Apple and Sony weren’t the only ones with new hardware up their sleeve this week. On Thursday, Amazon announced a refreshed version of the Fire HD 8 it released in September of last year that’s cheaper, significantly more powerful, and is the first of the retail giant’s tablet devices to feature a digital voice assistant.
At $90, the Fire HD 8 starts at a little more than half the price of the old $150 model, but the hardware’s been improved across the board. The refreshed model starts with a minimum of 16GB of storage — more than double the 8GB packed in last year’s model — and lasts 12 hours on a charge, four more hours than last year’s model. Rounding out those silicon enhancements is “50 percent more” RAM (1.5GB total), plus a Micro SD Card slot that can accommodate cards up to 200GB in size.
Otherwise, not much has changed. The new Fire HD 8 packs the same quad-core 1.3GHz processor as last year’s model. And it has the same 8-inch 1280 x 800 pixel screen, which works out to a density of about 189 pixels per inch.
Debuting alongside the new tablet is a variant with identical processing power but double the storage — 32GB — for $120. Amazon said that both configurations will be available for pre-order in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Japan. They begin shipping September 21.
Perhaps the bigger news on Thursday morning involved Alexa, Amazon’s voice-powered assistant capable of juggling tasks from pizza ordering to taxi hailing. Amazon pledged to roll out its nascent digital assistant to most, if not all, of its Fire tablet line in the U.S., including the Fire HD 10, the Kindle Fire, and the previous generation of Fire HD 8. The newly announced Fire HD 8 won’t launch with Alexa integration initially, but it’ll land in the form of an over-the-air (OTA) software update in the coming months.
“We believe in a different approach to tablets — providing premium products at non-premium prices — and customers love it,” Kevin Keith, general manager for Amazon’s Fire Tablets arm, said in a press release. “In fact, we’ve seen Fire tablet sales more than double year-over-year as a result.”
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That’s no exaggeration. According to market research firm IDC, shipments of tablets globally fell 11.1 percent in the second quarter of this year, and juggernaut Apple reported a 9 percent dip in iPad sell-through over the same period. Amazon, meanwhile, climbed to fifth place among tablet manufacturers and accounted for 4.1 percent of total tablet sales.
The retailer’s strategy of drastically undercutting the competition on price is largely responsible for the increase. The least expensive tablet in its Fire lineup, the 7-inch model, debuted last year at $50 — far less pricey than both the comparable 8-inch Apple iPad, which retails for $400 for the latest generation and $270 for the older model. And it’s less expensive than Samsung’s newest 7-inch Galaxy Tab 4, which launched at $150.
The retailer’s ecosystem endgame is to target rock-bottom pricing, often at a loss, in order to recoup profits through the sales of the movies, apps, music, and physical products and services it promotes to Fire device owners. Amazon extracts revenue in other ways, including serving advertisements on the lock screen of some Fire devices that users can pay $15 to remove. “We aim to break even on our hardware and make money when customers use our devices, not when we sell devices,” Keith told the New York Times. “We feel like that’s a great model for our business.”
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The new Alexa integration, meanwhile, is one of the most concerted developments in the retailer’s effort to broadeg its assistant’s reach. Amazon said in June that Alexa Voice Services, the API that lets developers tap into Alexa’s linguistic intelligence, was in use by more than 10,000 developers. And Alexa integration has debuted on an increasing amount of hardware including smartwatches like the Omate Rise, CoWatch, and Pebble, as well as Sonos speakers, cars from BMW, and smart home appliances such as the Nucleus intercom.
At Recode’s Code Conference in San Francisco this year, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos revealed that a dedicated team of more than 1,000 Amazon engineers were contributing development resources to Alexa. “There’s so much more to come, he said in an interview with Recode’s Walt Mossberg. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”