Almost 16 months ago, I bought one of the (then) new $50 Kindle Fire’s. There were a couple of factors in the purchase, but ultimately what convinced me was the price tag. At $50, I didn’t expect much, but figured it was worth the risk. What follows is my impression after 16 months of using the device.

TL;DR – good if you are looking for a really cheap media tablet for reading and watching videos.

My Setup

I started with the basic model, with ads. Not long after buying it, I added an SD card for additional storage. While I use the card (more on that below), the card I bought is almost too big for my needs. If you can afford to add the SD card, and depending on your use case, it’s definitely worth it, but it isn’t a requirement. At some point, long after my purchase, I also paid to have the ads removed, but that’s really a cosmetic issue. It is perfectly reasonable to spend the money on the unit and never expect to spend more on it (unless you want a case). Now, on to the review of the product itself.

Reading

It only makes sense we should start here – this is a Kindle, after all, and while the tablets may have all of the flare of color and moving pictures, ultimately they started out as a means of reading digital books. Accessing my Amazon library, reading books, etc., works flawlessly. I still have issues with synchronizing between devices not always working correctly – but that’s been an issue I’ve seen whenever synchronization is involved and isn’t specific to the Fire. If you expect to read on multiple devices, be ready for synchronization to not always work like you expect. Or to work perfectly. It really is that random.

Of course, reading on a tablet is considered bad for the eyes, at least at the end of the day. The Fire has a blue light mode now that is supposed to reduce eye strain, although my few experiments with it have been less than conclusive. If you are strictly a book only person, never to deviate, then I really recommend the e-readers. They have better battery life and are easier on the eyes. That said, reading magazines on the Fire is a lot more pleasant visually than on the Kindle, but that’s a matter of personal preference.

But what about reading with non-Amazon materials? After all, while locked to the Amazon app store (Sort of. More on that below.), there are still plenty of other reading apps you can use. Personally, I use my Fire to read my Feedly articles on when I need a break from the computer. I also have Pocket setup, so I can browse and read articles I’ve saved for later. Comixology, now owned by Amazon, works perfectly, though that should not be a surprise.

Videos

Amazon Videos, which as far as I know is best with a Prime membership, works out of the box on the Fire. Watch TV shows, movies, etc., just as you would expect. The screen is smaller than your mammoth TV, no doubt, but for a personal viewing it’s just fine. If you happen to have an SD card, you can even download media to it for 30 days (you could also download to internal storage, but there’s a lot less of that available).

Of course, if Amazon Video was all we needed, no one would watch videos (sorry). Luckily, the Netflix app works great on the Fire (assuming you have an account – I hate to have to caveat that, but these are the times we live in). A few weeks ago Netflix added the ability to download parts of their library to your local device, which sounds great. Unfortunately, it isn’t configurable, so you can’t tell it to use internal storage (yet?). On my moderately loaded Fire, that meant I could only download one episode of a 42 minute show before being warned I was almost out of storage space on the device. My other quip with the Netflix downloader is that the whole point (to me) to download something is to be able to watch it when you’re offline. I’m not sure if this is a part of the nature of the Fire, or the Netflix app, but when I went to watch my offline episode from the BART, I was prompted to login into Netflix first. Ack. I tethered for a few minutes while I logged in and accessed the episode, but that isn’t an ideal solution for anyone. I’m really hoping that’s something I messed up, because that seems like a serious design flaw otherwise.

Unsurprising, the Hulu app works just fine on the Fire. There’s even an app for my cable provider to watch shows and live TV “On Demand.” It works about as reasonably as expected.

Of course, whenever you watch video on a small device, battery life is a concern, and the Fire is no different. Bingeing for a few hours will leave the device almost drained, though to be fair that’s the same with most smartphones these days.

Comics, Games, and other apps

I have to tread careful ground here, because I am not opening myself to be your tech support. The Amazon app store is big, but it isn’t huge. There are a lot of applications that they have chosen not to incorporate as supported on their devices.

That doesn’t mean they don’t work.

In fact, many of them work just fine (the Fire’s are Android tablets under the surface, after all). For example, although I have comics in Comixology, I have also recently taken part in a sale on Marvel Unlimited subscriptions (all of their digitized comics from forever for $10 a month). Unfortunately, the app is not supported on the Fire – but it does work. If you disable the requirement blocking non-Amazon apps from installing (a toggle in a top level setup menu on the Fire), you can install the package for Marvel Unlimited directly. The screen size isn’t perfect – the screen is only barely big enough to read a full page at a time without strain, and guided view really requires you to turn on Auto-Rotate to deal with the crazy mix of pane sizes – but it works. And given how little I paid for this device, that’s an investment that seems to be worth it.

What about games, music, and other apps? I honestly don’t know. I use my Fire strictly for reading and viewing materials. Our kids have nicer Fires and have, in the past, played cooperative Minecraft with theirs, but I don’t think the cheaper chipset of the $50 Fire is up to that task. I certainly would not recommend it if that’s what you’re looking to do with it.

Conclusion?

It’s not always the best device for the job – there are just days where the form factor is wrong, or my eyes are too tired to deal with the lit screen, whatever – but at $50 for an initial purchase over a year ago, it was well worth it. The battery life could be better, but you get what you pay for, and sometimes, a little bit more.