An Amazon Fire tablet

If someone asks me for a budget-friendly tablet that’s great for watching movies, reading books, and playing a few games here and there, I almost always suggest an Amazon Fire tablet.

But if you check our ratings, you may notice that they don’t score as high as other tablets, particularly those made by Samsung and Apple. The best-rated Amazon tablet, the Fire 10, scores 13 points below the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 and 17 points behind the iPad Pro 11.

So why do we put Amazon Fire tablets on lists like the Best Tablets Under $300? Because they provide great value. Take the Amazon Fire 8 HD, which scores reasonably well and sells for just $80.

“It's hard to beat the price of Fire tablets, and you can get a decent quality device, compared with some other budget tablets,” says Antonette Asedillo, who oversees CR’s tablet and computer testing. 

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If there’s one thing Amazon Fire tablets are uniquely good at, it’s parental controls. “FireOS added parental controls to their tablets early on,” says Asedillo. Not only can you control what content your kids look at, but you can set educational goals (for instance, keeping them from playing games or watching videos until they complete 2 hours of reading a book). Amazon's Kids Edition tablets also add youth-friendly features, such as a protective case, content subscription, and an extended, no-questions-asked warranty, which can give extra peace of mind to parents. 

So what are the major downsides? Fire tablets are underpowered compared with an iPad or a high-end Samsung tablet. “Tasks that require a lot of processing power, like 3D video games or high-res videos, may appear jittery,” says Asedillo. “They don't have a lot of RAM (memory) either, so if you have many apps loaded in the background, that will slow down your experience.” 

The other drawback is that FireOS is built on a modified version of Android—one with the Google Play store stripped out and Amazon’s app store installed instead. The operating system itself is easy enough to navigate if you’re familiar with Android, but you won’t be able to use common productivity apps like Google Docs, Excel, and Word. You have to rely on alternatives like Amazon WorkDocs. Instead of Chrome or Firefox, you get Amazon’s Silk browser. Popular mobile games like Fortnite and Clash of Clans are also missing from the Amazon app store. 

If you find yourself longing for apps like those, you can “sideload” the Google Play store. But the process is slightly complicated. It also changes as Amazon updates FireOS, shutting down certain loopholes. “Keep in mind that sideloading isn't supported by Amazon, so you need to take precautions before installing anything,” Asedillo says.

The instructions can be found online. Before you begin, back up important files, in case you need to do a factory refresh. And, to be safe, download the sideloaded files from a reputable source: APKMirror, which is operated by the people behind the news site Android Police, uses advanced security features like matching cryptographic signatures for new versions of apps to keep everything above board.

Last, one reason Amazon may sell its Fire tablets so cheaply is that they prompt users to buy more things from Amazon. By default, the home screen of a Fire tablet has a large link pointing you toward the Amazon store, and some models sell for even less if you allow Amazon to show you ads on the lock screen.

“Amazon's Special Offers are a simple way to offset the cost of Fire tablets, but they are also another reminder of the importance of digital privacy,” says Asedillo. “The ads might be personalized based on your shopping or browsing habits, but you can disable interest-based ads through Amazon's settings.”

To do that, go to Settings > Preferences > Privacy Settings > Interest-based Ads and turn the slider to off.