BUSINESS

Review: Is Amazon's ultra-cheap $134 Fire HD 6 tablet any good?

10/29/2014 05:07 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - At first glance, Amazon's new Fire HD 6 tablet looks like something you would not want to buy.

The six-inch screen seems tiny compared to the display on a full-size iPad. It even makes the iPad mini look pretty large.

It's also surprisingly thick and heavy to hold for a device released in 2014.

But all is forgiven when you see the price: just $134 (it sells for the magic $99 price point in the U.S.).

There are cheaper tablets than the Fire HD 6. Montreal's Datawind sells a very, very basic one for $38 and Future Shop offers more than half a dozen different tablets for $80 or less.

But you get far more value for your money with the Fire HD 6.

The Fire HD 6's screen is small but Amazon didn't scrimp on display quality. It boasts a rating of 252 pixels per inch, which is better than the original iPad mini but not quite as high as the Retina Display screens on recent models. It's still plenty sharp for everything from reading ebooks — this is an Amazon device, after all — to browsing the web to watching video. Especially for a device that costs a little over $100, it's more than adequate.

The tablet has a quad-core processor, which is more power than you'd expect for a device at this price point. But it only has eight gigabytes of storage built in, and almost half is taken up by the operating system and other software, leaving just 4.5 gigabytes for users to access. The device also lacks any expandable storage with no card slot.

Amazon's tablets and phones run a tweaked version of Google's Android operating system, but don't allow access to the Google Play marketplace of apps. Instead, users can download from Amazon's streamlined Appstore, which offers a much smaller selection and has some major omissions, including Instagram and Google apps such as Maps, Translate and Chrome.

Yes, there are more than 260,000 apps available on Amazon's Appstore but a great many are junk. That's true of every app marketplace, but it's more glaring when so many of the most popular and newer big-name apps are missing. It's all the more frustrating because Amazon could make Google Play available to its users, but chooses not to.

Amazon claims the Fire HD 6 will run for up to eight hours of mixed use, which rang true during testing.

In a way, Amazon has one-upped Google in its attempt to win over the low end of the tablet market.

In 2012, Google released the first version of its Nexus 7 tablet, a seven-inch device that undercut the competition — particularly the iPad mini — with its US$199 price tag. Reviewers raved that it was just about as good as the iPad mini but $120 cheaper.

A newer version of the Nexus 7 was released in 2013 at a slighter higher price but with even better hardware. It's still available in some retail stores but Google no longer sells it.

Google recently unveiled a new Nexus-branded tablet but it has an 8.9-inch screen and is priced at $429.

The Fire HD 6 is Amazon's answer to the Nexus 7, but even cheaper. While it's not as technically competitive as the Nexus 7 was, it will offer good enough performance for most — particularly those looking to get a new tablet for well under $200 all-in. You could actually buy three Fire HD 6 tablets for the cost of one new iPad mini 3.

If you can get past the small screen, the somewhat heavy weight, and the lack of some top apps, the Fire HD 6 is a pretty good deal for a solid tablet.