Hands-on with Amazon's new Fire HD tablets: cheap, yet refined

One thing's for sure, Amazon's thinner new Fire HD tablets aren't iPad killers. Instead, they're being positioned as the ideal budget tablets for consuming video, e-books and music. To that end, Amazon didn't even upgrade their hardware much -- both the Fire HD 8 (starting at $150 with 8GB of storage) and Fire HD 10 ($230 with 16GB) sport quad-core 1.5 GHz processors like last year, 1GB of RAM as well as paltry 1280 x 800 resolution displays. The big change this year? Amazon has crafted new enclosures for the tablets, which measure at just 7.7 millimeters thick. Basically, they're affordable, but more polished than Amazon's cheapo $50 Fire tablet (which it's actually offering in six-packs).

Strangely, the new Fire HD tablets feel a lot like Nokia's Lumia 2520 Windows RT tablet. Their cases are made of similar glossy, fingerprint-attracting plastic, and there's a slight curve to the edges as well (though it's not nearly as aggressively tapered as Nokia's tablet). They feel pretty solid, with little flex when you grip them tightly. Unlike Nokia's unibody design, though, the Fire HD cases are clearly made out of a few pieces of plastic: the rear portion is glossy, while the plastic that borders the screen is a duller matte finish.

Both the 8-inch and 10.1-inch Fire HD are easy to hold with one hand, owing both to the slim case 7.7mm design and their relatively light weight (0.68 pound and 0.95 pound, respectively). You certainly won't mistake these for something obscenely thin and light, like Samsung's Tab S2, but overall they feel pretty comfortable for budget tablets. They also reminded me why I typically prefer smaller tablets. The Fire HD 8 is far easier to hold, since it weighs about the same as a paperback book. The Fire HD 10, on the other hand, will never let you forget you're holding a big tablet.

Given that they're running aging hardware, these tablets aren't very fast. In fact, navigating through Amazon's Fire OS 5.0 interface felt downright slugging at times. Swiping through the main menu and navigating through apps took a half-second too long -- it's a noticeable delay if you're used to a snappier premium smartphone. Still, the Fire HD tablets are usable as content delivery vehicles. Amazon Prime videos loaded up within seconds and the video quality looked decent, even though both tablets have fairly low-resolution displays.

In fact, that low 1,200 x 800 resolution is yet another reason I prefer the smaller HD 8. It's far easier to read text and browse the internet on that tablet, since its low pixel count isn't particularly noticeable. On the HD 10, however, text is noticeably jagged and pictures aren't very sharp. Casual users may not notice those issues much, but it's something that will bug you if you're used to sharper screens.

As far as new features go, the Fire HD tablets offers a new option called Word Runner, which flashes words quickly on the screen to help you zip through e-books faster. It's technology we've seen from companies like Spritz, and while it's certainly possible to speed up your reading with it, I prefer going at my own pace. The Fire HD tablets will also automatically download new shows based on what you've watched with a feature called "On Deck." Basically, it makes sure you've always got something to watch. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten any automagically downloaded videos yet.

Based on a few days worth of testing, the Fire HD tablets feel like capable, if somewhat sluggish, cheap tablets. I'm still putting them through their paces, however, so check back for a more in-depth look in the future.