If you've been to Disneyland recently, you've seen the big change in how Americans while away their time in line. Many are absorbed by their smartphones, most often iPhones and Galaxy Notes. But these days you're also starting to see small 7-inch tablets, especially among kids, who play games and goof off electronically in line instead of whining or teasing their siblings (or, rather, the teasing happens in text). Their parents are also using smaller tablets for messaging, social networking, games, catching up on news and sports, and even picture taking.
Although 7-inch tablets predate the iPad by six months, most were mediocre or worse -- enlarged smartphones running a few primitive apps. Even the best of that class, the original Galaxy Tab 7, was a flop. The original iPad swept away that whole class within a year. Amazon.com's Kindle Fire tried to bring back the small tablet as a media device in late 2011, but after a strong initial sales surge, it petered out as its subpar hardware's compromises became clear to buyers.
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But this past spring, Google debuted the Google Nexus 7, which showed what a well-designed small media tablet could be. Now we have the souped-up Kindle Fire HD, and -- as of this past Friday -- Apple's own iPad Mini, an 8-inch tablet that seeks to dominate the media tablet market by being, well, an iPad. (This coming Friday, too late for this review, Barnes & Noble will ship its updated Nook HD 7-inch tablet.) Which should you buy? And can they serve any business use, even if incidental to their entertainment core?
Let's find out.
A good media tablet is all about quality entertainment: music, videos, books, magazines, games, edutainment apps, information services, social networking, Web browsing, and messaging (chat and email). Of course, it needs to be lightweight and easily carried in your hands, purse, or jacket -- and so much the better if it can be used to check on business in a pinch, such as when you're standing in line for the Jungle Cruise ride and your boss has a mini-crisis about one of your accounts.
Deathmatch: Media supportThe primary reason most people want a media tablet is, well, to access media over the Internet. But each media tablet also has its own method of transferring, storing, and organizing media files.
Getting media files onto your tablet. iTunes is Apple's not-so-secret weapon when it comes to media delivery on PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. It's a media organizer for movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and books. It lets you buy music, videos, books, and all sorts of apps. It lets you import your own music, videos, and books as well. It syncs your media content to all your devices and keeps purchases consistent. It lets you create playlists; iTunes is the flexible central hub that simply has no rival on any competing device.
Google, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble all have music, video, and app stores, as does Microsoft, but they lack iTunes' easy integration of your existing media with the media they sell. Yes, you can use direct transfer of media files (in Windows) or transfer utilities (in OS X), cloud storage, or USB drives to transfer files to these devices, but all are a poor imitation of the iTunes experience.
If you're using a standard Android tablet, you can use a utility such as DoubleTwist to get fairly close to iTunes' capabilities (it even works with iTunes libraries), but it doesn't work with the Nexus 7 unless you buy the $10 AirTwist add-on to DoubleTwist. DoubleTwist, with or without AirTwist, isn't available for the custom versions of Android that Amazon and B&N have on their media tablets, so you'll need to use a direct USB connection to transfer your computer's existing media (in OS X, you also need Google's primitive Android File Transfer utility).
Note that the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 both support MP3 and AAC (.m4a) audio, MPEG-4 (.m4v and .mp4) video, and ePub and PDF files. You can convert several common video formats to compatible MPEG-4 versions using OS X's included QuickTime Player utility or via third-party utilities for Windows. The Kindle Fire HD supports all the same formats except ePub, meaning you can only read books in its proprietary Mobi file format. (The free open source Calibre app for OS X and Windows can convert ePubs to Mobi format.)
All three media tablets put transferred music in their music apps; on the Kindle Fire HD, be sure to switch to the Devices pane to see them. But they handle transferred videos and books differently:
- The iPad Mini puts all personal videos in the Movies pane in the Videos app. The Nexus 7 puts transferred video in the Play Video app's Personal Videos pane. The Kindle Fire HD doesn't put the videos in the Videos window at all; you have to go to the Kindle Fire's Apps view, then open the Personal Videos app to see your transferred videos. (The Kindle Fire's Videos window shows only videos purchased at Amazon.)
- For books, the iPad Mini puts ePubs and PDFs in their books apps. The Kindle Fire puts copied PDFs in its Docs window and Mobi books in its Books window, both in the Devices pane. The Nexus 7's Play Books app can't access copied books at all, though the Kindle app can if you place the Mobi files in in the Nexus 7's Kindle folder.
If you're willing to live without iTunes, Amazon has the broadest video and music libraries, followed by Google, then Microsoft. You can watch iTunes-purchased content only on an Apple device, just as you can play videos or music purchased from the Google, Barnes & Noble, or Microsoft media stores only on their respective devices.
However, in addition to playback on the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon lets you play music bought from its store on Android and iOS devices (you need to use its iPhone app on the iPad) via its Cloud Player app. It lets you play rented videos on iOS devices, but not Android, through its Instant Video app.
Both the iPad Mini's Music app and the Nexus 7's Play Music app (the standard Android player) let you create your own playlists on your tablet, but the Kindle Fire HD's Music app does not. Likewise, the iPad Mini supports podcasts and podcast subscriptions via its Podcast app, but there is no equivalent capability included with the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD -- you'll need to get a third-party app instead.
You can use popular video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus and audio streaming services such as Pandora on all the media tablets. Over Wi-Fi, they all played the videos and audio smoothly on such services.
On the Verizon LTE network in San Francisco, a full-size cellular iPad sometimes struggled to keep up with the video stream. Expect the same inconsistency on the cellular version of the iPad Mini that ships in mid-November, given the wide variance in LTE throughput and availability on the AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon networks the iPad Mini will support. (The Kindle Fire HD does not come in a cellular version, although a $524, 8.9-inch version of the Kindle Fire HD due Nov. 20 will support AT&T's LTE network. The Nexus 7's 3G -- no, it's not LTE -- cellular versions for AT&T and T-Mobile aren't due to ship until Nov. 13.)
For e-books, Amazon has the largest book library of anyone. But that doesn't give the Kindle Fire an advantage, because you can read books purchased from Amazon on your iPad or any other iOS device, Nexus 7 or any other Android device, or for that matter, a Windows 8/RT device.
The content winner. Of the media tablets, the iPad Mini has the broadest options for content sources, not just for iTunes media but for media from Amazon (books, music, and video), Google (books), and B&N (books). Next is Android, which supports media from Amazon (books and music) and B&N (books). It's a no-brainer that the best small tablet for accessing media content is the iPad Mini.
But what about for playing media? Here, the decision is a bit more complex.
Video playback. Many product reviews zero in on the tablet's pixel count, but that's usually a meaningless figure. The quality of the image rarely correlates to total pixels, so my evaluation is based on subjective image quality.
The iPad Mini's screen is the best of the three media tablets reviewed here, with brighter display and better tonal range. By contrast, the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 were both a bit dark and muddy. A full-size, third-gen or fourth-gen iPad screen has even better color range and details, though honestly you only notice the differences in nature films and sci-fi epics, where high-def images are accentuated. Your typical comedy film or TV show appears the same on both types of iPad screens. A bigger issue is the reflectivity of the iPad Mini's screen, which even in cloudy daylight skies causes a reflection of your face to be constantly in view.
The Nexus 7's video display was the most muted, even with the screen brightness turned up, likely due to its yellowish color balance. It too suffers from an excessively reflective screen.
The Kindle Fire HD's video playback had a bit more life to it than Nexus 7's, but it wasn't quite as bright or as well-balanced as the iPad Mini's screen. It also suffered from periodic stutters during playback, even of video stored on the device. Neither the iPad Mini nor Nexus 7 had playback stutters. I found the Kindle Fire HD's screen overly reflective, too.
Audio playback. All the media tablets support standard audio jacks for private listening on the headphones or earbuds of your choice. All three also support Bluetooth audio streaming, and the iPad Mini supports Apple's proprietary AirPlay streaming over Wi-Fi networks to compatible speakers or, via an Apple TV, to stereos and TVs.
For direct audio, the full-size iPad has long suffered from having a mono speaker, though one with good clarity and tonal balance. The iPad Mini adds stereo -- and wins hands down. You can crank the iPad Mini much louder than the other two tablets, without the distortion the Kindle Fire HD has at maximum volume.
The quality is good enough for boom-box-style use, such at a party or conference room, though at maximum volume a flatness creeps in, likely due to the iPad Mini's thin chassis. To optimize the audio, the iPad Mini's Settings app has equalizer preselects you can choose, but no tool to set your own EQ settings.
Sound from the Nexus 7's built-in stereo speakers struck me as tinny, muddy, and hollow, even with bass boost on -- it was grating to listen to. It's also the quietest of the three media tablets. There's an equalizer option in the Play Music app where you choose an EQ or set a custom EQ, but it's not intuitive to use. I could make the audio sound less tinny, but I could not eliminate the hollow tone no matter what settings I tried.
The Kindle Fire HD's stereo sound is also tinny and a bit flat, even with the Dolby Digital Plus audio processing option enabled. And there's unmistakable distortion at maximum volume. Unlike the Nexus 7, there are no equalizer controls available. Still, the speakers sound better than those of the Nexus 7.
TV/stereo playback. The iPad Mini supports AirPlay streaming (if you have an Apple TV) as well as video-out via HDMI and VGA cables, so you can use it as a portable DVD and music player at hotels and other people's homes and as a presentation device at conferences and meetings via its video mirroring capability.
The other media tablets don't have wireless media streaming capabilities. Unlike most Android tablets, the Nexus 7 also lacks support for video-out cables. Fortunately, the Kindle Fire HD has a MiniHDMI port for the purpose. It worked just fine, both for playing videos on an HDTV and mirroring the Kindle Fire's screen.
Book reading. For reading books, Apple's iBooks and Amazon's Kindle apps are the best. Their default settings are the most readable, though you may want to increase the Kindle's default text size. I like iBooks 3.0's new scroll mode for reading -- turning virtual pages may remind you that you're reading a book, but scrolling is faster and a bit more natural. But after using an iPad with a Retina display, I noticed that text on the iPad Mini's non-Retina display was not as crisp -- yet it's roughly equivalent to the crispness of the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, though they pack more pixels per square inch.
The Kindle Fire HD's reader and the Kindle app on the iPad both load pages fast, but the Kindle app exhibits noticeable lag on the Nexus 7. Also, the yellower color balance of the Kindle Fire HD's screen made the book pages dimmer and harder to read than on the Nexus 7 or iPad Mini.
On the Nexus 7, books in both the Kindle app and the native Play Books app were hard to read until I adjusted their text settings. With both apps I experienced a noticeable lag when I turned pages. On the iPad, Google's Play Books app is also slow, and it's harder to read there than on the Nexus 7, due to strange text display settings.
Magazine and newspaper reading. When it comes to magazines, the battle is between the iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire HD, both of which have fairly large magazine and newspaper subscription libraries available. Android's Play Market has a small magazine selection. iOS's Newsstand app conveniently puts all your subscriptions in one place, with the option to get alerts when new editions are available. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire also aggregate your subscriptions and offer new-issue notifications.
The real test of reading magazines on a tablet comes down to the magazines' specific apps, and too many don't work well on a tablet. Most are PDF-like replicas of their print layouts, perhaps with the ability to switch to a text view for easier reading but without the accompanying graphics -- that's standard for the Kindle Fire and optional on other devices. I find most magazines on all the media tablets unsatisfying. One major exception is the Economist, whose iOS and Android apps show how it should be done.
Fortunately, most newspaper apps are designed for tablet reading, such as USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Newspaper apps on the iPad Mini tend to be more nicely designed, easier to navigate, and more readable than on the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD.
All in all, the iPad Mini is the best book reader, especially if you use the iBooks and Kindle apps. On the Nexus 7, you'll really want to use the Kindle app rather than the native Google Play Books app, because Play Books is hard to read -- a nonstarter for an e-reader.
The playback winner. When it comes to playback options, the iPad Mini wins, mainly because it has the most flexible playback options -- both in terms of output options and playback apps available. If you're looking for a device you want to listen to without external speakers or headphones, you'll again prefer the iPad Mini, whose video playback quality is also very nice.
Deathmatch: Application supportiOS is known for its app selection, and because the iPad Mini uses the same 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution as an iPad 2, it runs every app any other iPad does. Thus, the entire iOS app library is available to the iPad Mini, from games to news readers to photo editors to productivity apps. Plus, if you enable it, your iTunes purchases are kept synced to all your iOS devices.
As a result, you get the best collection of fun and serious apps available for mobile devices for practically any purpose, and Apple's iTunes U library of free courses, aimed mainly at high school and college students, is an amazing resource. That's probably the iPad Mini's biggest advantage: It's not just a media tablet.
The Apple App Store also has the benefit of being rigorously screened for malware, which is not true for the Google Play Store that powers the Nexus 7 and other Android devices. The app selection in the Play Store does not match what Apple offers, but for the kinds of apps you'll want on an entertainment tablet -- gaming, social networking, and information apps -- the Play Store's options are strong. Over the years, Google has strengthened its backup services so that apps you get in the Play Store are available to your other Android devices. The Nexus 7 can therefore double as a business tablet in a pinch.
But just because you bought an app on one Android device does not guarantee it will run on another. For example, the Nexus 7 is not compatible with several of my Android news apps, including CNN, the Economist, and USA Today. You only find out when you try to install them -- there's no indication in the list of previously purchased apps as to which are compatible.
The Kindle Fire HD's selection of apps is more limited than Android's Play Store offerings, mainly to edutainment apps and lightweight utilities. But the Kindle Fire does have an extensive game catalog.
All the media tablets have the most popular social apps, such as Skype, Twitter, and Facebook, either preinstalled or downloadable for free. If you use Pinterest, you can get the app for the iPad Mini (or any iPad) and the Kindle Fire HD but not the Nexus 7.
The app support winner. There's no question the iPad Mini has the greatest and best app catalog. But the Nexus 7's catalog is strong for media tablet usage, and the Kindle Fire HD's catalog is adequate.
Deathmatch: Web and InternetAlthough "consuming" media and playing games are the main uses of a media tablet, being able to connect to the Internet for Web access is a close third. It's no surprise that all the devices support Wi-Fi for Internet connections -- and Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 models will soon follow in the iPad Mini's footsteps and support cellular connections for anywhere-access to the Internet.
Browsers. As you might expect, all the media tablets provide Web browsers. Using a browser on a 7-inch-class device, however, is often difficult. Web pages are designed for viewing on PCs, where 19-inch and larger monitors are now the norm. On a 10-inch-class tablet, they often feel scrunched, and it's worse on a 7-inch device. Plus, the onscreen keyboard for entering URLs is harder to use.
Still, the ability to zoom in as needed makes surfing acceptable. The iPad Mini provides the best browsing experience due to its larger (8-inch) screen and the capable Safari browser, which has the extra benefit of iCloud synchronization with other iOS and OS X devices.
Android's Chrome browser has a similar feature and is a great browser choice as well. Chrome is slightly more HTML5-savvy than Safari on the iPad -- Chrome scores 390 out of 500 points versus Safari's 386 in the HTML5test.com compatibility tests -- but Safari is better at supporting AJAX controls than Chrome is, meaning some interactive websites will work better on iOS's Safari than on Android's Chrome. All in all, running Chrome on the Nexus 7 is a close second to running Safari on the iPad Mini.
The Kindle Fire HD has the least satisfactory browser experience. Its Silk browser is noticeably slower to load -- sometimes excruciatingly so -- than the other media tablets. And it often reports itself to websites as a smartphone, causing you to get the mobile versions of websites rather than the desktop versions. Plus, Silk responds jerkily to zoom and swipe gestures. Silk is anything but smooth. The Amazon Appstore has no other browsers available for it, so you're stuck with Silk.
Silk offers good bookmarking and history capabilities, but no private-browsing modes, no cross-device tab syncing, no on-page search capabilities, and no built-in sharing capabilities, as both the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 do. Silk has good HTML5 compatibility, scoring 358 points, and its AJAX support is better than Android's or Windows RT's, and nearly equal to iOS's. Too bad using the browser is so frustrating.
Messaging. If you're under a certain age, you text more than you email -- but standard SMS messaging is not supported on tablets. On an iPad Mini or any iPad, you can use Apple's iMessage service to message other iOS and OS X users.
If you don't want to restrict yourself to just people using Apple hardware, you can install a variety of messaging apps such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Google Talk, and Yahoo Messenger, or you can message across multiple services using an app like IM+ Pro. The same options are available for Android devices such as the Nexus 7. But of these, only AIM and a version of IM+ Pro called IM+ All in One are available for the Kindle Fire HD.
Apple's FaceTime is an easy-to-use video-calling service, but it too is restricted to iOS and OS X devices. For cross-platform video chats, you'll want to use Skype, which both the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 support. But not the Kindle Fire HD. In fact, I couldn't find any video chat apps for that media tablet.
Wi-Fi support. In addition to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks, the iPad Mini (like the third- and fourth-generation iPads) supports 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, which usually provide faster connections and greater signal reach, letting you access the Internet in more places and faster. The Kindle Fire HD also supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, though its Silk browser was still noticeably slower than the iPad Mini's and Nexus 7's. The Nexus 7 supports only 2.4GHz networks.
The Web and Internet winner. The iPad Mini and the Nexus 7 outshine the Kindle Fire HD when it comes to their online capabilities, tying in this category as the best.
Deathmatch: Business connectivityYou don't get a media tablet to do work. But as more and more workers find themselves on perpetual call, your media tablet should provide at least first-level capabilities such as the ability to do work email and view documents in common formats. It's even better if you can use such devices to work on projects without having to find a computer somewhere.
An iPad Mini, because it's an iPad, has great support for Microsoft Exchange, in addition to IMAP and POP servers. If your company supports iPad access to corporate resources, your iPad Mini becomes just another iPad for both your company and you, giving you the most security of any mobile OS outside the BlackBerry, as well as the greatest selection of effective mobile productivity apps. If you hadn't installed those apps on your iPad Mini, you can download them from the App Store at no charge if previously purchased for a work iPad. The only real difficulty you might face is dealing with the smaller screen and thus smaller keyboard for any text-intensive work.
The Nexus 7 is your second best bet for doing work from a media tablet. Its Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" OS has solid security capabilities and Exchange support, its Email and Calendar apps are solid if unexceptional, and Google's Quickoffice HD Pro app for Android is capable enough for most business work. Plus, as with the iPad Mini, you'll find apps for a wide variety of business needs, from Salesforce.com to SAP access.
Of course, many enterprises refuse to support Android devices due to concerns over its malware-infested Play Store and Google's history of inattention to security. So even if your Nexus 7 or other Android tablet can help you out in an emergency, your company may or may not not let you use it.
The Kindle Fire HD supports Exchange, including the same kinds of security policies as standard Android devices -- a new capability in this second Kindle Fire generation. The Email and Calendar apps have simpler UIs than the stock Android versions, to fit better on the small screen. But all the capabilities you need are there, including attachment previews and calendar invites. I was impressed with their quality given the Kindle Fire HD's decidedly nonbusiness target user. It too can be used in a pinch -- if your business is willing to let it in.
Although the Amazon Appstore is curated, the Kindle Fire HD allows sideloading of apps like other Android devices do, so you can install non-app-store apps on it. A basic version Quickoffice is available for the Kindle Fire, so you can do basic Office document work with it.
The business connectivity winner. In all cases, assuming you're permitted Exchange access from your media tablet, you have basic email, calendar, and contacts capabilities available. But to do real work routinely, your best option is the iPad Mini.
Deathmatch: SecuritySecurity is probably not top of mind when choosing a media tablet, but it should be one of your purchase criteria.
Corporate security. As noted, the iPad Mini has the same strong enterprise-class capabilities as any iOS device, including a highly compatible VPN client. Also as noted, the Nexus 7 has the moderate security capabilities of most recent Android tablets. The Nexus 7 has Android's standard VPN support, which unfortunately does not include Cisco IPSec VPNs (you'll need to download Cisco's AnyConnect client as well as buy a client access license for it). The Kindle Fire HD provides the basics of Exchange device security, including encryption, and there are even a few VPN vendors' clients for it in the Amazon Appstore -- but not for Cisco VPNs.
Note that both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, like all Android 3 and 4 devices, come unencrypted. The encryption process requires a full charge, so you can't do it as soon as you open the box, and takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Note that you can't enable encryption on the Kindle Fire HD in its Settings app; only when you try to connect to an Exchange server that requires encryption are you given the ability to turn on encryption. If you're on the road without a full battery charge the first time you try to connect to Exchange, you'll be out of luck. Like all iOS devices, the iPad Mini is always encrypted, and encryption can't be disabled.
All three media tablets support passwords, so you can prevent unauthorized people from using them.
Family security. But there's another kind of security to consider for a media tablet since it's likely to be shared by several family members. In this regard, the Kindle Fire HD is the most secure, thanks to its FreeTime app that lets you set up separate content libraries for each person, essentially giving them a separate login to just their library. Parents can use that capability to restrict what their kids can access, as well as limit the number of hours of usage each day.
The iPad Mini's Guided Access lets you restrict the tablet to a specific app and even block some of an app's capabilities (such as Buy buttons) by drawing blocking ovals around their controls. But this new iOS 6 feature has to be enabled each time you want to use it and can be used for just one app at a time. It's fine when you want to hand your iPad to your kid for a specific purpose, but it's nowhere near as useful as the ability to set up separate environments, as the Kindle Fire HD can.
The iPad has a comprehensive set of parental controls that let you configure what your kids can access. Tech-savvy parents can even use Apple's free Apple Configurator tool for OS X to create and deploy profiles with such configurations to their kids' devices, as well as update them remotely (though we're talking supergeek parents here). Safari's private browsing mode lets parents access Web pages they don't want their kids to easily see, as this mode ensures no history is kept of the visited pages.
The Kindle Fire HD too has a solid set of password-based parental controls should you decide not to use FreeTime; these controls can also protect you should your device be lost or stolen. The Nexus 7 has no parental controls to restrict individual capabilities, just the ability to set a password for access to the tablet itself.
The bottom line is that the iPad Mini's iOS assumes that just one person uses an iPad (or iTunes), so it can be problematic to share freely. But it has the most sophisticated parental control options and the best corporate security capabilities. Android is even more single user-oriented and its parental controls are nonexistent, much less anything like the notion of separate user accounts. The Kindle Fire HD is designed for multiperson use and offers both good parental controls and adequate corporate security.
The security winner. For business security, the iPad Mini rules. For family security, the Kindle Fire HD rules.
Deathmatch: UsabilityNo matter what media tablet suits you, 7-inch tablets come with a fundamental usability trade-off. Small screens means small controls and small text. If you're middle-aged, don't be surprised if you need reading glasses, and don't expect to touch-type on the onscreen keyboards.
The iPad Mini has the usability of any iPad: a rich gesture-based interface and avoidance of menus that can slow you down. Its Music, Videos, Podcasts, and iBooks apps for media playback are simple to use, and I like that the store apps are kept separate so that you're not distracted with ads when trying to play media. Its larger screen is quite usable on all sorts of apps and Web pages that feel constrained on a Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7. Yes, the iPad Mini may be too small for some purposes, but it's surprisingly usable in a large range of circumstances.
The Nexus 7 has a custom user interface that displays on the main home screen tiles for book, movie, music, and magazine content that resides in your libraries. The standard app icons on the home screens are all related to media usage: Play Store, Play Music, Play Video, Google Play's magazine library, and Play Books. By having your media options front and center, you can get right to what you likely bought the Nexus 7 to do -- I also appreciate its separation of the store from the playback tools. If you don't want the media controls front and center, you can change the home screen and default app icons.
Once you get past that media-oriented home screen, the Nexus 7 is just another Android tablet, providing the standard UI for accessing apps and services. My objection to that UI is it favors thin, light text and controls on black backgrounds, which I find hard to read, particularly on a small, reflective screen. But if you like Android's operational UI -- its gestures, notification tray, widgets, and configurable home screens -- you'll be right at home on the Nexus 7.
The Kindle Fire HD's UI is very simple, using the Carousel interface you may recognize from the Kindle app on an iPad or Android tablet. You slide from one type of usage -- Books, Apps, Docs, Newsstand, and so on -- via a horizontal scroll list at the top of the screen, and the apps, media, or files for that usage appear onscreen. Media windows typically divide their contents into two panes that you must switch between: one showing purchases previously purchased but not downloaded (Cloud) and those on your device (Device).
The Home, Back, and Add to Home Screen buttons almost always display onscreen -- you have to tap the screen to see them when reading books or watching movies. But settings are hidden and you have to swipe from the top of the screen to see your settings options. The Kindle Fire HD's UI takes some time to get used to, mainly because it's so different from the approach in iOS and Android. In fact, it's quite easy once you get the hang of it. Its only real flaw is its hard sell of Amazon's content and app stores, which are frequently front and center.
The usability winner. iOS has long balanced ease of use with complex, capable applications. Although some aspects of iOS are harder than they need to be, such as switching to airplane mode, overall the iPad Mini is the most usable media tablet. Thanks to its larger screen, the device is even easier to use. However, the Nexus 7's front-and-center approach to media apps offers much easier use as a media tablet out of the gate. The Kindle Fire HD is simple to work, but it oversells its stores to the point of annoyance.
Deathmatch: HardwareThere's a fairly wide price range among media tablets, which typically reflects the degree of hardware punch. Both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD are somewhat underpowered. They're easier on the wallet, but their usefulness is limited by comparison.
Fully charged, all three media tablets reviewed here ran for at least eight hours on battery power -- often several hours more, with moderate use. The Kindle Fire HD and iPad Mini had a standby life of several days, whereas the Nexus 7 lasted only about a day and a half.
iPad Mini. The priciest media tablet is also the most souped up. It boasts the fastest processor and graphics of the lot and has a usefully larger screen. Unlike its competitors, the iPad Mini has a rear camera that can take good-quality photos and videos -- but not as good as the current iPod Touch, iPhone, and full-size iPad can, as it lacks a flash and support for HDR photos. These make a real difference for gaming, video playback, and photography. The built-in speakers' sound is much better than that of the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7.
Although the iPad Mini doesn't use Apple's very crisp Retina display (with 2,048-by-1,536-pixel resolution), the 8-inch screen size means its 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution results in a higher number of dots per inch than that of the iPad 2's display.
The iPad Mini is barely bigger than the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7; it's just a fraction of an inch longer than the Kindle Fire HD and a fraction of an inch wider and longer than the Nexus 7. Yet its screen size is nearly an inch longer diagonally, for a noticeably larger screen. The iPad Mini is also noticeably thinner than the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, although their weights are similar (the iPad Mini and Nexus both weigh 12 ounces, while the Kindle Fire HD weighs 14 ounces).
The iPad Mini has no storage expansion capability -- a hallmark Apple limitation -- but it supports 5GHz Wi-Fi for increased range and speed. Plus, it offers LTE versions (to ship in mid-November) for the three top U.S. carriers: Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. It also sports low-power Bluetooth 4.0 and AirPlay streaming if you own an Apple TV and AirPrint wireless printing if you have a compatible printer.
The iPad Mini's Lightning connector is compact and versatile, if you're willing to pony up for such pricey peripherals as video connectors ($49 each) and wait for the peripheral makers to offer Lightning versions of all those Dock-connector devices that made the first three generations of the iPad so versatile. Taking its wired and wireless capabilities together, the iPad Mini can connect in almost every way that matters.
The iPad Mini's aluminum casing feels lovely in your hand, and the iPad Mini is beautiful to see. By contrast, the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 feel plasticky and lack visual sophistication.
The Pad Mini costs $329 for a model with 16GB of storage. The 32GB model costs $429, and the 64GB model costs $529. The cellular models cost $130 more.
Nexus 7. This unremarkable tablet is designed with an unobtrusive look that focuses you on the screen's display. The screen's visual quality is adequate, though its screen resolution of 216 ppi doesn't help it appear as sharp as the iPad Mini or even the Kindle Fire HD. Also, the screen is too reflective and a bit dim, making it difficult to use in normally lit offices (forget about daylight use outside). The Nexus 7 lacks a rear camera, so you can't use it for picture-taking, but it has a front camera for video chats.
The Wi-Fi support is basic 2.4GHz, so your range and speed are less than those offered by some other devices. There's a Bluetooth radio, but it's the older, power-hungry 3.0 version. And there's no expansion capability for storage, nor support for video-out. Like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 comes with a dual-voltage USB wall charger and MicroUSB charge/sync cable. Like its two competitors, it has no SD card for adding storage.
Performance is good. Although not as zippy as an iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 doesn't have the periodic lags of the Kindle Fire HD. The 16GB model costs a modest $199, whereas the 32GB model costs $249. A 32GB model with 3G cellular radio will cost $299 when it ships later this month.
Its 12-ounce weight mirrors that of the iPad Mini. That's 2 ounces less than the Kindle Fire HD. In other words, it's close to its competitors. All in all, the Nexus 7 has decent but limited hardware; it feels slightly dated, though it's a six-month-old product.
Kindle Fire HD. The visual quality for the Amazon media tablet's screen is adequate, though crisper and clearer than the Nexus 7's even with the muddiness created by the Kindle's yellowish color balance. But the screen is not as good as the iPad Mini's screen, despite the fact that is has a higher pixel density (216 ppi versus the iPad Mini's 163 ppi).
Although it claims fast, dual-radio Wi-Fi, I found the Kindle Fire HD was the slowest of the three media tablets for Wi-Fi access, with occasional stuttering for streamed videos that I didn't experience on the iPad Mini or Nexus 7. It was also pokey when opening media files and suffered from stutter occasionally during video playback of stored movies.
You do get a MiniHDMI connector for video-out, as well as well as a MicroUSB connector for charging and syncing. There's also a front-facing camera for video chats, but no rear camera for taking pictures. There's also no SD card or other expansion capability, and it uses the older, power-hungry Bluetooth 3.0 technology. It's clear that the Kindle Fire HD's low price comes from hardware compromises.
Beware the prices you see on the Amazon website for the Kindle. Once you pay to remove the obnoxious ads and pay for the power charger block that isn't included as it should be (though a USB cable is, so you can charge it from an existing 10W power block), the 16GB model costs $224 and the 32GB model costs $274.
The hardware winner. Apple has the best hardware -- no question. But you'll pay for it: For the Wi-Fi model, my recommended configuration of 32GB costs $439, versus $274 for the 32GB Kindle Fire HD. The 32GB cellular model will cost $569, versus $299 for the 32GB cellular Nexus 7. If you don't want the iPad's better, larger screen or need a fully capable tablet that can do anything a full-size tablet can, then the Kindle Fire HD should be your top choice. But it's a performance-compromised device.
The Nexus 7 has some nice attributes, especially its ability to run almost anything a full-size Android tablet can and its decent Web browser. But the device has too many compromises. It doesn't play audio as well as the others, its parental controls are minimal, its video playback is just OK, and it has no video-out. Like the Kindle Fire HD, the Nexus 7's hardware feels underpowered at times, though it doesn't suffer from video stutter as the Kindle Fire HD does. The Nexus 7 needs a serious refresh to regain the high praise it earned when it was released in June, but it still beats the newer Kindle Fire HD in some hardware areas.
Media tabletApple iPad Mini
And the overall winner is ...It should be clear by now that the iPad Mini is the best tablet because it does so much more and at a much higher level of quality than the competition.
But many people don't need all that or aren't willing to pay for it. If you just want to read books, listen to music, watch the occasional video, and periodically check email, get a Kindle Fire HD instead -- unless Web browsing is a paramount need, in which case the Nexus 7 is the better low-cost option. Either way, don't think you're getting a cheap iPad if you do. The iPad Mini lives in a higher-class world than the other media tablets do, and you're either in that world or you're not.
This story, "Tablet deathmatch: iPad Mini vs. Nexus 7 vs. Kindle Fire HD," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
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