Sometimes it’s really pretty nice living in a city that also hosts a major Amazon distribution center. Sunday night, I decided to order one of the 16 GB Fire HD 8 models on sale this week from Amazon. Less than 24 hours later, it arrived on my porch, at no extra charge for the speedy delivery.

Not a whole lot has changed in the user interface from the first $50 Fire I bought a couple of years ago, and it still has a number of the same minor irritations and nice touches I remarked on for that earlier Fire. The “Mail” client is much improved, but still not what I’d have picked as my primary-use conduit to my Gmail. It still has the weird divide of separating the Kindle ebook reader into separate apps: “Kindle” for Amazon-purchased ebooks and “Documents” for sideloaded documents. However, one of the biggest irritations has largely gone by the wayside: it’s a lot easier to add Google Play now. More on that in a bit.

Hardware: A Few Improvements

Feature-wise, the HD 8 is very similar to the 7, but with a number of improvements due to its newer generation (7th generation, where my old 7 is 5th) and higher price point. Less visible changes include a better processor, more RAM, and a 64-bit rather than 32-bit architecture. The most noticeable differences include stereo speakers instead of one single speaker (though they’re not very loud) and a 1280 x 800 189 pixels-per-inch screen where the 7 has 1024 x 600 and 171 ppi.

Amazon calls this screen “high definition,” which I suppose it technically is—it can show videos in 720p HD, after all. But it’s not terribly “high definition” by comparison to my 6″ Google Nexus smartphone, which has a 4K 2560 x 1440 518 ppi screen with 3.6 times as many total pixels. Even my old Nexus 7 tablet was 1080p.

But those are much more expensive devices. If I don’t compare it to higher-end devices, it’s really quite amazing that for $55 I can get an Internet-connected device that can portably show videos in significantly better resolution than the 640 x 480 TVs I grew up with. And for all that, the screen really isn’t bad. As far as size goes, it’s the biggest mobile device screen I’ve owned apart from my iPads, and videos do look pretty good on it.

The built-in 0.3 MP and 2 MP cameras aren’t anything to write home about. They might be sufficient for video conferencing or taking quick snapshots, but they’re basically the same cameras as the cheaper 7 has. My phone has a 12 megapixel camera on the back, and an 8 MP camera on the front face, both of which are better than any point-and-shoot I’ve ever owned. (I can shoot in 4K video that I have no other way to display in 4K than on the same phone with which I shot it!) But then, if the Fire is mainly meant for consuming digital media, I suppose it’s praiseworthy that it even has any cameras at all. Having such lousy ones is a way to save some money, at the least.

The thought struck me as I was unboxing the HD 8 that Amazon has very cleverly managed to “demystify” tablets as high-end expensive hardware. Instead of sinking a bundle into swanky, polished packaging to make you feel better about the huge amount of money you just sank into your new device, Amazon goes in the opposite direction and makes its packaging emphasize these tablets as a cheap commodity you can just open right up and start using in about ten minutes—so you feel good about all the money you didn’t spend on them. But unlike all the shoddy Chinese devices out there, these cheap tablets are not poorly made.

Adding Google Play is Actually Easy Now

Perhaps the biggest surprise I got when I was fiddling around with starting up the new tablet is the discovery that it is no longer necessary to download obscure driver packages and run complicated shell-mode scripts in order to sneak Google Services and the Google Play Store onto the Fire. You don’t even have to root it.

It’s apparently been possible to do this for about the last year or so—since Fire OS 5 came out; the current crop of Fires run 5.4.0.0—but given that I haven’t tinkered with my Fire much lately, I hadn’t noticed.

All you need to do is go into the Settings -> Security panel and enable the “Apps from Unknown Sources” option, then download and install the following four software packages in this order:

  1. Google Account Manager
  2. Google Services Framework
  3. Google Play Services
  4. Google Play Store

The easiest way is to browse to this article from the Silk browser on your Fire and just tap the links.

Then reboot and log into Google, launch the Play Store, and download whatever apps you want to. (Mostly, at least. To my annoyance, Google Inbox still doesn’t work properly on the Fire, so I guess I’m still stuck with the native Mail application instead. And the Google+ social networking app says it’s not compatible with the Fire, which must come as a real disappointment to all three people who use Google+.) The apps Amazon carries in the Fire app store still seem to be exactly the same as the versions on the Play store—as I noted before, Play seamlessly takes over updating them when it notices a new version is out.

You’re still stuck with the Fire’s stock launcher, which plugs Amazon’s content and has a number of features I don’t really like. (I wish it displayed notifications as app icons rather than just a number.) But for the price you’re paying, it’s not really all that bad.

It’s funny that Amazon has made adding Google so easy to do, no longer requiring diving deeply into chancy technical realms. Did Jeff Bezos realize that allowing people to look beyond the walled garden was a great way to sell more cheap tablets to people who were fed up with the Fire app store’s limitations? In any case, this has made the cheap Fires a lot easier to recommend to people who want to get Google-blessed utility out of their Amazon hardware.

That’s not the only surprisingly easy change to make, though.

Getting Rid of Lockscreen Ads is Easy, Too

Something else I found, with just about five minutes of Googling, is that it’s possible to get rid of the lockscreen ads on the Fire without paying Amazon $15 for the privilege—but without having to root the Fire, either. (Which is good, since apparently the most recent versions of the Fire OS have managed to clobber the ability to root the devices easily for now.) And it really is surprising how easy it is for those who are at least a little technically inclined.

Some Fire owners have discovered that Amazon customer service reps are apparently remarkably easy to convince to remove the ads for free just by asking them to via support chat or email. But if you’re not willing to put yourself forward like that, you can remove them simply by installing the same ADB drivers you used to need to put the Play Store on in the old way, enabling USB debugging, and then using a series of shell commands on your computer to uninstall the ad display package from the Fire.

(Note that if you install apps to the SD card, you’ll need to disable USB debugging before you try to run those apps, as the USB debugging option apparently keeps the SD card reader from working properly.)

I won’t be linking to the instructions for how to do that, given that it’s possibly a DMCA violation, not to mention costing Amazon money that helps to subsidize the tablets’ low prices—but if you’re serious about looking, you’ll find it just about as quickly as I did.

It’s funny that Amazon hasn’t tried to make this harder to do—either technically, or by telling its support reps to stop doing it for free. How many thousands of dollars could Amazon otherwise expect to take in from people who finally get so fed up with the garish, sometimes animated advertisements that show up on their lock screens that they’re willing to pay to have them removed?

But perhaps Amazon recognizes the futility of trying to lock down everything tight with DRM, and knows that only a handful of people would be technically adept enough to remove those ads in this way, even as “easy” as it is now. After all, this is the company that created the first truly successful commercial ebook market by catering to the technologically-challenged, so it would know just how better than anyone just how few of those techies are really out there. So, any extra time and expense spent on trying to lock those few power users out would have a paltry return on the investment.

[ Update: Or maybe I spoke too soon. I tried it out just to see if it worked, and on the HD 8, the ads came back again after a reboot or two. It seems that Amazon automatically re-installs the package once a day or so. It turns out they came up with a way to work around the technical hack that wasn’t so time-consuming and expensive after all.]

Likewise, relatively few people will probably even twig to the idea that they could ask an Amazon rep to remove the ads and he would just do it (unless they read all the advice posts on the Internet suggesting it might work). And Amazon cares enough about its customer service to go the extra mile to keep long-time valued customers happy, even when it means foregoing a little bit of money up front.

[Update: When I tried complaining to an Amazon support rep about the ads, it only took a couple of minutes for him to ask if I wanted to remove them, and he then waived the $15 fees for both my smaller and larger Fires and disabled the ads because I had been with Amazon for such a long time and was a valuable customer. So this technique really does seem to work—if you’ve been an Amazon customer for a long time, anyway.]

In any event, the abilities to easily add Google Play apps and get rid of the ads (if you feel comfortable doing so) make the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8 better bargains than they’ve ever been—especially at the sale prices Amazon is running this week for Prime subscribers. (And if you’re not a Prime subscriber yet, you can sign up to a free 30-day trial membership for long enough to save the money!) I could see these devices actually becoming fairly useful for more than just reading Kindle books with those changes in place.

(Instructions for installing the Google Play apps on Fire OS 5.* devices found via The eBook Reader.)