Amazon debuts new $99 Kindle Fire HD 6, updated $139 Fire HD 7 tablets

Amazon says it challenged its designers and engineers to deliver a sub-$100 tablet that was better than all the other budget tablets that it was selling in its online store. Now here's the result: the new $99 Kindle Fire HD 6, which comes in multiple color options and ships in October, with pre-orders starting now. (Release dates and availability for the UK and Australia weren't immediately known, but that converts to about £60 and AU$110.)
As the 6 in its name indicates, this is a 6-inch tablet (measured diagonally), one of the smallest tablets you can buy. It has a 1,280x800 full-HD resolution screen (252 pixels per inch) and comes with a rather meager 8GB of memory. A 16GB version is available for $119 (converts to about £75 or AU$130). No Amazon tablets feature expandable memory like Samsung's tablets.

The larger 7-inch model, the Kindle Fire HD 7, starts at $139 with 8GB of memory and also comes in a 16GB version for $20 more or $159. Resolution on the 7-inch Fire HD is same as that of its little brother, but the pixels per inch drops to 216. Both models have brighter screens than that of their 2013 Fire HD predecessor, have Dolby Digital Plus Audio, and run Amazon's freshly minted Fire OS 4.0 "Sangria," a customized version of Android KitKat (Android 4.4) that includes Family Library, Firefly, and Amazon free cloud storage of photos feature (for shots taken with Fire devices). (It's worth noting that all of 2013's third-generation Fire tablets will be upgradeable to the new Fire OS 4.0 for free.)

For those keeping track of Amazon's tablet history, this is the company's third-generation Fire HD, which shouldn't be confused with the step-up 2013 Fire HDX 7, which remains on the market.

A better cheap tablet?

At the closed-door briefing for its new tablets and e-ink readers in New York, Amazon reps made it a point to compare the $99 Fire HD to other inexpensive tablets, including Samsung's Tab 3 Lite and Galaxy Tab 4, which cost well north of $100 (Barnes & Noble's US-only Tab 4 Nook Edition costs $179).

Amazon says the Fire HD's processor -- a quad-core MediaTek running at 1.5 GHz -- offers better performance than the processors that run competing budget tablets (Amazon says it has three times the graphics performance of the Samsung Tab 4's processor).

The new Fire HDs feature front and back facing cameras (the front camera is 2 megapixels while the back is VGA) and 8 hours of "reading, listening to music, watching video, and browsing the Web." That's the same battery rating as the previous Fire HD.

In my limited time with the product, it seemed fairly zippy and felt sturdy in hand (its display is made of Gorilla Glass). It didn't feel like a premium tablet and isn't ultrathin like the HDX 8.9 (the 7-inch Fire HD weighs the same as the previous 7-inch Fire). But for a $99 entry-level tablet, its fit and finish did seem like a cut above the rest of the generic tablet pack.

Personally, I wouldn't buy a tablet that has less than 16GB of memory, but Amazon reps said its customers tend not to fill their devices up with a lot of content, and Amazon's cloud-centric media and app infrastructure means you can always delete and redownload content as needed.

On the other hand, Amazon's continued use of its Fire OS means you're stuck with its quasi-Android apps, but without access to the real Google Play app store. That's one big issue that sank the ill-fated Fire Phone.

With the new the Fire HD products, it's clearly targeting folks on tighter budgets who are looking for a name-brand tablet at a modest price point. It also seems to be a good choice for parents who don't want to spend much money on a tablet for their kids, but want a quality product that ties into their existing Amazon accounts.

Fire HD Kids Editions

To that end, Amazon has also launched Kids Editions of the Fire HD 6 and 7, which cost $149 and $189 respectively (no 16GB versions are available). Like with the regular versions, international pricing and availability is unknown. Converted pricing would be about £90 for the 6 Kids Editions and about £115 for the larger Kids Edition; in Australia, respective pricing would be about AU$170 or AU$210.

The Kids Editions include a case (available in various colors) and a year free of Amazon's Kindle FreeTime Unlimited subscription service that gives you access to over 5,000 kid-friendly movies, TV shows, educational apps, e-books, and games in an all-you-can-eat package.

On top of that, the product is fully guaranteed for two years. If your kid drops it and breaks it (or you do), you simply send it back to Amazon and they send you a new one.

If you're interested in using FreeTime Unlimited, which is a good service, the Kids Editions are potentially appealing. But otherwise it's probably not worth spending the extra dough.

Spreading out the Kindle Fire line

With the addition of the $99 Fire HD 6 has brought down the entry price point for its tablet line and breaking the $100 price barrier is a big deal.

With its tablets, Amazon has always had good, better, best options, but the entry-level product -- last year's Fire was more of an OK deal. By breaking the $100 barrier, Amazon now seems better positioned at the low-end, though we'll reserve final judgment until we're able to fully test the new units.