Since I revamped my Fire tablet by putting the Google Play Store on it, I’ve had the chance to use it more frequently than when I first got it, and I’ve started to appreciate what a great bargain it was. It’s not perfect, and there are some areas where it still falls short of a plain-vanilla tablet, but for what it cost and what it can do, it was definitely worth it.
The main thing I use the tablet for at this point is taking to work with me at my data entry day job. I keep it in a cheap neoprene case that I got at a Family Dollar store on clearance for a couple of bucks, along with a pair of cheap Chinese earbuds that I can use when my Bluetooth ‘buds have to recharge. (My theme for accessories for this tablet is “cheap,” being that the tablet itself was.)
For the day job, I leave my gadget bag at home, just because I’m still a little nervous about possibly having it turn out something in it is contraband for the medical insurance company where I work. I don’t bring my Nexus because I worry about potentially losing it. I do tote along my 4-plug Liger USB charger and a couple of cables in my jacket pocket, though. (It’s helpful for keeping my Karma Go hotspot powered up and my Moto X on continuous charge while I listen to audiobooks from it while I type.)
Because my work computer is locked down so I can’t visit unpermitted web sites, my tablet serves as my at-work interface to my personal email, web, and so on, though I don’t do more than glance at it from time to time unless I’m on a break. But it is very useful when I am on a break, because I can do nearly everything from it that I could do from my more expensive Nexus 7 tablet.
What are those things? Mainly RSS reading via Press, checking TeleRead and the TeleRead comments page via Chrome, keeping up with the social networks and chat channels I use, and checking my email. Of these things, email is the least satisfactory, because I’m limited to Amazon’s built-in application—Inbox doesn’t launch properly for whatever reason, though perhaps I should try it again in a while.
Press works every bit as well as it does from my Nexus or my phone. It’s a nice sort of middle ground, in fact—it’s a bigger screen than on my phone, but a smaller and lighter form factor than my Nexus 7. (Mainly because I use a portfolio-style leather case on my Nexus 7, which does have the effect of making the tablet bigger and bulkier than usual.) Chrome is likewise decent for a mobile browser. I’d use Silk more, but in connecting to my Google account, Chrome has access to all my saved settings, including my saved passwords for sites, so it’s just easier to log in.
Social networks work pretty much the same as on any other Android device. Indeed, they’re one of the few things that the Fire does just as well as any other Android tablet even without needing to add the Play Store. Chat is a lot better with the addition of Google Hangouts. (Of course, I don’t have access to the Hangouts launcher widget the way I do on my plain-vanilla Android devices. But then, given that Hangouts has disabled the widget in its latest version, I wouldn’t have access to it on those either if I hadn’t rolled the app back and locked off upgrades for now.)
Something else that works really well on the tablet is JuiceSSH. Some of my Internet usage habits are a bit weird—during my college years in the ‘90s, I got into the habit of using Linux terminal sessions and various programs therein. For example, I use the MUD client TinyFugue for hanging out on some private telnet-based (later ssh-based) chatservers that some friends had coded up. I also enjoy reading Usenet and Usenet-style forums (SFFnet and Baen’s Bar) via the slrn newsreader, and I use irssi for IRC. And I do all this from a Linux program called screen, because screen lets me suspend my session and connect to it remotely from wherever I am—including via ssh on my tablet.
If all that technical stuff made your eyes glaze over, suffice it to say that I keep a lot of chat and other such programs running continuously on the Linux PC in my apartment, and I can connect to it from anywhere with my tablet (or, for that matter, smartphone) to check in. It’s not a perfect solution—typing with Swype into JuiceSSH doesn’t work quite right—but it lets me stay in touch. And I can do that from my Fire as well, with the greatest of ease.
Then there’s video-watching. Even when my tablet was still stuck within the Amazon ecosystem, I was able to watch Hulu and Netflix from it. With the addition of Google Play, now I can use the genuine real YouTube app, too, instead of the shortcut to the YouTube web page that was all the Amazon appstore would install. But so far, I’ve done most of my video-watching via Hulu.
Most of the TV shows I watch each week—Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Flash, and Arrow—are on Hulu, and I lack either the means or the time to watch them when they actually air. So I catch up on them when I can, which is often when I’m sitting at the bar at a nearby brewpub, enjoying a beer and some food, right after I get off work. And the Fire works great for that.
Yes, it’s not true “high definition,” the way my Nexus 7 is. It’s not even 720P. But it’s higher-quality than standard-definition television, at least, and on a screen that small you don’t really notice a lot of difference. The picture is decently crisp and clear, and I have no complaints on that score. The single mono speaker in the back of the tablet isn’t all that great, but I’m not going to use that in public anyway. The Fire’s Bluetooth works just fine with my earbuds and those do have great sound.
I don’t do as much gaming on it—in fact, I only have three games currently installed: Rebuild 3, which I used for initially testing the installation of third-party apps; Ingress, which I mainly use for hacking a portal from within my apartment that I couldn’t access via normal GPS; and Hearthstone, which I got interested in playing a few weeks ago and I installed after someone asked me about playing it on the Fire. And while I was writing this, I installed Catan from the Humble app and it worked okay, too.
Of those games, Rebuild 3 plays just fine—but then, it’s basically a digital board game, without a lot of terribly demanding graphical activity. Ingress loads up all right, too, though I don’t do much with it. Ditto for Catan, which ran just like it did on my Nexus. Hearthstone is by far the most demanding. When I installed it, the installer warned that it might be laggy on the Fire, and to some extent it is—which it isn’t on either my Nexus 7 or my Moto X phone. But it is still playable, nonetheless. And anyway, it’s kind of appropriate to play Hearthstone on a Fire.
And then there’s reading. I haven’t actually tried to read much on the Fire, simply because I haven’t had the time to read much of anything lately. I have fiddled around with a few e-reader applications. I can say that Google Play Books, my preferred reader for most platforms, runs just fine, but there’s the little hitch of it needing to keep its books in the cloud, and not having enough room for my complete library. There are also a number of other third-party e-readers available through the Google Play Store, a few of which I’ve installed.
My current favorite third-party e-reader, which I may review fully in a separate post at some point, is “eReader Prestigio: Book Reader.” The Prestigio Reader seems at first glance an unlikely candidate, a free-adware app from a tablet manufacturer (who we mentioned briefly back in 2010), but it actually has some remarkably good features.
For one thing, like the Kindle’s special offers, the ads only show up on the book list screen—not while you’re actually reading something. And they only cost 99 cents to remove altogether. For another, there is an extensive style and formatting menu that easily allows you to adjust justification, margins, indentation, and so on to suit your personal tastes. The app can be set to use any folder as its library folder, including folders on the SD card, and it will read MOBI and EPUB with equal faculty. I’m sure there are other useful options as well that I haven’t even discovered yet.
Prestigio Reader is impressive enough that I’m almost tempted to try out some of their hardware, but it seems to be available exclusively in Europe. At least, all the prices on their web store are in Euros. They seem to be fairly reasonable, too. Maybe Paul should see about trying one.
Apart from the annoyingly feature-light email app, the Google Play-enabled Fire’s biggest drawback is in its launcher. Even though you can install different launcher apps from the Google Play store once you’ve put the Google apps on it, there doesn’t actually seem to be any way to launch them. When you try, they take you to the Fire launcher’s setting menu and tell you to delete the defaults for it—but there are no defaults set for it. Apparently it’s hard-coded into the tablet at the operating system level. (Which makes sense—it’s the only launcher they plan to provide, so why would they make it possible to use another one?)
It’s still an adequate launcher in most ways—you can make app folders just as you can on most other Android launchers—but it doesn’t support launcher widgets or other customization. That being said, if anyone should come up with a way to launch other launchers on it without more involved rooting and such, I’d like to hear about it.
One thing the launcher doesn’t hinder is Google Now, though. That seems to be a function of Google itself, and once you’ve installed Google, you can get to Google Now by swiping up from the home icon just as you can on any other Android device.
Another Android feature we take for granted is app-to-app sharing, and that works equally well no matter where the app you install came from. I can share from Press to Hangouts even though neither one of those apps came from the Amazon store. It’s just like using real Android, because it effectively is.
All in all, the Fire is a great bargain for a $50 tablet once you’ve retrofitted it with the Google Play apps and services. It’s reasonably fast for all but the most graphically fancy apps (i.e. Hearthstone) and altogether quite capable. It’s a way to run most of your favorite Android apps on a more expensive tablet, on a slate you won’t worry too much about accidentally losing or breaking. And it’s a great choice for kids or anyone else on a budget.
It’s going to be interesting to see how having a cheap, good tablet affects the market from here on out. Will reputable tablet companies try to come out with inexpensive slates to compete with Amazon and beat out the Chinese OEMs? I look forward to finding out.