Apple isn’t the only one that thinks a tablet can replace your laptop.
Last month, Amazon released a new version of its Fire HD 10 tablet, and with it, a new “Productivity Bundle” that includes a detachable keyboard case and one-year subscription to Microsoft 365, a subscription service that includes Microsoft’s Office apps. The implication is that Amazon’s tablet—best known until now as an inexpensive media-consumption device—can help you get some work done too. And at $220 for everything, it’s less than half the price you’d pay to buy Apple’s cheapest iPad ($329) and outfit it with a Smart Keyboard ($159).
Perhaps there’s a subset of users for which that proposition holds up. But unless your computing needs are extremely basic, Amazon’s app ecosystem will feel too limiting, and its lack of any Google apps could make it a nonstarter.
While the idea of a cheap productivity tablet is intriguing, the Fire HD 10 isn’t up for the job. Amazon, whose hardware products primarily serve as vessels for consuming its own content offerings, has plenty of incentive to sell you a tablet cheap and then make it as appealing as possible to pay for movies, music, and ebooks. But it doesn’t have much reason to make getting work done a focal point.
Don’t blame the hardware
Amazon’s actual tablet hardware is fine. It’s a basic slab of plastic and glass with a pair of speakers on the top edge and cameras on both the front and back sides. It has a 10-inch display that’s slightly brighter than the previous Fire HD 10, and it now includes more memory—3GB—to help with switching between apps and browser tabs.
It still feels a bit pokey, though. You might notice the screen lagging slightly behind your finger while scrolling through apps, and if you’re trying to multitask, apps can sometimes take a few seconds to reload each time you switch.
The Productivity Bundle gets you a Bluetooth keyboard case made to fit the Fire HD 10, and it’s actually pretty nice. The case portion has a woven back that feels slightly like leather, and the keyboard attaches to the tablet’s bottom edge with a set of magnetized hooks, turning the whole thing into a tiny clamshell laptop. It has a bit of weight in the base so it doesn’t tip over in your lap, and you can pull the tablet apart from the keyboard to use by itself. While the keyboard is smaller than that of a full-sized laptop, it has a decent amount of key travel, and I didn’t find myself making too many typos.
Unlike the iPad’s Smart Keyboard, which talks to the tablet through a set of connector pins, the Amazon keyboard’s Bluetooth connection means you’ll have to charge the keyboard’s battery on occasion—Amazon says it lasts for 400 hours—and turn off the keyboard when the tablet is detached, otherwise the on-screen keyboard won’t appear. The upside is that you can still use the keyboard while it’s detached from the tablet, and it can work double duty as a keyboard for other Bluetooth devices. (I had no issues using it to type on an iPad, for instance.)
Amazon’s app problem
Unfortunately, Amazon’s tablet software hasn’t become much more productivity-centric to match its hardware. Yes, it supports Microsoft’s Office suite now, and it comes with a one-year subscription to Microsoft 365, but in too many other ways the Fire HD 10 still feels like a tablet for media consumption.
The main problem has to do with app selection. While Amazon’s Fire operating system is based on Android, the company has its own app store that’s separate from the Google Play Store, and anyone who depends on modern productivity apps will quickly find it lacking.
Merely throwing together Microsoft’s Office suite with a keyboard feels out of touch with the times.
Google’s entire app suite is absent from Amazon’s platform as well, which means no Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, or Chrome. While Amazon does offer its own email app, calendar, and web browser, they all feel bare-bones compared Google’s versions. You can’t use Amazon’s Silk browser to access open tabs on other devices, for instance, and Amazon’s mail app lacks modern features like snooze, multiple swipe gestures, and a priority inbox. (At least you can install Microsoft’s superior Outlook app instead.)
Granted, you can avoid these restrictions by installing the Google Play Store on a Fire tablet, but this requires elaborate workarounds to get it onto the tablet. (If you have a Windows PC, the easiest way involves a program called Fire Toolbox, which can also remove Amazon’s pre-installed apps and install a simpler home screen.) Even then, the underlying Android tablet software feels unrefined. Some apps, like Slack—which you can install once you’ve hacked Google Play onto the Fire—make poor use of the tablet’s extra screen space, and there’s no easy way to drag and drop content between apps.
A flawed approach
The fundamental issue here is the ongoing cold war between Amazon and Google. Amazon maintains its own fork of Android’s open-source software with its own interface and preloaded apps. And Google isn’t much interested in supporting devices that, like the Fire tablets, aren’t entirely Google-centric.
This uneasy situation holds up well enough in the realm of media consumption. A Fire HD 10 tablet could be just fine for reading Kindle books, using streaming video services, browsing social media, and playing the occasional game. (Likewise, Amazon’s Fire TV devices hold up well compared to streaming players based on Google’s Android TV software.)
But with productivity comes a whole new set of demands in terms of what users should be able to do, and merely throwing together Microsoft’s Office suite with a keyboard feels out of touch with the times. The Fire HD 10 tablet and keyboard make a decent low-cost combo on the hardware level, but Amazon doesn’t seem particularly invested in having its software keep up.
If you really want a cheaper alternative to the iPad for getting some work done, consider Lenovo’s $250 Chromebook Duet instead. It comes with a detachable keyboard case and runs Android apps from the Google Play Store, but it’s based on Chrome OS, which means you can also use the desktop Chrome browser for work. It’s not the speediest tablet either, but it handles the double duty of work and play far better than Amazon’s tablet does.
Either that, or resign yourself to spending twice as much on an iPad with a keyboard instead.