Amazon on Thursday announced a software update for its Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 tablets that introduces “Show Mode,” a new setting that makes the two slates function similarly to the company’s Echo Show smart speaker.
Amazon says the update will start rolling out to the current-generation Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 tablets on July 2.
The mode won’t be available on older Fire tablets or the less expensive Fire 7 tablet.
Amazon first brought a limited version of its Alexa voice assistant to Fire tablets in 2016. The company initially required users to hold down a software button to activate Alexa, but later made it possible to call up the assistant hands-free.
Show Mode plants that functionality in a dedicated mode that can be toggled on and off below the tablet’s quick settings menu. It uses the same visual interface of the Echo Show, just with slightly bigger text in some cases to make things more visible from farther away. It can display nearly all the same information as the Echo Show, too, with the new hook being that it’s in a more portable form factor with a larger display.
If you ask Alexa for the weather, for instance, it’ll show a graphic of the upcoming forecast and tell you what it’s like outside. If you use Amazon’s Music service, it can display lyrics of certain songs as the music plays. You can have it start a video call, show upcoming calendar events, play a flash news briefing (albeit with no video), show the live feed of certain home security cameras, play videos (sans an official YouTube app), control smart home devices, display recipes and cooking instructions, and so on.
To make all of this a little more natural, Amazon is launching a docking station for both devices. It includes a case, Micro USB charging adapter, and adjustable stand; put the case on the tablet and it can connect to the stand through a couple of pogo pins. Once it clicks in, the tablet will automatically launch into Show Mode.
There’s no external microphone, speaker, or battery built into the docking station, so you’ll still be reliant on what the tablets themselves are working with. Kevin Keith, general manager of Amazon’s Devices team, said he doesn’t anticipate Show Mode eroding either tablets’ battery dramatically, and the company suggests using a Bluetooth speaker for those who want stronger sound.
The fact that each tablet has just one built-in microphone suggests they won’t be as reliable as a normal Echo—which usually have a seven-mic array—when it comes to hearing commands from a distance. Amazon is instead framing this as a handy addition to its tablets, especially for those times when you’re charging the device and wouldn’t normally use it. Keith said he doesn’t anticipate the update cannibalizing sales of the Echo Show given the hardware discrepancies between the devices.
The company didn’t detail any upgrades to Alexa itself as part of the announcement, so the assistant will likely continue to have its share of, let us say, moments, as it does on many Amazon devices. The Echo Show still lacks support for Netflix and most video sources beyond Amazon’s own, too—though here you can at least take the tablet out of Show Mode and just open the appropriate app. There are other quirks: the Fire HD 8’s screen needs to be on for it to listen for Alexa commands (unless it’s being charged), and it’s not possible to tell Alexa to do something on the Fire tablet from a separate Alexa device.
Nevertheless, the announcement marks one of the few times where we can detail a notable update to an Android tablet (albeit a heavily modified one that doesn’t officially support Google apps). While Google looks to be steering its tablet pursuits toward Chrome OS, Amazon remains one of the few Android tablet makers with any forward momentum: the company shipped nearly 17 million tablets in 2017, according to research firm IDC, good for a 38 percent increase year-over-year. (Though IDC said its shipments had dipped in Q1 2018.) Much of that was due the low cost of each device; both Fire HD tablets have generally been seen as good values given how stagnant the non-iPad tablet market has been of late.
Still, turning the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 into portable Echo machines could make them more appealing from a functionality standpoint. Show Mode appeared to run smoothly on a Fire HD 10 during a guided demo of the software in New York City this week, but we’ll have to use the feature further to see how much it really adds to either device.
Amazon says the Fire HD 8’s charging dock will retail for $40 while the Fire HD 10’s will go for $55, though the company says it’ll discount both devices by $5 during their pre-order period. The two will ship on July 12. A bundle with the Fire HD 8 and its dock will go for $110, while a similar Fire HD 10 bundle will go for $190. Individually, the Fire HD 8 starts at $80 and the Fire HD 10 starts at $150.
Besides Show Mode, Amazon also announced a Kids Edition version of the Fire HD 10. Much like the existing Kids Edition models of the Fire HD 8 and Fire 7, it adds a bulky rubber case and a version of Fire OS that focuses heavily on parental controls and curated, child-friendly content through the company’s FreeTime Unlimited service. Otherwise, it has the same hardware as the prior Fire HD 10. Amazon says this model will cost $200 and begin shipping on July 11.