THERE IS a school of thought that tablets have had their day. Aside from Apple’s original iPads, which are good but pricey, models have come and gone, and some of the cheaper ones have been beset with usability and reliability problems.
The writing on the wall, or rather the screen, seemed to be Google’s virtual withdrawal from the market. Its Nexus range had pioneered the budget alternative to the iPad, but there hasn’t been a new model for nearly three years, and only the expensive and barely-available Nexus 9 remains officially on sale.
The one big brand bucking the trend is Amazon, which this month released new versions of its low-price seven and eight-inch Fire models.
The price is low - from £50 to £100 - for a reason: they are designed to be shop windows for other products and streaming services Amazon wants to sell you. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid them - if, that is, a tablet is really what you want.
If you like to casually browse websites, emails, Facebook and so on while watching TV or generally getting on with your life, and you find your phone too small and fiddly for the purpose, a tablet may just be ideal. None of those uses will overly burden the average processor, and you will get much more time between charges than any phone would allow.
If, on the other hand, you want something you can use to knock off office work at home, think again. Only a top-of-the-range model will do that and it will be more expensive and no less cumbersome than the laptop you’re using now.
The two new Amazon Fire models, like their predecessors, are squarely at the “casual use” end of the market. They run a customised version of Google’s Android operating system, which Amazon has tweaked to point you in the direction of its own products and services, rather than those of its competitors. By default, you don’t get access to the Google app store, but it’s easy enough to install it yourself, by following one of the many guides online. You can add your own choice of browser in the same way.
Amazon saddles you with adverts on your lock screen, which it euphemistically terms “special offers”, and which you must swipe to dismiss whenever you pick it up. The payment of an extra £10 will get rid of them, but you may find you simply stop noticing them after a while.
Both models have Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition software, so you can use them as portable versions of the Echo home automation devices. They both come with a choice of storage capacities, but the larger version has a better defined screen and a faster processor.
Don’t expect longevity from a tablet. Like computers, these are devices that slow down after a while, and the more you use them the slower they get. They’re not as bad in that respect as Windows, and you can factory reset them if you can be bothered - but sooner or later you will start be waiting for them to catch up with you. This applies eventually to Apple iPads, too.
Amazon is marketing its new tablets as entertainment devices, rather than workhorses. The difference between an entertainment device and a toy is moot, but if these devices suit your purpose, you won’t find cheaper.