(Pocket-lint) - The refreshed 2020 Amazon Fire HD tablets have a welcome surprise - a Plus model that takes the same solid foundation laid down by the Fire HD 8 and builds upon it.

It's not a reinvention like you might find in the latest smartphones, rather it's a version that has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. The headline here is wireless charging - although you'll have to buy the charging dock separately because there isn't one in the box. 

So is this 'Plus' version of Amazon's 8-inch tablet still the great value prospect it's always been and should you choose it over the regular Fire HD 8?

Design and build

  • Dimensions: 202 x 137 x 9.7mm / Weight: 355g
  • Finish: Slate Grey colour
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Dolby Atmos speakers
  • Plastic build

The Amazon Fire HD 8 has had something of a redesign over the previous version. It's now a squarer tablet, equalling up the bezels so there's uniform border all around. The previous iteration had larger bezels at the landscape ends, leaving it looking a little long. This new tablet is wider, but shorter - and that makes it look more compact. It's a nice refresh and it looks more modern than the previous iteration.

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For those wondering, there's no physical difference between the Fire HD 8 Plus and the Fire HD 8 - so long as they're both the current 2020 release models. From the exterior there are no differences except the colours and the tiny model number printed on the back. The Fire HD 8 Plus, however, only comes in a slate grey colour, so that's how you know it's a Plus.

Like all Fire tablets, the Plus is finished in plastic, designed to last - and our experience with these sorts of tablets is that they do last well. You can wipe the back clean, it doesn't attract fingerprints, and it doesn't seem to get scratched. While it's not a hugely exciting design, it is very practical - which is why these tablets are a great choice for travel and for kids.

Yes, it's a little on the thick side - but that's more or less the same as all the other Fire tablets and it does mean that there's plenty to grip onto. Amazon has also placed the camera in the centre of the long side, reflecting how people use the Fire, as well has having the speaker openings on the top.

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This is convenient because it gives the Fire HD 8 Plus a definite top and bottom - it has a "right way up" - and those speakers sing in a way that's surprising for a budget device: Amazon says they offer Dolby Atmos - but there's no overt surround sound Atmos support in apps, nor a toggle switch to turn Atmos on or off as you might find on a phone. Instead you just get great sound with decent separation and it clings onto fidelity at higher volumes too, so there's a great soundtrack to accompany your movies or games.

For those who don't want to use the speakers, there's a 3.5mm headphone socket, as well as Bluetooth. 

Display 

  • 8-inch LCD display, 16:10 aspect ratio
  • 1280 x 800 resolution (189ppi)

The display on the 2020 Fire HD 8 Plus is the same as on the Fire HD 8 - and it's also the same dimension and spec as the previous models of this tablet too. There's been no shift in resolution here, so you're looking at an HD tablet - to get a higher resolution, you'd have to step up to the Fire HD 10 for Full HD/1080p. Don't let the Plus name lure you into thinking there's more resolution.

We've always liked the size of the Fire HD 8; where the Fire 7 is just a little small and the Fire HD 10 just a little too big, you get it all on the Fire HD 8. We still think it's the best overall size for travel, because it's compact, while giving you a big enough screen to enjoy the content you have on it. 

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Compared to previous Fire HD 8 tablets, while the specs haven't changed, the panel itself has - it's a cleaner and brighter offering overall. Visually, the performance has been improved, too, and while it won't compete with the iPad mini - which is both sharper, more adept with contrast and more visually impactful - the 2020 Fire HD 8 Plus makes a good case for itself.

What the Fire HD 8 Plus isn't so good at is viewing angles. If you're not facing straight onto the screen then things quickly lose brightness. Besides, it's not hugely bright anyway, so using this tablet on the move is more difficult - it's at its best indoors. As we've said of other Fire tablets, it's prone to reflections and fingerprints and doesn't really have the brightness to cut through that.

Specs and performance 

  • 2.0GHz quad-core processor, 3GB RAM
  • 32GB/64GB storage + microSD (1TB) 

While the core specs of the Fire HD 8 Plus are the same as the Fire HD 8, there's an increase in RAM to 3GB. In reality, there's very little performance difference between the Fire HD 8 and the Fire HD 8 Plus, having tested both these tablets side-by-side in a range of tasks. 

The Fire HD 8 has been increasing in responsiveness over recent editions. Some of this comes down to software efficiencies, some down to increasing the hardware power, but the result in the Fire HD 8 Plus is capable. The keyboard is nice and responsive and it's quick enough to switch apps and move around the user interface (UI) - although it's not the fastest device out there. 

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One of the things that makes it feel a little slower is the display coating. It doesn't let your fingers dance quite as smoothly as many phones enable. That doesn't have an impact on things like watching video, but when it comes to playing games, it feels slower than it does on a phone.

The good news is that the Fire HD 8 Plus will turn its hand to playing some decent games - if they are on the Amazon AppStore - and that includes the likes of PUBG Mobile. It runs smoothly enough to be playable and yes, we managed to emerge victorious. Naturally these sorts of games place greater demands on the hardware, so they will hit the battery harder.

Battery life

  • USB Type-C port
  • Qi wireless charging
  • 12 hours battery life

Amazon says that the Fire HD 8 Plus offers 12 hours of battery life - and after watching an hour of streaming Amazon Video, we'd eaten through about 10 per cent of the battery, which suggests you'll get about 10 hours of video streaming from that.

Of course, things like background connectivity and screen brightness will have an impact on that, but in mixed use we'd imagine that 12 hours is pretty accurate. Playing those harder games and a 30 minute session will eat about 10 per cent of the battery again, which would mean about 5 hours before you need a charge.

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The big change here - following a similar shift on the Fire HD 10 in 2019 - is the addition of USB Type-C. This is convenient, because you can use the same charger as your up-to-date phone, perhaps even as your MacBook. That means fewer cables and chargers to carry around - which is a good thing. 

It also comes with a 9W charger in the box - an upgrade over the 5W charger that comes with the Fire HD 8 - which reduces the charging time to just under 4 hours. As the charger itself would cost you £17.99 from Amazon, it suggest that getting the Plus over the regular HD 8 is decent value for money.

The Fire HD 8 Plus also supports Qi wireless charging. This is a first for the Fire tablet range and it works like Qi charging in any other device. Amazon is selling a charging dock specifically for this made by Angreat, which allows 10W charging speeds for the tablet. 

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The Angreat dock uses an old pin style charger - and we can't help feeling that using USB-C would have made a lot more sense, but alas, it seems to use the cheapest charger it could find. 

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Because it uses Qi standard charging, the dock is able to charge other devices so you can drop your phone onto it for a charge; at the same time, you can use other Qi wireless chargers to charge the tablet, so if you have something else already, you can take advantage of that. 

The design of the bespoke dock, however, isn't just about charging, it's also about displaying the tablet. Like previous Show Mode Docks that Amazon offer, the idea here is that your tablet engages Show Mode when docked, so it functions like an Echo Show

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With always-on Alexa, you'll then be able to talk to your tablet and get all those Alexa responses, with the advantage that when you want to play games or send a child off to watch a video, you can just grab the tablet off the dock, knowing it's fully charged. That's great flexibility, although buying the tablet and dock is going to cost you more than getting the Echo Show 8.

Amazon's software

  • Fire OS

Amazon uses Fire OS on its tablets and this has slowly been evolving. The most recent version is cleaner than it has been previously and a little more convenient in the way that it's laid out, especially around the menus and shortcuts. There's a handy shortcut to home device control, for example, which picks up on the skills that Alexa is harbouring.

When you sign into the Fire with your Amazon account, it obviously knows a lot about you - and anything you've setup to work with Alexa will work through your tablet too. For example, if you're using an Echo Dot to turn on the lights via voice, you'll get those controls both via voice and touch controls on the Fire tablet. 

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But the mainstay of this Amazon account syncing pulls in the content to which you have access. This will vary if you're a Prime subscriber or not and essentially Amazon Video, Kindle books and other native Amazon content gets pride of place across the home screen carousel. 

If you're an Amazon subscriber then these things natively work well, but there are apps for most other services - Netflix, Disney+, Spotify, BBC iPlayer, and so forth - so there's no shortage of entertainment to access, especially when most offer downloads for offline access too.

But Amazon's AppStore isn't the same as the Google Play Store that you'd use for apps on an Android phone/tablet device. While many apps top apps are available, sometimes they are slower to update - and in some cases, there's fake apps that might look like a top-drawer Android app, but isn't - so you need to tread with caution, as the quality is lacking in some areas.

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Everything, of course, needs to be taken in the context of the excellent value for money that these tablets represent. Fundamentally this is a tablet for entertainment, watching video, casual gaming, and reading - all of which it handles just fine.

Verdict

The Amazon Fire tablets offer remarkable value for money, ideal for those looking for a tablet without spending huge amounts of money. You might be buying multiples, getting them to entertain the kids, or you just want something for watching movies in bed - and that's where the Fire HD 8 Plus really comes into its own.

There are drawbacks: the display could do with a little more punch and refinement, while the app ecosystem feels like it needs a little more quality control. And no-one will mistake this for a premium tablet because, well, it's just not - but that's just fine.

Fundamentally, this is an affordable tablet that's substantially built, with the convenience of wireless charging giving the potential for use as an Echo Show alternative if you buy the additional dock, making it an affordable tablet for home and away.

Also consider

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Apple iPad mini

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There's simply no better tablet at this size, with ultimate portability and unparalleled power for its price point. But this is a big step over the Fire HD 8 Plus, especially when it comes to the price.

Writing by Chris Hall.