As with Amazon's other recent products, there's Goodreads integration, so that when you rate a book in Amazon's Kindle Store, you're also rating it on the social network too. Another oldie-but-goody: X-Ray, which serves up information from IMDb to tell you more about whatever movie, show or audio track you happen to be playing. For instance, if I'm watching Scandal and Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant are having a tryst, I'll see a notification in the upper-left corner of the screen saying that Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn are in the scene. At any time, I can click through to learn more, at which point the video will pause while I look stuff up. For music, meanwhile, you'll see the lyrics as you listen to the song.
Lastly, there's the Amazon Appstore. This is important because, unlike a proper Android tablet, you won't have the luxury of accessing the Google Play store. Fortunately, at least, Amazon's app store is now at a point where it has a very well-rounded selection. Speaking from personal experience, I was able to find most of my favorites, including Facebook, Twitter, OneDrive, CNN, The New York Times, Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, Mint.com and others. The only one I wanted that I couldn't find was Dropbox. I'm sure you'll be missing a few too, but on the whole, Amazon has most of the big names taken care of.
All told, Fire OS 4 reads like a greatest-hits list of Amazon's best features, but there are in fact a couple things missing. First of all, Amazon didn't include its Mayday live support feature, which you'll find on the Fire phone and Amazon's higher-end HDX tablets. Also, the reliance on Amazon's own apps and services feels a bit tedious after a while. I get as a tablet running a forked version of Android, the HD 6 might never be eligible to run Google-certified apps, like Gmail or the Play Store itself. But for Pete's sake, is Amazon Cloud Drive really the only option for storing documents? Who among us would have used Amazon Cloud Drive before purchasing an Amazon tablet?
Performance and battery life
The HD 6 chugs along on an unspecified quad-core 1.5GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. It's certainly not terrible, especially for a tablet at this price, but don't expect any miracles either. Though it's perfectly fine for simple things like email, e-books, web surfing, Facebook, Twitter and movie-watching, there's still a faint sluggishness throughout. You'll notice it when you hit the menu in the upper-left corner, and the tablet pauses for a second before the menu eventually flies out. Ditto for the onscreen keyboard -- I often noticed a delay after tapping a text field with my finger. Occasionally, too, the paltry RAM allowance became an issue -- I couldn't run a certain graphics test in GFX Bench, for instance, because the device didn't have enough memory. Would it have killed Amazon to throw in another gig of RAM, especially if it was already resigned to selling the hardware below cost?
That said, the HD 6 managed to turn in a better SunSpider score than the Nexus 6, 2014 Moto X or the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, suggesting that the built-in Silk web browser is more than capable of keeping up with your web-surfing habits. Really, I think part of the reason I'm being so picky is that I've used higher-end devices, and I know what a fast tablet feels like. For a first-time buyer, though, or maybe a child, it'll probably matter less.
The HD 6 is rated for up to eight hours of "mixed use," according to Amazon's product page, but in fact, I got quite a bit more than that. With a movie looping, the screen brightness fixed at 50 percent and WiFi on, but not connected, I got an incredible 11 hours and 14 minutes of runtime -- almost exactly what we saw from the much bigger iPad Air 2. So how does Amazon pull it off? Clever software settings, mostly. In particular, Amazon has a feature called Smart Suspend that creates a device-specific profile for when the tablet is not in use. Additionally, when the software detects that the tablet is idle, it automatically turns wireless off, a tweak that can result in up to 25 percent more standby time, according to Amazon.
The Fire HD is available in 8GB and 16GB editions, with and without "special offers," or ads on the lock screen. For the 8GB model, the starting price is $99 with those advertisements, and $114 without. If you go for the 16GB version, the price climbs to $119, or $134 ad-free. Additionally, there's that slightly larger HD 7 I mentioned earlier. That starts at $139 with special offers (8GB), and goes up to $154 without. (There's also a 16GB model for $159, or $174 ad-free.)
Sorry, guys, I'm not quite done overwhelming you with pricing info. Bear with me for just a minute. Amazon also sells a Kids Edition of both the HD 6 and HD 7, which comes with a rubbery case and a two-year, no-questions-asked warranty covering any and all accidents. These start at $149 for the 6-inch model and $189 for the 7-incher. Both have 8GB of storage, with no 16GB option. So why the higher price, you might ask? Well, the warranty, but also this: There are no special offers here. For the best, if children are going to be using it -- why expose them to needless ads?
As for everything else on the market, well, the HD 6 has quite a few big-name competitors, even at the $100 level. There's Lenovo's A7 tablet, which starts at $95 with 8GB of storage, and also has a 1,280 x 800 screen and quad-core processor (MediaTek in this case). Acer's Iconia One 7 also has a 1,280 x 800 panel, and though it's technically priced at $130, Amazon itself is selling it for $100. HP's also got a $100 Android tablet, but it's held back by a 1,024 x 600 screen and shorter, 5.5-hour battery life. It's a similar story with Toshiba, whose $99 Excite Go tablet also has a lower-res 1,024 x 600 display. Finally, ASUS' last-gen MeMO Pad 7 has seen a price drop to $100, but you're probably better off paying $24 extra on Amazon.com for ASUS' newer model.
I could name even more options, but I think you get the idea: The Fire HD 6 has competition, but the screen quality and possibly battery life are going to be superior in most cases. As for everyday performance? Not necessarily. Even then, though, the HD 6 is still adequate for basic tasks. Given all that, the main question you need to answer is: Are you comfortable locking yourself into Amazon's ecosystem, or do you need access to the Google Play store? If plain Android is more your speed, you'll want to save that short list of options I just gave you.
But let's not limit ourselves entirely to Android, even if the HD 6 does run a forked version of KitKat. As prices for Windows tablets continue to fall, I'd suggest you consider a couple of those too -- the number of apps in the Windows Store is steadily growing and meanwhile, you can install regular desktop programs as well. As a disclaimer, I haven't had the chance to test any of these, but that being said, the $100 HP Stream 7 looks the most promising: It packs a Bay Trail-series Intel Atom processor and 32GB of storage, and has the same 1,280 x 800 resolution screen as the Fire HD 6 and 7. Wrapping up, there's also the $105 Toshiba Encore Mini, but be warned that it has 16GB of built-in storage, not 32, and the display is lower-res than the Stream 7's.
I hesitate to call the Fire HD 6 the best tablet you can buy for $99, but that's mainly because I haven't had the chance to test them all. What I can say, unequivocally, is that Amazon's newest tablet offers tremendous bang for your buck, including long battery life and a relatively sharp screen that makes it ideal for watching movies and reading books. And while some people will still prefer an Android tablet with full access to the Google Play store, Amazon's Fire OS is easy to navigate and includes useful features like family sharing, parental controls and the ability to add up to six user accounts. Also, for anyone afraid of being locked into Amazon's ecosystem, the company does at least have a broad range of content; that includes music, movies and books, of course, but even its app store now offers many of the same big-name titles as Google Play.
If anything, I want to warn people not about the operating system, but the limited storage -- the tablet has at most 16GB of space, and there's no microSD slot in the event you need more room. It's also heavy for a device this size, though still eminently portable. All that said, though, the HD 6 remains a strong choice, especially at this price. I recommend it for people with kids, or anyone who's been searching for a decent budget tablet. You really can't go wrong with this one.