing a fit. My theory: Even the most trusting child may think you’re shorting them on time if you declare, “Five minutes until bedtime!” and time it on your watch. But if Alexa or their Kindle Fire is doing the countdown, they’re more likely to trust they’re getting the full time they’ve been promised if it comes from (what they see as) an infallible AI-powered machine. I haven’t done a scientific study on this, but it’s been my anecdotal observation over several years with several children.

The Amazon Fire’s parental time and content settings aren’t necessarily unique — you can find similar tools for most devices — but I appreciated how they were laid out in one simple page (which requires a special parental PIN to access), and that they offer such a high degree of detail. They can also be accessed from the web.

View full gallery Joshua Goldman/CNET Size matters 

Both the 7- and 8-inch models have a 1.3GHz ARM processor, but the HD 8 adds 50 percent more RAM, 1.5GB versus 1GB. The Fire HD 10 ($230 at Amazon) beats both, with 2GB of RAM and a 1.8GB quad-core ARM processor. (Note, though, that there’s no Kids Edition for the 10-incher.)

The end result is that, even with the same CPU, the HD 8 feels significantly faster, thanks to that extra RAM. Apps load slower, swiping between pages is slower, and the Fire 7 adds just enough lag and stuttering that it can be annoying, especially if you’re used to the fast performance of an iPhone or iPad.

In a test using the 3DMark benchmark (available in the Amazon app store), the Fire 7 scores 4,654, while the Fire HD 8 scored 5,700 (higher scores are better). The Fire HD 10 shows off its better hardware with a much higher score of 13,217.

View full gallery Sarah Tew/CNET That said, testing several kids games, including Subway Surfer and Riptide 2, once the games were fully loaded and running, the Fire 7 played them just as well as the larger version. However, the Fire 7 struggled more with the graphics on Star Wars: Puzzle Droids, a newer mobile game.

One other big difference between the two sizes is the audio. The Fire HD 8 has two speakers on the bottom of the tablet, which fire through two cutouts in the rubber case. The Fire 7 has only a single speaker, located on the rear top right corner, next to an awkward single cutout in the rubber case that doesn’t quite line up with the speaker itself. The sound from the smaller tablet is far inferior. Good enough for a casual video streaming session, but not exactly satisfying. (Thankfully, both tablets have standard 3.5mm headphone jacks, which are becoming increasingly rare on phones.)

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