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 22.214.171.124—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:
The easiest way is to browse to this article from the Silk browser on your Fire and just tap the links.
Update: Since Google recently started disallowing unsupported devices to log into the Play Store, at this point you may also need to follow these instructions concerning registering your device to get around that.
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.)
What a useful for review, Chris, even by your own high standards. I myself bought an HD 8 and I’m very much looking forward to installing the Google apps.
Sound Boost, an app available through the Amazon App Store, is a good way to increase the volume of the Fire speakers. Just be careful not to overdo it, since otherwise you may damage them.
In addition, I would highly recommend the following Moko case, which includes a wonderful handle:
Great helpful review. Google Play Books is critical for any Kindle Fire Tablet; It’s (practically) the only cloud-based reader for reading free epub content
I have an Amazon sponsored phone that came with ads. I got tired of them so I called Amazon support to ask how I could *pay* to get rid of them (I didn’t see it on their website). Long story short (and it was a 90 *minute* story), I talked to THREE support reps who had NO idea what I was talking about. The last one even got a Motorola support rep on the line to tell me how to hack my phone (it didn’t work).
I finally gave up and tried looking it up on the net. 4 minutes (and a payment) later, I had an ad-free phone. Moral(s) of the story? A) Non-US Amazon support reps (and all were) are, evidently, idiots. B) Don’t like ads? Pay the damned money, pirate.
I have a Fire HD 8 ( 6th generation). I am disappointed with two aspects of its reading docs. 1) PDF reading is bad- too much blank space in margins. 2) So far no Ember Bold. Are there Google Play apps which will either improve PDF reading or enable boldface fonts?
There are plenty of Android PDF-reading apps. Once you’ve got the Google Play store installed, just search on “PDF”.
Chris, I was reading some of your posts concerning the Kindle Fire HD 8 and I thought I would ask you a question which I think you could probable answer.
I recently purchased a Kindle HD Fire 8 and downloaded the Google Play Store onto the Fire. I have download from the google play store a few apps and I have this question: How do you “update” these google play store apps on the Kindle Fire? Do you just enable “automatic updates” or what exactly?
Thank you for your time and effort in answering my question.
All you do is open the Google Play Store app, tap the hamburger and choose “My Apps & Games,” then tap on “Update all,” just as you would on any Android device. Or, as you say, turn auto-update on.
I have over 8 fire tablets between the nieces, nephew and myself. Installed Google Play on most of them and even replaced the launcher on my 8HD. I have never bothered trying to remove ads on the lock screen and don’t understand why anyone is so concerned about something that appears so briefly and is not intrusive. My only issue is that the fire OS doesn’t have any of the nice Android OS features found on even the most basic tablets.
It’s a matter of individual taste,I suppose. I have no problem with lock screen ads on my e-ink Kindles, but the brightly colored and often animated ads on the fire lock screen just drove me up the wall.
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The more places the Google install information is made available, the better. But, it’s been available for at least a year. And the new downloads are a year and a half old. Do I take it that there has been no update for the equivalent of the OS that is running on the new Fires?
Note that the Fire’s OS is based on a version of Android a couple of iterations old. Amazon’s team keeps its own software up-to-date for Fire OS, but Google stops developing its own apps for its older OSes after a while.
I can download all four, but none will actually install on my kindle fire hd 8
I am having the same issue on my new Fire HD 10. Can download but install button is disabled. Chris, any ideas? Thanks.
Check out the post I made on installing the apps later. It’s a known bug, there are some workarounds.
I should mention that Apps from Unknown Sources is enabled.
Thanks Chris. Locking and then unlocking the tablet enabled the install button.
Here is the post of possible fixes for anyone else having the issue.
After running each package make sure to scroll down to bottom of requested permissions list. If it extends below the fold the Install button reads Next. If it’s only one page it’s always disabled, which I believe is the crux of the issue.
Hello Chris I’m considering purchasing the Fire HD 8 for a friend of mine and I was told that the JW library app is not supported on this particular tablet. If it’s not too much trouble can you find out if that’s true or if there’s any way it can be downloaded. I was hoping to find this out before I actually purchased it. And you seem to be pretty informed in regards to this tablet.
Hi. Yeah the JW library works fine. Appy days!
Thanks for the information, on the silk browser not all of the download links showed up for me . So I downloaded them all into a folder on my desktop transfered it to my fire 8 and installed them and it worked great.
Hey! Thanks for the review. I’m about to head out on the Camino Frances and I’m trying to find an easy, light tablet from which I can access my google docs. I’d like to get the Amazon Fire both for price and because I read a lot, but I’ve heard in the past that Google Drive is not compatible. Is that different in the new model? Thanks!
All the major Google apps (except for Inbox and Gmail, for whatever reason) work just fine. Including Google Drive.
It keeps force closing how can I fix this?
I feel rather lucky, just received my fire hd8 today and this was the first link that I followed that gave me google play store. Thank you so much!
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Glad you found it useful! Be sure and check out the article I just posted on installing a new launcher, too.
Does anyone know if the Yolo app will work on the kindle fire? I have the play store and snapchat alrrady . However I cannot get the Yolo app to work