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Amazon’s Fire OS vs. Google’s Android: What’s the difference?

Amazon’s Fire OS vs. Google’s Android: What’s the difference?

Amazon Fire tablets run the Amazon Fire OS operating system. Fire OS is based on Android, but it doesn’t have any of Google’s apps or services. Here’s what that means and how exactly they differ.

It’s not exactly correct to say that Amazon Fire tablets run Android. But, in another sense, they run a lot of Android code. All of the apps you’ll run on a Fire tablet are also Android apps.

the quick answer

For the average person, the big difference between a regular Android tablet and an Amazon Fire tablet is that the Google Play Store is not present on the Fire tablet. Instead, you’re limited to the Amazon app store and the apps available there. You also won’t have access to Google apps or services. It will use Amazon’s own apps, the Silk browser instead of Chrome, for example.

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There are other differences, of course. Amazon doesn’t let you modify the launcher like it normally does on Android devices, so you’ll be using the Amazon home screen experience. The Amazon home screen may display a grid of apps, but it also displays Amazon videos, music, and e-books. The home screen even has the Amazon shopping site, so you can buy more stuff and give Amazon more money.

Fire OS has a fun, kid-friendly “Kindle FreeTime” feature that can be combined with an “unlimited” subscription to access thousands of kids’ educational apps, books, movies, and TV shows. Amazon even sells a Fire tablet designed specifically for kids that bundles several services and adds a nice “kid-proof” case. These parental control features for children are one of the most unique features of Fire OS.

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But what does the difference really mean? Well, if you just want a cheap tablet for browsing the web, checking emails, and watching videos, it doesn’t make much of a difference. If you want the full Android app ecosystem without jumping through hoops, you might want to get a more typical Android tablet.

After all, that’s Amazon’s value proposition. You can get a cheap Kindle Fire tablet for $50, but you’ll have to use Amazon’s app store and services instead of Google’s. Amazon hopes to make more money for you on digital sales. The cheapest version of the tablet even comes with lock screen ads, and you have to pay a bit more if you want to remove them.

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Android, Google Mobile Services and AOSP

There really are two androids. There is Google’s “Android” that you see on devices from Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony, and other major device manufacturers. And it’s not just the Android operating system, it’s an Android device that manufacturers have certified by Google. The device uses the Android operating system and comes with Google mobile services, which include the Google Play Store and other Google apps like Gmail and Google Maps.

But Android is also an open source project. The open source project is known simply as the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). The AOSP code is licensed under a permissive open source license, and any manufacturer or developer can take the code and use it for whatever they want.

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Google Mobile Services is not part of the Android Open Source Project, and many things that people think of as “Android,” including the Google Play Store and all of Google’s services, are not included in Android. They are allowed separately.

The cheapest Android tablets, the ones you get for $30 straight from a factory in China, are just that AOSP code. If you want to use Google Play, you need to install Google apps separately after you get the tablet.

Why Amazon created Fire OS instead of using Google’s Android

Amazon wanted to create its own operating system for its tablets. Instead of starting from scratch, Amazon takes this Android AOSP code and modifies it to create “Fire OS.”

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This saves Amazon time as they can leverage Google’s efforts instead of starting from scratch. It also means that all those existing Android apps can be easily “ported” to Fire OS, which is basically the same as Android anyway.

But why isn’t Amazon using Google’s Android? Well, Amazon wants to control the entire experience. Instead of relying on Google Play for app purchases, video rentals, music downloads, and e-books, Amazon wants you to use the Amazon Appstore, Prime Instant Videos, Amazon Music, and Amazon Kindle apps. That’s the purpose of the Amazon Fire line of tablets, however, it’s a cheap window into Amazon services. Once you have the hardware, you’re more likely to spend money on additional Amazon products and services.

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Google Play services are only for Google Android

More and more, more and more of what the typical person thinks of as “Android” is actually part of Google Play services and Google apps themselves. Most of the typical Google Play apps for Android are designed to use Google Play services to access GPS locations, payments, and more. These apps cannot simply be placed directly on a Fire OS device, where Google Play services are not present. Amazon needs to provide alternative APIs for developers, and developers may have to do a bit of homework to port their Android apps from the Google Play Store to Amazon’s Fire OS. This is a big reason why not all Android apps are present.

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Amazon Appstore vs. Google Play

As we mentioned earlier, the biggest difference for the average Kindle tablet user will be the presence of Amazon’s Appstore instead of Google Play. Android app developers can choose to list their apps on the Amazon App Store and Google Play. Not all developers do this, but many do.

In practice, this means you don’t have access to all the Android apps you’d normally have with an Android tablet, but you do have access to quite a few. You can search the Amazon Appstore on the Web to see if the apps you are using are available in the Amazon Appstore.

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Amazon also makes its “Appstore” app available for download. You can install the Amazon Appstore on standard Android smartphones and tablets, and then download apps from there instead of Google Play. These are Android apps, so they will work on both Android and Fire OS.

But you can turn a Fire tablet into a “Google Android” device.

Since Fire OS is so close to Android, there are a number of steps you can take to make your Fire tablet more like stock Android (without rooting). These include installing the Google Play Store, using a more traditional launcher, and disabling a number of Amazon-specific features.

None of this is officially supported by Google or Amazon, but it is possible and doesn’t even require you to root your device. The big difference here is that you have to do a bit of homework to get there. And, of course, there’s a chance that Amazon will crack down on this in future versions of Fire OS and make things more difficult. But since Fire OS 8, at least, that hasn’t happened yet.

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For a cheap tablet for watching videos, reading books, listening to music, surfing the web, checking email, and using Facebook, Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets are a steal.

Android users who want access to the entire Play Store and all Google apps, without hacking, may want a standard Android tablet.